Friday, February 25, 2011

The Art of Listening

It’s a course at McGill, “The Art of Listening”; probably the greatest bird course the institution has to offer. Nearly everyone I knew took it at one point or another. I did not, and although I doubt many of my classmates actually attended the lectures when enrolled in this course, I wish, more than ever, that I had taken it.
As the 6-month marks fast approaches, I am understanding this “art” like never before. In fact, I blame my recent lack of blogging on this very craft. When I actually have time to sit down and write, I am usually so rapt and inundated that I cannot possibly dream of personal creation. Be it a new Azeri phrase I learned (i.e. “hech na olmaz” [don’t worry about it]), a new grant opportunity I found, a good book I read (currently Half The Sky), an entertaining movie I watched to attempt to unwind, words of encouragement from friends and family back home, or a comment from a student that completely floored me (see below), I have more reasons than ever to keep my mouth shut (and fingers still) and my eyes and ears open.
I am learning to become absolutely content following. In fact, here, it seems to be the most effective form of leadership. The line that divides strong leadership and mere support grows hazier each day. This is not a new concept; I am not writing about some groundbreaking discovery in the field of international development. However, in this time of great personal growth and discovery, it becomes clearer everyday that the answer to nearly every problem, every uncertainty, is simply to listen. The way to complete communal inclusion and sustainable development is through the ears, not the mouth.
My family here in Balakan is far quieter than my first family in Khirdalan. Granted the children are older, but in general they keep to themselves more. This initially made learning about one another quite a chore. In the Dibirov house, many nights can be spent in near silence, save for the television, of course. My brother will play computer games all night while my host father shakes his head at the TV, my sister looks through the same 20 pictures on her cell phone over and over again, and my host mother sits in front of the peç grunting, “Ay Allah” because of the cold or back pain or a combination of them both. At first, I forced conversations or gave up entirely and retired to my own room, expecting that they had no interest in me. However, I have learned. I sit and wait, and enjoy the silence. Our best, most enlightening conversations, where we shared our cultures with one another, have come after 30 or 40 minutes of not talking at all. Eventually, a comment will be made or a question will be asked, and it might be another hour before we are silent again. Then, we start over, silent until the next conversation is had. This is a minor anecdote, but it very effectively reflects my work and experience in Azerbaijan thus far. Patience and attention have been the keys to my success.

On a somewhat related note, today, I met the face of Azerbaijan’s future, and it couldn’t look more promising! This glimpse into the future took the form of three 12-year-old girls in my newest conversation club.
A little context first: Balakan is the northern-most region of Azerbaijan. It is a lovely place to live: small yet bustling, affable yet so foreign. The city perfectly reflects the kind of work that I, up until now, have undertaken…small and simple. For a country so small (about the size of Maine), its regions could not be more diverse. Some volunteers are placed in larger cities and spend their days working with energetic university students who are fluent in English. Others, like myself, are assigned to smaller cities and towns where education may be secondary and motivation a little lacking. If you were looking at our work from the outside, you’d never know that we all worked in same country. For me, motivated youth are somewhat of a commodity, so whenever I do meet these kinds of kids, I snatch them up as quickly as possible (in a non kidnapper way). This is why these girls were such a treat.
For our first session, I wanted to make the lesson simple and fun. For the youth of Balakan, I want my clubs to be a break from school, not a supplement. Most students spend all day in school, and then all evening in private lessons…it’s universally accepted that schools are not sufficient in providing children with a proper education. My hope is for my clubs and my “resource room” to become a refuge for youth, a place where they can come, unwind, share ideas, and hopefully learn a little bit about themselves. That being said, our first lesson was to make a list of adjectives that they thought described them. After we made that list, we drew pictures, with our names written vertically and adjectives written horizontally based on the letters that make up your name. Upon completion, we shared ours and explained why we chose these words specifically. Könül (which means heart in Azeri) presented first. At the bottom of her drawing, ornately decorated with butterflies and hearts were these words: “I hate bribe! I want justed!” She explained that her group of friends and her (mind you they are 12) are known as “Antibribe” because of their commitment to stopping corruption in this country. I was so touched by their maturity and awareness, despite the little spelling mistake (justed = justice). They are mature far beyond their years and more perceptive than many people twice or three times their age. I am so fortunate to have met them and cannot wait to see their growth over the next year and a half.
Snowman (Gar Baba) made by my host melted completely by the end of the day.
Where the taxi driver stopped about 30 minutes outside of the town of Ilisu because he could not get his car up the hill any further. We were going for a 7km hike to hot springs.
The valley we were about to hike
Homemade gaiters!
Not the best of conditions
Pretty beautiful though
Trey braving the river on the way back

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Today's Top Stories: Fresh bread...Oh Ya, And A Revolution in Egypt

My family watches the news often. At first, I was quite impressed. However, it seems as though very few occurrences in the past month have sparked any interest. Mubarak’s departure from office was met with about 5 seconds of attention. My host father mentioned it in passing as he flipped channels, as if it were no more important than Lindsey Lohan beginning another stint in rehab. I don’t mean to be judgmental, I just figured that such momentous events would be met with more interest, and dare I say, pride. The news seems to serve more as a noise filler than a source of information. Additionally, the more I watch the news and the more my language skills improve, the more I see how useless a lot of the news stations are. They are the same sensationalist crap that we are plagued with in the US. Car accidents and bank robberies are given as much coverage as the protests in Egypt and floods in Australia. It’s no surprise that the worst culprit of this is FOX Turkey!
Realistically, the greatest news source for my family is the sheet of newspaper that bread is wrapped in when it is bought at the store every morning. Honestly, after the bread is sliced, the paper is diligently read by the host family one at a time, regardless of the section of the newspaper or its publication date, which is usually quite old!

Students learning Thriller
My adopted school: Nizami
The best school in the region...also the oldest (it needs work)

Balqabaq Xengel (pumpkin dumplings) made by Trey's host family
Stephanie, Trey, and Trey's host family

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

A Day In Balakan

Two months into my service, here is a look at a day as a youth development facilitator in Balakan, Azerbaijan:

8:30am – Woke up to the incessant sounds of chickens outside my window and my family getting ready for work on the other side of the thin door that separates my room from the main area of the house.
8:35am – Yoga in my room. In the winter, there is usually no water in the morning because the pipes are frozen and my family only has hot water on Sunday afternoons. Thus, yoga is a great way to stay in shape and keep warm without getting to sweaty and smelly.
9:00am – Wrote a blog, checked the score of the Habs game (a big win over the Panthers), and checked the news for more information on the protests in Egypt while drinking a cup of tea and eating stale bread with fresh honey (made by my host father) and pear jam (made by my host mother).
10:00am – Went to the ExComm building (Executive Committee) to speak with the Minister of Youth and Sport about the “Writing Olympics”, a Peace Corps initiative that has now spread to 11 countries. The Writing Olympics gives students the opportunity to express themselves creatively in English. Students from 6th form all the way through 4th year of university write an essay in response to a uniform topic, based on age, that they are not told about ahead of time. A panel of Peace Corps judges then selects winners, both nationally and internationally.
10:45am – Waited in line to get money out of the one functional ATM in the city…it’s quite a process! People have no concept of lines when it comes to ATMs, and despite having ATMs for a few years now, no one seems to know how to use them.
11:00am – Ran to the store of my friend Farid’s family to see if they knew a repairman who could help my sitemate Bailey, whose water pipe exploded.
11:30am – Stopped by my office to drop off my backpack.
11:45am – Walked to Nizami School for my new dance club.
12:00pm – Despite uncomfortable teens, confused teachers, and about 1,000 requests for me to break-dance, the club was a huge success! I co-facilitate the club with my friend Jessica, who lives about 30 minutes away in Zaqatala region and is the one who actually knows how to dance. After about 10 minutes of deliberation amongst the students at the end of class, it was decided that we would begin learning the Thriller dance by Michael Jackson next week. Is a flash mob on the way? I hope so!
1:15pm – Bought Jessica lentil soup for lunch at a local Turkish restaurant – our arrangement for her coming to teach the dance club every week.
2:00pm – Stopped by the children’s hospital where Stephanie and I facilitate a conversation club with all of the nurses. Unfortunately, I could not stay. I had to run to Bailey’s school (she is a TEFL) to fill in for her while she waited for the repairman to come and fix her exploded water pipe. Her students were quite confused at first, but once I pulled out the UNO cards and they realized that we would be playing a game, they loosened up!
4:15pm – Following Bailey’s two classes, I made my way to the newly discovered children’s library to have tea with the director. Despite not having a floor (literally, the floor boards are completely rotted through and you must hop from support beam to beam), the building and the women who run it are tremendous resources to have. We discussed my role in the community and I learned about the various clubs and programs that the two women run, primarily in the summertime.
5:00pm –Stopped by my office to see if anyone had left me a note and then walked home.
5:15pm – Worked out and watched a couple episodes of “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” in order to unwind after a busy day.
6:00pm – Miraculously, I took a shower! My host mother and sister decided to put almond oil in their hair. Apparently, keeping almond oil in your hair for about an hour helps to make it longer. Anyway, they needed to shower after, so the water in the kalonka (Russian for water tank) had been heated. Knowing that I would be gone for the weekend, they offered me a shower!
6:30pm – Headed over to Stephanie’s house for our weekly Balakan PCV dinner (Me, Stephanie, Bailey, Trey). Stephanie made bean burgers! We feasted and discussed potential project ideas.
11:00pm – After having their minds blown by the hilarity and stupidity that is the “Trailer Park Boys” (this may be a figment of my imagination), I decided to go home, utterly exhausted.

*Important note:
I must admit that, although I recorded this day randomly, it was extraordinarily busy and successful. Not all days are like this. Most days are, in fact, not like this. Take today, Wednesday, for example: 
I had 3 clubs planned. No one showed up for my first club because of some mystery holiday. Later, at about 10 minutes until 3pm, on my way to another club with Stephanie at her school, my counterpart Sayyara came to pick me up and take me to some unknown event that was to start at 3pm. Not quite clear about what exactly the event was, and mildly annoyed that she had not given me any advanced notice, I declined the invitation and went to the club. Only one student showed up to our club. I left early, and upon returning to my office, I found out from one of the office assistants that the event was an opportunity for me to meet all of the university students that were back in Balakan for the week on break. This would have been an invaluable opportunity. Unfortunately, and very frustratingly, I missed it.
At 4pm, a number of older students came to my office to watch a movie. We watched the first half of Rush Hour 1 (in English with English subtitles) and talked about all of the slang used by Chris Tucker in the movie. They loved it! I was even able to explain to them why the men in the bar were mad when Jackie Chan said, “What’s up my ni****?” Most Azeris are not aware that the N-word is offensive, as they only ever hear it in American rap videos. Consequently, they innocently use this word to describe any black volunteer or actor that they see. 
Despite its simplicity, I’ll count this last club as a win.
The view from my house in the evening
My office!!!
My cluster at our teacher Ilaha's house in Ganja for her birthday
Ilaha and I...ya, she has a thing for my flat-brimmed hats
Thought this was funny
Ilaha sportin' the Red, White, and Blue
PCV's watching the Superbowl in Ganja at 5am!
Go Packers!!!

Wednesday, February 2, 2011

You Go Girl!

As January came to an end and February arrived, so too did the rain and snow. It has not been quite cold enough for the snow to really stick, but you cannot help being discouraged from leaving the comforts of your peç-heated home when you wake up most mornings to a cold, slushy sleet and muddy sidewalks. For a YD’er, however, staying home really is not an option. Here’s why:
In the wintertime here, people shut down completely – much more so than they do in America or Canada. As a volunteer, and especially as a YD, it is a challenge you have to just accept. Work, school, and tutors carry on, but activity outside of these essentials comes to a screeching halt. For someone who is meant to work with youth after school, this is an overwhelming obstacle. The weekends especially are an interesting challenge.
Back home, even in the winter, the weekends were a time for rest and relaxation. The same goes for here. Simple. However, back home, Saturdays and Sundays were also a time to catch up on work, be active and play sports, and generally take care of tasks you usually did not have time for during the busy week. Here, in winter, they really like to stick to that whole “rest and relaxation” mantra on the weekend. Most people do nothing, and I seriously mean nothing. Short of getting out of bed in order to move to the couch and opening your mouth to eat, you do absolutely nothing productive! (Sounds a lot like my brother Adam! You'd fit in well here buddy!)

Now, before I go on, I must admit that the other extreme, the “go go go” busy-bee attitude of the western world (MOM) I came from has its problems as well. In training, we talked about the “art of sitting”. We discussed how the western world mistakenly perceives much of the developing world as lazy when they see footage of men and women sitting and simply talking for hours on end. “Where could they possibly find the time? How lazy are they! Don’t they want a better life?” Although this can, at times, be attributed to social problems like unemployment and general idleness, it is most often just the way of many cultures. Social interaction is a central part of everyday life. Dialogue is far more valued than it is back home. I have come to very much enjoy this tradition and believe that Canada and America could stand to slow it down a few notches, spending a little bit more time stopping and listening.

I digress. More often than I would like, when I propose a project, or even just a soccer game, I am immediately dismissed and told, “yayda, yayda” (in the summer, in the summer). I have only been in Balakan for two months, but thus far it seems as though people are perfectly content doing things for the few summer months and then retiring to their televisions for the remainder of the year. Such indolence is especially distressing for a YD’er.
This has never been more evident than it was this past weekend. On Saturdays, I have two clubs: an exercise club at the Olympic center for girls only, and a general sports club later in the day for anyone interested (it is only boys at this point). The exercise club for girls is meant to educate them on the benefits of physical activity (which they are usually discouraged from) and show them that they have just as much right to use athletic facilities like the “boys club” that is the Olympic complex. This past Saturday, it was especially miserable outside, but I was to meet my girls at 9:30am. Honestly, I had no interest in going and secretly hoped that no one would show up. As any PCV in Azerbaijan will tell you, the likelihood of anyone showing up in those conditions is extremely poor. Nevertheless, as I turned the corner onto the street where I was to meet the girls, there they all were, soaked and clearly cold, but unmistakably excited. We spent two wonderful hours playing volleyball and learning how to stretch!
I came home approximately an hour before the other sports club was to begin. The boys and I had planned on playing baseball, but because it was raining out, I had arranged for us to also go to the Olympic center free of charge, an arrangement I thought would be met with much excitement. My host brother and cousin were the first to back out. Despite the fact that we could take a bus to the center and play indoors, the weather was apparently just too bad to warrant leaving the couch and the computer. I did my best to convince them, but it was to no avail. One by one, my other boys called me, all citing the weather as their reason for not wanting to come. Just like that, my afternoon freed up. 
I sought to understand why exactly strapping young boys would so easily shy away from the opportunity to play sports and be active. As a kid, I would spend days on end at Twombly, our town’s outdoor rink, playing hockey, be it ice hockey in the dead of winter or roller hockey during the scorching summer months. You could not get my friends and me off that rink! Despite my incessant questioning and personal anecdotes, I got no answer other than, “It’s winter, in the summer we will.”

Despite this let down, I must admit how refreshing it was when I saw those girls waiting for me outside, excited to let loose and have some fun. To see these dainty girls “roughing it” all in the name of fun and one-upping their male peers was quite inspiring. I have had a smile on my face ever since! Such dedication and energy speaks volumes to the dazzling youth I have surrounded myself with. How fortunate I am.
As the title reads, “YOU GO GIRL!”


In other news, the Minister of Youth & Sport in Balakan hosted a party to celebrate national youth day, February 2. The PCVs of Balakan were the guests of honor. I sadly must report that I have once again landed in a country that does not respect me for my dancing skills. After being duped into dancing in front of the roughly 200 guests, the MC acknowledged my performance, “Thank you Jake for that interesting dance.” I just cannot win!


I would also like to share with you a comment that I received from my great aunt Edie, a woman I adore more than anyone else on the face of this earth! Regarding the conversation about senior independence that I had with my host family a couple of weeks back, she keenly pointed out that:
As a first generation child of Russian-Jewish immigrants, we did exactly the same as they - we lived in small neighborhoods with large extended families and this was possible, but after WW11, kids went where the job opportunities were and thus came what we call the "nuclear family". We still care as much but have to have different arrangements.
Thank you Edie!