Monday, May 30, 2011

Best. Day. Ever.

As I sit here at 10:20pm writing this, I am still reeling as a result of what can only be described at the BEST. DAY. EVER!
Nothing went exactly according to plan . I guess you cannot call it a perfect day per se, but then again, nothing went wrong either. In fact, every new event led to something even better. I guess while serving here in Azerbaijan, ‘perfection’ has become this entirely subjective word that pops its little head out when you least expect it. In that sense of the word then, I must admit, today was perfect!

So, the Balakan Dragons had their first official game today. Yes, they chose dragons as a team name. It was not my first choice. It was a toss-up. I particularly liked the Balakan Bandits, the Balakan Ballers, and my personal favorite, derived from my Montreal Expos hat which I wear to every practice only to have my little buddy Resul wear it, the Balakan Young Expos. Regardless, they chose to be the dragons. The Dragons were set to play Danichi today, a small village about an hour south where my good friend Jane is working. Trey and I usually bring our equipment down there every Thursday to play with her kids until they get their own gear. They are another great group and we were excited to play an actual game. So, we got permission slips signed, raised the money, packed our lunches, and hit the road at about noon today! It is a national holiday so the school was to be empty and we’d have the field to ourselves.

The kids were pumped. They all showed up on time, most toting their packed lunches and wearing baseball caps! After about a half hour of doing attendance, picking positions, and choosing a team name, we were off. We arrived on time and the sun was shining! Unfortunately, the other team did not arrive and the school was very much not closed. It was filled with older, some not-so-polite students, who were very confused as to why a group of strangers had showed up at their school with this strange sports equipment. At first, I expected the worst. Most of our kids are small and young, and I thought they would immediately be intimidated by the heckling of the older locals. NO SIR!
Most of them immediately grabbed the equipment and started warming up, going through the warm up routine that we had discussed. The older boys and girls continued to mock and yell, and were slowly encroaching upon our space. That was until they realized that our kids knew what they were doing. Once our girls started smashing the crap out of the ball, and our boys began throwing lasers at one another and catching them with the greatest of ease, the heckling started to die down. The loud yelling and laughing turned into soft murmurs and whispering. The quickly shrinking field was suddenly all ours, and this whole time, our kids seemed completely oblivious, indifferent to the jokes, focused on the game, loving the sport! I couldn’t have been more proud.

The other team never showed. That’s how things work here. It’s hard to get things going, and even harder to keep them going. Kids are busy, parents are skeptical, and it takes a lot to set a solid, consistent foundation. Even alone in a very isolated village, Jane is doing a remarkable job. Some of her best students did show up. We decided to stay and play anyway. I think our kids were enjoying the attention. By this time, we had quite the audience. Jane’s kids joined ours and we had a scrimmage. Plays were met with Oohs and Awes from the crowd, as homeruns were hit, seemingly impossible catches were made, and the unnecessary slide into first was taken! We finished after about an hour and a half of scrimmaging, the final score: 16-15 Red team.
I can say with complete confidence that baseball is now going to take off in Danichi. The interest was already there, Jane has a talented little team! Now, however, after seeing us play, I know Jane is going to have more than a few requests to play over the coming weeks. I look forward to our next game!

And, to the credit of our team, despite fronting the money to come and play a real game, only to have an intrasquad scrimmage like we do every Wednesday and Sunday back in Balakan, they never complained. They never asked to go home. They just played, soaked up the attention, and had a good time.

So, after such a successful day, we had to celebrate somehow. The kids all wanted to stop at the Heydar Park in Zaqatala on the way home. Zaqatala is the larger region (Zaqatala also the name of the city) just south of Balakan. Every rayon and city has a Heydar Park. They are usually filled with museums, beautiful trees and fountains, music, and carnival rides. They are the place to go in the summer time! The one in Zaqatala is particularly beautiful. Our driver was hesitant, wanting to get home, but our kids were persuasive and he gave in, allotting the kids 30 minutes to walk around and take photos (he wound up being a pretty big softy and let us stay for about an hour). We all made a bee line for the ice cream/cotton candy/popcorn stand, followed by a ride on the spinning swings. At first, only Trey, Stephanie, me, and our friend from Zaqatala Mike went on, with all the kids acting as if they were too cool for school. After our ride, they all wanted to go, so we took pictures and cheered them on. We finished our stop with a team photo at the fountain.

The ride back was equally as entertaining, as we all goofed around and talked about what the rest of the week had in store. As we got home, Trey and Stephanie came over to unwind and reflect upon the day. First of all, we didn’t lose anyone! Victory #1. Second of all, we didn’t lose (ignoring the fact that there was not actually a game). Literal Victory #2! Everything in between, well, it’s just so hard to put into words. There was just this incredible sense of pure joy throughout the day, this whirlwind of exuberance and happiness, and it never subsided, not even for a moment. Despite the fact that nothing really went according to plan, there were no worries, no problems. Despite the fact that 3 Americans took a group of young Azerbaijanis to play a game of baseball in a small village, there were no differences, no misunderstandings. There was just unadulterated fun and excitement, from start to finish.

If you enjoyed this post and are interested in donating to the continuation of this league nation-wide, please click on the following link: Azerbaijan Youth Softball League Donations
Thank you in advance! 
The Team

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Is Creativity As Important As Literacy?

Inspired by fellow volunteers' posts and a TED talk discussion by Sir Ken Robinson that challenges the way we're educating our children, I felt the need to once more write a post about the wonderful Peace Corps project that is the Writing Olympics.

The Writing Olympics is a creative English writing competition where students are given one hour to answer a question. They have the choice of 3 questions, and often these questions are imaginative and open-ended. They are not judged on grammar; mistakes are okay! Instead, winners are chosen based on their ideas, the originality of their essay. This year, Azerbaijan also hosted a “professionals” category, which gave individuals who may not fit into the school categories a chance to compete as well (this includes mothers, teachers, and student-aged individuals who dropped out of school or chose not to go to university). The goal of the event is to help cultivate creative writing and, even more importantly, creative thinking. Here is an example of one of the most extraordinary essays I have ever read. Try to read this and not be moved!

What does a caged bird think about all day?
In my opinion if you want to understand something in the nature, you should put yourself in that things shoes. So, I will do the same thing. Now Im taking off my shoes and put myself in a caged birds shoes.
Well, lets pretend I am a bird. I can do anything I want. I can fly, and the whole world is mine. The Sky is mine. I love traveling by air, of course. Also I have a “Green Card” to all of the countries. Have I ever been to Egypt or Italy? Sure! I know a lot of people who is dreaming about these countries, who want to see the Pyramids and the ancient Rome. But unfortunatelly they cant do that. Because of money or something else. But I dont have any problems like those. I am a bird and yes, I am very HAPPY!
Its a pity that happiness can go away as fast as it came. The same thing happened to me. One day when I was flying over a big city somewhere in Italy, I decided to have a little rest. I sat on a big and beautiful window and began to sing my favorite song. But soon I figured out that I was hungry. Suddenly I saw some wheat in the house. It was inside a small iron thing. Hunger had won my fear and I flied inside. The food was so tasty that I didnt notice a man came in and shut the door of this small iron thing. I thought he wanted to give me more wheat, but I was wrong. That was my last day in Freedom.
Since that tragic day I live here in this small iron thing. The man calls this thing „cage, but I dont understand why this jail is called „cage”. Everyday the man feeds me. He also has a dog in his apartment. We made friends with that dog. He looks so happy, that every time I see him I remember my cageless days.
Every morning I wake up with the first rays of the Sun and watch the Nature waking up with me. The trees, the insects on the trees, the sky and the clouds are smiling to me saying „Good morning!” I try to smile to them, too, but I cant. I remember that each morning I began with my charming songs. I gave my smile to everyone. Now maybe they dont even see that I am away. How does their morning begin without me? Maybe my friends in Moldova miss me, or my relatives in Azerbaijan are looking for me somewhere in the world. In this big World. In this big, beautiful and unrepeatable World.
You know, I want back home. I dont need any Pyramidas or Fountains of Love. I WANT MY HOME! Hey, can anyone hear me? Please, take me back to my mother. Give me my Sky back... Cant you understand that I cant live without flying, without that sky and trees?! I cant live without my motherland!
Hey, someone there in the Freedom! Every day I pray for you to come and set me free. I pray for you to come and set me free. I believe that God will hear my voice and you will come. Or this strange man will open the door someday.
I watch the free birds out there in the other side of the window and think that even if I shant be free tomorrow, I will be free the day after tomorrow. I want this day to come as fast as it is possible. I can wait, its not a problem. But Im just afraid that this waiting cant go on for a long time. Thats why my first dream is freedom. Please give it to me and make me HAPPY AGAIN!
Sabina, Age 16

I would never plug this unless we needed it, but honestly, we need your help to conclude this event and recognize the wonderful works of Azerbaijanis who had the courage, and creativity, to participate! The winning students will have their essays published in a book which they will receive, along with a certificate and translation dictionary, at an awards ceremony. Unfortunately, publication here is expensive. Your donation, which can be made at, will help us ensure that our students will remember this event, and their creative selves, forever. Your donation will help to pay for the publication of the book, as well as the printing of certificates, the purchase of dictionaries, and the hosting of the awards ceremony in Baku. 
Our goal isn’t much; it’s a little under $2,000 USD. Any financial help you can provide would be so greatly appreciated.

Thank you so much!

Friday, May 13, 2011

My How The Times Have Changed!

A year ago, the most important thing on my mind at this time was finding the ideal pair sunglasses to wear during McGill summer sports camp. Mission accomplished: a pair of bright lime green Ray-Ban knock-offs for 5$ outside the Met in NYC. I spent nights up worrying, wondering: would Tony and I, roommates at the palace of 3667 Jeanne Mance, be able to host the most epic party sports camp had ever seen? Most epic? Who knows, but I certainly think over 60$ in bottle returns and a visit from Montreal’s finest counts as epic. I spent lunch time after lunch time stressing: would Tony, Dan, Cory, and I be able to pull off another Fun Fun Friday as successful as 2009’s spy day? Probably not, but real life Mario Kart and the invention of our own game, Krug War, that involved playing soccer, capture the flag, dodgeball, and about 6 other sports all at the same time counts as a pretty “fun” day! I spent so much time a year ago worrying about these things. Would I be able to fit in a run up the mountain after beach volleyball on Sunday afternoon. Should I order Italian or Chinese for dinner tonight? Is it a hat day or not? Where are we going for drinks after work? Do Tony and I suit up for dinner tonight? What song will we sing at karaoke on Thursday night at McKibbin’s? Will Mike get mad when he sees what I did to the apartment?

Now, well, as the title suggests, the times have changed! Now, halfway across the world, I don’t worry about what kind of sunglasses I am going to wear, I wrestle with the decision of whether it would be appropriate to wear shorts or not. It’s not so much about how we can make this camp the best ever. Actually, it’ll be the first ever! Right now, it’s about how can we make this camp happen at all. Will our grant be accepted? What will the community think of it? Will we get the support we need? Will the kids even show up? Don’t get me wrong, I still find plenty of time to joke around. Trey and I recently nicknamed every volunteer who committed to helping us at the camp for the week. We still want to have some fun; there’s a mini pool in Stephanie’s yard just waiting for the weather to get warm enough! So no, the fun and games are not all gone, the giddy anticipation of the arrival of summer still exists, it just transcended anything I could have ever imagined.


Here are pictures from the Georgian Pilgrimage, ‘Church Holiday’ in Azeri, in Qax. This “pilgrimage” celebrates the death of St. George, one of the most highly regarded saints in the Catholic church. After taking the walk up the mountain to the church, barefoot (for good luck), I spent most of the day cooking kebabs for everyone. Then, the Georgians invited us over to share their homemade wine with them…the rest is a little fuzzy.

The path to the church
The church
Many people make the trek
Old church; I-III century according to the sign

Pork kebabs! Mmm Mmm Mmm
Our site and all of the smoke from everyone grilling
Some cute baby birds we found...they mistook me for their mother

Sunday, May 8, 2011

Blue Skies and Parachutes

It’s a good thing the skies finally cleared up, not only for my own sanity’s sake, but also for the arrival of Stephanie’s parents and the international parachute competition (yes, you read that correctly) that took place at “Balakan International Airport.” I thought Portland International Jetport was small; it looks like O’Hare compared to this grassy runway and single building that houses two very old double-wing planes and the pilots and jumpers that are training in them. To be fair, Balakan does not exactly see the level of tourism that Maine does. Anyway, my trusted friend Elvin came through again, and offered to take the Ormstons (Stephanie, Darlene, and Doug)  and me to this competition commemorating Heydar Aliyev’s 88th birthday.
It had been raining for quite some time, so a sunny day and no wind meant perfect conditions for the competition. As we arrived, we were blown away by the number of people in attendance. Kids were running around eating ice cream while men examined the planes and women complained of the heat while wearing 7 layers of clothing.
Belarus, Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Russia, and Azerbaijan were all represented.
We greeted the usual suspects: ministry officials, teachers, a few very friendly generals, students, other community leaders, and even a Russian astronaut! As Stephanie and I made our rounds, we noticed a girl waving at us. We both looked at each other confused. We recognized her from one of our many clubs, but she was wearing a jump suit…and a parachute!!! In fact, it looked like the first parachute ever made! We hustled over, and without really even saying hi, we asked what the hell she was doing. Layla nonchalantly explained that she would be jumping out of the plane with a number of other young Azeris. Although she was not in the competition and thus would simply fall from the sky and softly land (we hoped) wherever the mountain wind might take her, she was really jumping! We asked if she had ever done this before. She had…once…a year ago. We stayed with her for quite sometime like concerned parents, ignorantly inspecting her equipment as if we knew what we were actually inspecting. Eventually, and quite reluctantly, we left her and rejoined Doug and Darlene. In no time, the teams and our dear Layla boarded the plane and it took off. The plane circled a couple times, and before we knew it there were parachutes decorating the sky, and we watched in amazement as they gracefully made their way back down to earth, struggling to follow their path as we squinted into the bright sun above. Everyone landed safe and sound.
Later on, when it was proudly announced that the Azeri team (3 men and 2 women) had placed second overall, the crowd roared with pride. As the team made its way to the podium, despite wearing Azeri track suits and obviously representing Azerbaijan, I was surprised that they looked nothing like Azerbaijanis. They looked very much like Russians. In fact, I looked more Azeri than these guys! It was bizarre seeing this team wave the Azerbaijani flag and be so proudly cheered for despite the fact that they were so clearly not Azeri! I would later find out that they were, in fact, not Azeri but Russian. The Azerbaijani parachuting team only began 3 years ago, so the government pays these people to represent Azerbaijan while ethnic Azeris train to represent themselves. Confusing right!? Regardless, it was an exciting day and it was so wonderful to share it with Doug and Darlene!

Just got back from the Georgian Pilgrimage in Qax! Exhausted! More to come ASAP!

Looks like something right out of an Indiana Jones movie
A big picture of Heydar on the baloon
Stephanie and I with Layla pre-jump!
Russian and Tajikistan teams

Maybe Layla?

Doug, Darlene, Stephanie, Elvin
Go Azerbaijan!