Thursday, June 23, 2011

My Very Own Top 10: Tbilisi and Istanbul

So, I have not blogged in a while because I was away. I took a little time for myself, some much needed R&R, and went to Tbilisi and then Istanbul for 6 days. It was so cool to visit two countries I had never seen before. I got to eat dinner in Tbilisi and breakfast in Istanbul. I spent the night in the Caucasus mountains, the morning in Asia, and the afternoon in Europe. How great is that?!

I don’t want to brag or anything, but I have to be honest, it was one of the best trips I have ever been on. It was relaxing and refreshing, but at the same time such an exciting, new adventure.
I am back in Balakan now, and fully underway and overwhelmed with work, yet again! Our summer arts camp begins on Sunday, so supplies need to be bought, lesson plans need to be finalized, and volunteers (about 10-15) will start arriving on Saturday.
At the same time,  we have started our Social Media club. The club has two objectives. The first is to give students interested in FLEX (a program that sends the highly motivated and accomplished students from Azerbaijan to America for a year to study in an America high school) an alternative way to prepare, by writing compositions in English every week. The second is to teach self-expression and the power of social media outlets. I have not been around much lately, so Bailey has been running it. She’s clearly doing a fantastic job! A couple of the kids already had their own blogs, and some others have since started their own. This week, the theme is ‘Top 10’. So, to keep you all informed about what I am doing at site, but also reminisce on my trip a little bit, I will make a top 10 list of the best things to do and see in Tbilisi and Istanbul. Enjoy!

1.    Sulfur Baths, Tbilisi, Georgia: They are one of those experiences where you don’t really have any idea what to expect until you do it. My friend and I got a private room for 35 GEL (the medium sized room) for an hour. Inside were very comfortable leather couches and chairs, a changing area, and bathroom. As you walked into the other room, there was the bath on the left, two showers straight back, and a marble bed for massages on the right (an hour scrub and massage only costs 10 GEL). The rooms are adorned with tastefully colored tiles that create a very relaxed ambience. The bath itself was perfectly hot, yet only had a slight smell of sulfur. The bath is about 8 feet by 8 feet, and approximately 5 feet deep, with benches on two sides. Even without shampoo or soap, I felt so clean and refreshed afterwards. Plus, the women who run this particular bathhouse are wonderful. They are Azeri and incredibly welcoming, but don’t take any s@#$! One man kept leaving his room while wearing only a speedo and was staring at my friend, so she shoved him back into his room and put a mop through the door handle to lock him in his room from the outside.
2.     The Wine Stores in Georgia: These are not just any wine stores. I’ve been to Napa, and as great as it was, I couldn’t help but feel a little pretentious afterwards. In Georgia, another country famous for its wine, they’re just out to have a good time! The wine stores look like any back home, except in the center of the store is a table covered with 30-40 open bottles, free to try. So you think, “okay, free tasting…pretty standard.” WRONG! Drink as much as you want. Ask for a full glass. Ask for seven. Stay late (they’re open ‘til 2am), and even admit that you have no intention of buying anything. The guys who run the stores just love wine and love meeting people. Not to mention Georgian wine is S-T-R-O-N-G. You’ll only need to try a few kinds before you’re really feeling it, trust me.
View of the city
3.     Climb up to Narikala Fortress: We spent a couple of hours up there just looking out over the entire city as the sun set. The crumbling ruins of a once-great fortress have very few rules; feel free to climb around! It is situated on a hill overlooking the Mt’k’vari river. Many couples can be spotted strolling around the nearby botanical gardens and the fortress, enjoying the solitude and beauty. Just watch your step, it can get steep!
The Fortress from below
4.     Visit the sites around Sultanahmet in Istanbul, Turkey: These are not to be missed! From the unique combination of Byzantium architecture as an Eastern Orthodox Christian cathedral to its Islamic features as a mosque under the Ottoman Turks later on, the Aya Sophia has no equal. It is so big that the Statue of Liberty could do jumping jacks inside of it...with room to spare. The Blue Mosque, in all its beauty, is one of the most welcoming and peaceful places I have ever visited. Topkapi Palace is the perfect combination of tranquil beauty and fascinating history, while the Basilica Cistern, approximately the size of two football fields and once the home to the entire water supply for Istanbul, is one of the creepiest places you could ever visit.
Inside the Blue Mosque
Notice the contrast with the Christian Mosaic just above the Islamic writings
Inside the Aya, it's big!
5.     Walk at night on Iştikal Caddesi (Independence Avenue), the main drag in the hip neighborhood of Taksim. It doesn’t matter the day, the streets are always packed and the bars and restaurants are always overflowing. Don’t make any plans or reservations, just enjoy the atmosphere and go where the night takes you…that might be to a bar called Montreal (where they had a Carey Price jersey hanging up), or to a free concert by once-famous Turkish pop star Mirkelam.
Megan and I and Montreal Bar in Istanbul
Hail to the King
6.    Çemberlitaş Hamamı (Turkish Baths): For an out of this world, Greek god-like experience, this place is a must. Matt and I stumbled upon it, unaware of its rich history, but this is the premiere bath house in Istanbul! Spend the extra cash to get a 15-minute scrub/massage, and then spend the rest of the time lying on the giant, original marble tables unwinding after a long day of sight-seeing.  I promise you will leave this place a new person!
The crew after the baths
7.     Spice Bazaar: There is NO place in the world more interesting than here. The smells and tastes that consume you as you step into the market are unlike anything you could possibly fathom. From Iranian saffron to Turkish delight and pure silk scarves, you’ll undoubtedly spend a significant amount of time and money here! It’s worth it!
Mind blowing!
8.     Fish Sandwiches and Mussels on the Bosphorous: Whatever you do, don’t miss out on this! At Eminonu, the sandwiches are simple: a fish grilled and slapped on a bun with some onions and lemon juice…simple and delicious; simply delicious! Just don’t forget about the bones! Oh ya, and they are cooked on a boat. The mussels can be found throughout the city. Vendors walk around carrying a tray full of them. You pay between 50 cents and 1 TL for each depending on the size. Spot the guy a 5-er and you’ll be noshing on seasoned, rice filled mussels ‘til your heart’s content. Don’t forget the lemon juice!
Fish Sandwich...heaven
9.     Sit On a Rooftop Terrace or Street Café and Smoke Turkish Water Pipe Over A Couple Pints of Efes: Don’t forget to take some time to sit back and relax, it is vacation after all. The number of street cafes and rooftop terraces are endless, and you usually can’t go wrong. The roofs offer the view, the street cafes offer comfy outdoor sofas. Either way, order some watermelon/mint water pipe and a couple Efes beers and unwind for a few hours!
10. Eat a Turkish Breakfast on the Bosphorous: Head up to the neighborhood of Bebek near the Fatih Bridge. Find any café along the water and order the “Kahvaltı”. This spread will include fresh juice, tea, breads, cheeses, lamb sausage, pastries filled with magical goodness, eggs, honey and cream, fresh tomatoes, peppers, tomatoes, and so much more. We chose Kale Café, as suggested by Anthony Bourdain on his show, “No Reservations”.  The place did not disappoint! We sat on the second floor and ate for a couple of hours while overlooking the water. You’ll be full, so walk it off by strolling back downtown along the boulevard. Watch out for dangling fish hooks, as many people will be along the water fishing for Red Mullet. And don’t be afraid to cool off with a quick jump into the Bosphorous! Plenty of teenage boys and overweight men do it. It was actually quite refreshing!

View from Breakfast
Gone Fishin'
Matt and I Cooling Off
So there you have it, my top 10 list of things to do in Tbilisi and Istanbul on a quick trip.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Things Just Can't Get Any Better!

If Monday was the best day ever, Wednesday was certainly my proudest day in country!
About two months ago, modeled after the club of a more experienced volunteer, my students, Stephanie, and I started a volunteer club. Lately, most our clubs have been particularly game-oriented. The kids are restless, as they are in any country with the arrival of summer. We’ve been playing games and creating projects for them. Our games and projects are focused on leadership and team-building. A couple of months ago, when the weather was still too cold to be outside, I posed a number of different questions to the kids. I wanted to start a volunteer club, but I wanted the kids to come up with the idea. I was not expecting much at first, but as has come to be expected of my remarkable students, they surprised me once again. I started asking them about Balakan, about their community – what did they like about it, what were they most proud of. These conversations took place over the course of a couple of weeks. After that, I asked them what they would like to see improved in their communities – what were the biggest problems facing Balakan and how did they think they could help. At first, they did not believe that they could contribute to improving Balakan in any significant way, being so young. So, we took it back a few steps, asking them what their strengths were, what their greatest skills were. After quite a bit of encouragement, they finally began to recognize that they each had unique skills. We talked about sharing those skills, about teaching them to others. They started getting excited! We got back to the idea of helping our own community, Balakan. Suddenly, ideas started flowing. Some wanted to teach children Russian, or English, or baseball, UNO, or the piano, others wanted to assist the elderly, and a couple of boys even said they wanted to create a water system that brought fresh water to the most remote villages in the area (a little lofty for a couple of 8th formers, I think).
From here, well, you can see how it progressed. I had ideas, keeping in mind the facts that we have no money and that some of our kids do not come on a consistent basis. I knew what I wanted to do, but I had to be patient and let the ideas come from them. They wanted to read to elderly people and help carry their groceries home – wonderful ideas, but there is no nursing home or anything like that here, so helping the elderly was something they could do on their own in their own neighborhoods. We talked about building things: bird houses, fresh water systems, playgrounds, all things that would require money and further planning. Moving on, we returned to the idea of  teaching. Most of the kids I work with are fairly well-off. They are smart, motivated, engaged, and their parents are committed to giving them the best education possible. This is one of the reasons they are allowed to spend so much time with the Americans! However, there are a lot of kids who are not so well off. They don’t go to school very often, if at all, because they must help their parents work, or they go to a school in a small village and are at a tremendous disadvantage when it comes to testing. Surprisingly, my kids were very perceptive to such inequalities, completely aware of how fortunate they are. I knew we were getting somewhere when we began discussing this. All of the sudden, from the back of the room, a young girl spoke up, “Maybe we can help the Internat School.” The exact comment I was hoping for! 25 light bulbs simultaneously went off in the room. The Internat School is an orphanage/boarding school on the outskirts of town for underprivileged children and IDPs (Internally Displaced Persons) from the Nagorno Karabakh conflict with Armenia in the south. I had been wanting to work here for quite some time, but also did not want to over-extend myself and abandon my students in the city who had a true passion for learning. I wanted to find a way to combine working with them and helping out at Internat; this was the perfect opportunity. Every student was immediately on the same page and the excitement in the room was palpable. A clothing drive was a way to get everyone involved without a budget. The children would have to show some initiative by going out and asking for used clothes, toys, books, and shoes from family members, friends, and neighbors. Additionally, the people donating these used items would learn about this volunteer project without us having to explicitly advertise it. It seemed like a near perfect idea, I again just wanted it to come from the kids. It didn’t take long, I asked them how they wanted to introduce themselves to the teachers and students at the school, and how they expected to gain their trust. The used clothing drive idea followed soon after!
From there, I went to Internat and met with the director. She was ecstatic, and asked if we would be able to collect enough items for all 96 of her children. That was a lofty goal, but I told her we would try our best. The following week, we got to work. About 40 students showed up to our first official meeting. Stephanie and her artistic ways took about 30 of the students and had them design deposit boxes to be brought to all four of the schools in the city. I took another ten and came up with a name and description for the club, to be distributed by students to community members as they collected things. For me, it was slow-moving at first. The kids were quiet and expected me to do all of the writing. I sat back and told them that I would type it up for them afterwards, but that I would have no part in creating the name or description. I left the room often, pretending I was busy with other things in order to encourage them to try it on their own. The results were amazing! Not only did they come up with a name and a five sentence description of the club and its goals, they also came up with a slogan…and it rhymed! The məkdaşlıq Təşkilatı (Cooperation Organization) is now a regular club, or should I say organization, on our summer work schedule and its slogan, “Birləşək, Kömək Edək!” (Together, We Can Help) is inspiring other kids to join everyday!
Within a week of creating and distributing the boxes and fliers, my office was filled with bags of used items. Kids showed up to clubs lugging huge bags of items they had collected in their neighborhoods. People were stopping me on the street promising to bring their used items to my office the next day. I was completely floored by the support we got from the community, as well as the students’ commitment to seeing this project through.
This past Wednesday was International Children’s Day, as well as the first day of summer, a fitting day to deliver our collection to the Internat School. We all met at 10am at my office. At 1030, we each grabbed 3 or 4 bags (15-20 kids came on the trip) and made our way to the bus stop to catch a “marsh” to Internat. My colleagues Turan and Sefer from the Ministry of Youth and Sport met us on the corner. They have given us huge support throughout this project. We put all the items in their car (it filled the car completely) and took a bus to the school. At the school, most of the students had already gone home for the summer. The students are given lodging during the school year only. The only students remaining were IDPs who now live at the school with their families full time. We met the teachers and the remaining students. Some kind words were said by the school director, and then my students handed off the items to kids from the school. We took some photos and made arrangements to return in July to spend some more time with the kids who live there year-round. Our students want to teach them baseball!
As a celebration of this tremendous achievement, we went to the park for the day to have a picnic afterwards. It was so nice having an afternoon of completely unstructured time with our students. Trey and I sang the Star Spangled Banner to them, at their request, and they sang us their national anthem in return. We threw around a Frisbee and football, ate ice cream, and even discussed religion with some of our more advanced English-speaking students. It was such a rewarding day, for all of us. The kids were so proud. This feeling of accomplishment stayed with them throughout the afternoon. I lost track of the number of high-fives given, the number of pictures taken, and the number of other volunteer project ideas that were told to me.
For now, I am going to relish this moment, this project, this day. For all the days that I feel aimless, lost, questioning why I am here, it is days like this that get me back on track, remind me of my purpose here, and make me excited for the days to come.
At my office getting ready to leave
Loading up the car
The exchange

The Cooperation Organization and Internat School
Celebrating afterwards at the park
O Hey!
So proud of them