Thursday, July 14, 2011

Breaking Down Gender Barriers. Well, Sort Of...

This blog of mine must be getting pretty serious, as I am now providing up-to-the-minute post on events that just happened. Yah, this probably won't last very long!

Anyway, as a PCV, you try to predict everything that is going to happen as a result of your actions. How will the community react? Will this project be sustainable? What challenges will I face? What risks does such an initiative entail? What are the negative and positive consequences? I even ask myself these questions before doing the most simple of tasks, like going for a run in shorts, or buying a beer at the store 'cuz I just feel like it! But in such a foreign country, while introducing such foreign concepts, you simply can't predict everything. Truthfully, you can't predict most things!

Today's happenings came out of nowhere!

It's a problem all over the world, discussed ad nauseum by teachers and parents alike. Video games!
"They're a waste of time." "They're melting our minds." Personally, a game of NHL 2010 was a perfect way for my roommates and I to decide who would take out the trash that week, but that's just us. 
Here, the problem is just a prevalent as it is anywhere else. Boys spend hours on end, sitting in internet clubs sucking in cigarette smoke and playing Grand Theft Auto or Counterstrike until they can't see straight. The internet is relatively cheap (40 cents for an hour), but they spend every last penny they have killing Nazis and selling crack in these virtual worlds that have taken over reality. In general, I thought this obsession, this sickness, seemed only to plague the adolescent males of the world (and yes, I know this is quite a generalization). Did females bypass this craze? Does their femininity make them immune to the desire to maim and destroy? I thought this was the case.

As I mentioned in one of my previous blogs (Why I Love Maine), the internet club in town agreed to close for one-two hours per week for girls only, so that they too could utilize this resource without risking their reputation by being harassed by boys at a place the is usually understood to be a strictly boys only hang out spot. I had envisioned that the girls would all enter the club and immediately start blogging, thoughts flowing from their minds to the keyboards, writing pages upon pages about the topic we chose the day before (what they love most about their country/region). The only risk I had envisioned was that they may tend to glance at their Facebook profiles and Google images of celebrities a little too often. No problem I thought, we have time. Let girls be girls, let them have some fun. Well, of the 10 girls that showed up, only one of them wrote a blog today! 
I offered to close all of the games that had been in progress when the boys were kicked out, so that they could begin blogging. All, save for one, declined. They didn't want to write, they refused to write.  They wanted to play the games that the boys had been playing. They wanted to shoot RPGs at enemy tanks and run over civilians with Hummers.
So, that's it, there I was at "blogging club", helping Samira and our one boy Muslim write their blogs while 9 other girls broke down gender barriers like I had never seen before, killing zombies and becoming the crime kingpins of a virtual Baku. Little Xacay and Diana might not be so scary if you pass them on the street, but give them virtual AK47's and an unlimited ammo cheat and watch out!

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Summer Camp: The Aftermath

The Balakan Arts Summer Camp has been my biggest project to date, but I can't find the time to sit down and write about it. I'm busy, yes. I've had my normal club schedule of 13 per week, I went camping for a couple days up in the mountains of Zaqatala, I am planning a baseball clinic with my students at the orphanage on Friday, I am finding guest speakers for the national boys summer camp (ABLE: Azerbaijan Boys Leadership Experience; a one week sleep away camp) happening next week, and my 6-month report is due! However, I must admit that I mostly cannot write about the camp because I really have no idea where to start. 38 kids, 16 volunteers, 3 Azeri counterparts, 6 days, and a whole lot of tie-dye and friendship bracelets later, I'm tired and don't know what to say.
It was an overwhelming success, greater than anything I could have ever imagined. My buddy Matt said it perfectly. It was "organized chaos", and we loved every minute of it. The kids were perfect, coming everyday on time and excited. The counselors were even better, inspiring and energetic. Every event, every game, every art form was met with more enthusiasm than the one before it, and I have my wonderful PCV colleagues to thank for that. They came from all over Azerbaijan to help, and each brought with them their own personal flare. Since their departure, my kids sulk around when asking why Gio, Lori, Marie, Brad, Erika, Clarissssssssa, Cryyyyyyystal, Matt, Mike, Dan, and Jodi had to leave, as if they're kind of over me.
I took on an administrative role, spending the week organizing events, including the Olympics and after camp adult activities like a kiddie pool belly flop competition), purchasing materials, and making sure everything was in order. I have to give special thanks to Stephanie, the mastermind behind the camp, and our 3 Azeri counterparts: Pervane, Ulduz, and Farid. They showed up everyday and stuck with the kids through it all. The Minister of Education even came, and was impressed. Well, actually, she first threatened to shut down the camp because she didn't know about it beforehand. But, after visiting and seeing us at work, she sang our praises all over Balakan, begging us to run the camp again next year. She even came to the showcase on Saturday night where the students performed and displayed everything they had done throughout the week (writing, visual, dance, drama, music, photography).
Anyway, to conclude, I thought in the spirit of sustainability and cultural sharing, if you'd like to see pictures of the camp and read firsthand reactions, check out the following two blogs, owned and written by two of my best students. Last weeks social media club assignment was to write about summer camp. These girls did a fantastic job and I think you'll find their stories very entertaining.
If you have any questions about the camp or want to know, just make a comment and I'll respond ASAP.

Why I Love Maine

So, I am proud to say that our social media club is running at full throttle! At first, we were using a back room at the internet club, splitting 2 computers between 10 girls because the they do not feel comfortable being in the same room with all of the boys using the internet. Last week, it was way too cramped, way too hot, and the girls had had enough of all the stares from boys (culturally, it is really not a place girls want to be seen). Luckily, the man who owns the internet cub, Zamir, is a good friend and a great guy. He has now reserved two hours per week for girls only! This gesture is completely unprecedented here. Once I told the girls the news, they were back on board, and brought a few new friends with them!
This week, we are writing about what makes Azerbaijan and Balakan special. The students will write about what they believe is unique about their country and/or their region. In honor of this assignment, I wrote my own little list of the 5 things I think make Maine so special and what I most often think about while over here. 

1.     I love being so close to nature. From where I live, I can be in the mountains hiking, on the beach with my dog, and water skiing on the lake, all in the same day. I am a very active person and love being outdoors. In Maine, the possibilities are endless. Did I mention the skiing in the winter?!
Sunset on Long Pond
Running with my dog Gretzky at Higgins Beach
My brother waterskiing
Long Pond
2.     I’ve got to give a shout out to fresh Maine seafood! There’s nothing like eating a lobster, salmon, or Bang Island mussels, and knowing exactly where it came from! Plus, it costs about half the price! I’m getting hungry just thinking about it!
A lobster boat working on Casco Bay
3.     Swimming in the ocean or rivers (ideally off a rope swing) is certainly up there among the top reasons why I love Maine. The apprehension leading up to the jump, knowing how cold the water below is, the momentary shock as you enter the water, the girlish scream you involuntarily let out, the sharp sting that goes shooting up your legs and spine, the hyperventilating, the gasping, and then, finally, the adrenaline, the desire to jump again, and again, and again, and again. By this point it doesn’t really matter, you’re numb anyway!
The rope swing near our house on the Presumpscot River
My brother and I at the pier we jump off on Macworth Island
Jumping into the ocean at Five Islands's cold
4.     I never realized how much I’d miss the fog. Looking out onto Casco Bay, suddenly a bright, beautiful day can turn into a dark and dreary one that makes you feel like the sun will never shine again. And just like that, in the blink of an eye, the sun is back, shining brighter than ever!
The fog coming in at Portland Head Light
5.     Lastly, Maine’s proximity to other places is truly unmatched. Enjoy the peace and quiet of Maine for as long as you like. Personally, I can only take that for so long. Not a problem! In 2 hours, I’m in downtown Boston, in 5, I’m in New York City to the south and Montreal to the north! What more could I possibly need?!

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Back to Work and Accidentally Spreading Anarchy

So today was the first day back to normal clubs following an extraordinary week of camp – more on that after I decompress and reflect a little bit more. Anyway, we started the week with our 7th and 8th form club. We tried to construct our own countries, talking about what makes Azerbaijan unique, and then discussing what we would like in our own country – everything from the country’s name and flag to its source of income and national dishes. It was a wonderful lesson (Steph’s idea) and the kids had some fantastic deas, but it was not without its jokes and peculiarities, namely, the country of Kemalistan Zombie Country!

Two of my absolute favorite boys, Kemal and Rasul, decided to create the country of “Kamalistan Zombie Country”. They went on to explain: this is an underwater country of zombies with no natural resources, and no allies. It costs 100 million AZN to get a visa to visit and the president is chosen based on who is the last man standing after a battle royale! When we posed the questions of how their country will make money and how the rule of law will be implemented, they curtly replied with an air of superiority that they are all zombies, so money doesn’t matter, and neither does the rule of law. We’re talking complete anarchy people! It seemed innocent enough, typical boys and their gruesome fantasies! The girls in the class (who vastly outnumber the boys) would certainly dismiss this violent fantasy and embarrass the boys into taking the lesson a little more seriously. Think again! The idea started catching on! Why have rules and sources of income and a national anthem when you can just have complete anarchy – no rules, just fun (or in this case just flesh-eating monsters). By the end of the class, the kids (our second youngest class) were pretty much over the intricacies of designing their own countries. They had abandoned their own new nations and embraced zombie anarchy! I guess we're all moving to Kemalistan Zombie Country! Thanks Kemal and Rasul!

I'd also just like to publicly thank Darien Book Aid Plan out of Darien, Connecticut, who just sent me 25 lbs. worth of books to give to the Children's Library here in Balakan. This is a wonderful program and I, along with the students of Balakan, are forever grateful for their contribution.
Here is their website: 
Next month we will be doing the World Map Project in the Children's Library, where we paint a giant map of the world on the wall in the main room of the library!
The gang celebrating July 4th up in the mountains
The book donation from Darien Book Aid (plus the librarians and two of my students)

The floors of the library are in pretty rough shape!