Monday, October 31, 2011


Thanks to my buddy and fellow volunteer Mike, making movies is the new cool thing to do up here in northern Azerbaijan! It's a wonderful activity for the students. It forces them to be creative; they must create a script (in English) before Mike comes up to shoot it. What's more, because they are all so busy with school now, they really must plan ahead and work together to get the shoot done in the limited amount of time they have. Although Mike is the brains of the operation (and I am usually just getting in the way), we try and give the kids complete creative and logistical control. As you'll see in this film, they yet again did an amazing job!

Our lastest creation, in the spirit of Halloween (drum roll please)...ZOMBIES ATTACK!

Please share with others! Below is the Youtube link.

Pictures from the shoot:

Homemade Blood! (Water, Flour, Hot Cocoa Mix, and Red Dye)
Samira being Zombified
Our makeup artist Layla
The Zombie Divas
Scary right?! Too bad I got killed off first! (Still bitter about that)
The stars of the show! Will they survive the zombie apocalypse?!
The whole crew afterwards

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Adventures In The Kitchen

When I left home to go to university in Montreal, without the comforts of a mom or a cafeteria to take care of my culinary needs, I was a little worried. I made due. I got pretty good at grilling meats and cooking pizza. When I didn’t have time or inspiration, Chef On Call, Alto’s, Pizza Du Parc, and Boustan always sufficed! Here in the ‘Baijan, things, needless to say, are a little bit different. No Metro grocery store to hit up for some good steaks and BACON, no delivery service, and certainly no oven or full-sized kitchen. What is a useless 23-year-old to do? Well, usually I eat egg sandwiches, oatmeal, and snack on a lot of fresh, organic fruits and vegetables, one of the pluses of food in this country. I don’t buy meat and I don’t have a cabinet full of spices and a store with every item I could ever need to cook. Occasionally I look at recipes online that people have posted on Facebook. 90% of the time, I get about 2 sentences into the recipe when I find out that I am missing a critical part of the recipe and there is no way I can cook such a thing here.
Egg sandwiches are great, but they can get boring after over a year. So, lately, I’ve tried to get creative. Here are a couple of my most recent dishes. It’s fun, and actually quite soothing, to experiment in the kitchen. The winter here is going to be long, dark, cold, and wet, but I am starting to realize that standing in front of a hot stove trying to cook news things from scratch, no recipe, phone, or mom to help me, is the perfect thing to get through this season.

On Canadian Thanksgiving, Trey and I celebrated by making homemade poutine! It certainly was no Patati Patata or La Banquise poutine, but it wasn’t half bad and reminded me of my home city and the people there that I miss and love. Trey made the fries, crisping them with a little flour, while I made the gravy using beef bouillon cubes, flour, and anything else I could find that I thought might taste good in a gravy.

This second dish is tuna cakes. Tuna, although a little pricey on my budget at about 3$ a can, is a great way for me to get some much needed, and usually lacking, protein and Omega fatty acids. I tried spicing it up, and it actually worked out! I added pickled ginger, Thai basil, shredded carrots, an egg, some floor, and some toasted oatmeal to keep it together. Nothing in it is bad for you, and once crisp with a little mustard on the side, well, they’re really freaking good!

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Balakan Softball Tournament

This past weekend, Balakan hosted a softball tournament for the first time! Peace Corps Azerbaijan started a league a few years ago. In the past year, the league has grown from 4 teams to 13! Many of those expansion teams popped up in the north of the country, where I am situated. Thus, our soon-to-depart commissioner Josh (I'll be the assistant commissioner starting in December) saw it fit to allow us to host the annual tournament that the American Embassy is gracious enough to sponsor.
I've spent the last couple of weeks running around like a chicken with my head cut off, making reservations, advertising the tournament around town, and frantically calling to see if the money would come in time. Everything worked out perfectly. I could not have envisioned the tournament going any better than it did. On October 15, Balakan welcomed nearly 100 students and 20 PCVs from 6 different regions. I am proud to say that nearly half of those students were, in fact, GIRLS!
The week before, our team made jerseys and decorated hats, thanks to the donations by Trey and my parents; we are the Balakan Dragons! We had about 25 students show up on the first day to play, clearly too many to play, so we had to juggle everyone around to make sure that they all got a chance to play.
Each team played 2-3 games over the course of the day. That night, we ate dinner, watched The Rookie, and played inside the Olympic Complex. The next day, Sunday, the boys had a home run derby while the girls played a girls only game, the first time there have been enough girls at a tournament to field two full teams! After, the PCVs played a game while the students coached and cheered!
That night was probably the most tired I have ever been!
I spent weeks worrying, but the tournament wound up being a greater success than I could have ever expected. I am so grateful to the volunteers who brought their students and made this tournament possible. The people who run the sports complex were absolutely amazing, making sure we had everything we needed. Our team didn't do so well, losing every game we played, but we were by far the youngest team there. I see big things in our team's future; we're built for the long haul! Despite the losses, our kids played great and I never saw them without smiles on their faces. For a while, I was worried how the community would react to such an event. On Sunday, Saxmar, the head of the Olympic Complex, came up to me during the PCV game and in very broken English said, "I love this game." Looks like softball is here to stay!
Commissioner Josh addressing everyone before the tournament started
Samira sporting our new uniforms!
The Balakan Dragons!
Going, Going, Gone!
Tural connecting with a ball during the Home Run Derby
Alvina doing the same during the all girls game
Almost everyone at the end of the tournament (my team and Tovuz left early)
The remainder of our team at the end of the tournament

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

Azerbaijan Gets Some Visitors

After a visit to Azerbaijan, Georgia, and Turkey, my parents are back home. Here's what they had to say about their trip to the land of fire.

Azerbaijan: A Land of Contrasts

Well, our trip to visit with Jake is now over. Part of this was a holiday outside of Azerbaijan, but part was a view into the country and into the life of a Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV). We are grateful to Jake, his other AZ8 and AZ7 PCV’s, and their Azeri friends and counterparts for their hospitality and insights.

First, all who know a PCV should thank them. They work hard, sometimes in difficult and mind-numbingly frustrating situations, trying to make a difference. They do this not one project at a time, one task at a time, or even one person at a time. They do it one personal interaction at a time. Assimilation into the community begets trust which lays the foundation for small changes; small victories. The sharing of new, sometimes threatening but exciting and progressive, ideas. Boys and girls can play sports together. Girls can become leaders. People of diverse cultural backgrounds can work cooperatively.

Azerbaijan itself is a land of contrasts. It is truly a developing country, not a developed one. There seem to be extraordinary extremes of wealth and poverty; haves and have nots. Oil revenues seem to make some quite affluent, while many simply subsist. Baku on first glance appears to be a progressive, outwardly glistening, modern, somewhat “westernized” city. But much of that is superficial: a physical façade with access to the greatest resources for the elite few. But, people are people. The BEST part of Baku was Xirdalan; make that Jake’s first host family in Xirdalan. The love and warmth of that family for Jake was something to behold. And we rode right in on his coat tails.

Balakan was as different from Baku as one could imagine. There was a true sense of community, a true sense of personal pride, and our son’s friends and second host family treated us as if we had known them forever. The children, teachers, and site counterparts welcomed us with curiosity and warmth. But, the area is trying to develop; not there yet.

Being in a developing country was a new, and at times difficult, experience. Communicating through an interpreter (Jake) was at times difficult and frustrating (and I am sure exhausting for Jake). Thank you Jake for all of your hard work.
Being in a “fishbowl” in Balakan was difficult, as had been anticipated. I am soft. I like western world creature comforts and the security of familiarity. I am glad, howevere, to have stepped out of and expanded my comfort zone. I am thrilled to have seen Jake and shared in a little piece of his Peace Corps experience.

With PCV’s like Jake, Trey, Matt, Marie, Stephanie, Lori and Bailey; with Azeris like Farid, Elvin, their families, and Samira, one has to have hope that the world can get better one jar of delicious honey, one great meal, and one baseball game at a time.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Eurovision 2012

Many of you may have heard of Eurovision, but few probably know what it actually is. It's a song contest that many countries outside of North America (not just Europe) compete in every year. It actually started all the way back in 1956. The singers representing each country, who usually compete in American Idol type competitions to make it, do not necessarily have to be from that country, and all songs are sung in English. Celine Dion sang and won for Switzerland in 1988 and ABBA won for Sweden, of course, in 1974. Those really are the only two notable, international sensations to come out of this contest. The contest is usually embraced more by smaller market countries. In Azerbaijan, needless to say, the contest reigns supreme! We are the defending champions and will be hosting the contest this coming year.
As the hype and excitement builds, my two friends and fellow volunteers Brad and Tim decided to make their own music video, a rendition of Jay-Z's "New York State Of Mind". Little did they know the video would go viral and get over 80,000 hits in less than a month. They, now known as the Caspian Dreamers, became national pop sensations overnight!
Well, the other night they had a 30 minute appearance on the station that is hosting this year's competition. I was invited and got to sit backstage. They concluded the interview with a wonderful performance! After, my phone was blowing up with texts from Azeri friends who had watched, all of whom pledged to vote for Brad to represent Azerbaijan.  Oh ya, almost forgot, Brad announced his candidacy on national television!  If it is anything like their youtube music video's popularity, you may be seeing an American represent Azerbaijan at Eurovision 2012!

Click Here for their Live Television Performance