Monday, October 15, 2012

What I Missed

Let’s just get this off my chest quickly:




If someone can give me a combination of the three at once, I will be very impressed and grateful!!! (I’m thinking something in a burrito style)

There, now that those are out of the way, we can continue:

Smooth Highways – Oh how I have missed the smoothness of a well-paved highway, they obedience that comes with actual lanes, functioning stop lights, competent drivers and honest traffic officers. If I never ride another packed van reeking of body odor and cigarette smoke on an unpaved road again, it will be too soon!

Movie Theaters – Despite the absurd prices, to me there’s nothing better than watching a good movie on the big screen. I am so tried of watching poor quality copies of new movies on my tiny lap top screen.

Sports and Fitness – I’ve done my best to replace my lack of access to a gym with elastic bands, a jump rope, and yoga map. And I certainly get to play sports (Frisbee, soccer, and softball). But, it’s just not the same as a game of squash with my dad at the YMCA, a game of pick up hockey, throwing around a lacrosse ball with the boys, or having JMart run Ting and I through the ringer with a Crossfit workout at MAA.

Phone Plans – Buying minutes as I go is terribly frustrating. Given the number of national programs I manage, I have to be on the phone a lot, so I go through a lot of minutes. I’m sick of the little scratch off minute cards! Give me a contract, please!

American Time – I’ve broken down, almost to a science, the conversion of time between Azerbaijan and America:
-       5 minutes American = 30 minutes Azerbaijani
-       Early American = 10am Azerbaijani
-       1 hour American = At least 3 hours Azerbaijani
-       Later this afternoon American = Maybe tomorrow Azerbaijani
-       Tomorrow American = Never Azerbaijani
I love promptness and I cannot wait to return to the land of it!

Washing Machines – I have not missed anything more than my washing machine. If there were a word stronger than hate for washing clothes by hand, I’d use it. In the summer it’s so hot that you have to wash clothes way too often. In the winter, your hands freeze while washing and the clothes never dry. All of my clothes are ruined from all the hand washing, yet they are not nearly as clean as they are after a cycle in the washing machine! It’s a waste of time and the greatest inconvenience I had while living here!

Friday, October 12, 2012

What I Will Miss

Here’s a look at some of the things I will miss most about living in Azerbaijan

Freshness – Knowing where my food comes from at each and every meal has been one of those small factors I did not appreciate until recently. When I go guesting at someone’s house, invariably everything is a s fresh as can humanly be. The yogurt? That was made yesterday. The chicken? From their yard. The fruit and vegetables? Just step outside and pick them yourself. The bread? The clay oven is in the back! Even in a agricultural state like Maine, renowned for its fresh seafood and produce, you cannot get fresher than Azerbaijan.

Squat Toilets – Yes, the smell is usually unbearable, but the simplicity will surely be missed. Plus, check it out online, squatting is better for you!

Forced Ingenuity – With sporadic internet, limited social resources (malls, concerts, etc.), and practically no money, it can be difficult to come up with things to do in your free time. The internet goes out as you’re about to get online to Skype or answer emails? Think of something else to do, because it’s not coming back anytime soon! When we host other volunteers for the weekend, there’s this unspoken sence of fun that comes from creating something from nothing, from finding the most ingenious ways to enjoy yourself and your company. Cooking pizza with one burner, no oven, and only 5 dollars? No problem! Drinking? How about Sangria made from Russian vodka, Sprite, and some strange wine you found in the basement? Want to play Twister? Buy a couple markers and table mat. 20 minutes and 2 dollars later, you have an official Twister board! Trey and I once made a tee when we first started softball. We used a cardboard box from a care package, duct tape, and PVC piping and brinks we found near the dumpster! It’s projects and activities like these that make you appreciate what you have and help you live in the moment more than I ever appreciated back home.

Bilingual Life – I’ve done it before when I lived in Mexico, but there’s nothing like being able to speak two languages everyday! Switching back and forth, combining two languages into one, and constantly learning new words and phrases…I will miss this a lot.

Teaching – Again, I’ve done it before working at lacrosse and hockey camps, but I cannot express to you enough how much I love being a teacher. I love being a role model and I love trying to inspire. I have had many struggles while living here, working with youth was never one of them. My students were the light at the end of every dark tunnel I passed through and I am so grateful for them.

Being Interesting – I’ll be honest, I love the attention! While here, I’m the expert, I’m the interesting one with stories and knowledge unheard of before my arrival. Returning home will be a little bit of a shock when students I see don’t show me the respect I have come to expect, when people don’t invite me over and feed me just so that they can hear me speak English and ask me questions about life in America.

Lastly, I will miss telling time based off the daily call to prayer. It's a very pleasant way to wake up and a great way to take short breaks throughout the day, a brief moment to take a deep breath and reflect.

Next up: What I Missed!

Monday, September 17, 2012

So, You Want To Join The Peace Corps?

I’ll preface this post with a little explanation.
For the past two years, this blog has been an outlet for me. I write when I’m happy, I write when I’m sad. I write when I’m on top of the world, and I write when nothing seems to be going right. I write mechanically when I feel the need to provide an update, and I spill all of my emotions when there’s no place else to turn. So, this Peace Corps experience that I have tried to portray to you in this blog is not always accurate. It’s certainly genuine, but if you’re trying to get a sense of what the Peace Corps is like, you can’t look at just a few of the posts; you have to take it all in. You have to recognize my highs and my lows, the passion and the emptiness.
As I complete my service, I can honestly say that I am writing this particular post with a clear mind. I’ve spent time reflecting, cataloging, decompressing, and now, at this very moment, I can say, more than ever, that I am centered. For those of you who have followed my journey (thank you!) and to those of you just joining it, here’s a look at the real Peace Corps, the one I tried to explain, but often sabotaged as a result of my own emotions.

So, you want to join the Peace Corps, eh?
First and foremost, that’s a wonderful decision! Whether you’re just finishing your bachelor’s degree or your 30-year career, you’re making the right choice. No matter who you are, you have so much to offer.
But, before you get going, here are a few things you should know.

You will find peace and purpose, I guarantee it. I also guarantee that you will cry. You will drink too much and hermit in your home cursing the day you decided to join this stupid organization. You will lose touch with old friends, and you will gain new ones. You will fall in love, and you will hate the world.
That’s all just life though, isn’t it? Peace Corps just amplifies it a few decibels.

You will glorify your past and vilify your present.
McDonald’s is NOT that good and gas, water, and electricity are NOT necessary 24/7. You don’t really miss home as much as you think you do. You’ll certainly miss small things: people, places, certain moments. Here’s a tip, if you miss your friends, don’t sit in your house ALONE sulking. Go out into your community and make new friends. If you miss things like guacamole, bacon, and sushi – well, I don’t have an answer for that one, sorry!

You will never fit in.
You will always be THE foreigner. No matter how small your community is, 2 years into living in the same place, someone will be completely baffled when they realize you speak their language. Get used to feeling like an outsider. Embrace it. In everything you do, you’ll be under a magnifying glass, constantly scrutinized. Fear not. Use it as an opportunity to constantly set a good example for the youth in your community. You’ll never be looked up to more than you are as a Peace Corps Volunteer.

You will fail at something.
You cannot let it get you down. Go into your service expecting nothing. Don’t go in with ideas of grandeur. Don’t plan on giving. Plan on learning. Plan on taking it all in and then reacting. By simply showing up you are already doing so much for your community. Don’t let the language barrier or cultural misunderstandings ruin your service’s potential.

Time is an evil temptress.
Sometimes, it will fly by (where have these 27 months gone?!). Other times, it goes backwards (it’s been 20 hours, get me off this train already!). You’ll count the months, not the days. Just be careful, the realization of “12 months down…15 months to go” can really ruin your week. On the bright side, you’ll never be bored again! Once you return to the States, a two hour trip on a paved highway will be a breeze. Waiting for only 1 hour to see a doctor will be impressively efficient.

You will be bored.
Embrace it! How often in your life can you wake up nearly every morning with absolutely nothing to do? Everyday is a new adventure, everyday is a blank canvas and you are the artist! Sometimes, they’ll be small, black and white sketches and you’ll stay inside all day watching movies and gorging on the candy from a care package. Other days, you’ll paint the Sistine Chapel and accomplish something you never thought possible! Both are okay and both will occur!

Check your ego at the door.
Seriously, this service is not about you. No matter how hard you try, many of the people you work with and for won’t ever recognize your sacrifice. Many won’t ever appreciate your accomplishments or your intentions. And, no matter how many blog posts you write or how well you write them, no one back home will fully grasp the impact of your service. Yes, your Peace Corps service is a laudable act of selflessness, but if you’re looking for a pat on the back, I suggest becoming double-jointed.

Lastly, and most importantly, you will love your service and you will hate your service. It’s hard – really hard. You will want to quit. Don’t. When you’ve returned to America, sitting back on your plush couch thinking about how you want to live the rest your life, living like you did in the Peace Corps is the first thing that will pop into your mind – on the edge, always learning, always on a new adventure.

You’ll never be more miserable than you will be when serving in the Peace Corps, but you’ll never be more fulfilled, more clear, more self-aware, more happy, I promise.

Best of luck, and thank you to all of those who supported my own adventure.

Living my dream. Thanks mom. Happy birthday!

Thursday, August 23, 2012

This Will Put A Smile On Your Face!

My student Samira (and yes, for anyone who reads this blog regularly, the same girl who I usually refer to) won an essay contest held by the US Embassy a number of months ago. She placed first in the entire country.
Yesterday, she turned this essay into a film for the Student Film Festival that will be held in the capital, Baku, next month. I am so proud of her.

It's in English, so have no fear, you'll understand it. Powerful stuff! Enjoy!

Youtube link:

Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Stop Street Harassment!

It was quite fortuitous that the BBC featured an article about sexuality in Morocco, a quickly modernizing, Muslim country wrestling with its own identity, the same week that my students released an anti-street harassment video, a problem that plagues Azerbaijan.

In Morocco, pre-marital sex is illegal.
“If the code is removed, we will become wild savages. Our society will become a disaster.” – Imam Hassan Ait Belaid
“Legalizing sex outside marriage is an initiative to promote debauchery.”
– Justice Minister Mustapha Ramid

Comments like this from the article stood out for all the wrong reasons and I was left incredibly frustrated. However, what stood out even more for me was the BBC’s analysis of these comments.

“Critics of the Islamists argue that the strict sex laws merely increase the harassment of women. Men often talk of going for “female hunting”, as they drive down the boulevards trying to pick up women. Such harassment shows the sexual frustration that persists in predominantly conservative Muslim societies, analysts say.”

Now, I’m not quoting these comments to encourage a repeal of Morocco’s law. That’s not my place. Nor did I help my students film this short movie in order to encourage pre-marital sex in Azerbaijan, but we face this exact same problem in Azerbaijan: an inherent lack of respect for women. My young female students and female colleagues alike are often too scared to walk alone in their own communities. What kind of life is that? I won’t use this blog to say what I think the cause of such harassment is, but I will claim outright that, at least here in Azerbaijan, there is a serious problem, and the only way to address it is head-on. That’s exactly what my students did, and I am so proud of them for that.
We added English subtitles so that those of you who do not speak Russian, Azerbaijani, and Avar will be able to understand it.

Here is the link:
Please share it!

After posting the video, I contacted the American organization who’s video first inspired ours. They were gracious enough to feature the video on their site!

 Join the movement! Enough is enough and we should all expect things to change immediately. Nothing short of complete respect is acceptable.

Monday, July 16, 2012

The Story of ABLE

I recount the following experience with great pride and accomplishment, not just for me, but for the PCVs and Azerbaijanis who helped make this year’s ABLE camp possible.
As I’ve likely described to you before, ABLE camp is the Azerbaijan Boys Leadership Experience, a weeklong, sleep away summer camp for boys between the ages of 14 and 16. The camp focuses on the ideas of leadership, community, gender equality, teamwork, and volunteerism. Last year, I played a minor role in the planning process, helping to arrange the daily guest speakers. Once camp commenced, I played a rather large leadership role. I stayed the entire week of camp and helped lead the camp curriculum. I also worked on the evaluation committee to create a critical evaluation of the camp for our sponsors; that report wound up being about 50-60 pages long. The camp was such a wonderful experience, for both my student Muslim and me that I knew I wanted to play a larger role in the 2012 version.

I took on the role of project manager and have spent that past 12 months working alongside a select group of PCVs and Azerbaijani counterparts tirelessly trying to make ABLE 2012 the best edition yet! My job as project manager was to oversee the daily responsibilities. With a budget close to $20,000 USD and about 20 PCVs and Azerbaijanis helping to organize the camp in various capacities, from finance to curriculum, applications, location, supplies, marketing, evaluation, and such, I was tasked with making sure deadlines were met and everyone had the support and resources they needed. It was an incredibly time consuming job and I spent hours every week on the phone and by my computer. We came up with a new logo and slogan (Are you ABLE?), started securing local partners and even some Azerbaijani corporate sponsors. Things seemed to be going so well. There was just one problem.

Every year, for the past 6 years, we were given a rather large grant of about $15,000 USD from the same commission. Because of the success of the camp and our extensive evaluation report, made famous by volunteers from previous years, we could always count on the grant. This past year, we submitted the grant application by the deadline as per usual. No red flags were evident. Then, we started getting requests from the commission to adjust certain things. At first, we thought there were weaknesses in our grant. But after extensive reviews, we couldn’t find any weaknesses. We went ahead and adjusted the application and resubmitted it, anyway. We remained optimistic, but feared that our requested amount would be cut back significantly. It seemed as though the commission was looking to go in another direction.
So, we braced for the cutback and submitted numerous other grants to replace the potentially lost funds. To our great surprise and dismay, our grant request was completely denied. Our amount requested was not decreased, it was turned down. We went from an annual presumed budget of at least $15,000 USD to 0 overnight. You can imagine how disheartening this was. Everything was perfectly in place, save for the money – just a minor detail. Without it, however, no matter how strong the curriculum or guest speaker line up, the camp had no funding and would not go on.
There was nothing else we could do but wait. Without money, the camp was not going to happen, so we had to wait and see if any of the other grants came through. In the process of waiting, we found out that the commission we usually received funds from had been given a new directive, one that did not include finding summer camps for boys. It had nothing to do with our application. Unfortunately, the commission did not consider the fact that cutting off our funding completely, despite a new directive, would severely endanger the continuation of the camp.
Weeks and months past. Grant by grant, we were denied. No one was looking to fund our kind of project. Thankfully, the PCVs I work with are an incredibly persistent bunch and we did not give up easily.

To make a long story short, we wound up being able to scrape together enough money to fund the camp through small grants and donations from local businesses, as well as an increase in camper fees we had hoped to not have to implement.

So, here I am writing to you on the evening of July 16, in the middle of ABLE camp. Unfortunately, I am not at it. To reduce costs and keep the integrity of the camp intact, we made the selection process harder, chose fewer kids (50 to 35), and went to a smaller, cheaper camp site. By doing this, we had fewer spaces for PCVs to stay, unlike last year when the space and money was plentiful. I have been at the forefront of the planning process for the past year. I know what it took to persevere and make this camp possible, and I am so proud of all those PCVs for sticking with it. Most of that inspiration to keep on trying came from seeing the camp firsthand in 2011. I know that every PCV in my group who worked night and day to make ABLE 2012 happen did it because of what they saw in 2011, by seeing just how much it impacted the boys of Azerbaijan. I got to experience the magic of it last year, and that’s what prevented me from giving up this year. So I, along with a number of other PCVs in my group reluctantly gave up our spaces in this years camp so that newer volunteers could experience that same magic, so that they too will be inspired when it comes time to organize ABLE 2013, regardless of the roadblocks they may face along the way.

Our logo
My boys coaching softball at the orphanage in a neighboring region

Rasul: heart of gold (also my hat and sunglasses)

Loved this shot

The whole group after a great softball training

The coaches (plus Trey and I along for the ride). What an amazing group of boys!

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Just A Couple of Complaints

I have not been writing consistently lately, but I wanted to share a few thoughts with you. Life has been pretty wonderful recently. It’s summer time, and I feel like a kid again. Maybe it’s because I wear shorts and flip flops all day in the sun and have been very active with clubs. Or, maybe it’s because I only ever hang out with kids anymore. Seriously, with the exception of Trey (and there can be a good case made for the child in him), I’m not spending any time with adults. Any adult friends that I have are either married, busy, MIA, or in Baku where most adults migrate to in search of real work. I understand and don’t blame anyone. At first, I thought it was bad that I had no real local, adult friends, somehow upsetting even. Actually, it’s so refreshing. I get to spend my days immaturely joking around with kids and discussing subjects completely uninteresting to most adults. During the days, I feel like I have so much energy. On the other hand, at night I’m terribly sore and exhausted. It’s not easy keeping up with them!

I’d like to spend the next two paragraphs picking a bone with Azerbaijan!
First off, dogs. As in many countries around the world, stray dogs litter the streets. These flea-infested, garbage-eating balls of clumpy hair are certainly not cuddling material. But, I’d like to ask: “How did they get this way?”
People are terrified of dogs here. They’ll cross the street just to avoid them and feel no remorse over throwing rocks at a dog getting a little too close. What saddens me most is that none of these dogs pose any threat. I know this because most of these dogs are not afraid of me and look forward to seeing me as I pass by, giving them a brief pat on the head and tummy rub before I rush home to pour bleach on my hand. All it took to befriend them was a few days of soft hellos and the occasional kneel, just letting them adjust and eventually come to me. The other night I got scolded by a neighbor because a pack of dogs of wonderful cute, playful orphans followed me home from Trey’s.
I voiced my lack of regard for his concerns and made my way inside, alone (I’m a dog lover, but I certainly won’t be letting any of those mutts in my house anytime soon!).
I don’t bring this up with adults, but I tell kids it everyday when we encounter dogs when walking around. Don’t be scared. Most dogs are more terrified of you. Especially since it’s pretty customary here to keep a puppy for about 2 months and then throw it out on the streets when it gets too big and ‘uncute’. No wonder they bark and are terrified of humans. They’ve been abandoned and treated worse than my childhood stuffed animals. How would you feel? I’d be a lot meaner to Azerbaijanis than they are if I were a dog.
So, here’s my message: If you’re afraid of dogs, get over it! They are such sweet animals. If you still can’t get over that fear, stop adopting puppies only to abandon them mere months later. And, I realize no one here had the good fortune of watching Bob Barker, but spend a little extra to neuter or spay your animals, PLEASE!

Lastly, the ‘24/24’ sign that litters almost EVERY convenient store in this country! What does that even mean? 24/7 is definitely a thing. 24/24? Not.
In this day and age when even people towards the bottom of the economic spectrum have cell phones and access to cheap internet, if you’re going to start a store, and put all of your hard earned money into it, do a little god dam research!!! 24 hours a days/24 days a year? The 24 days a year part may be pretty accurate in this country, but you’re definitely not open 24 hours a day! My late night journeys to find a store that is still open have proved that!

That’s all. I’m done complaining!

Picking cherries with my little buddy Davud
The second mural is finally finished!
Balaken Summer Camp 2012!

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Summer Blockbusters

It's that time of year again, summer. It's the season when it's too hot (110 degrees in Baku last week), I am too busy, and I have too many things racing through my mind to ever sit down and write a real blog post.
Things are going great. I have just over 4 months of service left. I cannot believe that. I am, however, spending my time wisely. This week I have started two new clubs! I am now teaching a fitness course and a spanish class. So, now there are boys limping around Balaken sore from the previous days workout and students reciting the alphabet and counting to ten on the streets in Spanish! I couldn't be happier!

Camp was a huge success. We had 60+ kids attend this year and the camp was 100% locally funded! This camp has, by far and away, been the highlight of my service. Although I will not be there next year, the older kids are already making plans to run their own summer camp in my absence and have started asking newer volunteers to return to Balaken to help out!
We had different themes for each day: environment, leadership, Olympics, and move-making. Instead of writing about it, I'll just post the 3 short videos made during camp. The kids were divided into 3 teams, and each team had only 1 hour to produce an entire movie. The scripts are completely original and were created by the kids. Enjoy!

On the last day of camp, we held Balaken's first My Mic event, an open mic night meant to encourage originality, confidence, and creativity. Although all of the videos are not online yet, this one is. The last day of camp was also my sitemate Stephanie's last day in Balaken. Her and Matt sang Azerbaijan's Eurovision winner from last year, "Running Scared". Without telling them to, all of our students stormed the stage to sing it with her. Clearly, she'll be missed!

Monday, May 21, 2012

Opening Day Dramatics

It’s hard to pinpoint exactly how I feel about the excitement that was the Azerbaijan Interregional Softball League’s 2012 season opening day. It was a complete and utter failure – one of epic proportions. The day was also an immense success – the kind that creates lifelong memories and leaves a smile on your face for weeks to come. Both the failure and success of this antithetical day will set the foundation for the future of softball in Balakan, as well as for the rest of the Dragon’s 2012 season. However, they were reciprocal occurrences, the failure and success; we could not have had one without the other. In that regard, I guess I really don’t have much to complain about. I guess that when I stop and reflect, this day is perfectly reconcilable and should only lead to greater success in the future. One can only hope!

I rose early this morning, soaked some laundry, replied to a couple of emails, and had a good breakfast, putting myself through a calming routine like I used to before lacrosse games, as if I were the one actually competing today. The team was supposed to meet in front of my house at 8:30 in order to catch a 9am bus to Zaqatala, where we would catch another bus to Jane’s village where the tournament was being held. The kids slowly started trickling in. Within 10 minutes, 5 of them had arrived, small gym bags with snacks and water in tow. I went out to meet them. They were anxious. Only 1 of the 5 played in a tournament last year, and although the other four had come a long way over the last month and were definitely ready for real competition, their nerves were starting to show. They kept asking simple, useless questions, somehow probing for a magical answer that would calm them down. Trey arrived with the hats and uniforms and we fitted the present 5. The excitement started to build. We then waited for everyone else to show up. They never came. That excitement quickly deflated to worry. The minutes passed in sets of 10, but still just 5 players remained. The kids looked at us, as if it were our fault no one else was showing up. Trey and I looked at each other, no answers or explanations. Everyone had been called last night; everyone should be here. I retreated to my house to call the missing players, the frustration setting in.
Each call came with the same response. Mothers and fathers were too worried about the earthquakes that had been “ravaging” the regions to allow their kids to go. Zaqatala, after all, was the epicenter of most of these small rumblings. I did my best to calm and dissuade them.
On a straight line, we’re only about 10km away from the epicenter, so there’s not too much of a difference in danger between here and there. That was dismissed.
We’ll be outside on a field all day, the safest place to be should another occur – much safer than in the apartment buildings where they were forcing our players to remain. Nope, not good enough.
You can’t predict earthquakes, there’s just no way of knowing. Didn’t stand a chance.
There was no shaking them (haha), no dissuading a mother or father’s protective instinct. We would be going to opening day with only 5 players.

Miraculously, one more showed up at the last second. Although this wouldn’t change anything in terms of not having enough players to field a team, it somehow brought life back to the team. Somehow, 6 would be enough; we’d make it work. So, trucker hats and spray painted t-shirts on, we set out for Danachi for opening day.

Danachi and Oguz both had full teams. We made arrangements to have a couple of Oguz’s extra players join our team for the day. At first, I felt embarrassed. Trey and I are both on the 4-person committee that runs the entire softball league. We spend much of our time working out the finances and schedule of the league and doing all we can to help other volunteers establish their teams. We do all of this, yet somehow we couldn’t manage to field a full team for opening day. It certainly wasn’t my proudest moment. That was until Danachi and Oguz started playing in their first game. I strayed away from my team to talk to some other volunteers and guests who made the trip to watch the tournament. For a second, I lost track of my kids. I looked back in their direction to check on them. Instead of seeing 6 boys sword fighting with bats and horsing around, I saw 6 boys sitting in a group watching the game, analyzing the mistakes being made, working out field positions and batting order, plotting and preparing for their own upcoming match. They weren’t phased by the fact that they were younger, smaller, or that there were only 6 of them. We were going to be just fine!
The rest if history.

We lost both games, by mere hairs. Last year we lost to Oguz 15-1 on a mercy rule in the second inning, I think. This year, 9-8 on a walk-off double in the bottom of the final inning.
We lost to Danachi 7-6, stranding the tying and go-ahead runs at second and third after a brilliant catch by the Danachi shortstop.

Our pitcher Sabuhi, one of our newest players, played like a veteran. He pitched both games and was an absolute defensive stalwart.
Muslim and Emil played like the veterans they are, captaining the team and providing some much needed leadership and composure.
Zaur, by far the youngest and smallest player from any of the teams, played like a giant. Despite struggling to catch and hit in practice, he played third base with such poise and came up with a big play in the Danachi game to keep the team’s hopes alive. He also failed to strike out once, making it on base in every single one of his at-bats.
Rashad was the late addition. He’d played in practices back in Balakan before, but had not played at all this season. Out of no where he became our best base runner.
We had a seventh player named Ruslan join our team at the last second. He was Muslim’s friend from ABLE camp and showed up just to watch. Just like Fulton Reed in D1, we gave the lanky 6-footer a t-shirt and hat and through him in the mix, never having played before. On his second at bat, EVER, he hit a double over the centerfielders head!

It’s hard to explain how excited Trey and I were, and still are. Last year, we got clobbered every single game. It was difficult to get our kids eager to play because they didn’t stand a chance. We couldn’t figure out why. What were we doing wrong? Today, Trey and I kept looking at each other from across the field (he’s coaches third base while I take first) with these dumbfounded looks of amazement, ear-to-ear grins on our faces. Where did this come from?! We weren’t just hanging in there, we were making it a game, and we were having fun! Our failure to produce a full team on the most anticipated day of the season quickly and seamlessly transformed into our greatest success. Our small group of boys had finally become a team, they had come together and were starting to believe. The whole bus ride home, all we could hear was, “If only we had a few more players.”, “If only I hadn’t dropped that ball.”, “If only I had tagged up.”. If only, if only, if only. They boys realized how close they were to winning both those games. Just one mistake, one little thing different and the games could have easily gone the other way! They were learning!

Before we even got home they had scheduled practices for Monday, Wednesday, Saturday, and Sunday of the upcoming week and were on the phone with the players who had not come, telling them the news and explaining the importance of them showing up in the future.

There are no guarantees that we’ll get more players to come, and we’re still 0-2, but the future is brighter than ever and for the first time, the Balakan Dragons expect to win!

The Balakan Dragons
Trey and Rashad
Sabuhi sporting our uniforms
Emil with the first at-bat of the season

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Simply Wonderful

Sometimes, things just go well. There’s no explanation, you just feel on top of the world, no matter what happens. This week’s been one of those weeks. Despite the crazy electrical storms every night and the constant earthquakes (5.6 on the Richter scale) every morning, I’ve got a constant smile on my face, right now.
There’s currently an essay contest being held by the American Embassy. It’s for students throughout the regions of Azerbaijan. Samira, a constant mention in this blog, submitted her essay. It is one of the more extraordinary essays I’ve ever read, not even considering the fact that she is only 15 and English is not her first OR second language. I just had to share it, but did not change it whatsoever! Enjoy!

My dream is…

First I want to meet you with some people.

Hatma – 15 years old. Lives in Turkey. She loves watching students going to school. But she can’t study. Because she has a wedding next month. But she doesn’t know who will be her husband. The only thing that she knows about him, that he is the friend of her father, 62 years old…
Cavid – 5 years old. Azberbaijanian. Lives in orphanage. His parents left him when he was 3 years old. From that day Cavid spends all his free time in front of the window. “Maybe my parents will come to take me, but they won’t see me and go back…”
Asad – 21 years old. Her mother had a big health problem. Her kidneys had to be changed or she could die. Asad asked many organizations for help. But nobody helped. Asad didn’t want to lose the only person in his life and stole money. He’s in the prison now. But he isn’t regret. Because he knows that his mother is alive. And that’s enough for him…
Aisha – 7 years old. Lives in Afganistan. Everyday she wakes up to the voice of guns. Everyday she feels fear, everyday she cries. And everyday she thinks, “how the people living in the peaceful country are happy!!!”
Bakir – 67 years old. He lived all his life for his children. His wife died when she was 41. Bakir was a worker. All day he carried heavy stones in his back. But he never left his children hungry. But now he is in a rest home. Because his children don’t want an old and weak man in their house…
Almaz – 6 years old. Everyday gets “2” from lessons. But the teachers don’t know the reason why she doesn’t study. Her drunk father everynight beats her mother. And Almaz is tired of pretending like she’s sleeping while her mom cries secretly all night. Because of this Almaz --- 6 years old girl has psychology problems…

Yes, maybe they are just my characters, but I’m sure that there’re many people like them. And my dream is just to see them happy. I don’t want any high buildings, worldwide song contests, big concert halls…I just wanna see smiles on their face. I want to be sure that there’s no helpless people when I’m happy. This is my dream!!!

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Gender Training #2 (and #3): Completed!

Please click on this link to read the recap and see pictures of our second and surprising third gender trainings that occurred this past Saturday and Sunday, the 14th and 15th of April, in Ganja. This link will take you to the WID/GAD committee's own website. Enjoy!

Also, please check out this new fantastic photo blog by a fellow PCV here in Azerbaijan. The photo journal, Serve for Peace, focuses on the diversity and beauty of Muslim countries where Peace Corps volunteers serve.

Monday, April 9, 2012


I feel like this blog has been doing somewhat of a disservice to my readers in explaining my time here in Azerbaijan as a Peace Corps volunteer.
Most of my posts are positive, and I try to make them humorous. I avoid sharing too many of my feelings and generally steer clear of problems and failures. Truthfully, that’s just not the way things work here. I claimed earlier in my blog that, during service, the highs are always higher and the lows are always lower. That remains true. But if I don’t spend some time explaining those lows, how can anyone get an accurate depiction of what the Pace Corps is like?

For me, the lows are usually work related. Location-wise, I am in one of the most beautiful spots in the entire country. My two sitemates are two of my closest friends, and my friends and family back home also do a wonderful job of keeping in touch with me, so I rarely feel alone and don’t miss home as much as some other volunteers. What ruins my day and puts me in a sour mood most of all almost always relates to my work.
I only have 7 months left before my service is completed. I am proud of the work I have done so far and have very few regrets. As I move forward and look to conclude my service, I have given my self a goal. Balaken is a new site for Peace Corps. Most of the work I have done, although rewarding, has been just that, MY work. I rarely work with local counterparts when organizing clubs and camps in Balaken. This is not out of a lack of effort, it’s just that the people Balaken have never had any experience with an American before, so they’d rather watch and learn than partake. Additionally, there are not many counterparts to speak of. Those that do exist have other work that keeps them busy, travel outside of insignificant Balaken to bigger cities looking for better work, and, of course, some are just unreliable and impossible to work with on a consistent basis.
I have been here long enough to feel like I belong. I no longer feel like I need to prove myself and crank out club after club in order to make people happy. So, my goal for my remaining 7 months is to not do any major projects (large clubs, softball, summer camps, etc…) without a local counterpart. I want my work to be sustainable to some degree, so I’m not going to break my back organizing local projects and events, only to see them disappear once I leave. All of the national projects I work on have fantastic counterparts, so I don’t think it is so much to ask for that a local helps in the planning and implementation of projects meant for the local population. This goals brings us to the point of this post – to explain the occasional failures and frustrations of my work.

This past weekend was one of the best in a long time. I spent last Thursday in Baku at a ceremony celebrating the 20th anniversary of US/Azerbaijan diplomatic relations. I, along with 2 other volunteers and our country director, spent the evening mingling with the who’s who of Baku politics and entertained questions about our projects from journalists, foreign diplomats, Azerbaijani ministers, and an envoy of Chiefs of Staff for a number of US Senators. It was an exhausting, yet exhilarating evening. The next day was spent at the US Embassy discussing the country’s softball league, followed by lunch with our departing program manager Elmir (he’s moving to Vancouver) and trivia night with Martin. The nest day I awoke early to catch a bus to Sheki to celebrate Trey’s birthday with a surprise rock-climbing trip I organized for him. The next day, Easter, we had an unbelievable brunch at Steph’s consisting of banana/bacon pancakes, fruit salad, eggs Benedict on buttermilk biscuits, chocolate/banana bread, hash browns, Bloody Mary’s and Irish coffee. What more could a PCV ask for?

Here’s where the failures started appearing. I awoke Monday morning full of energy. My first task was to call Resim (the head of the Youth and Sport office) to see what progress had been made in getting permission to start painting our next mural. He lost all of the paintings. Nearly 15 paintings done by kids from throughout the region, and he lost them. What was worst, he wouldn’t take responsibility for it and claimed that he gave them back to me. He eventually relented and said he’d continue searching for them, but that doesn’t really make me feel any better.
I brushed that problem aside when Arzu, my potential counterpart for the open-mic night event, called me to say he wanted to meet to pick a date. I hurried to his office. As I got there, he said he’d be back in 2 minutes. He returned over 30 minutes later and very simply said, “I am busy, I don’t want to do this project anymore.” Did I really need to wait 30 minutes just for him to say that? I was so looking forward to starting this talent show in Balaken, after seeing how popular it had become in Ganja. Unfortunately, my only real potential counterpart wants nothing to do with it, and as I promised myself , I won’t start anymore major projects without a local counterpart. Fail #2. Just to add insult to injury, Sayyara, my original counterpart and Arzu’s mother, told me that I needed to move all of my stuff out of my office because she was starting some project and needed the space. First of all, what project?! I guess we’re no longer working together. I told her I would take care of it. She said she wanted it done that very instance. I declined and told her I had other things to do and didn’t have time now; I couldn’t deal with it just then. Truthfully, I had nothing immediately pressing. After all, in the span of 20 minutes, my two biggest summer projects at site were squashed. Fail #3.

So, no inspiring stories or funny jokes this time. Sometimes, things just don’t go your way. As support for any sort of youth development initiatives seems to be waning in Balaken, I can’t help but ask myself, “How can I help people who don’t want to help themselves?” But, I know that is the wrong perspective to take. Creating that rift of me versus them won’t accomplish anything and will only further frustrate and alienate me. I’m not quite sure of the right perspective; I’ll just keep my head up and continue to move forward, hoping that someone here will come along for the ride.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

Gender Training #1: Completed!

Click this link to read the recap and see pictures of our first gender training that occurred this past Saturday, the 14th, in Yevlax. This link will take you to the WID/GAD committee's own website.

The Dynamics of the Playground

It has taken me a while to come to this realization, but it’s worth it. Amidst all of the controversy surrounding the quality of education in America, one little facts seems to slip past our attention. School is not just a place of classrooms and teachers; it is where we learn to sink or swim. It’s where our personalities are cultivated, where our social skills are fine tuned. School isn’t just a center for education. Until we graduate, it is the center of our entire life. It’s shapes us not just as scholars, but as people. In America, as education reform takes shape, results seem to be the most important factor. Fewer teachers, shorter school hours, less “life skills” courses and more math; you name it and it is being cut. As long as test results improve, olsun (Azerbaijani for “let it be”). I can’t agree more with the need for higher standards. Our schools are getting weaker. Too many teachers are complacent, and too many students are falling behind. Every performance test strategy that has been presented so far has loopholes that allow just about every school to pass standards. If so many schools are passing state and national standards, why are so many students nearly illiterate still? Why are we falling behind in academic performance to countries we once towered over academically, to countries we still tower over economically?

I admit that may have been a little too much of a rant, but today opened my eyes to a problem here in Azerbaijan that might start poking it’s head up in America if we’re not careful.
Right from wrong, appropriate or inappropriate, how to talk to girls or boys, how to make friends, how to stand in lines and wait your turn. These lessons are not the objectives in a teacher’s work book, not the ultimate goal of the lesson plan. They are the indirect results of the sense of community and belonging that a good school fosters. I realize that school is supposed to be the breeding ground for future success. But what is that success derived from? I believe it does not come as much from the classrooms as it does from the entire school experience. I don’t believe that math or science results completely reveal the potential success of individuals in the future. It is the life skills learned, the life lessons taught, not solely the biology or algebra lessons, that prepare students to be cunning in the boardroom, creative in the studio, or courteous in everyday life as adults.
It is this sense of community that school is supposed to instill in children that is the very fabric of our society and our culture. It is slowly slipping away.
You may ask yourself what would happen if it did. The implications of this loss are standing right in front of me here in Azerbaijan, and they take the form of 25 school children in my English conversation club. 

I love teaching and I love interacting with children, but I do not enjoy teaching English. I am not trained to teach it, and kids truly don’t want to learn it. They want to come to my clubs after school to hang out with their friends and the American and socialize before going home for the evening. I’m okay with that. As I explained above, I think they need it. The weather is nice now and everyone wants to be outside. I’m not going to try and fight it. They have so much energy and can’t sit still for more than 2 seconds. Outside to the field we go; I was a kid once, I understand.

Today’s lesson: 4-Square. The ultimate game of recess! Simple to teach right? So I thought! Let’s ignore the fact that 98% of these kids have the hand-eye coordination and dexterity of a boiled lobster; it was impossible! See what happens without proper physical education courses!
Anyway, I am confident enough in my language skills after this much time in country that I know the directions were clearly explained. It’s not that complicated. However, sheer chaos ensued and two things in particular stood out. Mind you these kids are between the grades of 6 and 8. The should be able to comprehend this, even if it the first time they ever played the game. The two things that struck me most, in fact, had nothing to do with the rules. They had to do with social order.
First of all, the concept of a line. Whether it was Tetherball or 4-Square, the line was paramount when I was in school. Cuts, Chinese cuts, the ole “I’m just talking to my friend” – whatever it was, lines were understood and embraced and it took masterful prowess to avoid them. Despite all my efforts, the kids could not comprehend the idea of a line. One student would get out and then they would just stand in some random place and be surprised when I told them that they, in fact, were not next and had to wait for everyone else to play before they could go again. They’re not too young, and they’re certainly not dumb. They just could not grasp the idea of a line that they had to wait on if they wanted to play. I see it in everyday adult life as well. At the ATM on payday, in the post office, at the market, lines are not a thing and people don’t wait. Is it a lack of courtesy? In a whole society? I think not. I don’t know what it is, but I think I just found where it all starts.
My second observation was a lack of self-governance. The kids got the hang of the game alright, and some of them were pretty good. They understood the rules, knew what was allowed and knew what wasn’t. They knew how to get someone out. Problem was, without me pointing and telling them specifically, “YOU are out”, no one left. The remaining players recognized someone was out, but everyone refused to stop the game and say it. Every single round, I had to stop the game and say who was out. When I asked if they all knew that person was out, they said of course. When I asked why they didn’t stop the game themselves, they had no answer for me. Again, I don’t know how to explain. They knew the rules, but they refused to enforce them. When I was a kid on the playground, rules were usually unquestionable, and everyone in line stood, anticipating their turn, ready to point out with a piercing scream whenever someone who was currently playing was out. I see the same problem in everyday society. Azerbaijan is one of the most corrupt countries in the world. Everyone knows corruption happens, at all levels. There are those that refuse to partake, but it is a small minority. People know it is happening, but no one says, “Stop, that’s not allowed”. I don’t know if there is a connection or not, but it just seems eerily analogous to me.

So, as I try and foster this sense of community and belonging with the education system here in Azerbaijan, I’ll issue a warning to those back in America. School is so much more than we treat it as. Don’t give up on it.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Get Your Glove, It's Softball Season!!!

As volunteers, some of the projects we do are small and local -- conversation clubs, small summer camps, etc. They take a lot of effort, but they're confined to the community where you live. Other projects are national -- national summer camps, health trainings, sports leagues, etc. They span the regions of the country, involve many different volunteers and hundreds of host country nationals. Both types of projects come with their fair share of obstacles. For local projects, will you get community support? Will anyone show up? Where will you host the event? The questions and thus problems are endless.
Recently, I've been dealing with more of my national projects. Namely, the Azerbaijan Interregional Softball League and ABLE summer camp. These too come with some hindrances. Lots of strong-willed volunteers from different walks of life are working on the same project at the same time. Can everyone get along and see eye-to-eye? Where will we get funding from? Is the project sustainable? Yet again, the questions and thus problems are endless.

Softball is in complete transformation mode right now. The league expanded from 5 teams to 12 to 16 teams currently. A grant for over $9,600 was put online in December to pay for all travel costs. To date we've raise approximately $2,500. We've received numerous equipment donations and are currently distributing that stuff to the various teams. We've pursued many local funding opportunities in hopes of securing some league sponsors. We've also implemented team fees for the first time in the league's 7 year history, in hopes of encouraging personal investment in the league. After all, Peace Corps is not a charity and we, as volunteers, cannot cover the costs of every project we do. All in all, the softball team I work with has been doing a fantastic job and I am excited to see where the league goes from here.

Here is the link to our league website. We just released the 2012 spring season schedule. The league will be updated regularly with results from tournaments across the country. Enjoy!

Thursday, March 8, 2012

No Clever Title For This One

I had a couple of unrelated stories I wanted to share, so coming up with a title was too hard.

I got back from Baku on Wednesday morning. Nate, Colin and I all met there for a couple of meetings about ABLE camp. I won’t get into the details of the 20 hour train ride I took to get to Baku on Sunday; it hurts too much. The power lines that the train moves on were down and we were stuck in the middle of the country for over 6 hours. People actually left the train and walked miles across snow covered fields to try and flag down buses and cars on the highway at 6 in the morning. After that most boring of experiences, I finally got into Baku mid-afternoon. We sat down with our country director, Macie, to pick her business savvy brain about how to approach these very important meetings. ABLE camp is in it 7th year, and it is developing at an astonishing rate. Over the last several years, volunteers have worked tirelessly to put together a wonderful camp and curriculum. Now that we have years of experience and evaluations to go back to, planning it is the easy part. We desperately need to begin focusing on improving the sustainability of the camp. Currently, we rely almost entirely on funding from the Democracy Commission, an arm of the US Embassy. We want to start putting more responsibility into the hands of locals, and to rely less on funding from abroad.

To start this massive initiative, we met with two organizations in Baku to propose brokering partnerships. SOS Children’s Villages is a wonderful international organization that is currently working in 133 different countries, including the US and Canada. Their focus is on child development through family separation prevention and foster care for disadvantaged families and children. Their work is truly an inspiration. We felt that their mission very much reflected our goals of teaching our boys about community, leadership, and civic engagement. So, we offered two spots at our camp to their students and discussed potential ways for us to help each other’s initiatives. The excitement and passion on the part of the two directors, Saida and Gulara, was stunning. They were so impressed with our presentation and were already coming up with ways to support ABLE. I believe this is the beginning of a very fruitful partnership!

Our next meeting was with the British School in Baku, an expensive private school for expat children and privileged Azeris. Many colleagues questioned my suggestion to partner with such an exclusive, well-off school. Truth of the matter is, and it is an unfortunate one, every great project comes down to money. We need it to keep ABLE alive and they have a lot of it. However, this was by no means my only reason for the partnership. We were previously invited to speak at the British School this fall in front of about 50-100 students and teachers. The kids are incredibly bright and respectful. They know they’re more fortunate than most, and they didn’t hide this fact. They admitted to traveling the world, yet never traveling outside the capital of their own country. They also admitted that even in Baku (where no volunteers are placed), there are no camps or activities in the summer time; there is nothing to do. That is an aspect of youth development that has not made its way to Azerbaijan yet, not even to the booming capital. That being said, I thought that we shouldn’t discriminate just because these students come from privileged backgrounds. In fact, I believe that these students can learn a lot from their peers from the regions, and that their peers can learn a lot from their broader life experiences. That’s the hope anyway. We offered the school two spots at the camp as well, and they have already committed to paying the way for those two boys. I am confident that this will be a life changing experience for both parties involved.

Hopefully both partnerships will improve our ability to network within country as we look for funding and support from the Azerbaijani community.

Today is international women’s day, so I’ll just give a brief shout out to the greatest lady in the whole wide world. Kate, you know who you are. Love you mom!

Anyway, and quite ironically, this holiday is a national holiday, and no one goes to work. So, in a country dominated by men in the workplace, they all get the day off to stay home and be waited on by those women they are supposed to be honoring. I tried to do my part by getting all of the boys out of their houses to give a few moms some well deserved R&R. I called all of the boys and told them to come to the field for a game of ultimate Frisbee. It was a beautiful, warm, sunny day in Balaken! There was nothing too special about this particular game, although Trey and I did figure out the best strategy for teaching our boys the fundamentals of teamwork in Frisbee. Ready for the secret? Here it is: pummel them into the ground until they are about to lose, until they are so close to defeat that their only option is to work together and play as a team. Case in point:
One of the captains we assigned today decided he didn’t want any Americans on his team. Fine by Trey and I! Within 30 minutes of the game getting underway, it was 12-5 (game to 15). We were killing them! Score after score they got more and more frustrated with one another. But, that meant they started talking more and more with one another. They called for a water break to regroup. Then, something happened. Neither Trey nor I had any part in it, but when they game was over, it was 15-13. We just squeaked by with the victory. They had finally figured it out: man to man defense, short passes instead of long bombs every throw, actual positions – a full on strategy! It was beautiful to watch, and now Trey and I don’t have to go easy on them anymore!

Lastly, a true shout out to women everywhere!
After Frisbee, Trey and I went to the park to have some tea and play Nard, the Azeri version of backgammon. I brought my own board. It was a great afternoon. On the way home, my neighbor, a toothless lady in her 40s was sitting outside on a dusty old couch with her family. She asked if I was any good. I told her I could hold my own. She took that as a challenge and sat me down. I had never played with a woman before. I didn’t know they were allowed to play, I didn’t know they even knew how to play! As I sat down and positioned myself to begin, I looked up to see her husband staring with me with this expression of pity I had never seen in an Azeri before, as if he were thinking, “You have know idea what you are getting yourself into, son!”
You see, Nard is all about speed. Azeri’s pride themselves on not needing to count spaces. Roll the dice, know where your pieces are, and move them to the appropriate spots as quick as possible. There is certainly some skill and strategy involved in the game, but I am convinced it is mostly luck once you get the hang of it.
She came out of the gates flying. I immediately knew I was dealing with an expert. I thought I was in trouble, but I was able to sneak by her in the first two games. Up 2-0, I got cocky. That and the fact that half the block was now standing behind me gawking. I was not prepared for the pressure. She annihilated me, 5 games in a row! After the 5th game, she told me I was pretty good and asked if I ever played for money. I told her I don’t have money to bet, and wouldn’t even if I did. She nodded approvingly. “We don’t need to play for money. I once won a car playing Nard. What do you have to wager?”
It was time for me to go!