Sunday, January 15, 2012

SOFTBALL TIME...Well, almost!

Here's the latest in video production from northern Azerbaijan!
Steph, Trey, and I produced this video on Saturday in hopes of spreading the word of our national softball project. The league started a number of years ago with only 4 teams. It is now made up of 15 teams and involves hundreds of students from all over Azerbaijan. Equipment has been accumulated over the years. The field space and the time spent organizing and coaching is donated by local ministries and community leaders. We are trying to raise the money for transportations costs. $9,616 would pay for 5-6 tournaments per team for 15 teams over the course of a 6-month season. Any little bit helps!
At the very least, please share the video with friends and family! Thank you!

Here's a link to the donation page:

Saturday, January 7, 2012

Technology: Isn't It A Wonderful Thing?!

I’m not going to get into this too deep because, quite frankly, I don’t know what I’m talking about! iPhones, iPads, iMovie, iRobot, Garage Band, Google Voice, and any other “i’s “ out there: They’re simply amazing. I’m sure everything I just listed is already out of date. Do excuse me, I live in Azerbaijan. That last point, my current location, is actually the topic of the post: Azerbaijan and technology.

I’m not talking about the products themselves, I’m talking about the productions they make possible. I can create songs in which even my voice sounds like an angel, albeit and angel with strep throat. I can shoot and edit movies like James Cameron, okay fine not that good, and I can call my best friends back home like I was down the street from them. To many of you back home, this may be old news, and you may have already stopped reading this post. But, to people here in Azerbaijan, this new self-expression, be-your-own producer, anything’s possible with a little electricity craze is blowing up, and the reception it’s getting here is fantastic!

We all know where it starts. We talk about Facebook as this weapon, this mega world of its own with infinite wealth, power, and possibility. The crazy thing is, it’s not just semantics. Facebook’s role in the Arab Spring says it all.  I’m not going to delve into that specific topic any further though; you all know what I’m talking about. The real inspiration for this post is this video.

I’ve posted it before. Two of my friends, Brad and Tim, made a music video,  a spoof of “New York State of Mind”. They replaced Jay-Z’s love for NYC with their own shout out to Baku. Here’s an excerpt from a recent Serbian news article about the video.
From the moment it was uploaded on YouTube, the promotional video "Baku, state of mind - ESC 2012", was viewed over 10,000 times in just a few hours. In other words several million people saw the video offering a cover of the famous Alicia Keys song Empire State of Mind. "Baku, state of mind - ESC 2012" is regarded by many as the best promotion yet for the upcoming 2012 Eurovision Song Contest in Azerbaijan with an almost equal number of YouTube visits as the duo Eli and Niki - this year's winners in Düsseldorf.
Despite the slight numerical inaccuracies, it’s out there in a big way, with 146,158 views to date. Azeris have eaten it up, and they’re looking for more. Brad has passed the first round of try outs to represent Azerbaijan at this year’s Eurovision Song Contest in Baku, one of the most watched and longest running programs in the world! Since this video was put up, they have been on national television (I was on the set for that), been on stage with last year’s Eurovision winners, been in national and international press (including The Economist), been called by directors and producers and the like, and been offered money to make more videos about Azerbaijan.

Why all the hype? Yes, of course, it’s a great video! I would never take anything away from the two of them. They deserve all the credit in the world. On the other hand, it’s a simple parody video with quirky rhymes and an artificial beat. It’s nothing new. Yet even though it’s been done a million times before, it’s ignited heated debates and comments – 1,224 in all! As we PCVs try and figure out our surroundings and the best way to get through to people, I think we can learn a valuable lesson here. Actually, many of us already have. Volunteers throughout the country, including myself, have started making videos with their kids. The interest level is through the roof and the lessons are invaluable.

Azerbaijan, and maybe this whole part of the world, is going through something very special right now. They may be a little behind the times through our perspective, but they’re catching up very quickly! We all went crazy when Andy Samberg and SNL came out with “The Chronicles of Narnia”. We ate it up. But why? Why did it capture our attention with such force? Just like “Baku State of Mind” has spread through Azerbaijan like a wildfire, this SNL skit did something we had never really seen before: two normal guys, albeit talented guys, making a catchy song about absolutely nothing consequential. No special effects, no yachts, no Go-go dancers in the background, just two funny guys making jokes on camera. The fact is, it was self expression and creativity at its very best, and it opened the flood gates. That shock wave continues to influence our culture everyday. Now, Azerbaijanis are catching on and making a wave of their own.

I think this new trend can be partially attributed to an awakening of creativity and self-expression following decades of Soviet oppression. I also believe that the recent technology boom is giving more and more people access to the simple technologies needed to produce big things. However, problems still arise. In America, when we buy a Mac, it comes with every program we could ever want, free. If we have problems with our PC, or want new software upgrades, we take it to Best Buy and have the Geek Squad works their magic. Here, Chinese knockoffs and pirated, virus laden versions of our favorite programs poison the system; it can be very frustrating. It takes a special, determined individual to succeed and come out with the best projects. Many volunteers see these problems as very teachable moments, trying to bridge the gap in our access to technology and teach responsibility.

Whatever the cause(s), it making a monstrous impact. Get ready, Azerbaijan’s coming! Whether it’s Baku’s state of mind or zombies attacking, you better watch out! (You get the pun?!)

Below, I am proud to present the newest creation from the students of Balaken. This video is part of a contest that is happening across the Caucasus (Azerbaijan, Georgia, Armenia). The students had to make a move under 5 minutes in length about their home. Please watch it and then ‘Like’ it on Youtube. The video with the most ‘Likes’ by January 23 will win a camera! They worked very hard on this project!

Sunday, January 1, 2012

Things That Aren’t So Strange Anymore

It is now 2012 and my service in Azerbaijan has spanned 3 different years. As I think about my time thus far, and on my life prior to this adventure, the differences are so distinct. Today, I’ll look at some of the most striking changes I have encountered and reflect upon the fact that this unfamiliar journey I am on has actually become the closest thing to normal that I know.

1.     Time
To most, 27 months is a longgggggg time, long enough that I added a few extra g’s. I have about 11 months left in my service. To most back home, this is an eternity. My friends laugh at me and I can sense their confusion over Skype when I mention plans for when I return. 16 months ago I would have thought the same thing. Not anymore. Service has flown by! It seemed like only yesterday that I helplessly stared at the lady in the post office as she berated me for not picking up my mail sooner. I had no idea what she was saying, and she’s usually in a pretty pissy mood. Now, whenever she gives me some lip, I give it right back to her! That’s a good feeling!
Whether it’s a coping mechanism or a result of experiencing something new nearly everyday, time is flying by. It’s almost too hard to keep up. At this point, everything I am doing is for the last time. That is a fact that is both exciting to think about and hard to swallow. Sometimes, I cannot imagine leaving this place. I still feel like I have so much to do. Yes, 11 months is quite a bit of time, but I know that one morning I will wake up and it will be time to book my flight home. That moment is creeping up on me ever so quickly.
2.     Animals
Garbage-eating cows, noisy chickens, mangy horses, wild dogs, fat cats, and scavenging rats – they’re all part of my daily routine here. It’s laughable that I no longer blink an eye when I have to shoo a cow away from they well outside when I need to rinse my laundry. Rooster crows, dog barks, and cat screeches when they’re in heat no longer keep me awake when I try to sleep in. I accept sheep in the middle of the road as a normal form of traffic, and I now know that when driving straight at a stationary cow in the middle of the road, you better slow down; I promise you that it will not move!
3.     Distance
Maine to New York City for a weekend? That’s a minimum 5 hour trip each way (if my mom’s driving)! Isn’t that a little crazy for just a weekend? Not anymore! Once you’ve taken a Soviet-era night train that gets stuck in the snow for 16 hours, squished into a van with all of the windows closed (actually they didn’t work) in the middle of summer for 6 hours while the driver chain smokes the whole trip, or sat on a bus next to a mother and child who, in between bouts of car sickness (ya, throwing up), eat moldy cheese and spit sunflower seed shells on the ground, well, travel back home just really is not so bad! So, once I return, invite me to come visit, I’m sure it will be a lovely trip!
4.     Clothing
What do you call a person with one pair of jeans, a couple pairs of slacks for work, and one pair of athletic pants for sports? I bet you thought I’d say a Peace Corps volunteer! Wrong! The punch line is: a normal person! Sure, cleanliness is sometimes questionable, but in general America, you’re a little over the top when it comes to clothing. In the winter it’s pretty normal for me to have the same long underwear on for days on end before changing. What, it’s cold here?! This may be a little over the top, but my general rule of thumb is, if it’s not smelly, wear it again!
5.     How things work
Were you ever curious where your water came from, or how it was heated? Ever get frustrated by a power outage, and wanted to just go outside and fix the lines yourself, even though you had no idea where to start? Ever question how internet was supplied to your house, or how phone lines worked? Okay, not the most interesting of things, I know. Quite honestly, I never really cared. These things just came, I paid for them, and everyone was happy. Not anymore! The antiquated and rudimentary nature of construction here means that I now know how EVERYTHING works! Some of it I can fix, some of it is hopeless. Either way, it’s quite enlightening to understand how daily utilities actually function…well, sometimes function.
6.     Loneliness
This is not loneliness in the sad face (L) ‘send me a card to make me feel better’ way. I actually mean just physically being alone, alone and far away from your past. Like most people, hanging with friends, making plans for the weekend, and going to social events like the gym, the mall, or parties was the norm. Now, it’s the opposite. A trip to the local restaurant is a big deal. A cooking night with friends is marked on the calendar well in advanced and remembered fondly. A weekend trip or party – well those are few and far between. Being alone is not so weird anymore. Sure, I spend a lot of time with Azeri friends and families, but to them I am still an outsider, still a guest. I’ve grown accustomed to and actually rather fond of quiet nights and weekends reading, writing, and watching alone.

Muham music about love and finding me a wife!

Elvin and I on New Year's Eve

Great way to end 2011
Thank you to my friend's and family back home for the wonderful messages I have received. Your support means everything! Also, thank you to my not-so-new-anymore friends here in Azerbaijan. Yesterday was such a wonderful day and a perfect way to close out 2011. I got to sit and hold my niece, Elvin's daughter Nuray, all evening. Then, Farid and his family welcomed me over. We ate, drank, and danced. Then, we went to his cousin's house where we ate more, drank more, and sang Muham music about love and finding me a wife! Farid, his brother Samid, and I brought in the new year watching the fireworks on TV back at his house. 
Happy 2012 everybody!