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!


  1. Shake and Bake

    It would be so much easier for me to write a funny blog comment at your expense if you weren’t doing something so admirable. So I’ll get the niceties out of the way. “Snaps for Jake!!!!”
    Now, the lack of a good title is unacceptable. Look at the top of my comment and check out my title. It’s pretty great. No one knows what it means but it’s provocative. I would like to second your shout out to the one and only Saint Kate. She’s like god but better. And even though your post was written on international women’s day I cant forget Dr. Dr. Stevo (two Dr.’s because he has two…like a boss). I plan on going for Dr. Dr. Dr. PhD. Shouldn’t be too hard, with classes from university of Phoenix, ITT Tech, Andover, and DeVry I should be all set. I wish I were with you in Balakan, not so much to see you but to beat you playing Frisbee. I’d layout for the payout every time and score more points than you, resulting in me winning. But to be honest, being so good at every sport does get tiring sometimes; but never against you. I’m doing J-Mart burpees as I’m writing this so yeah, I’m that good.
    Keep up the great work and I can’t wait to see you in Barcelona.

    Lots of Love,


    “If you care enough for a result, you will most certainly attain it.”
    -William James

  2. Hello, Jake!

    I'm going to be spending the summer in Baku studying Azerbaijani and learning about the culture and stumbled upon your blog. I'd love to get any advice/insight you might have about your experiences there. Feel free to shoot me an e-mail at if you have the time.