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.


  1. Jake,

    Gotta have comfort that you are doing these kids an unbelievable service. Its not unlike having a great coach for 2 years. You never forget that coach and often you imitate and emulate him. Even if your clubs stop when you leave, these kids got to have a dedicated, fun loving, and motivated role model. Not to mention learning new activities and sports. Keep going bro. It will live on.

  2. Ps. B's need to call up whitfield to insure a cup repeat.

  3. chin up. tomorrow is a new day.

  4. So sad to hear you so down, but glad to read your words. Your gift, your vision and your legacy will live on more than you can imagine right now. Humor your old man's analogy: Sometimes thoroughbred sires produce great racehorses, and sometimes they produce racehorse duds, but the offspring of their female "racehorse duds" go on to produce great racehorses. (Stay with me!). You may stimulate one or two of your own generation in Balakan to carry the torch; to continue your work locally; to make it locally sustaining. That may be a frustration. Why just 1 or 2? Why can't these people continue the things that You have started for them? INFURIATING. But you are the sire of the next generation. You have directly touched so many young people. You have inoculated them with ideas, creativity, dreams, passion and vision that they would not have experienced without having been blessed by your presence and efforts. They will carry your torch as they move in to adulthood. NO QUESTION. You will have been the sire of the next generation's new world. I am so proud of you. You are my hero.