Monday, November 8, 2010

One Year Down

One Year Down

On October 1, I passed my one-year mark in country as a volunteer. This year has been a rollercoaster, from meeting awesome people to living in the Money Pit. I have changed my language, dress, daily schedule and the way I go to the bathroom from what I am normally used to. I have celebrated weddings, mourned deaths and welcomed new lives into this odd country all while trying to figure out what the heck is going on. I have missed very important graduations, engagements, holidays, deaths and births of my family and close friends back home. I have learned that you can love someone you have never met, that people of the world are generally willing to help someone who is lost (physically or mentally), and the only thing you really need to be happy is the company of good people.
Kate and I just had a trainee come and visit us at site, and she was telling us of all the awkward situations that she has encountered in her short three weeks in Sumqayit. She told of the excruciatingly painful first night at your host family’s house, where you are not able to converse with your new family and you look for cues about how to act from anywhere you can take it. Many followed the ways of their small host brothers and sisters, and therefor behaved like little kids. My first day was full of highs and lows. I was greeted by a man who was smiling ear to ear (my host dad Adigozel) and felt relieved. I then was shuffled into my new bedroom, where I was served grapes with HUGE pits in them and left along to unpack. I did not know whether to eat the pits or spit them out, so I spit them out and put them on the plate. I then spent an hour sitting on my bed not knowing whether to come out of my room and face the trials of pantomime or wait until I was called. It was an intense hour of trying to remember what our language teachers had taught us in the three days of orientation (I could get through about 30 seconds of conversation with hello, how are you?, my name is Amy). After the hour, my host mom came in to gather my dishes and she looked at me as if I had three heads. I thought I had set up everything wrong or was not following some secret protocol, I came to find out that Azeris eat those huge pits in the grapes and no one spits them out. It was her first realization that I was an alien. The rest of the night was spent watching TV and shaking my head yes and no to questions I didn’t understand. “Are you a spy?” “Yes.” “Do you like to take showers?” “No.” I am surprised I didn’t get into serious trouble that night.

Our trainee also talked of the budding friendships that she and the other trainees are forming. She has informed us that they have all just settled down and gotten to know each other, and are spending time at each other’s houses. She texted people the whole time about what she was doing in Goranboy, and it made me happy that the trainees are getting so close. I wouldn’t have made it this far without the crazy cast of characters that have entered my life on this journey. My fellow YD volunteers have been the support that I have needed throughout service and I like to think that I have been theirs. We were a weird group from the beginning, from Jackie wearing her nametag upside-down on purpose, to Eli telling us all he did sex in a bucket (he used to work at a Salmon fishery). We were close in Tagiyev, and are still, while being physically far apart, very close to each other. We have supported each other in clubs, camps and Toga parties. There have been housewarmings, bitching sessions and football games. Life in Azerbaijan has been enriched by my colleagues, and we are always each-others cheer-leaders.

So as Kate and I await the Peace Corps to tell us who our new site-mate is, I am particularly reflective of Kate and my big move out to site. I remember being the ONLY ONE of the YD's who cried as I left, and Kate telling me I made her look bad, because she didn’t cry. I remember my counterpart leaving me at my new family’s house and saying he would be back in a few days. In those three days, I remember being trampled by xanims in a celebration of the former president, getting to know my host sisters, and finding out I could talk to Kate for free on the house phone. I would hear my host sister’s giggle when they answered the phone and immediately know it was Kate trying her best to get her off the phone and me on it. Those first few months I learned a lot about being in the regions, about my site, and basically learned how to be a volunteer through experience.

Since moving out with Kate, time has moved at a deafening pace. I have done clubs, special events and training sessions. My favorite time has been just hanging out with the kids. They treat us like we are one of them, and sometimes I think I am 12 years old again. Peace Corps is supposed to be a growing experience, but I seem to be growing backwards. I found myself the other day after a computer lesson throwing the acorn-like seeds of the trees at one of my students and then hiding behind another as he retaliated. At soccer, I forget that I am in a foreign country, because the kids remind me so much of the kids I used to coach every summer. I forget they live halfway across the world, and just play for two hours. I hang out with the kids in the neighborhood playing catch and talking. Kate and I stay out there for so long that we don’t realize that it is dark out, just like Jessie and I did when we were kids. This time it is a little worse, because then we have to ask a 14-year-old boy to accompany us home, but you get the gist.
So Kate and I have moved into a new house. We are cleaning and taking care of it and our newly adopted puppy (who is actually the neighbor’s, we just take care of it). We budget out every month so that when pay day rolls around, we aren’t begging xanims to feed us. We go guesting and take pride in the way we host people. We are acting like grown-ups, but at the heart of it all, we are still kids. This past year I have learned many new things, and really learned to be on my own, but the best times have been when I am still a kid.

Pictures: My first host dad and his wonderful smile, some of the YD's in Baku, me playing the kids at chess on "Youth Day" in Goranboy

Monday, October 4, 2010


Goranboy GOATS

So I have written about softball in Goranboy before, but the most epic event since the addition of our two stop lights in spring (with countdown clock action!) has happened in this small-time town. This past weekend we hosted the kick-off tournament for the Peace Corps Azerbaijan Softball League (PCASL?). It was a fight to get this tournament on the agenda because at the time games were being scheduled, Goranboy hadn't had what critics would call a “real team” yet. However, in full faith of the two experienced managers of the Goranboy franchise, the date was set and funds were allotted for a Sunday Fall Spectacular in G-Town.

The date was set three weeks in advance of the game. Kate and I panicked a little hearing that. After we had put up so much of a fuss about not having a tournament in Goranboy, they were giving us the kick off tournament, and we didn’t even have a team put together. We had also had trouble in the past to gather kids even to play pick up. We dropped our other projects for a week and just went on a recruiting spree. I went to school number 2 and tried to pick up some of our club kids, put up signs at my work and then I pleaded my soccer kids to try a new sport, concentrating on the weaker links who maybe be looking for a change anyways. I struck out on three swings (forgive the pu!). Kate was the Theo Epstein of recruiting. She went into the Russian school, a school we have previously avoided because many of the English teachers don’t know English and we unfortunately don’t speak Russian, communication has been an issue. But Kate got 8 young men to sign on to participate in the start-up team.

Our first practice was one week before the tournament. We taught the kids how to field the ball and what to do with it after you had it in your hand. We taught them about half of the rules of softball. I am now convinced softball and baseball are the most complicated sports in America. They have about a million rules and some of them make no sense. I began to fear the question “Why?” from these kid because I honestly did not know the answer. I remember some of my first softball moments, and one of them is playing catch with my older sister Lisa. She told us never to catch the ball underhanded when it is near our face. I asked “Why?” and she replied: “Because you will break your nose”. I thought my sister was so experienced in the ways of softball because I had seen her break her nose that fateful day when she tried to snag a line drive with her glove underhanded. It made perfect sense to do the OPPOSITE of that. But try telling a bunch of kids with no reference to the game that they will break their nose if they catch like that, they will put the glove down and walk away. Who wants to break their nose for a game that makes no sense?

After a week of practices and an Azeri ringer brought in from Baku as a translator (Dice-K watch out, the new field of international stars is coming from Azerbaijan with translators!) we were as ready as we could ever get for the tournament. The kids were excited to play, but after the last practice before we played, I was cooking dinner when I heard Kate shouting from her room “Tell the other coaches to bring their bench players!”. We weren’t too confident that the kids could even play the game, never mind go up against the 3-year veteran giants of the PCASL: Mingechevir
and Ganja.

So game day comes and it is raining. I made the executive decision to PLAY BALL! and amazingly all the kids showed up. We had 12 kids wanting to play that day. Kate and I had the great idea to call the kids the Goranboy Goats. We had sheep and goats grazing on our practice field all week, and it sort of just rolled off the tongue. I also reminded Kate that like LL Cool J, Michael Jordan and Muhammad Ali; we were the G.O.A.T.s. Mr. Cool J is known as the Greatest Of All Time, and that is what Goranboy was soon to be known as. So when Kate informed the kids that our team name was the Goats on game day, they naturally asked what that meant. She told them “Kishi”. The actual name for goat is “Kechi”, Kate was a little confused and neither I nor the translator were there to correct her. “Kishi” is the word for “men” in Azerbaijan. So the 12-13 year old boys puffed out their chests, called themselves the men and proudly cheered GO GORANBOY GOATS!

We saw their tiny chests deflate when the other teams walked into the venue. The Mingechevir and Ganja teams consist of university students, while Tovuz is all 15/16 year olds. They were all huge compared to our goats. We really had a bunch of kids (hehe). We got crushed by all the teams, but the other teams learned a lot too. They learned to teach while taking the goats under their wing. The older kids taught the younger kids the ways of the game, like my older sister taught me how not to get my nose broken (even though years later on a Fourth of July my dad would slightly break my nose with an epic pop fly). When our guys would run past second base into centerfield, the player out there would gently remind him that there is a crucial 90° turn to third base. When our tiny player (7 years old swimming in his uniform) got up to bat, the pitcher would fumble the ball to give the kid a chance, and when our guys made a good play, they would cheer for the goats.

After one week of learning the game, their fielding skills were amazing. They did not allow too many balls through their legs, the pop flies were caught and they knew to throw the ball to first base. Unfortunately, they did not know to throw the ball to second, third or home. They concentrated so much on first that the other runners were still in sight, but out of mind. I tell you, just getting the out at first is not a winning strategy. Also, for as good as they were in the field, they could not compete at the plate. Their arms were ½ the size of the Mingechevir kid’s arms. They also did not have a great eye for hitting. Our 7-year-old had the best contact with the ball on the whole team!

Our guys impressed me that day. They took the other team’s instructions in stride, and were inducted into the PCASL culture of inter-region friendship and fun rivalry. After being crushed every game, they are ready for practice on Wednesday and want to play all of these teams again in the near future. With all this enthusiasm, natural talent and perseverance Kate and I think that by the end of our time here, we will really be the managers of our the G.O.A.T.s.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Katherine the Great

Katherine the Great

Okay, so I have written a lot about my life here, the stuff I do, the things I learn, and the people I meet. However, I have not yet talked extensively about one of the most important people in my Peace Corps life. My site mate Kate is one of the most unique individuals in all of Azerbaijan; people ask me how she is with a big smile and the expectation of hearing a hilarious story. It proves for an interesting life.

Kate and I are what the rest of our peers call “Peace Corps married”. This is an arranged marriage through the Peace Corps and only happens in rare instances. We have been grouped together since the beginning. We were roommates in Philadelphia the night before we left for Azerbaijan, we are in the same technical group (Youth Development) and we were in the same Azerbaijani class during training, which meant we lived in the same development outside of Sumqayit. At the end of this training, we found out that we would be at the same small site, as site mates. We have been through every stage of the Peace Corps together, so far.

During Pre-Service Training (PST), I formed bonds with the people around me. My peers were my support network, and we were together so often that we would laugh about stuff together without acknowledging it aloud. Kate would be the one who would ask “what are you laughing about?” She's tattoed, i have my ears pierced. I stayed on the beer wagon for a month, she fell off the first week. During class, I had vocab lists mapped out, she had great stories as to why hers weren't. She doesn’t care what people think, I am very aware of the rumor mill and try to avoid it. Kate used to like to sneak out of her host family’s house, and one night I was sitting quietly in my house with my host family when Kate’s family called. My host dad asked me where Kate was, and I had no idea. I told my host dad I had not a clue but I was sure she was fine. I guess she had told her host family that she would be out with me and when she was late they got worried and called my family. Rule 101 of sneaking out: tell your accomplice that she is your accomplice, or your cover is going to get blown. There are a lot of differences on the surface between Kate and me.

Therefore, when our project manager, Tarana, told us that we would be going to the same site, I had my reservations. While I had formed close bonds with the rest of the people in my Azeri class and many in my technical training group, Kate was aloof and we hadn’t really gotten to know each other very well. I liked her enough, but was nervous about the person that was about to become my site mate. Recently, I have talked to the other people in our technical training group, and they said (laughingly) they had the same reservations I had. To my knowledge, Kate didn’t overthink it as much as I had. So we entered the next two years together on completely different pages.

Our first month was a time of getting to know each other. We were able to hang out pretty much every day because, let’s face it, there’s not too much else to do here. We went to each other’s work and home all the time, went on walks, talk about the frustrations of our life without internet, than visited the creepy internet club we found together. We quickly realized, to borrow Rick Blaine's words, this was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

We have had many crazy adventures together, and I will highlight a few of them here. The first big adventure was when in February when we went into Baku for a GLOW meeting and the Superbowl. We got caught in a snowstorm visiting our former host families, but neither of us wanted to stay in the village for another night. We made the terrible decision to take a cab to Baku because the buses refused to go to Baku (the roads were too bad for the bus, but a cab can do better, right?).

Well, the whole way down I was clinging to the seat, my knuckles must have been white. We spun out three times on the road, which wasn’t a big issue because there wasn’t anyone else on it! The car got about 6 miles within the place we were going to and hit traffic that was going into Baku. The taxi driver decided to turn around, because the road was closed. Kate and I looked at each other and made the decision to walk the rest of the way, hoping to find a Good Samaritan who would take us the rest of the way when the roads opened up. Well, we trudged in the snow for the entire six miles while cars inched along. If the drivers got even a few feet of room, they would gun their gas and slip and slide all over the road. I wasn’t in New England anymore; these people don’t know how to drive in the snow. We eventually got to our destination after many static panic filled phone calls (WHERE ARE YOU? ARE YOU ALIVE?) and on time for the meeting to boot.

Another classic adventure would be our attempts to find a house. I have written about our apartment in a previous blog post, but I will repeat myself a little here. For as bad as our apartment is, we have been shown worse. Our apartment has no hot water, no gas heater, no refrigerator and no chairs (we had 5, but since living here we have broken two, it’s getting desperate!). We are the only PCV’s I know that have to borrow spoons, forks, and plates if someone other than us eats at our house. We decided upon this house because unlike the bigger cities, the small Goranboy does not have a huge housing market. We also have a new infestation of bedbugs (we think) in Kate’s room which we have been battling vigorously (I mainly make sure they don’t go into my room!).

We didn’t even intend to live together at first, but couldn’t find two apartments/houses in our price range, so we decided to live together. It was the best decision we made. Even though the apartment is awful, we enjoy living together and our neighbors are amazing! We have kids outside to play with, xanims to ask our silly questions to, and people who are willing to stick their necks out for these two crazy Americans if we need it. We also have a system for living now: I cook, Kate washes dishes. It’s pretty awesome. If one of us is ever gone, it is pretty lonely. For example, when I went out for two weeks to do my soccer project, I got a text from Kate saying “I just ate pasta with Ketchup on it, I miss you. Come home soon!” When Kate recently went to Germany for 10 days, I got really lonely and went guesting every day to have company. I didn’t want to cook if I had to eat alone and no one was going to tell me how good of a job I did!

Outside of the adventures, we work well as a team. Kate makes things relaxed and comfortable, I help with the communication. When Kate gets frustrated, I calm her down, when I get frustrated, Kate helps me let it out. We do many things together, but have our separate groups too. Kate likes to have actual conversation clubs with the better English speakers, and I like to hold computer classes. Kate wants to work with disabled kids and I want to work with girls in sport. Kate works with all women, I work with all men. Both have their unique difficulties which Kate and I are trying to work out. We have been doing softball together and are trying to write a grant together. I get called Kate at least 10 times per day, and Kate gets called Amy. Some people even think we are the same person. Even Peace Corps volunteers treat us like we are attached at the hip. If people can’t get ahold of us, they’ll call the other to find the one they’re looking for. Kate’s host mom had to explain to a few Azeri’s that we are TWO people, that there are TWO American girls living in Goranboy at one time. Remember the twins and Lord of the Flies, SamnEric? Well, Kate often refers to us as KatenAmy. I don’t have a problem with it, I have been dealing with being confused with another person all my life (I can’t get away from it Jess!). Kate is fine with it as well, she is confident enough that there is no danger of her losing herself.

Life is good with a great site mate. Where I had reservations before, there is nothing but relief that Kate is with me. I have great friends here, but she is the first one I would go to if things were to go wrong. In a situation where it’s hard for people who know you well to know what you’re going through, Kate knows exactly where I’ve been, what I’m doing and where I want to go. While she and I are different people, I would trust her to give sound advice on counsel I am seeking. It makes my life easier here to have someone to share the everyday things. The frustrations when people don’t understand me, the small successes (like finding cheap cheese!) and the bizarre are all shared and discussed.

So here’s to Kate
(this is a little late)
she’s my site mate.
We can relate
when frustrations won’t abate
living in a different State.
It must’ve been fate
because she really is great!

Pictures: Kate at our Thanksgiving celebration, Kate and I in Baku, Kate and I at our Swearing in Ceremony

Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Positively GLOWing!

Positively GLOWing

Many children have memories of summer camp they look back on and see all the different things they did with all those new and interesting people. Going to a majority-populated Jewish university (shout out Brandeis!), I heard tales of Jewish camps and saw many people meet over the phrase “Did you go to camp with so and so?... She went to my school!”. Being one of a few token Christians at this school, I always felt left out of these conversations. I never went to an overnight summer camp. I distinctly remember being a terrible Brownie, meaning Girl Scout camp was out. I hated camp Sargeant, a day camp in Merrimack, so I cannot blame my parents for not sending me to overnight camp. I can’t even remember ever asking my parents to go to one. Why go when you have a built in play buddy in the form of a twin sister and an activities director in the form of an Auntie Carol? My summer camp included bubbles, cookies, blueberry picking and hanging with Rosie, the dog. When I got older, sports camps became the theme of the summer. Then my first overnight camp was an overnight soccer camp with my teammates from high school. This wasn’t a summer camp; this was a kick-your-butt into shape, triple-session exhaustion fest. It was still fun, even though it wasn’t traditional.

This is why, a few weeks ago when I was asked to be a summer camp counselor in charge of activities, my immediate response was “What?”. You see, in Azerbaijan, there is a camp called G.L.O.W. The acronym stands for “Girls Leading Our World”. It’s a camp that is run in many countries around the Peace Corps, but the curriculum and set-up is the brain-child of the PCV’s of the host country. The camp’s purpose is to empower young women and show them that they can do whatever they want to do, and show them examples of women in their community who are successful. This is an especially important topic for women in Azerbaijan because most of the people that this country looks up to are men.

The camp took a lot of man power and hours to put together. Our first meeting for the camp was in February during the Super Bowl. Baku was in the midst of a blizzard, and my site-mate Kate and I walked 10km (a little over 6 miles) on the empty icy highway to the Peace Corps office to make it to the meeting. We were the most extreme case, but some spent 3 hours in a taxi to make it. Needless to say, people were dedicated to the cause from the start. Myself and 5 other female PCV’s worked on the curriculum part of the camp for months while other groups worked on finance, finding host country counterparts, finding a place, applications and advertising the camp. The camp took many PCV’s to make it happen and it was a huge group effort pulling it off. Six PCV’s were chosen from my year (AZ7, the newbies coming in September will be AZ8) to be counselors, and when I got that call I was super-psyched.

The problem was, I had never been to a camp like this and another PCV and I were in charge of activities for the week. I thought about all the camp references I had ever seen (Friday the 13th, Wet Hot American Summer, Heavy Weights) and realized they did not help me at all in this situation. Luckily, my mother is a crafty genius and she had done tons of fun stuff with the kids from church. I also took from my team-building memories from soccer and just summer inside fun I had with Auntie.

Activities were a success! We tie-dyed shirts, did team-building (trust falls, human knot), made friendship bracelets and popsicle stick picture frames, did a hand-jive competition, and Olympic events such as a water balloon toss, Frisbee throw, blind-fold maze and three-legged race. The girls were thrilled with these new games and we had a lot of fun doing them. Each night we had a different event. The skit and talent show were a lot of fun (especially since the Spice Girls showed up, yours truly as Baby spice). I was the smart pig in our version of the Three Little Pigs. It was the Three Little Sheep, because pigs-themed plays don't really hit home in a Muslim country.

The best event was the dance party. We had “Club Glow” and tied ties around the girls’ wrists to say who was under 21, even though there was no alcohol. We had lights, a sound system and every girl up and dancing til 11pm, lights out time. At the bonfire we taught the girls how to make s’mores. I believe the counselors liked them better than the campers, but the girls liked the marshmallows, something that is not present in this country. One of my esteemed colleagues hid a package of Hershey Bars up her skirt for the counselors cabin later that night. We were so tired we forgot to eat them. :)

Activities were the sideshow to the main event, however, Our curriculum was great as well. The girls had two lessons a day and a guest speaker to listen to each day. The lessons consisted of things like community development, gender empowerment and how to be a leader. The guest speakers were successful women from Azerbaijan telling their experiences and how they succeeded in this country. The lessons were taught by Azerbaijani counterparts who learned the curriculum, made their own adjustments and taught the lesson in Azeri. They were the real rockstars of the camp. They did the most challenging work; the PCV’s got to play. :)

The girls were amazing as well. They listened to what everyone had to say, participated in every discussion and had really good ideas for development in their own communities. Any high school teacher in America would kill to have these girls in their classes based on participation alone! They loved going up to the front of the room and presenting their own ideas (something they don’t often get to do) and we got at least 20 hands for each question asked. I was ecstatic with the girls creativity and opinionated ideas.

The only problems we had were that the girls were scared in their cabins at night. I do not blame them, considering one of my references to summer camp went immediately to Jason Vorhees' mom. The six AZ7 counselors were in charge of 2 cabins each. We had to go around doing nightly checks and our cell phones were on us 24/7 to deal with problems. Examples of my problems: heard a rat in the room, toilet overflowing and key stuck in the door. I felt like a glorified landlord. I was lucky though. The other PCV’s got the girls who snuck out at night, the ones who missed their mothers and were up crying all night and the ones who stole off to the cabins during lessons. I had the drama-less 14-year-olds, if there is even such a thing as one of those in today’s world. I may have just been the Barney Fife of the group and was a terrible camp-cop and my girls just ran wild all over the camp!

We also had to eat bad Azeri food all week, but they served us watermelon at every meal, so we went on a watermelon cleansing diet! One of the counselors and I one night waited for the girls to leave the mess hall and stole all the left over watermelon and ate most of it. We regretted it immediately after, and even further into the night at our cabin...

All in all, it was a great first overnight summer camp. I enjoyed the experience thoroughly and cannot wait for next year!

Pictures: Me walking on the highway to our first meeting, Three Little Sheep performance, Katie hiding the Hersheys up her skirt, Club Glow dance floor and the counselors nearly singeing their eyebrows off roasting marshmallows on shish kebabs over a waaay too hot fire!

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

A Week of Normal

A Week of Normal

So last month I spent what has probably been my favorite week in Azerbaijan, doing what comes naturally to me: coaching soccer. For the past eight summers, I have been travelling all over Southern New Hampshire coaching at a soccer day camp. It was the same schedule every Monday through Friday: 9am-3pm spending all day with kids 2-18 years old. It has been an experience that has taught me patience, not only with children but with my adult co-workers too. I learned humility as well, because let’s be honest, I make a fool of myself easily, and when all kids’ eyes are on you, it’s easy to embarrass yourself. I have made great friendships and learned a lot while having a good time doing my job. This summer has been the first summer where “Week 1, Day 1” never came. I didn’t get to see the familiar faces of the regulars and I wasn’t greeted with Fritz’s morning song. No ball pumping, handing out shirts, shouting reminders about drinking water and putting on sunscreen or teaching the awesome game we call lightening. This summer was going to be drastically different, or so I thought.

At the beginning of June, I went to Baku to swim a leg of a triathlon (I was abysmal, by the way. I thought I was in shape, but alas, soccer does not work on arm muscles at all!). While in Baku, my friends and I went to a reception for American Citizens at the Ambassador’s House. There, I met a man who works at the Embassy, and closely with the Peace Corps volunteers. He was looking for soccer players to help with a project. I said “Perfect! I am a soccer player/coach, what do you need?” He then told me the best news ever.

There is a program in the US State Department called “Sports United” that sends famous athletes all over the world, promoting the United States and also promoting a healthy lifestyle. One of these programs was being held here in the form of soccer. The famous people who were coming were former US Women’s National Team player Cindy Parlow (if you don’t know her, look her up!) and MLS coach and US Soccer goalie coach John Cone (the two are married). I was so excited when I found out. She has been one of the players I looked up to in my career, who played on the 1996&2004 Olympic Gold Medal teams, and the 1999 Women’s World Cup winning team. The only catch that the Embassy worker told me was that the program started in a week and a half, and I would have to be away from site for 2 weeks. I said “No problem!” and threw my hat into the ring.

My job for this program was to help Cindy and John in whatever they needed. They first day, they didn’t need much, so I just played around with the kids, what I do best. I was able to speak with them and play games, do a few parlor tricks to gain some street cred, and I even got a group of girls playing in front of a group of boys. Let me tell you what a difference it is to have a soccer session with a group of Azeri girls vs American girls playing in front of a group of boys. If my Merrimack High School girls are playing in front the boys, they play 10 times harder and more aggressive than what they normally do. Their favorite practice has to be when we scrimmage the Freshman Boys team. It’s mine too because I love to see them beat up the young guys. I have shamefully debated internally on whether or not to pay some of the “cutest boys in school” to come out to the games and cheer my girls on. They thrive on the attention to their athletic abilities. The Azeri girls, however, do not like playing in front of boys. They do not like to show the boys they are sweaty, and they do not under any circumstance play WITH boys. Boys don’t play with girls here either. You could argue that the same is in the United States, but I have coached girls who play with boys, and those are some of the best players. Even at a young age they will play together. At camp one year, I had a portly boy of about 7, Chris, who was forced to play with a bunch of 5 year old girls. These girls were extra-girly, talking about unicorns and chasing butterflies whenever we had a water break. This kid was our joker of the group, making the coaches laugh at every turn, and he was a great sport. We were playing “World Cup” and the teams had to choose their own team names. I asked Chris what his team name was: he sighed and dejectedly said, “Pink Flamingoes”. The girls had obviously chosen the name. Well, in this game the kids have to shout the team names before they score, so we had these kids running around shouting “Terminators!”, “Killer Bees!”, and “Thunderbolts!”. Well, you know who the first one to score was? Chris was served a ball, and with no help from his flower-picking teammates, he lunged after the soccer ball, doing a split I had no idea pudgy kids could accomplish, and put the ball in the back of the net, shouting “PINK FLAMINGOES!!” While he had to work with girls who ultimately didn’t help at all, he was a great sport about it and won the game in the end. I think that boys and girls are encouraged to work together a lot more in America than in Azerbaijan, so getting these girls out there on the field in front of the boys felt like a big accomplishment.

Over the next few days in Baku, I accompanied John and Cindy on a tour of Baku, to the AFFA (Azerbaijani Football Federations Association) headquarters where Cindy lead a talk on how to incorporate women’s soccer into this country. I was also able to talk to a few women’s coaches and ask them about coaching in this country and starting up women’s soccer in the regions. Soccer is only available to women in Baku and maybe Ganja and Lankaran. The regions do not have the assets to sustain women’s soccer out here, and AFFA needs to be the organization to promote soccer for the girls in the regions. Anyways, after Baku, we headed on a trip up to the north part of Azerbaijan. Cindy and John got to see what the other half lives like in this country (Baku vs the regions is a stark contrast. Baku is like a normal European city while the regions have a distinctly different village feel to them). They were also able to see what the Soviet influence has done to development here, even 20 years later. The coaches here stress playing over having fun, and training sessions are very regimented. It was interesting to see how the outside world views the kids here. There were, just like in the States, kids who behaved and misbehaved. It is exponentially worse for someone who has no clue what the kids are saying. When kids are laughing at every word you’re saying, it is hard to know whether they are laughing at your accent or laughing at you in general. You have to have a certain amount of self-confidence to do work with kids out here. Lucky I have embarrassed myself so much in my past; things just roll off my back now. Most of the time I was asking the kids to calm down or to stop talking so that Cindy or John could talk and the kids didn’t listen very well. It was chaos for a lot of the trip, but the good points were worth the chaos.

My favorite part of the trip was in Guba. I was given my own set of girls to work with, no translator or anything. I ended up playing some games from my repertoire and they had a great time. However, it started to rain and the girls were shuffled under an overhang to get shelter from the weather. A note on water in Azerbaijan: girls hate to get wet, and even more so, women and children are terrified of getting sick. Water from the sky will get you sick in the eye of every old woman in this country. Hell, everybody here believes that drinking cold water in the winter will get you sick. Also everybody thinks that drinking a lot of water after a workout makes you fat. They usually tell me this after I have gone on a run in the dreadful heat and am chugging out of my water bottle, Are they insinuating something…? Anyways, the women at the field who was there to specifically look after the girls yelled at them to stay out of the rain or else they’d get sick. Meanwhile, a fellow Peace Corps Volunteer and I told the girls, “Get out there and play, when is the next time you will be able to play with a US National Team player? Rain won’t hurt you!” Well, we got the girls out on the field playing in the rain, a HUGE deal, but I think we made a mortal enemy out of that old woman. She was shooting daggers at us the whole time.

While all this soccer was happening, my favorite sporting was going on as well (no, not Wimbledon!). Yes, I was able to watch the World Cup, and cheer for the US in all their games. Not to mention watch the games with two people who know Landon Donovan and Jozy Altidore personally. No need to mention I was floating on cloud nine the whole time. I remember last summer when the Confederations Cup was playing, all of us coaches would show up to training sessions at the last second trying to make excuses. The boss knew exactly why we were late: Howard and company were making their best international tournament appearance ever, and we didn’t want to miss it! Up until about two weeks before the 2010 World Cup began, I thought I would be missing most of the cup, but here I was watching every game! I got to see the Yanks get two goals taken away by referees and come out atop the group anyways. I got to discuss who was better, Brazil or Spain. I was in my element.

That week of soccer felt normal and extraordinary at the same time. I was able to do something that I have been doing for almost the last decade, while meeting a hero of mine and working as her peer. I still miss daily routine of 9-3 laughs at soccer camp, but I got a taste of it here in Azerbaijan with an extra kick! (Pun intended, yukka yukka) Between English lessons, computer courses, guesting and weddings, I have been able to dig out a soccer niche for myself. One week of normal was as abnormal as could be in my new life in Azerbaijan, but I realized soccer will always help me bridge cultural gaps.

So I have decided to make this an interactive blog, because I want to hear from you all too. Since I talked about being embarrassed a lot in this blog, I want your best embarrassment stories of yourself or an embarrassing moment of mine that you witnessed.

Pictures: First one is of me and my American soccer camp co-workers, miss you guys! Middle picture (from left): Kate, Sierra and I after the triathlon. Last picture (from left) John Cone, Cindy Parlow, Myself, Tim the Embassy intern, and Brent the US Embassy worker in the back.

Saturday, June 19, 2010

Toy, Part Deux

An Azeri Wedding, Part Deux

So my host family has been talking about the wedding (Azeri translation: toy) of their youngest daughter since I got to site in December. At first they said it would be in February, then moved the date back to April, then I was told a very vague “summer”. I figured theday would eventually come, because I had seen long engagements before, but wasn’t sure if I would actually still be here for the day. Well, the day finally came, and I was fully a part of the celebrations.

My month of June was supposed to be a rest period, a time where I wasn’t going to do any clubs and concentrate on what needs I need to fulfill in my community. Well, many things have fallen into my lap as of late and June has become a whirlwind month with no day left unplanned. It was that big guy in the sky (Babe Ruth?) who intervened on my behalf because when I went guesting at my family’s house in late May that they told me the wedding would be on the 10th of June, the only few days I actually had off this month, and it was because my softball team dissolved (the kids thought it was too hot to play). So, I was able to fully celebrate this time with my family, Azeri-style.

The first thing when it comes to weddings is that a ton of preparation goes into them, even though the date isn’t usually set until about three-two weeks before the event. No one leaves Goranboy very often, so people are expected to be around, so no future notice is really needed. Anyways, after giving me the date, my family asked me to help prepare the meal with them and other family. I already knew this was coming, because earlier in the year, I had made pizza for them and they wanted me to make mini-pizzas for the wedding. So, they day before the wedding, I show up to my host family’s house at 4p.m. (once again, too hot out to do anything before that time) and sit and drink tea. Little by little, people start showing up in droves. Turns out, cooking with “family” with them and 50 of their closest friends and neighbors. I knew most of them, but with the rest I faced the familiar “Who is the English girl?”, “Why are you in Azerbaijan?”, “Why don’t you earn a salary?” or the ever-present “When are YOU getting married?” All the xanims offered to cater my wedding as I was drinking tea with them. As we got started, people laughed at my peeling skills (peeling a cucumber with a knife is a lot harder than with a peeler, try it!) and then laughed harder at all my picture taking. We sat around for a few hours chatting and prepping, boiling and chopping until they brought in the big guns. My host father paraded in a herd of sheep and a baby cow to the fenced in part of our back yard. I knew what that meant. My family had bought live animals to kill and butcher for the wedding. I got to witness from start to finish the cow and sheep cooking process. It was pretty interesting and not all that disgusting, and man does baby cow taste good after you kebab it.

By that point my work there was done. I had been made fun of enough to really call it a night, plus it was starting to get dark and I don’t like to be out walking the streets at night. So I went home with empty promises of lots of dancing the next day. By day break (10 a.m.) I went back over to my host family’s house and grabbed all the stuff there I had left the night before. I am NOTORIOUS for leaving stuff behind at my house, and therefore I got made fun of a little bit more as I asked for my battery charger and water bottle back. No one was home besides my host mom and 12 of her closest friends (my three sisters were in the big city of Ganja getting their hair and make-up done), talking about my host sister’s wedding night. As much as I wanted in on this conversation (I think having the run s with a squat toilet would be better) I had to go get ready for the big day. Kate and I got ready together, meaning it took 15 minutes for dress and make-up another 10 for hair, and headed off to the one big restaurant in town that’s only for weddings.

Now, Kate and I have an agreement not to dance at weddings. We both suck at Azeri-style dancing and get embarrassed when all the ladies laugh at us for not knowing how. Honestly, they have been doing it their whole lives, yours truly has been to exactly three Azeri toys. How the heck am I supposed to catch on so quickly?? Anyways, if people ask us to dance, it is easier if we both say no, then no one can tell us that the other is better, and people compare us less. However, this was my host sister’s wedding, so I warned Kate about the dangers she was about to face. I HAD to dance the family dance (there is a song specifically for the family to dance to) and I was forced to dance with all the neighbors. There was no choice in the matter, I was afraid of being shunned if I didn’t dance. Kate took advantage of the lack of attention and once we took our traditional wedding picture (seen below), she slipped her way out the door two hours after the start of the wedding. In Azerbaijan, this was almost dine-and-dash, and to me, it felt like betrayal, even though I would have done the same exact thing. I guess I was just jealous that she had the idea before me. So I was stuck there until the end, dancing. Anyways, this is the first time I had stayed to the end of a wedding (4 hours) and at the end they serve plov, the national rice dish of Azerbaijan. The waiters brought it out with flaming batons and the whole spectacle was pretty interesting, Las Vegas-style.

After the wedding, I tagged along back to my host family’s house. I knew it would be another long affair, but the promise of more of the delicious food I helped make lured me to the after party. I just have no self control when it comes to kete and kebab! YUM! There was so much dancing at this thing my feet hurt for days later. I should’ve known the Azeri’s get down into the late hours. I ended up dancing a lot with my other host sister’s husband who was one of the only men I knew at the party. He was kind enough to teach me a few steps, and I got really good in the end. He knew a little English, and all I heard after each dance was “Victory!” as he put up his middle and index finger in a “v” sign. It seemed so funny to me, I didn’t know what the victory was. Was it that I was starting to learn the steps of the dances pretty well or that we made it through another song without me stepping on his foot? Could be both! We did henna, which you are supposed to write the initial of your sweetheart on your hand. My host sister wrote my own initial on my hand. I am not quite sure what that means, but I think it was appropriate.

In the end, it was a really fun wedding because I knew the people who were there and knew the person getting married and actually got down with my bad self, as the saying goes. I learned all the work that goes into these things, and it actually reminded me of my own sister Lisa’s wedding and all the work that we did for that event. I was less of a girly girl at Lisa’s wedding, not helping with flower arrangements or making chocolates with my mom and sister Jessica, but being the girl who went and got the pizza for the bridesmaids as we were getting ready (my role always involves me eating food, huh?). I got girly in this event, cooking with the older ladies, but in the end took pictures more than I did chop carrots. I guess I am just not cut for the finer parts of wedding preparation. What I got out of this whole event? I am going to leave my own wedding to a planner and just dance my ass off when the music starts.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Bad News Bears

Bad News Bears

In our training at the very beginning of our service, we are taught about the Peace Corps’ overall goals of service around the world. One of those goals is to share American culture with our host country nationals. Kate and I have been doing this little by little with our conversation clubs, guesting and just being adventurous girls (showing the Azeri girls they CAN play sports and travel outside of Goranboy). This demonstration of culture has become a nation-wide effort on the part of the PCV’s here. We have a softball league in Azerbaijan. This league was started before Kate and I arrived in country, but was a two-team league. It grew this spring into eight teams, and includes… GORANBOY! We received equipment not two weeks ago, and have started practices.

I was so excited to receive equipment because I have been to both Ganja’s and Mingechevir’s practices, and they are the two best-established teams in the leagues. Respectively, they are the Red Sox and Yankees of Azerbaijan. Both teams had some heavy hitters and could field the ball pretty well. They had Azeri’s who had been coming for a few years who could tell the other Azeri’s in their own language how to play better and even stepped up and helped coach the players. I also went down to Lenkeran, a city in Southern Azerbaijan, two weekends ago to check out the first match-up of the spring season and it was one of the coolest things I have seen. The guys and girl coaching the two squads (Lenkeran and Bilesuvar) did a great job preparing the kids. They made some plays Tito would be proud of, and I saw a lot of talent from the boys. We even had two young girls participate, which is a huge deal, and they BOTH went 2 for 2. I was really very impressed. The Bilesuvar team even had an intimidating chant before they went out into the field which intimidated me, but I don’t think the Lenkeran kids were even phased. They played two games and split the series. I can’t wait to see the rematch! In all of the sites there was teamwork, smiles and partnership to be had for everyone. I loved these practices and wished oh-so-much for the ability to have this at my site. I got the equipment and immediately had ideas of an expansion team like the Diamondbacks, going to glory in its early years.

This past weekend was a four-team tournament with Mingechevir, Ganja, Tovus and Sheki participating. The tournament was wonderful and the kids seemed to have a really good time. I came back from the tournament energized and ready to teach the kids of Goranboy a real American sport. Our national pastime. A sport that produced the likes of Ted Williams, Lou Gehrig, and Babe Ruth (the Sultan of Swat, the King of Crash!). I have missed a few practices these past two weeks due to ongoing clubs and soccer practices, but two nights ago was my first attendance at practice. I had visions of grandeur after playing catch with the kids in our apartment complex every night during the past week. They can catch and throw and there was an equal ratio of girls to boys. They were enthusiastic about learning the sport and seemed really athletic.

Alas, the heat has deflated the enthusiasm of our kids. At our third practice, the first one I have attended, we had six kids there, all under the age of 12. We played catch for a while and then each one had their turn at bat. It was like our own version of Bad News Bears, with each kids playing his own character, including the hot shot AND the tiny kids who always does something amazing at the end of the movie, like hit a homerun or tell the other team to shove their trophies up their you-know-whats. It was even more deflating when yesterday, no one showed for practice. Today they told us it was because it looked like rain. WIMPS!!!

Today, however, would have been the turning point in the movie, the part where the coach realizes what she/he has done wrong and the kids realize that hey, they actually like/want to play baseball. At today’s practice, we had 18 people, enough for a two squad scrimmage. We played catch at first, and told the kids not to be afraid of the ball. (They catch the ball like you would hold a pair of stinky socks, as far away from their bodies as possible). One kid told me that he is allowed to be afraid of the ball because the hospital is far away. Yukka yukka yukka. This wise guy is the “Ham Porter” of our Azeri All-stars.

So after the warm-up, we decided to play the game without teaching the rules. Most have NOT seen baseball in their entire lives, but Kate and I decided to keep their short attention span occupied by just diving into the deep end. And oh boy, the water was deep. Here are some of the gems that happened in our ONE-INNING, 40 minute scrimmage:
· A kid ran around the bases WITH the bat in his hand, until he hit third and realized he shouldn’t have the bat, and threw it at the pitcher’s mound, where yours truly was standing. Incidentally, I don’t think he was trying to hit me, just trying to get rid of the bat.
· The kids threw BEHIND the runner every time. I don’t think they understand that the ball has to get to the base BEFORE the runner, even though I tried to explain that critical part of the game to them.
· The sheep grazing in the outfield stopped to be our audience, along with the xanim who was shepherding them.
· There’s a scene in the Sandlot where Benny “The Jet” Rodriguez tells Smalls to hold his glove up, and he hits it right to the glove for an easy catch for the new kid to prove to the other kids that Smalls can play baseball. I tried to do this MANY times, to show the kids they can catch, but alas, my aim sucks and they can’t catch. (You’re KILLING ME Smalls!!).

We also have to constantly tell the kids to stand up when fielding and that yes, the younger kids ARE allowed to bat. They have to be physically placed in the correct place in the batter’s box, and which hand to throw and catch with. It’s teaching from square one, and it’s pretty amazing how hard it is to teach people who don’t have any kind of baseball reference to refer to. (Side-note: A thanks goes out to my dad, who actually DID teach me which hand to throw with. Apparently I am a lefty who plays baseball right-handed. We went through a lefty glove and two frustrating weeks where I was a TERRIBLE tee-ball player before my dad figured out I was a righty when I picked up Jessica’s glove. Good thing too, because I loved softball.)

So, my visions of grandeur are slowly fading into the background while “Coach Amy” is making her first real appearance in Azerbaijan. While I wish we could bring in some veterans to help season the team (like Jose Conseco and Wade Boggs for the Devil Rays) I love slipping into a role that has defined me for the past eight summers. Coaching softball, I have finally found a role where I can act completely as I would in the United States, without worrying about my reputation, how I am representing the United States, or how I am affecting my work in the community. This is my natural state. Even though these kids may be the Bad News Bears, I still feel like Walter Matthau must have felt at the end of the movie. Somehow, the kids are learning something from me about softball AND life. We may not win, but we’ll definitely go down with style (and maybe not so much grace). I will let you know how our first tournament turns out in June, but for now, I leave you with the immortal words of Coach Buttermaker: Listen, Lupus, you didn't come into this life just to sit around on a dugout bench, did ya? Now get your ass out there and do the best you can.

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

The Money Pit

The Money Pit
So I have moved out of my host family’s house and in with my site-mate, Kate. We have rented a house that is in the middle of town, right next to her work and where I play soccer. It is the perfect area of the town to live in for us, and the cost seemed too good to be true. We each pay 50 AZN/month, where most volunteers pay 100-120 AZN/month. We have our own rooms and a guest room, and INDOOR toilet that is like any in the United States, and an indoor shower. Our neighbors are Kate’s host family, so if we need anything, they are a shout across the balcony away.

At this point, if you have seen the “Money Pit” with Tom Hanks and Shelly Long, you know where I am going with the story. If you haven’t seen the movie, shame on you, but let me elaborate. Tom and Shelly are a couple who are offered this BEAUTIFUL mansion from a nice old lady. They are pressured into a quick purchase of the house, and upon moving in, they discover that this house is the fixer-upper of all fixer-uppers. Kate and I decided to take the apartment knowing we didn’t have a refrigerator or a stove. The landlady said she would give us a fridge for the summer and Kate’s host family gave us a little burner that would hook up to the gas line in the kitchen. One of my friends asked a funny question when he heard about the place: “What is in that room to make it a kitchen?!” Well, therein lays our money pit. Nothing in the “kitchen” actually resembles a kitchen. The table had mice gnaw-marks on it, the sink was broken and that was all that was in that room.

But Kate and I were willing to do a little beauty work on the house since we were saving so much money, so the first thing we did was clean the place down and paint. The apartment looks 100% better now, but the painting process was interesting. The walls are made of a material I don’t even know, and the paint sunk into certain spots on the wall, so that the color isn’t exactly even. Also, we had little choice over color, so most of the house is a bright blue, while my room is baby blue and Kate’s is baby pink and the living room is lemon yellow. Our house looks like Punky Brewster’s sock drawer. Anyways, after the painting, we had to scramble around to fill our house with things we needed to live. This is actually my favorite part of moving out, because while it was difficult, people were amazing aboiut giving us things to use. We got utensils, pans and plastic lawn chairs from Kate’s host family, pots from my host family, pillows from my language tutor, and curtains, a mirror and table cloths from Kate’s language tutor. Every time I guest, I get something to bring back to my house (like fresh vegetables, Azeri jam, or compote, all Azeri specialties) and everyone in the neighborhood always make sure Kate and I are okay.

After finding things to live with, we moved into the apartment. This is when things went south. We had to call the repairman to come in and fix all our problems. We had no working faucet in the “kitchen”, no light in the shower or toilet room, no hallway light, the gas didn’t work in the kitchen, our hot water heater needed a new pipe so the carbon monoxide wouldn’t leak out of it, my room didn’t have electricity, and we needed a mirror hung. We had THREE, count ‘em THREE repairmen come into our home and not return. I guess our house scared them away. The word for repairman in Azeri is “usta”, which literally means “fixer”. Now, in my vocabulary, fixers are the people who help foreigners get where they need to go (i.e. CIA agents or reporters, etc.) but our fixers didn’t help the foreigners at all. The fourth time was a charm, and the usta fixed everything in two days except for our hot water. We told him to come back in the next few days, and he hasn’t come back. We do not have hot water yet, and in the month that we have been living here, we have showered at Kate’s host family’s house and taken bucket baths.

The neighbors are great, but there’s a catch. Kate’s host family can climb over the balconies and enter our house. There is not lock on the door, so it is like a mixture of Sam from Clarissa Explains it All climbing through her window and Kimmy Gibbler from Full House, who always seems to be there criticizing the happenings within the household. Most of the time, we welcome her host sister and kids into the house, but when the boys hide in the dark rooms and scare the crap out of us and her host sister comes in and tells us our house is dirty when we JUST cleaned it, it’s trying on our nerves. Also, people want to know EVERYTHING about our lives, including what we make for dinner, who the boy was who came to visit (our brother) and why we use toilet paper. Here’s a quote from the “Money Pit” that pretty much sums it up:

Walter: [on the phone trying to locate a plumber] Hi! We're having a little trouble with our pipes, and I was - uh, Fielding, Walter Fielding... Well, there's no reason why should have heard of me... no, that's not a Jewish name... how much do I make a year? Well, how much do you make a year? Really!... Yale, I went to Yale... [gets angry]
Walter: Look, get out of my life, would ya! [slams the phone down]

Our landlady showed up yesterday and looked at all the repairs, and told us that we are going to have to pay 150AZN instead of our 100AZN. This should not be that big of a deal, since we have enough money to cover that out of our housing budget, but the house we live in does not warrant 150AZN and the principle of her changing our rent has made us pretty frustrated. We also found a dead rat on our balcony and the birds from the birds nest above our door pooped on my shoes.

So, after washing my clothes yesterday in freezing cold water by hand, cleaning up a dead rat, and finding out about our rent, I was a frustrated volunteer. However, I was sitting in the living room last night and heard some laughter outside. Our complex is four buildings with a turf mini soccer field in the middle of it. There are a lot of kids who hang out within the area, and it’s nice to look out and see kids hanging out outside instead of on the computer or watching TV makes me feel like I am back in the 50’s and makes me really happy. Anyways I went out to the balcony and looked down to see Kate tossing the ball around with the neighborhood kids with our brand new softball equipment acquired from the states. I went down to hang out and it really felt like we were a part of this small community. The women and their husbands were watching and laughing while Kate and I taught these kids (boys AND girls) how to play a game of catch, and for that moment, the money pit is worth it.

Here are the top 10 questions I asked myself and Kate while we were moving in:
10. How does one wash dishes in the dark?
9. How will we heat this place in the winter?
8. How does a ceiling get so dirty?
7. Will the cracked window break in the wind even though we’ve secured it with our signature pink duct tape?
6. How many times do we have to clean the floor to make it actually clean? (We cleaned it four times before moving in!)
5. What happens if our clothes fall off the line? (They fall onto the roof of the house below and then we have to go on a hilarious rescue mission)
4. How cold can a cold shower really be? (Pretty damned cold.)
3. How does one tactfully tell a very nice woman that you do not want her chicken coop table that has chicken poop all over it and you are afraid of getting tetanus AND bird flu at the same time?
2. How does one cook with one burner that only provides the settings of “torch” or “bonfire”? No slow cooking in this household!
1. What kind of rat makes a hole that big?

Saturday, April 24, 2010

National Pastime

The National Pastime
So everyone knows that the national pastime of America is baseball. My favorite day in the spring is Opening Day at Fenway Park. It marks the start of baseball games every night and the anticipation of October. I LOVE baseball season. Here, the national pastime isn’t a sport, it doesn’t even have a season, but it definitely takes skill and a strong constitution. In Azerbaijan, the people go guesting. This is exactly what it sounds like, a person goes over another person’s house and sits there for a few hours and then returns home. However, it takes a little skill on the part of the Peace Corps Volunteer.
The people who train us tell us that one of the most important things that we can do at site is to go visiting others in your community. I was nervous about this. I am this weird, awkward entity within the community, who is going to want me at their house? However, Kate and I get tons of invitations to go to people’s homes and guest. When guesting, it’s like Thanksgiving, you DO NOT EAT before you go to the house. I have been in two different kind of situations so far: One situation is that you get to the house, no food is made, but there are tons of sweets and tea that people put out for me to eat, and I have to eat them. I, being the proper guest, eat as many sweets as I can. I get my fill for sure. Then the host INSISTS on then making me food, after I have stuffed myself with cookies. I always say “No, please, no I am full.” This does not work my friends. I always get something to eat. I leave the house about to explode most of the time. The second scenario is when I go, there is a TON of food served, and no matter how much I protest, more food is served. If we as Peace Corps Volunteers don’t eat everything, people often consider it an assault on their cooking abilities. Everyone here thinks they cook the best out of the people in their community, and I affirm all their notions. I am just stirring the pot I am sure (“Amy said I cook the best plov.” “No she said I cook it the best!”) but it’s worth it to keep the food coming. I think that maybe they just think I don’t understand what I am saying and that it’s cute that I tell everyone how they’re the best cook. I intend to keep it this way.
There are a few activities for after-eating entertainment. My favorite is looking at pictures, because then you get a little view into the person’s life. What Azeri’s do on vacation, who these peoples’ families are, who they love the most, their children at age 1, 2, 3, 4, 5… etc. I recently got my own pictures to share, which is really cool. I asked my family to send pictures of my new niece and my sister’s wedding. These are very interesting to people, so I bring them with me guesting. The Peace Corps has three goals: to transfer skills to the host country, to teach the natives of the host country about American culture, and to teach people in the US about the host country’s culture. I am fulfilling the last two goals just by going guesting and writing about it! People are always so interested in how weddings are different from America, and I like having the visual aids.
Another option of entertainment when guesting is the toy video. People own videos of about 20 different people’s weddings. These videos are like 4-5 hours long, and they are unedited, which means a lot of boring footage. They are interesting when you see them for the first 10 times, then it gets old. Everyone’s wedding looks the same, and to sit and watch the video of people you don’t even know get married just to spot a 2-second cameo of your host-sister’s aunt’s son’s friend is a little crazy. The thing I take away from these videos is how to dance. This is a dancing culture, and I always look RIDICULOUS dancing at toys, and I need to learn to dance. Being an athlete my whole life, I should have some grace, but there is definitely no elegance to the way I dance. The Azeri-style of dance is a little like flamenco, but more smooth. They are poised and beautiful when they dance, and I am not. A little background: my poor mother tried to get my sister Jessica and I to do some sort of “girly” activity. We were little tom-boys who played tee-ball, soccer and basketball. She decided to enroll us in a gymnastics class. After a few classes of somersaults and walking across the balance beam, we quit. Our teacher had a heavy Eastern European accent and we couldn’t understand a word she said. Ironically, here I am in what some maps consider Eastern Europe (when it is really Western Asia) with people teaching me how to be graceful again. I have come full circle from my days of a blossoming Nadia Cominichi.
Anyways, I am slowly learning, and will be a dancing machine when I get back. I tend to dance with my host sisters in the living room, and although refuse to dance a lot at weddings, I will be a regular John Travolta when it comes to my host sister’s upcoming wedding. I will try to throw in the “lawn mower” somewhere in there as a shout out to my dance-challenged friends out there, but overall, I will try to be dripping with daintiness and overflowing with grace.
Back to the guesting. After sitting for hours watching this video, I usually excuse myself away in a tactful way (at least tactful enough with my language abilities) and leave the house. I am full for hours after and will not eat for a few days, which is a feat for me. If I see the person on the street in the upcoming days, they ask why I haven’t been back to their house yet? I usually respond by saying I can’t eat anymore, they nearly killed me the last time I went. Instead of invoking an alarmed response, the person usually smiles to themself and walks away.
While the national pastime doesn’t have an audience of millions nor does it have widely televised hearings for steroid abuse (although I have in the past referred to the xanims as the Linebackers of Azerbaijan), this national pastime does require some grace, strength (of will) and the right mindset. It is loved by all Azeris and I am starting to love it as well. Now that the weather is getting nice, I am dreaming of Fenway Park, Jerry Remy, and the Sox, but I appreciate the way the Azeri women try to make me feel like I am at home here.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The Unremarkable Goranboy

So, I spend most of my time away from site with three people: Jessica, Sean and Eli. Whenever we leave site, the natural question that people ask us is “Where do you live?”. Jessica lives in Zagatala, a city in the north part of the country. People always respond “Zagatala is so beautiful! It has a lot of nuts and the land is pretty! It is a very liberal community!” Sean lives in Mingechevir, a mere 45 minute mini-bus ride away from my own site. People always react to his site by gushing “Mingechevir is a gorgeous city! It is new and clean! We go swim at the reservoir.” My host mom always asks me to buy fish when I go there (it is cheaper and fresher, straight from the reservoir), but I conveniently “forget” to buy the fish every time because I don’t want to carry smelly fish on the bus ride home. Eli lives in Lenkeran. When he states this fact, it’s like he said he was living in Eden. “The weather is so nice there! Oranges are really good in Lenkeran! It is SO BEAUTIFUL with mountains and beaches! There is a rich culture there!” They never mention my favorite part of Lenkeran, the only FIFA regulation-sized soccer field in the country where many games are played. Needless to say, although I have not been there yet, I will be making quite a few appearances in Lenkeran. All of these sites are generally considered to be good site placements and people wish for them as they are in PST. Then the line of questioning falls on me, with the questioner becoming more and more wracked with anticipation on what I am going to say. What could be better than those cities that have been mentioned? I take a deep breath and say Goranboy. The normal reaction to this statement is “Oh.” That’s it. I have even got “Goranboy isn’t a good city. I am sorry.” You can ask Eli, Jess and Sean. They have all seen it, many times in fact. The buildup is so big, and then there’s the letdown. I have actually made a rule with the aforementioned companions that when that question is posed to us, I am to be the first one to say where my site is. No exceptions. They have graciously agreed to this condition of our friendship for they have seen the drastic fall of spirit from the questioning Azeri when I say Goranboy. I say, first let ‘em down, then build them up with the Lenkerans, Zagatalas and Mingechevirs.

When I got my siteplacement, there was no one I could find who had even BEEN to Goranboy. Everyone else had current volunteers living there or knew a former volunteer who lived there, or knew special things that happen in that city (there’s an actual POMEGRANITE festival in one city, cool beans!). No one really new a lot about Goranboy, so Kate and I really had no idea what we were getting into. After the fact, I figured out that ONE volunteer in-country had been to the site, out of 60 currently serving in Azerbaijan. Many people had said “I’ve driven through there on my way to…” but they haven’t really driven through Goranboy, but Goran, a rest stop on the way to places in the west of the country, which gives my city an even WORSE reputation as a small rest stop on the way to Ganja. I relate it with people who say they have passed through Hartford on their way to New York City. Has anyone actually been to Hartford to visit?

So one night in Mingechevir a few weeks ago, I was reading a guide book about Azerbaijan. I read about the wonderful Mingechevir, Zagatala and Lenkeran, where one MUST SEE this and HAS TO SEE that. I looked up Gornaboy for the fun of it. I didn’t think it would even be there. I was pleasantly surprised to see that Goranboy was in the index, and at a glance, it even had its own couple of paragraphs! I was distressed to see that the first line of the paragraph went as follows: There isn’t much to see in the unremarkable Goranboy. My site was called “unremarkable”. People go visit places for many different reasons, beautiful places, historical sites, places of pleasure and places of destruction. No one wants to visit or live in an “unremarkable” place.

For the past few weeks I have been wandering the streets of Goranboy (a common pastime for Kate and I) and have been figuring out what exactly it is about Goranboy that is REMARKABLE. I have decided that I really like this town, and that there are actually a lot of things to remark about. A visit from Eli, that guy from Lenkeran with the soccer field, helped me put my town in perspective.

Point number one: the people. Kate and I have been in this community for exactly 5 and a half months and can’t walk anywhere in the town without running into someone we know. With our powers combined, we have visited about half the community to have tea and other goodies in their homes and have outstanding invitations from the rest of the ladies in Goranboy to have a cup with them. People here are pretty liberal thinking as well. When Eli did visit, my family not only let him stay with us at our house, but *GASP* he stayed in my room with me. Albeit, he slept in a different bed, but it was still amazing, because that kind of boy/girl interaction is frowned upon in Azerbaijan and volunteers have run into trouble before having the opposite sex sleep over at their house on a visit. My family surprised me when they SUGGESTED that Eli stay in my room. A week after he has visited, I have caught no grief from the community about it either, even though the 6’2 giant stands out like a sore thumb in this country. The kids are hilarious here and are not afraid to talk to us. They treat us like foreigners, but it is like FES in “That 70’s Show” (it’s in all caps because his name stands for Foreign Exchange student on the show). We say funny things but the kids like having us around too. The people here also have supported me in playing soccer and Kate’s running. Our athletic adventures certainly stand out, but there are communities where girls haven’t played soccer and only run in the mornings when people won’t see them. THANK GOD I live in a community that allows me to play soccer or you might have been seeing an Amy with 50 extra pounds on her at Christmas. As my mother so delicately put it a few months ago when I expressed weight gain concerns: “Be careful, you want to be under the weight limit on the plane”.

Point number two: resources. While at first, Kate and I panicked about what on earth we were going to do here, we gradually realized that we have a lot on hand to use to develop the youth of Azerbaijan. My work, the Ministry of Youth and Sport, has a brand new building that JUST opened and is constructing a pool. I am going to be able to have lecture sessions and computer clubs at the new building and (God help the children!) I will be teaching swimming lessons in the new pool. The new pool also has a game room and exercise room underneath the building in which we want to have some sort of club and Kate maybe wants to do some exercise classes for the otherwise athletically inactive females of Goranboy. We also have a teacher in one of the schools who speaks phenomenal English and wants to help us and a 3rd grade teacher who wants to improve her English and “help people” who we can plan projects with. My favorite resource is the soccer field. It isn’t FIFA regulation size, turf, or even nice grass. But there is grass. There are two fields in Goranboy, and this is a stadium field. When I saw it, I thought it was for a professional team or maybe a junior pro team, but my work said it was only for the kids! It is one of the most awesome fields I have ever seen. Not because of its beautiful grass or brand new stadium, both those entities need some work, but its purpose is solely for the kids of Gornaboy. It is also plopped down smack in between two mountain ranges.

This brings me to point number three (and what I believe to be Kate’s favorite part of Goranboy): the mountains. The landscape of my community isn’t something to write home about (hehe, I am writing home about it though!). There is one building in the city that is above 4 floors and that’s an apartment building. There is the omnipresent Heydar Aliyev Park that abides in all region centers as an homage to the late leader of the Azerbaijani Republic. We have a comparatively big post office with a post lady who is the bane of Kate’s existence but loves me, haha. We have one main paved road and a few paved ones off to the side, but most are dirt. We have the smallest bazaar I have seen in a region center. There is no river, lake, forest or anything of that sort. No university or higher educational body to brag about (even in Merrimack we have Tomas Moore College!). We have no bus station, but a dirt lot that takes people only to the nearest big city, Ganja. This is in the OPPOSITE direction of where Kate and I normally want to go, so what we have to do is catch a 5 minute 3-manat taxi ride out to the aforementioned Goran where buses from Ganja pass through and go to all parts of the country. I have asked about this taxi ride, and people in the community say Kate and I are not getting ripped off, but among the Peace Corps Volunteers it is agreed that a 3-manat 5-minute taxi ride is robbery in Azerbaijan. I know PCV’s who can get to the opposite side of their city in a 5 minute ride for one manat. ANYWAYS, sorry for the tangent. What we DO have in Goranboy to brag about is that we are surrounded by these beautiful snow-capped mountains. These, as I am told, will stay snow-capped for a while after all the snow has melted on the other mountains in Azerbaijan. On a clear day, Kate and I can walk out to the soccer field and the view is AWESOME. It’s pretty romantic and only makes our relationship as site mates stronger, haha. Living in Southern New Hampshire, I haven’t seen too many impressive mountains, but a mountain expert came and approved our mountains, so I know they are pretty geshenk. (Geshenk is the Azeri word for awesome, beautiful, cool, sweeeet all in one. I will be using it from here on out). The clear view of the mountains isn’t offered to us too often due to pollution in the area *cough*, but when it is clear, it’s amazing.

Point number four: Kate. I know that the writer of that travel book couldn’t have remarked about my site mate, but I feel like when talking about my site, I have to afford some of the post to my site mate, Kate. She is 24 like me and we get along very well. We walk around together and attract a lot of attention, but it doesn’t really pose a problem. We do conversation clubs together because that way it’s just more fun because there is someone there you can look at and say: “Did YOU hear that, because I definitely heard that. That was NOT NORMAL!” We spend a lot of time here trying to figure life out in Azerbaijan and are each other’s crutches if one of us needs it. We have a lot of fun making fun of life here, so instead of getting upset at what happened, we laugh a lot of the time. This has been my approach to many things in life, and to have a site mate who likes to laugh at things is good for me (Alright, I admit that maybe sometimes we laugh AT people, but that’s okay, because they laugh at us too).

So I think I have made a pretty good case for my site. Even if it isn’t, I have proven that it is remarkable, because I have just written a pretty long blog post about it. Goranboy was a depressing thought before I got here and realized how awesome it is. I live in a community where everyone knows my name (CHEERS!) and will be protected by those rare haters out there. I have some pretty scenes to look at, a lot to work with, and a site mate who I couldn’t have hand-picked any better. So, even though my last post was a little depressing, I really do like it here in Azerbaijan and especially in the Unremarkable Goranboy.

Tuesday, March 9, 2010

There's no crying in soccer!

So, ever since I was young, I have put a lot of emotion into the sports I play. I have cried a lot, but have normally been able to keep it off the court/field/diamond and saved it for my poor mother or father. They usually are sympathetic, but try not to let me get myself worked up.
Here, I didn’t think there was a danger of crying. I play with 11-14 year-olds and they are the funniest kids, even though I don’t understand half the things they say. I have been working with this age group since I myself was a kid of 16, so there are no surprises. The boys pretty much act the same as they do in America. I even have a few admirers from the crowd. One young lad of 12 has offered to marry me. His pick up line? “Amy, you are old and need a husband; I will marry you because I like you a lot.” Haha, guys I think you should start using this one on the TWENTY FOUR YEAR OLDS in the clubs, see what happens.

The other day, I decided to break out of my comfort zone. Usually I am not shy playing soccer with anyone. I am pretty confident in my abilities and usually can keep up. However, the 20-something male age group here has intimidated me. I know that girls just don’t play soccer in my community and they see me as an anomaly that they can’t quite figure out. I knew that they would be trash talking me the whole time I played with them, but I wanted to play with them anyways. Kate and I have had trouble reaching the 20-something age group here because a lot go to the bigger cities near by to study in college and a lot don’t leave the house very often. They asked to play. We ended up playing a big game, the 11-14 year olds vs the 20-somethings and a few 10-year olds. The older guys would not under any circumstance pass to me, and if by some miracle, I did get the ball, if I made a mistake I would get yelled at. The whole group didn’t do this, only one or two guys. However, I let these two people get to me and stormed off the field. Tears welled up in my eyes and I tried to high-tail it out of there so no one would see me cry, but alas, I didn’t make it. I walked out of the stadium and it took me 30 minutes taking the long way to get home. I needed to calm myself down.

Unfortunately, I had worked myself up so much that when my host family asked what was wrong, I burst out into tears again and my host sister started crying because I was crying and it was just a mess. I explained to them I had just had a bad day and not to worry. They asked me if I was crying because I missed my family and I said “mmhmm”, because I had worked myself up so much that I couldn’t speak English, never mind Azeri.

Over the next few days, people all around town were asking me why I had cried. Even people who didn’t know me or weren’t even there. I had to explain over and over again that I was just angry and I am okay now. Kate’s host sister found out and told my host sister. She then asked my why I hadn’t told her that boys were bothering me. She offered for my host dad and cousins to go beat this boy up. I THINK she was kidding, but it was a nice gesture anyways.

I was asked so many times why I cried that I eventually looked back on the event and tried to analyze it. I tried to make explanations as to why on earth I had just made this outburst, because in my world, there’s no crying in soccer (at least not ON the field). I tried to reason that I was stressed, but I am really not that stressed here. Then I said I was PMS-ing (the quintessential girl excuse) but I am not even close to it being that time. I then said maybe I really did miss my family, and my host sister was right! However, I always miss my family, and don’t really cry about it (anymore :)). I have stopped trying to reason with myself and accepted the fact that I just had a weak moment where my pride was hurt and I cried about it.

So, my site mate Kate offered to go back with me, but when the next Tuesday rolled around, she was at the dentist in Baku, so I was to go alone. I decided to take a page from my mother’s “glamour days” from her times coaching middle school soccer where she would have the girls dress up and play. I wanted to make myself feel better and show them a girl playing soccer. I painted my nails pink, kept my make-up on, put some earrings in and walked over there to the tunes of the likes of Meredith Brooks, Fiona Apple and the Spice Girls. (Girl Power!) This is NOT my normal getting-ready-for-soccer-routine, but I walked on the field, the kids asked me if I was okay, I said yes, then I started serving crosses for them to head into the net. When the older guys showed up, we played. I played on the kid’s team so I would get the ball, and I schooled all the older guys and let none of them school me. Problem solved and I showed them how a girl can be a girl and play soccer.

My mother recently gave me this comment in an email: “Tears are how we take the edge off the emotion and make it something we can handle easier. Crying when employed correctly is not a sign of weakness but a sign of strength. Other tools used for handling strong emotions like breaking things, hard physical labor, retreating to your man-cave, seem to work better for men.” I am happy to announce I have no man-cave and rarely break things. I overreacted to the effect of my tears and learned that a good cry can really release tension. Also, that the boys I play soccer with really don’t care if I cry, as long as I am okay in the end and, of course, I play well. :)

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Weekly Goals

So every week I set simple goals for myself to achieve, making it easier for me to mark progress at site. These goals can range from talking with my counterpart about a new project to making sure to shower (this is a goal I try to set for more than once a week, but alas, sometimes it isn’t that easy to achieve). My goals for this week were to set up yet another English Conversation Club, but for the English teachers and a few bank employees for the town, get my phone fixed and get a haircut. OH, and to try and not throw a hissy fit at the kids staying at my house, they are THIS CLOSE to getting a smackdown. Good thing I am a patient person (Jess stop laughing, I AM a patient person, really). Seems like easy goals, but here, everything is just a little more difficult.
Surprisingly, getting my hair cut was the easiest. I asked for a straight cut (because that is basically all I know how to say in hair-styling speak) and the young woman started to cut my hair. During this process, two other girls walked into the “salon” (a one-room store with four chairs and one blow dryer) and were commenting on my hair without knowing that I could understand what they were saying. They asked why I was getting my hair cut straight. The stylist said that’s how I said I wanted it and the girls apparently disagreed with my choice. These women had hairstyles that probably took them an hour every morning to get ready. Without a blow-dryer and time, a straight cut is fine with me. Anyways, they then proceded to say the liked the color of my hair, and I piped up and thanked them for the compliment. They seemed a little embarrassed, but were nice about it. I ended up compromising and letting the girl cut angles around my face (miming what I wanted), which didn’t come out too bad and only cost two manat (about $2.60). Great success!
Starting up the conversation club was a little more troublesome, but I think it will be a success. The English teachers here need to practice their conversational skills, and this is a great way to do it. The better they speak English, the better the kids will speak English. Hopefully, this will also provide a great kickback for my sitemate Kate and I in the form of English speaking friends within the community. There aren’t too many English speakers here, and although our Azeri is good, we still get lost in translation A LOT. People must think we are crazy. I want you all to go out on your next work day and go through the whole day not explaining yourself once. Let’s see what people think of you. It makes it even worse here that everyone has to know where we are going and what we are doing at all times. I leave the house and my family asks where I am going, and all I am doing is going to the bathroom. A girl can’t even go to the outhouse in peace! Anyways, sorry for the tangent. I encountered few obstacles in setting up the club, which makes me wonder if anyone is going to show up at all. The only problem is that Kate and I were debating days to do the club, and I cannot remember for the life of me which day I told the teachers to come. I guess I will just go to both days and see what happens. I feel like here it’s the best laid plans of mice and men, they never go smoothly. We shall see next week.
A big obstacle I encountered this week was fixing my phone. This was a mystery to me, because to most Azeri’s, their phone is their life. I went to one store, explained the problem, and it seemed that they knew what was wrong, but they said the tools to fix it weren’t there. I asked where I should go to get it fixed, they said “here”. This totally confused me, because they had just said they couldn’t fix it, so I said thank you and left to maybe return later if I could not find a better option. The only other phone store was down the street, so I took a trip down there. They seemed to know what the problem was, but the guy who fixes the phones was at home (in the middle of the work day) and would return at 3p.m. So, after my conversation club, I returned at 3:45 p.m., and there were three new guys at the counter, and they seemed stumped about my problem. One of them seemed more nervous about the fact I did not speak Russian than he did about my phone. After about four attempts of me speaking to him in Azeri and him responding in Russian and me saying “I Don’t understand Russian, I am American”, I gave up on talking to him and only talked to the guy who would speak to me in Azeri. He actually took out an English conversation book and half listened to me while he tried to find “I am sorry, we can’t help you now” in the book, which to his surprise, I knew in Azeri. So obviously, the guy who fixes the phones was not there and I was asked to return the next day at 11a.m. So the next day I went to the store again, the guy who fixes the phones proceeded to take apart my phone while “tsk”-ing that I had broken my phone. I endured this for 5 minutes, then he told me he could not fix my phone. So I was sold a ghetto electronic doohickey that charges my battery outside the phone. At least my phone works now, and I had a great feeling of accomplishment doing this all by myself in Azerbaijani.
As for the kids, I was having one of those days today where I was in a bad mood, and just didn’t want to even be cheered up. I was okay with staying upset and the littlest thing set me off. I had to walk around the block a few times because I just didn’t want to go home to face the screaming kids. The kids at soccer were especially rude to me and I just couldn’t face home. I got home and there they were, screaming, and me almost crying because I didn’t want to deal with someone else’s misbehaving kids. I didn’t want to call anyone to talk because if I had I would have burst out into tears, and they would not have stopped. Then my whole host family would have been all over me asking why I was crying, trying to comfort me, and I did not want that. I was feeling sorry for myself sitting in an easy chair, knitting and listening to my IPod, and one of the kids came up and took a bud out of my ear. He proceeded to start dancing, and the other kid came over and took the other bud out and danced too. I went to my room and grabbed my portable speakers and came out and played “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)” by BeyoncĂ© for them and we had a dance party in the middle of the living room. I sang and taught the kids how to twirl a girl, and my host sisters couldn’t correct my dancing because this was MY music, even though I am not a good dancer. I just sang and danced and twirled to American music with the kids for about an hour. My bad mood completely disappeared. So it turned out that the kids I didn’t want to even go home and see were the cure to my bad mood. Go figure.
Next week my goals include starting a girls’ volleyball team, starting the conversation club that I set up this week, going to see a few new buildings in town and maybe a shower or two in there. Hopefullly.