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. :)