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?