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!