What were your happiest and saddest moments in Peace Corps?

Hello all, I’m back to continue writing based on the blog seeds that Dad sent me a while ago.  Even though I only have about 2 months left here, I’m really going to try to address all of the prompts he has sent me.  Please nag me if I don’t write for a long time, since I seem to be really terrible at self-motivating when it comes to blogging.  And now to answer… What were your happiest and saddest moments in Peace Corps?

The Peace Corps experience is interesting in that it is a complete emotional roller coaster.  Highs are 50 times higher, but lows are unfortunately 50 times lower.  Because of this, it’s a bit difficult to pinpoint specific moments that have been particularly happy or sad.  More accurately, I’ve had a whole lot of happy times and a few sad phases.

In my service, I was hit pretty hard with two periods of depression.  The first was when I first moved to my site after training.  The training experience was like going back to college.  I got to spend all day learning new things and spent my free time with the new friends I was making.  On days off, we would get together to eat pringles and watch Family Guy.  Imagine leaving that and going to site, where there was only one other American anywhere nearby (who I hadn’t had the chance to get to knew during training and who I was sure would hate me) and I suddenly had to adjust to living with a new family and figuring out my work.  The first few months were pretty rough.  In the beginning, I eagerly spent time with my host family, but after a couple of months, I spiraled into numbness.  I don’t think I actually realized I was depressed at the time.  It didn’t become clear to me until I looked back on it later.  Needless to say, I would come home from school, drink copious amounts of tea, eat cookies, and watch TV.  I think in those 2 or 3 months, I managed to watch LOST in its entirety as well as all of the existing episodes of Chuck, How I Met Your Mother, Dexter, and various others.  At the time, I just thought this was what happened when life slowed down.  Now I realize it was a form of escapism when I was too overwhelmed with trying to adjust to everything new around me.  Though this time of my service didn’t feel particularly sad at the time, I feel upset about it when I look back.  How much more could I have accomplished in that time?  Where would my Azeri be if I had studied more diligently rather than watching TV all day?  How many more connections could I have made?  But, I suppose this is the way of depression, and perhaps I really needed that time to completely adjust and grow.

The second period of sadness came this past winter, but I chalk this up to how cold it was.  I ended up spending my entire savings just to heat my house.  And when I say heat my house, I mean heat my bedroom.  Heat did not stay well contained in my large, soviet apartment this winter, so even with a few layers, I managed to just be comfortable in my bedroom and then shiver when I wanted to cook, shower, or go to the bathroom.  Normally, I enjoy snow and cold weather, because I can sit in a heated apartment, sipping hot chocolate and reading.  This winter, I realized just how much I take for granted in my privileged little life back home.  As we neared the end of winter, I had next to no motivation to do any work…or anything productive, really.  Spring couldn’t come fast enough.  Luckily, right as spring came, my mood lifted considerably, and I had a surge of energy that lifted me out of the darkness.

 

BUT!  Oh friends, not these tones!  Rather, let us raise our voices in more pleasing and more joyful sounds! Joy!  Joy!  (10 points to Griffindor for whoever can first identify that quote.)  My happiest moments in Peace Corps?  It seems there were many.  The times I can remember being filled with pure, unadulterated happiness – swearing in as a volunteer; my first time guesting at Kamila’s; showing Caleb around Shirvan and feeling like I was in the music world again; Fidan’s birthday (both years!); spontaneous music making in a Georgian pub; weekends at Novxani with my counterpart and her family; seeing Doug and Ricky approaching at the airport in Amsterdam; laughing and playing games with my students; singing at Christmas at home; making Novruz treats with my host family; fall extravaganza weekend with friends; performing at Eurovision; every time a student accomplished something difficult; Shirvan Summer Arts Camp.  To be honest, the week of Shirvan Summer Arts Camp was quite possibly the best week of my entire service, but I won’t go into anymore detail here considering I’ve already devoted a post to this event.  Really, this summer especially was full of happy moments.  I got to spend time with friends here, play host to Mom and Dad, see a great deal of Azerbaijan, spend the week at GLOW camp, and go to Turkey, which was amazing.  I guess what I’m saying here is that I can’t really identify a happiest moment, but isn’t that a good thing?  Shouldn’t life be such that we are filled with so much happiness it’s difficult to pinpoint one time that outranks all the others?

In my own rambling way, I would have to say that this experience has ultimately been one of the most fulfilling, challenging, rewarding, and yes, happiest times I’ve yet had the opportunity to live and I look forward to my last few months here with fingers crossed that it will be filled with many, many more happy times.

Shirvan Summer Arts Camp

Hello, all!  In my blogging absence, I have been very busy this summer.  Below is an article I wrote about the Shirvan Summer Arts Camp.  Enjoy!

It’s all too easy throughout service to find ourselves questioning, “What am I really doing here?  Am I making a difference at all?”  But there are moments, moments in which everything becomes clear and we realize what exactly it is we’re doing here, why exactly we’ve come, and what exactly anyone stands to gain from the whole crazy mess of events.  For me, that moment came in early June as I stood on stage in front of my students and their families and scanned the many beaming faces looking back at me.  Smiles plastered on their faces, their artwork scattered through the hall, I realized that not only were they completely overjoyed to be there, but they were proud of what they’d accomplished.  This came on the last day of the Shirvan Summer Arts Camp, when a week of hard work culminated in an art exhibition and concert.

         Shirvan Summer Arts Camp 2012 took place over a 6 day period the first week of June, with lessons in various art forms taking place the first 5 days and a final exhibition and concert on the 6th.  Roughly 50 students attended and were separated into 5 groups, which then rotated through five different lessons throughout the week.  Six Azerbaijani counterparts contributed and acted as group counselors, making connections with students as well as teaching valuable life lessons, such as sharing, respecting others, and being open to trying new things.  In addition, a team of 10 dedicated PCVs took on responsibilities that helped the week run smoothly. (Teachers: Carrie Kouma – Performing Arts, Kiersten Yanni – Tactile Arts, Stephanie Gray – Crafts, Danny Burns – Creative Thinking, Jarrett Dunn & Malaika McAdams – Photography; Additional support in all art forms: Liz McHale and Henry Tappa; Supplies and snacks runner/purchaser: Alicia Noland; Official Archivist: Grace Bowman.)
         As for myself, I couldn’t have asked for a more perfect representation of what I had always imagined my Peace Corps service to be.  Kids laughed, danced, and painted their skin with Kiersten, not at all afraid to get a little dirty.  They made the most creative little sock puppets with Stephanie, excelled at strategy games with Danny, found and captured beautiful spots with Jarrett and Malaika.  In my own room, a myriad of highlights emerged.  When asked to “be ice cream,” the students stopped in their tracks and started melting, without even missing a beat.  A quieter group of kids relaxed and opened up as we all sang “Lean On Me” together.  I discovered latent talents in acting, comedy, drumming, and singing in students constantly written off as problems in school.  But best of all, I had the opportunity to watch my students open up and express themselves in ways I had never seen before.  With this, I was reminded how incredibly essential the arts and humanities are to education, how important it is to stop and listen to your students, and that children, when given high expectations, will rise to them.  One student in particular changed me.  A 6th former, this student does not excel in school.  He never does his homework, never tries in the lesson, and is written off by most of his teachers as lazy.  He is generally loud and disruptive in lessons, and I’m ashamed to say that I didn’t expect much more than that from him at camp. Imagine my shock when I discovered that he is an incredibly talented musician.  During the music portion of performing arts, he was completely engrossed in the activity and as we all sang, he picked up a can and started drumming.  Watching him play was like magic, like the drum was not something separate but an extension of his own arm as he joined in with the song. I’ve never seen him so focused, so happy or so proud.  What an excellent reminder that our students are all talented and amazing little beings, just looking for opportunities to express themselves.
        All in all, this project was a moving experience for PCVs, students and counterparts alike.  Each of the PCVs involved made lasting impressions on the students, connecting with many of them in a significant way.  I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face even if I tried as I watched my counterparts take ownership and pride in the work they were doing.  And the chorus of pure children’s laughter that constantly rang through the school throughout the week is a sound I won’t soon forget.  This experience is one I will carry with me always, and I hope it has changed the lives of others as much as it has changed mine.  The best compliment came from my host mother, who worked as a counterpart in the camp as well as helping with a large portion of the preparations and planning.  She told me that she thought the students’ lives were changed forever.  She said they often don’t have the opportunity to express themselves and in fact are encouraged to be closed and reserved.  But with these activities, in connecting with PCVs who are so full of life and uninhibited, in watching their Azerbaijani teachers bubbling over with joy, and being encouraged to express themselves individually, she said the children had found freedom.  And this, I think, is the best thing we can ask for as volunteers – The knowledge that we have encouraged our communities to take ownership of what we start, to see them proud of what they, themselves, have done, and to inspire them to freedom.
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    Me with all camp students
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Students perform at final concert
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Student artwork on display at final exhibition
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Students show off their creative sock puppets
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Things got a little messy while painting!
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Experimenting with sounds in a recycled drum circle
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Pouring paint for dancing
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Critical thinking skills at work
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The best Peace Corps team anyone could ask for!

What has been your proudest moment in Peace Corps?

As my service comes to a close, I’ve been thinking about this a lot. This is a time of reflection in the tenure of a PCV. Some days, it feels like the time has gone by in a blink, and other days, it seems like I’ve been here forever. Meanwhile, I find myself wondering – What have I actually accomplished here? Have I really made a difference? Was this experience worth it for those I worked with? Was it worth it for me? To be honest, I don’t know the answers to these questions yet. I’m not sure I ever will.

I think that many volunteers come to Peace Corps with big dreams and ideas. It’s nearly impossible not to. I tried not to have any expectations of what my experience would be before leaving, but I still dreamed that I would be able to do something huge with a lasting impact – start a choir that changes lives, open a community theatre that would continue long after I left, inspire all of my students and have them speaking fluent English by the time my service ends. In reality, things are much subtler. I imagined my proudest moment would be looking up at my choir and clearly, without a doubt being able to see I’d made a difference. But really, my proudest moment hinges on the small difference in one life.

There is one boy who didn’t seem to be very interested in English. In class, he would often make jokes or distract other students and would almost never participate or pay attention to the lesson. My counterpart told me that his mother had spoken to her and asked her to stop trying to make him participate. She said that he couldn’t learn and that we should just give him the top marks each day and let him just pass through. I was so disheartened to hear that he didn’t even have parental support in his learning experience. My counterpart and I would often ponder what we could do to help him learn. After she told me he was very gifted with drawing, we tried to incorporate more pictures in the lesson and hoped he would learn better this way. It seemed to make a little bit of a difference, but not much. One thing we would always try to do, however, is ask him the easiest questions and praise him when he answered well. Most teachers here will only ignore weaker students or berate them when they don’t immediately know the right answer, so we hoped that this would encourage him to participate. The one and only thing he finally seemed comfortable saying was, “I feel happy,” when we asked how he was. One day, my counterpart wasn’t at school and I agreed to teach our lesson myself. Normally, I don’t like to do this because the children don’t behave as well for me. Furthermore, I don’t feel I have the language skills to manage the class and solve problems the way I would with English speaking students. On this day, though, I agreed to do it to help out my counterpart when she couldn’t be there. On that day, this boy was a living terror. Not only did he refuse to listen or participate, he also managed to fire up all of the other students as well. They were well beyond my control, so I finally took his daily grade book and gave him a 2 for the day. For those of you who don’t know, a 2 is the equivalent of a D in the US, and it is a huge deal to give one. Teachers very rarely give anything below a 3 unless a student has been particularly disruptive. He was angry, but it didn’t seem to make a big difference to him. At the next lesson, however, he was more active than he had been before and his behavior was much better. My counterpart and I were very impressed and gave him a 5 for the day. This, we could tell, was a huge deal for him. I’m not sure he ever gets 5s, so he was very excited and proud of himself. That day, when I was leaving the school, I was stopped by his mother, who works at the school. She asked me, “Why did you give my son a 2 the other day in English? He says he sneezed twice so you gave him a bad mark.” The confrontation emanating from her face was almost palpable. I felt frustrated that I may not have the language skills to respond how I’d like, but rather than turn away from the situation, I answered, “No. I gave him a 2 because he was not being a good student that day. He would not stop talking, he was rude, and he wouldn’t participate in the lesson. Today, though, we gave him a 5 because he was respectful and quiet and participated in every activity. Your son is very smart when he tries.” With that, I turned and left the school.

In the following weeks, my counterpart and I continued to encourage him when he did something well. Still, we couldn’t get him to say more than his one phrase, “I am happy,” but we didn’t give up. Finally, one day as I was walking to the classroom, he and another boy were running up behind me and I heard him say, “Hello, Miss Carrie!” I turned to look at him and said hello back. Then, without being prompted, he asked me, “How are you, today?” I couldn’t hide my shock. He had never said this to me before. Actually, I’m not sure he had even ever said hello to me in English before. I answered that I was fine and asked how he was. He looked up at me, huge smile plastered on his face and said, “Thank you, I am happy.” With that, he and his friend turned and ran to the cafeteria to buy a snack before the lesson. I told my counterpart what had happened, and I could see that her heart was bursting with pride just as much as mine was. To an outside observer, this wouldn’t seem like anything extraordinary – just a kid asking his English teacher a question he surely learned in his very first English lesson. But to us, it meant the world. He had been listening all along. Besides, isn’t that what we all really want, anyway? To touch the lives of others and, at the risk of oversimplifying or sounding trite, make them feel happy? From that day forward, even though he still doesn’t speak much in class, my counterpart and I have noticed he seems more trusting and eager to be at the English lesson, and every day he shows us more of the sweet heart inside him that had been hidden from us for so long under his tough, class clown exterior. Whenever I feel like I’m not making a difference in this experience, I think back to that, to how proud my counterpart and I felt, to the huge smile on his face when he spoke to me, and I feel like it’s all been worth it, even just for that fleeting moment in time.

Oh, my! Could it be? Finally…another blog post!

Hello again, dear readers. I congratulate you for being a part of this rather momentous occasion – my return to the blogosphere! As many of you already know, my computer has been a regular lazarus over the past 6 or 7 months (read: since I got it), dying and coming back to life again multiple times. Of course, coming back to life entails sending it with someone who is getting on an airplane to America and asking them to help me take care of the problem, so these resurrections haven’t exactly been easy. (Then again, are ANY resurrections easy…?) Unfortunately, through all of this it would appear the machine’s supposed immortality is flawed and none of the many returns from the dead seem to stick, so here we sit, almost summer and no blog posts to show for the past few months. (As a side note, Apple has finally decided to believe me that they sold me a lemon in the first place and will be replacing it with a new machine next month. Fingers crossed this one is a little more reliable.) Really, though, I’d be lying if I said my computer woes were the only reason I haven’t been writing. Let’s be honest. I have working hands, pens, and paper. I could have at least been writing them to be posted later. But you know how it is. Even when you are having some kind of adventurous experience, eventually the adventure wears away and it becomes every day life. The things that may seem unusual to friends and family back home are no longer strange and unusual to me, so I’m often at a loss for what to write about. Luckily, my father is very perceptive. He’s noticed that this may be a contributing factor to my cyber absence and has sent me a list of blog seeds to get me started. So, for the next few weeks, I’ll be writing based on those seeds. Just to finish this out, though, here are a few things that I’ve done in the past few months and things I have coming up.

 

What’s happened:

  • Lived through an unusually cold winter for Shirvan and spent about half the time complaining about the cold

  • Got the chance to be a part of a Eurovision preliminary competition performance (and GOSH, it was fun)

  • Started the couch to 5k running program (This might actually be a whole future blog post. Apparently, a GIRL running here is a sight to be seen. It’s been weird. More to come.)

  • Actually finished MOST of my fall reading list, making some adjustments. (Threw out the Nietzsche and replaced it with the Golden Compass trilogy)

  • The professor got sick and died. May he RIP.

  • I finally visited Sheki and loved it

  • Presented at a training with my counterpart

  • Welcomed new volunteers to Shirvan

  • I realized that I am, in fact, happier without a computer – minus the work setbacks, of course. When I didn’t have the option of looking at stupid websites or watching TV all evening, I actually read more, made more music, and listened to more news/political podcasts. Perhaps I should learn from this…

 

What’s to come:

  • Summer will probably be ungodly hot and I will spend half (or more) of the time complaining about the heat

  • Shirvan Summer Arts Camp! Can’t wait for this.

  • Mom and Dad are coming to visit. Can’t wait for this, either!

  • GLOW

  • My 26th birthday (And STILL not married?! *gasp!*)

 

Alright, I hope that gives you a little glimpse of what’s been going on. Again, I apologize for my extended absence here, and I hope you enjoy the next few blog posts, inspired by my father!

A few reflections on the USA

I’m sitting in the Istanbul airport, 6 hours into an 8 hour layover, tired, bored, and smelly. Also just realized it may have been a good idea to get my drink at Starbucks BEFORE I sat down with my computer, but I guess I won’t be here long, anyway. My computer plug doesn’t quite fit into the little plug in slot on this table. So basically, what I’m saying is that I’m feeling slightly frustrated and ready to just be back in Azerbaijan. Perfect time for a blog entry, right?

First off, let me start by saying I’m really sorry I haven’t been better about updating this blog. I know it’s really annoying to see nothing for a month and then suddenly receive a 30 page update in your email. So I have made it one of my new year’s resolutions to write more consistent updates and keep them concise and to the point. That said, I’d like to start off 2012 with a few of my reflections on my recent trip back to the USA. Since I seem to favor list format, that’s how I’ll present this. Keep in mind that these are only my observations and perceptions and may differ from others. Enjoy.

1. Our relationship with food is absolutely disgusting.
I never realized just how unhealthy a lot of food is in the US. The biggest culture shock I went through was going into Trader Joes, a place I was excited to shop at because of the hype that it’s all organic and natural and whatever else. However, when I went inside, I was just appalled. Maybe 20% of the store was fresh food, if that. I was most disgusted when I saw a jar of pre-made apple pie filling. At one point in time, I may have been excited to have this. But now? It just irritated me. Really? A pre-made apple pie filling? Do you realize how easy it is to make an apple pie filling from scratch?! Granted, I’ve been eating almost all locally grown, seasonal, and fresh food over the past year because that’s what there is to eat. But living on my own and cooking for myself from scratch for nearly every meal has made me realize just how unhealthy our eating habits have become. I understand the desire and the need for convenience, but should that come at the expense of our health? In fairness, I ate mostly restaurant food for the duration of my stay because of the social aspect involved in going out to eat, but reexamining what we eat and our relationship to food through the eyes of a foreigner was very enlightening to me. How did I eat before I left the USA? What has changed in the past year in my relationship to food and which of these changes will carry on long-term? Interesting to think about, anyway.

2. The USA makes me feel confident again!
There could be a number of reasons for this reflection. One thing might be that I feel more confident when I’m not reminded every five minutes of my marital status or body shape and size. I didn’t realize just how much emphasis is put on these things for women in Azerbaijan or how physiologically damaging they could be until now. Let’s be real. I am not married and I’m NOT sad about that. I’m not ready right now. Being in the US, no one particularly cares about this because it’s not so out of the ordinary to want to do other things before considering marriage, but according to coworkers, taxi drivers (Seriously. Every taxi driver.), shop keepers, waiters, and pretty much anyone else I interact with, it is almost appalling that I am 25 (gasp!) and unmarried (double gasp!). Here’s the thing. Remember how I said I didn’t want to get married now? ANYONE would start to get psyched out and think that maybe there’s something wrong with them when so much emphasis is put on why you’re not yet married. Being back in the US was like being free again. No one asked me my marital status or told me I looked fatter or skinnier that day, so I didn’t think about those things. How glorious! On a somewhat related note, it probably helps with confidence when you don’t sound like a 5 year old when you talk to people. Just an idea.

3. Good friends are always good friends. And I have a LOT of good friends.
The best thing about seeing old friends again is the feeling that you just saw them a few days prior. How lucky am I that I had this feeling with every single friend I saw while home?! A few of us even commented on how strange it seemed to spend time together again knowing that we hadn’t seen each other in over a year but feeling like it had only been a week. On the flip side of this, one encounter that was a little different was with my friend Sung. I think the reason for this is that she and I have both been living as foreigners for the past year (although she is far less foreign, as she’s been living in the US for something like 6 years). I noticed something different about her – a greater confidence and even more excellent English speaking skills. She commented that she saw something different in me as well, perhaps an openness or maturity that had developed. Either way, we agreed that we could see differences in one another but that we had a somewhat difficult time pinpointing exactly what those differences were. If I’ve changed this much in the past year, I can only imagine how different I might be after another year of service and half of travel. I do know one thing, though. Even as I change and grow and my friends change and grow, those who are true friends will always feel comfortable to be around even if we’ve grown apart. I feel so fortunate to have so many wonderful, inspiring, genuine, and enriching friendships in my life.

OK, I think that’s all for now. I’m trying not to waste TOO much of your time, dear readers. I’ll close out with my 2012 resolutions. Please feel free to comment and share yours as well! Wishing all of you much love and happiness as you start the new year…

New Year’s Resolutions
1. Healthy habits for a healthy lifestyle – Continue learning to cook good, wholesome foods from scratch and be sure to exercise every day. This is NOT a new year “lose weight” resolution. This IS a resolution to make positive changes to my lifestyle that will be long lasting.

2. Read, read, read. At least one book per month.

3. Make music every day, even if I only have 2 minutes to do so.

4. Diligently study Azerbaijani and Russian. Be able to converse minimally in Russian by the end of 2012 and very comfortably in Azeri.

5. Exercise creativity. Make it a point to do at least one thing every week solely for the purpose of exercising creativity.

6. More. Blog. Posts.

7. Consistent journaling and writing. Perhaps complete a 30 day writing challenge or two. (Details to come in a future post.)

8. Perform random acts of kindness every day.

Happy 2012, all!

Pumpkin soup and the need for creativity – a fall update

I’m sorry, Dad. I know I should be better about keeping you in the loop of what’s happening in my life. Really, I do. I just get so…busy. And then by the time I sit down to write a blog post again, I can’t think of what to write about because all those great ideas I had in the moment have passed. Eh. So settle in for some rambling updates. If we’re lucky, I might even have an insight or two.

Well, fall seems to have made a brief appearance here in Azerbaijan as I’m quite certain now that it’s cold enough to be the beginning of winter already. Or maybe that’s just in my freezing cold apartment. Who knows. At any rate, over the past few weeks, I’ve really enjoyed making pumpkin soup, apple pie, apple cider, and hot chocolate. Wasn’t it just recently that I was dying of heat stroke? Time has flown faster than I thought possible over the past few months. I think some of this is compounded by the fact that school starts on September 15th in Azerbaijan but doesn’t really take off until well into October. I knew to expect the many schedule changes and uncertainty in lesson planning, but it was still quite frustrating. Now that we’re finally into the swing of the fall semester, I’ve suddenly become quite busy helping with trainings for the new volunteers, getting fall activities under way, and participating in holiday celebrations. In just 5 short weeks, I will be headed back to the states to spend Christmas with friends and family, drink mass quantities of coffee and enjoy daily hot, luxurious showers. I kind of almost feel like this is just a few days away, based on how quickly time’s been passing.

Right now, I’m sitting at my living room table, shivering by my less-than-adequate space heater that is also currently serving as a drier for the socks and underwear I washed today. Across the table, I can see the professor, the adorable little fuzzy companion I bought a couple of months ago, grooming himself and fussing with his bedding to settle in for a nap. Minus the part where I’m freezing, it’s nice to have these moments where I can just sit and enjoy my pleasant existence.

Enough rambling. Today, I want to share a few things with you, my dear readers. I’m sure it will be fascinating for all 3 of you. I want to tell you about the projects I’ll have coming up in Shirvan and touch a little bit on a recent cultural frustration. If you have any questions or are wondering about anything in my day to day experience, please feel free to ask about it in the comments and I’ll try to touch on it. In the meantime, I’ll try to be a little better about sitting down and writing more frequently so you don’t have to put up with so many long, rambly, updatey posts like this one.

As summer came to a close, I had a lot of potential projects that I was pretty excited about. Unfortunately, I haven’t had a chance yet to put many of them into action, between helping with training activities and the Azerbaijani school schedule being such a fluid and living organism. The one thing I did put into action was English club, but now I’m rethinking how I am going to do this. First off, my timing wasn’t great. I gave interested students a test on the first day of club and then went through the agony of choosing students to fill a limited number of slots for two different clubs. I felt absolutely awful posting the list of students who had been chosen as I saw some kids cheering and some walking away crushed. My original intention was to have two advanced clubs for the most motivated students and have an English games club open to all students that might be more suitable to students at a lower level. Unfortunately, we only met once before a 3 week hiatus – I was gone one week for training and the following 2 weeks were holiday breaks. The first day of club with selected students did not go as well as I’d hoped. For one thing, we spent half the time looking for a free room. For another, over half of the children selected apparently couldn’t come the day they were assigned, so only three children showed up for the second club. However, each group was well behaved and attentive after having eliminated the students who cause a lot of distraction. So now I’m not sure what to do. I want to get as many kids as interested and involved in English as possible, but I also want the club to be effective and worthwhile for the motivated students who attend. Hmm.

Besides English conversation clubs, I have a lot of other projects I’m hoping will kick off after the new year. I am planning to have an English performance night in the spring, which will basically just be a talent show where kids will be able to showcase some talent as long as it’s in English. I’ve told my classes about this and they LOVE the idea. They are really looking forward to this. I think it will also be nice for their parents to be able to see what they’ve been learning and working on at school. In addition to my English based activities, I’m hoping to start an art club after the new year with one of my counterparts. I’ve noticed that there are a lot of artistically gifted children in my classes, but artistic talent isn’t particularly encouraged or nurtured here. My plan is that this club will be by invitation to really develop the natural and raw talent of some of these kids, not to mention spark their creativity. Lastly, I’m really hoping I’ll be able to start a theatre group with a counterpart, but not in English. I am hoping I’ll be able to do this in Azeri. Since I’m hoping I’ll be able to use this as a means to broaden their minds and encourage creativity, I think it must be in Azerbaijani so that they won’t have a language hurdle to get over as we work on developing their creativity and attempt to break down inhibitions. As of yet, though, I don’t have a plan for this project or a counterpart with particular time or interest. So we’ll just have to see how that goes.

Speaking of trying to nurture creativity in my students… I had one of the most frustrating experiences in the classroom yet just last week. The children only had school for two days in between two separate breaks, so I was surprised that so many students actually showed up to school on Thursday and Friday last week. I discovered that my counterpart in one of my 7th grade classes very recently broke her leg and that she would be unable to come to school for a while. Because of this, I was left working with another counterpart of mine to teach both groups of this class together. She wanted to have her group work on some tests that my group didn’t need to do, so we decided to separate them for the day. I told my group I wanted them to write a story – any story about anything they wanted. In an attempt to get the ball rolling, I made up a ridiculous fairy tale off the top of my head as an example. I told them to write their own story in Azeri and work on translating it to English over fall break. I was sure they’d be able to come up with something and was frustrated to find that some students were just sitting and staring at a blank page, some were writing the exact fairy tale I had just made up, and some were writing about their families in English, as in everyone’s name, age, and profession. When I told these students that I didn’t want them to write about the same 3 things they always talk about, all I got in return were blank stares. Somehow, they just couldn’t wrap their heads around the idea of writing a fictional story. Much to my dismay, they just couldn’t muster up the creativity to even write a little story in their native tongue. Now, I am well aware that encouraging creativity is not a strong point in post-soviet education systems. This isn’t a new thing for me. But it’s always a little shocking and frustrating when you find yourself in a situation that forces you to stare it in the face. I guess that makes me all the more excited to work on these arts projects I have planned for my second year of service.

Oh! I almost forgot to mention one of the bigger projects I’m hoping to do this year. As of now, the plan is to put on a summer arts camp in Shirvan. I’m going to spend some of my free time this week on the preliminary stages of planning as well as figure out where to look for funding. I’ll be sure to keep you posted on that.

Well, I’m sure there was more I could have talked about, but I’m tired and ready for some tea and then sleep. So I’m going to close this and just hope that in the future, I’ll be a little more consistent with my posts. (I feel like I say this a lot…)

To close out…

Things I’ve done in the past few months:
– Bought a hamster
– Was the Azeri version of a maid of honor in a wedding
– Booked a flight back to the states for Christmas
– Finally wrote a few letters home
– Rearranged my living room
– Enjoyed life without a computer for a few weeks
– Talked to my host mom and sister about dreams and entanglement
– Visited a friend in the hospital
– Spent a few days in the village
– Scared all nearby Azerbaijanis by petting street puppies
– Belted out 90s music around a campfire
– Dried freshly washed socks and underwear on a space heater

A Summer of Travel

Here we are, beginning of September, and I haven’t written since June 25th. Wow. Dad, I’m sorry for not updating this more often. I’ll try to be better about that during this school year. Eh.

Oh, my. I don’t even know where to begin. It seems like this summer has flown by in a blur of activity and travel and trying to remember it feels like straining to recall a dream a few minutes after waking up. You know it happened. You can vaguely remember it, but every time you try to get a grasp on something, it slips away. This is how I feel about the majority of my summer. I find myself asking, “Where did all that time GO? What did I even do?!” I’ll try to recall events in a somewhat chronological order, but I can’t really make any promises. We all know my tendencies to rant and my affinity toward never really editing a post before publishing it.

Well, starting where we left off… Shortly after my last blog post, I celebrated my birthday. Twice. On my actual birthday, I invited a few friends in my community to the Turkish bakery for cake and tea. It was nice to spend some time with the friends I’ve made here and enjoy some good conversation. I even got some gifts, which I definitely wasn’t expecting. I received two pairs of earrings (I guess people everywhere notice my love of jewelry pretty quickly…), some delicious chocolates, and a not-so-subtle hint at moving along in the marriage game in the form of a statue from my counterpart and another English teacher friend. It is a gold statue of a beautiful man’s hand carefully placing a sparkly silver wedding ring on the delicate woman’s hand, ever so gently brushing the glittery roses below them. I guess 25 is too old to continue to be single. Who knew.

That weekend, I headed to Baku to meet two friends for an evening of good food, drinks, dancing, and whatever else we felt like doing. We had a delicious dinner at a restaurant recommended to us by another friend and then went to a market before heading to the next phase of our evening. As we were waiting in line at the market, I spotted something in the cooler. What was this? The nectar of the gods just sitting there with no fanfare, as though I hadn’t been missing this for nearly a year. Yes, sitting in the cooler was…a can of Dr. Pepper. I made some high pitched and startling nose, much to the annoyance of the other shoppers in the market, and seeing how this effected me, my friend graciously offered to shell out the 2 1/2 manat to buy this for me. It may or may not have been the sweetest birthday gift I could have asked for. Unfortunately, we went to a pub after the market where they wouldn’t allow me to bring in the Dr. Pepper, so rather than savor this, I was forced to stand outside and chug it. Oh, well. At the pub, we met up with the brother of one of my friend’s counterpart. He is studying in California, very close to where she is from. He and his friend offered to drive us around Baku to see the lights and to a beach party where there would supposedly be a live band by the sea. Unfortunately, after driving for an hour trying to find this place, it turns out it was closed due to severe wind earlier that day. I was pretty disappointed we wouldn’t get to see a band, but we still had a great time seeing the city and we ended the evening laughing and talking over tea with our guides and some of their friends. All in all, it was a pretty good evening.

The next morning, though we were pretty tired from staying up so late the night before, we woke up early to go up to Nabran, a sort of resort town in Azerbaijan. Another PCV friend lives in Xudat, a town only about 20 minutes away, so a group of about 10 of us were meeting to go to the beach and then to the water park. This was probably one of the most fun things I did all summer. We spent the day swimming, going down water slides, and playing on giant pool toys. We all stayed with my friend that night and then went to Xachmaz the next day (a city only about 45 min away from Xudat) for an amazing July 4th celebration. The volunteers in this city have a great community of English speaking Azeris, who were all invited to join in the celebration. We had a pot luck with a lot of traditional American picnic foods, like bbq chicken, pasta salad, watermelon, and corn on the cob. (Although I will say…nothing quite beats Nebraska corn.) All in all, this was pretty amazing weekend, and a birthday that I’ll surely remember for years to come.

A few weeks later, I headed out for Georgia, part deux. One of the girls had gotten sick the first time we went and asked if I wanted to go back with her and another girl so that she would have a chance to actually experience the city. Again, we didn’t really do much sightseeing, but we went to an art bazaar and heard quite a bit of live music. This few days made me realize how much I miss having the arts constantly in my life. I don’t want to sound like the arts are completely lacking in Azerbaijan. People here really do love music and dance. However, it seems to only be in certain settings. I haven’t really seen any street musicians here or people just getting together to jam. Art is taught in schools, but it doesn’t seem to be something of paramount importance in the society. (Perhaps I’m wrong about this and I just haven’t found my way into this community yet. I hope that’s true.) I about lost it more than once at the art bazaar. Just to walk through an area plastered with creative expression completely moved me. What I think effected me the most, however, was the spontaneous music we were fortunate enough to experience on this trip. On our first night there, we met a group of street musicians and exchanged a few words with them after listening to them for a while. Shortly after, we decided to go to this bar a little off the beaten path and have a beer. We were the only tourists in the place and a group of local Georgians were out to celebrate one girl’s birthday. As we were sitting there, they spontaneously broke into Georgian folk song. (If you don’t know much or anything about traditional Georgian music, much of it is A Cappella and is the oldest form of polyphony known, pre-dating Christianity. Kind of awesome.) It was amazing to sit and listen to these spontaneously sing together, without a care as to whether or not they’d be bothering anyone or disturbing the peace. And of course, they weren’t. Other patrons started dancing or came over to join in the song. After they sang for a bit, one of the guys who could speak English came over to talk to us. After chatting for a few minutes, he asked if we’d like to sing with them, to which we eagerly agreed. In the style of music they were singing, the group sings a drone while a soloist sings the melodic line. One of the other men held up his hand to show the notes for our drone line and we started to sing. Experiences like these are just part of why I love travel. I feel so lucky to have been there for that. How many people can say they sang traditional Georgian music with a group of locals in a pub? Not many, I should think. What an incredible experience. But our spontaneous music making would not end there. The next night, we went to the same area to sample some good Georgian wine and ran into the street musicians we had met before (as well as an expat we had met during Georgia, part one), but this time, we were accompanied by a new friend from the hostel. He is currently living/volunteering in Georgia with the teach2learn program and was in Tbilisi for the weekend. After talking to these musicians, we went to leave and one of them ran after us to ask if he could join us. We agreed, and he handed me the guitar he was carrying so he could go get the others. I started to noodle a little on it until our new friend said, “hey, let me see that!” I handed the guitar over to him and, as it turns out, he’s a pretty incredible guitarist. The musician came back with another friend as well as another guitar and drum, saw our friend playing, and sat down to start jamming with him. This all culminated in us making up blues and improvising in the middle of the street, not caring that we were singing and making music in public. It was so…freeing. Not only did we get to experience so much music and art on Georgia, part deux, we also met a lot of really interesting people staying at our hostel at the same time. Really great weekend. Just really great.

As I left Georgia, I headed to Zaqatala to help out with an arts camp for a week. The volunteers in this community are doing excellent work. This camp was run primarily by Azerbaijani counterparts with the PCVs there only acting as support. I had a great time in Zaqatala. Not only is it a gorgeous city, but the students at this camp were wonderful, creative, bright, and happy children. I enjoyed every minute spent with them.

After returning from Zaqatala, I enjoyed a few days at home before a minor confusion led to making some amazing new friends. My counterpart’s family has a summer home in Novxani, a district of Baku that is right near the beach and filled with large houses, complete with swimming pools. They had invited me to the house and when she called to ask when I would come, I told her I would go the first Friday in August. Unfortunately, through phone communication and language confusion, she thought I had said I would go on Friday, just two days later and only 2 days before I had to leave for GLOW, the nationwide girls camp I was helping with. After some confusion and arguing, I agreed to go just for an overnight before going to GLOW and was a little annoyed at having my plans changed so quickly. As it turns out, though, I ended up having a really great time there. This family is very interesting. They are always laughing and joking. The daughters do yoga and are studying to be doctors. They have one house cat and three yard cats that they’ve named (with people names, something Azeris don’t usually do) and take good care of. With all the stress and frustration of actually getting there, I think it was just what I needed. One overnight of no internet, no worries, good company, and laughter.

Whew. Looks like I’m at about 1900 words and not even into August yet. Thanks for sticking with me. I promise I’ll try not to drag this on TOO much longer.

The next week was spent in Qebele at GLOW camp. This was one of the most incredible projects I’ve had the privilege to be a part of. At this camp, 40-50 high school age girls come together to learn about leadership. I thoroughly enjoyed getting to know the girls and watch them go from timid strangers to best friends. It was also quite amazing to watch the Azerbaijani counterparts lead the camp and see how much the campers learned in just one short week.

After the week at GLOW camp, nothing particularly notable happened besides having a few friends come to visit me in Shirvan and a very strange health scare. (Weird rash all over my body which has since gone away and returned, fever, nausea, other weirdness. Still haven’t figured out what’s going on. I’ll update on that when I find out more.)

After months of waiting, the week I had most looked forward to finally arrived…I was going on vacation to Amsterdam for a week with Doug and Ricky. In my overnight at my counterpart’s family’s summer home, I had talked about my upcoming vacation and they offered to drive me to the airport for my very early Friday morning flight. So my counterpart and I headed to Baku early on Thursday to do a little shopping before going to the summer house to relax for the day. Unfortunately, the day before, I had been stricken with food poisoning (I swear Azerbaijan is trying to kill me), so I was still a little queasy and tired. I thought it would be difficult for me to stay up until 2AM, when the car would come to take me to the airport, but excitement got the better of me and I was wide awake when it was finally time to go.

The week in Amsterdam was so incredibly amazing I just don’t even know what to say to do it justice. Not only did I get to see my brothers, who I miss dearly, I also got to return to something familiar. It was interesting to think how different it is for me to experience Amsterdam now than it would have been if I had come from America. From Azerbaijan, it’s like returning home and being somewhere more familiar. If I had gone from America, I think it would have seemed so much more foreign and exotic. I was awed and inspired by the beauty of the tall, Dutch houses on the canal, the art museums, the cute cafes, the espresso, the endless bikes, the people walking their dogs… It was almost overwhelming. In fact, I was so overwhelmed in the Frankfurt airport at being back in Western culture and seeing things that looked familiar that I almost burst into tears at seeing a recycling bin. Anyway, after I have another week or so to process the trip, I may write another blog entry entirely devoted to that.

I guess that takes us to now. I’ve had a fairly lazy past few days, filled with reading, guesting, and episodes of The Wonder Years as I prepare to go back to school tomorrow for planning and then begin classes on September 15th. I’m looking forward to this school year. I think I will be VERY busy! Not only will I have my classes to prepare and teach, but I’m also planning on continuing English conversation clubs for students and teachers and starting a FLEX preparation group, games and arts clubs, and a theatre group. In addition, I was just voted one of the co-directors for GLOW, the nationwide girls camp I mentioned before. So I think that will also be a lot of work for me. To top this off, Lauren posted a whole list of new TV shows coming on this fall, and I found 4 more shows I want to watch. I’ve also made a fall reading list of 9 books, completely doable I should say, but another thing to add to a busy schedule. I think between school, clubs, books, TV, yoga, housework, and guesting, I’ll find myself without a free moment until Christmas. I’ll be sure to add “update my blog” to that list of things I need to do every week.

OK, I suppose that’s all for now. I hope you’ve enjoyed this journey through my rather eventful summer. I’ll leave you with my fall reading list. I feel like I will be more inclined to get through the whole list if I publish it for everyone, almost like the world is holding me accountable.

1. Riding the Bus With My Sister, by Rachel Simon
2. The Elegant Universe, by Briane Greene
3. A Confederacy of Dunces, by John Kennedy Toole
4. Three Cups of Tea, by Greg Mortenson
5. The Martian Chronicles, by Ray Bradbury
6. The Age of Innocence, by Edith Wharton
7. Catch-22, by Joseph Heller
8. Gwenhwyfar, by Mercedes Lackey
9. Thus Spake Zarathustra, by Friedrich Nietzsche