I graduated from Falmouth in 2006. Then, after completing my studies at McGill University in Montreal, Quebec, I decided to join the Peace Corps. Now, follow my 27-month adventure as a youth development facilitator in Azerbaijan!

Thursday, May 12, 2011

You've Got Questions, I've Got Answers!

As I am finally responding to your wonderful questions (sorry for the tardiness), I am sitting in the confines of my cramped, yet strangely comfortable bunk on the overnight train to Baku. The windows are bolted shut, and there is no circulation, so it is unbearably hot and the scent of all the different passengers on board is lingering; not a nice smell! The men drink, play cards, and talk over one another about work problems and politics while listening to shrieking music on their phones without the courtesy of headphones, trying to one up each other in the volume department. The women sleep or gossip for what seems like the entire 12-hour trip. My sitemate, Trey, and I remain quiet, trying not to attract too much attention. We were given the top bunks. Although hotter, they at least allow us to remain private and avoid the usual hassles and inquisitions that come with foreigners riding on the train. We listen to music, separately and with headphones as to not disturb anyone else (what a concept right) and occasionally talk. Mostly, we both want to sleep. We have a busy few days of training in Baku coming up. It’s funny, at least for me, the Azerbaijan night train was not like anything I had ever seen before. The soviet era cabs are right out of a James Bond movie. When riding, I face constant stares. I am the subject of most conversations; little do they know I now speak their language! Police constantly ask to see my passport, curious and confused as to why an American would be travelling on the night train from Balakan. Despite the stares, harassment, and overwhelming smell of body odor, the train has become a normal part of my life. I have gotten so used to it that nothing about it seems to phase me anymore. This is one of the more exciting parts about being a Peace Corps volunteer. This is just one example, but a Soviet era night train across the sweeping landscape of post-Soviet Azerbaijan would be a once-in-a-lifetime experience for almost everyone I know. For me, it’s become a routine occurrence. It is just one more aspect of this adventure I call my new life that convinces me that the Peace Corps has prepared me for anything life might throw my way.

I also would like to quickly mention the glaring dichotomy of wealth in this country. The rift between dilapidated, post-Soviet underdevelopment and new-age oil wealth is ever present. I rode the night train to Baku in the cheapest cabin. Most of our cabin mates were village folk bringing their agricultural products to Baku to sell. On my return trip, things were a little different. Trey, working as an economist, works with a for-profit government organization. His counterpart, a great guy just a couple of years older than us, gave us a ride back in his “tricked Out” SUV. We listened to music and watched videos on his iPad, stopped for lavish meals on the way, and even paid off police when we were pulled over for driving too fast. Being in Baku, it is so painfully evident the difference in living standards in the capital compared to the regions. It is a different world and people like Trey’s friend, Yagub, are exposed to a completely different way of living.

Now, on to your questions:

1.     Being in Balakan, I am in a unique situation that few volunteers get to experience. I am about 20 minutes from the Georgian border and just a short hike through the mountains away from the autonomous republic of Dagestan in southwestern Russia. My geographic location is one of the best parts of my assignment. Azerbaijan can be seen as a rather homogeneous country, but Balakan has a wonderful mix of cultures. Avar is the ethnic minority that hails from Dagestan. They make up about 30% of the population and have their own language. My host family is Avar. Given its location, there are a good number of Georgians in Balakan as well.
2.     Azerbaijan cannot really be considered a part of the Middle East. Yes, it is Muslim, but it is also a post-Soviet republic, and currently identifies with its Soviet past more than with its religion. The government remains secular, even going as far as to ban Hijabs from being worn in schools. Its relationship with Russia is one that remains hazy and I am often confused on whether we are allies or not. Strategically, given its location and it vast oil fields in the Caspian Sea, Russia wants to have a strong relationship with Azerbaijan. The Azerbaijani President has close ties with Moscow. Also, a significant percentage of the Azerbaijani working population works in Russia and send remittances back to Azerbaijan. However, Russia is also an ally of Armenia, Azerbaijan’s sworn enemy. Armenia and Azerbaijan have been in a state of war over the Nagorno-Karabakh territory since 1988. This certainly puts a strain on the relationship between Russia and Azerbaijan. At the same time, in Balakan, the number of ethnic Avars means that some identify with Russia much more so than Azeris in other parts of Azerbaijan.

1.     Quite honestly, the differences are endless! The most difficult part of adjusting to life here, minus the absence of pizza delivery service, is the radical cultural differences. If I had to choose the most drastic, eye-opening cultural difference between Azerbaijan and the United States, it would be the candidness and hospitality that are almost overwhelming present here. I never realized this until I had something to compare it to in my experiences here in Azerbaijan, but we Americans are a very reserved and inhospitable people. We never ask about age or relationship status. We never comment on appearance or character. Everyone has their personal lives and thoughts tightly wound and protected. Our privacy is as impenetrable as the gold reserves at Fort Knox. Here, people are open and genuine. They don’t mean to be insulting or intimidating, but they have no problem telling you that you look fat, or asking you about you marital or financial status. At first, it was incredibly uncomfortable. Now, it is surprisingly refreshing. If feels as if no one has anything to hide. And with regards to hospitality, you have never met a more hospitable people. In America, we make dinner dates, and unless prior arrangements have been made, stay away. Here, invitations are assumed. Arrive unannounced, invite last minute, it does not matter; you will always be greeted with a “Xosh Galmisiz” (Welcome) and a hot meal and tea.
2.     Kids in Balakan are responding remarkably well to my work, I think. Balakan is much more liberal than other areas of Azerbaijan, so that makes my work easier, but in general, the kids are anxious to learn and love what we volunteers are doing. There is still the Soviet hangover. Creativity and critical thinking are almost completely absent from school. Schools here focus on individual testing and rote memorization We take for granted our education system and the thought-provoking curriculum that we are afforded. This has become the focus of my work, fostering original and opinionated work. This takes the form of many things, including dance clubs, a softball team and sports clubs, art clubs and an art camp, and discussion and debate clubs, among others. In general, however, they are kids just like you and you’d be surprised by the similarities you all share!
3.     I love the language!!! I have actually found it to be a fairly easy language to learn. Grammatically it is quite simple and easy to understand. It does not have the complexities or sheer number of words of the English language. I also think it is a beautiful sounding language. It is very similar to Turkish.

1.     My favorite thing about being in the Peace Corps is my job description. My job is to share cultures. Sometimes, this involves organizing events or writing long grants requesting money for a project, but more often than not, it means just hanging out with locals. Going to the market and speaking to vendors for two hours, bringing my softball equipment to the local school to see if kids want to play, having tea in the middle of the day with elderly men in the park, and going for a run while people point and stare are all part of my job description. If no one shows up to any of my clubs and my grant gets rejected, but I spend an hour speaking to someone who stopped me in the street about who I am and what I am doing here, then I’ve done my job. If I spend the day sitting in my apartment reading and watching a movie with my sitemates, Trey (Appalachian State University; Community Economic Development), Stephanie (NYU; TEFL), and Bailey (UVA; TEFL) because its just one of those days, but we go to someone’s house for dinner and tea and talk for a few hours, then we can consider that a successful day. The idea that we are mainly here to share culture and make the world a little more of an understanding and tolerant place is why I love this job.
2.     The fishbowl effect is the toughest part about being in the Peace Corps. It is tremendously taxing to always be under a microscope, to always be stared at, talked about, pointed at, just like a fish in a bowl. Sometimes, I wish I could blend in, become invisible, and go about my daily routine without being such a spectacle.
3.     As I mentioned above in Jessica’s second question, as a youth development advisor, the biggest issue facing the youth here is the lack of creativity, spontaneity, critical thinking skills, individual expression, and the general comfort with sharing opinions that we are so lucky to be afforded by the American school system. Here is an excerpt from a blog I wrote in November:

1.     Honestly, I can’t say that I have met any “notable” individuals. During training I met the US Charge d'Affaires Adam Sterling, who was serving as the interim ambassador before that position was finally filled upon President Obama’s executive order at the beginning of this year. We also received a Christmas letter from the Obama’s. Short of that, the most notable individual I have met is the mayor of my region. He is quite an important individual and it is nearly impossible to get time to speak with him. He is executively appointed to his position.
2.     Here is a link to a blog post I wrote about a day in my life: A Day In Balakan.
3.     I have done a little travelling since I arrived. I went to Lankaran in the south near the Iranian border for my site visit. Since arriving to Balakan, I have been to most of the regions in my area of the country, Sheki, Qax, and Zaqatala. I have also been to Mingecavir and Ganja, the second largest city in Azerbaijan. However, Balakan is renowned for being the most beautiful region of Azerbaijan. Surrounded by mountains and waterfalls, I have very little motivation to leave!

1.     Being in the Peace Corps, you have a lot of time for yourself,  a lot of time to think and reflect. Life goes a little slower. Such reflection allows you to really evaluate your life and yourself. In this regard, I think I am and will continue to grow as a person, realizing my weaknesses and character flaws in a way far clearer than if I were working and living stateside. What exactly my character flaws are that I have learned – well I am going to keep those to myself!
2.     Life in Falmouth couldn’t be more different! Read any one of my posts and you’ll quickly realize that. I will add that, just like I felt living and growing up in the small town of Falmouth, kids here usually love Balakan and realize how lucky they are to be in such a wonderful community, but also yearn to travel to Baku or Ganja for school and work. I can sympathize with their desire for something bigger, as the first chance I got, I left Falmouth for city life. Funny enough, many of the adults in Balakan left for Baku or Ganja when they finished school. However, just like most Falmouth residents, they always returned, realizing how lucky they were to be from such a wonderful place.

1.     I can tell you very little about the railroad. I have not heard anything more about it since I arrived. There are railways, but I am not sure if the one discussed in that article is anywhere near completed. I think this is very telling of the dynamics in the country between citizens and the government. When I mention things like this railroad to my community, no one has any idea. Few have ever heard about it. It’s not that the railroad is not being built, but the government does not really share this information with its citizens, just like I don’t think the citizens realize the extent of the wealth that its government is accumulating from the country’s oil reserves.

1.     That’s not an uninteresting question. Quite simply, I joined because I wanted to give back. I believe in the importance and power of civic engagement. My mother was instrumental in instilling in me the values of social participation, civic responsibility, and volunteerism. This, accompanied by a political science degree that made me realize just how globalized the world has become, made the Peace Corps the only logical choice. Tolerance and understanding are the only way our world will be able to thrive in the future. For as long as I can remember, there has been one quote that sits among all of the pictures and “to do” lists on our refrigerator, held up by tacky magnets from trips past, that has stuck with me: “‘From those to whom much is given, much is expected.’ If you’ve been blessed at all, you’re meant to pass that on.” I have been given every opportunity in the world to learn, explore, and be successful. It is thus my responsibility to pass these blessings on. To me, the Peace Corps is the most impactful way I can share what I have been given. More than simply observing how the “other half” lives on a short mission trip, or blindly sending a check to a “good cause”, the Peace Corps is the ultimate opportunity for me to give myself fully to a cause, to leave behind what I have now, and to help give others the opportunities that I was so fortunate to have received.

1.     The process of getting accepted into the Peace Corps is quite rigorous. The application process takes about a year. You are, in fact, able to suggest where you would like to go and what you would like to do, but Peace Corps makes the ultimate decision based on your skills and their needs. You see, foreign governments send requests for volunteers to the US government, and the Peace Corps responds to those requests accordingly. The process is so long and rigorous because Peace Corps needs to know that you will be a good representative of the US, and that you will be able to maintain your post for a full 27 months. You see, as the US Embassy officials told us when we arrived in country, the Peace Corps is “out there”. We are the broadest reaching and most effective form of American public diplomacy and outreach. Despite the long process, some volunteers do not make it the full 27 months.

1.     Many of those specific statistics can be found online using the resources I provided in the right-hand column of the blog. As I mentioned in Madeline’s response, Azerbaijan has been in a state of war with Armenia since 1988.
2.     The social structure in the country is not like one I have never seen before. Half the population of the country, about 4 million, lives in the capital of Baku. Living standards and access to basic services in Baku are miles ahead of those in the rest of the country.

Ben A.:
1.     The one thing that I think stands out most about the lifestyle of Azerbaijani’s is how sedentary they are. I take this to be both a positive and a negative trait. Generally speaking, they are perfectly content sitting around for an entire day doing pretty much nothing. No plans, no events, no commitments. This of course, can be negative, especially for youth development, but there is also a positive side to this. Unlike we Americans, they can entertain themselves for hours through mere social interactions. When it comes to interpersonal relationships, they thrive. We could learn a lesson or two from them about slowing down, not planning everything out ahead of time, listening, and enjoying each others company a little bit more.
2.     More than anything, I think Peace Corps has helped open Azeri’s eyes to the world around them. In my opinion, they are quite an ethnocentric culture. People are often confused when I tell them that I only learned Azeri and a little Russian after I arrived in Azerbaijan. They are sincerely surprised that the US, and the entire world for that matter, does not teach Azeri and Russian in school. To many, the world revolves around Azerbaijan. So, to come here and live among them is invaluable to their development as global citizens.

1.     I believe I talked about how I got in and why I wanted to join the Peace Corps above. The process is grueling, but it is one available to any American citizen. We have a wonderful mix of volunteers here in Azerbaijan, from recent college graduates like myself to young professionals, married couples, widowed retirees, and grandparents. Peace Corps values the skills and experiences that all US citizens offer.

1.     Azerbaijan is similar to Maine; cold winters and hot summers. Maybe it is a little less cold here outside, but inside homes it is freezing. Unlike the well insulated homes we have in Maine (thank god!), homes here are usually made of nothing more than cement and window panes. The houses trap the cold air and there is virtually no way to ever heat them and stay warm in the winter. I would go days on end without ever taking off my long underwear. I know that sounds gross, but it’s how everyone survives here!

1.     As I discussed above, I have only been here for 7 months. So, I am still trying to get to know my community and allowing them to get to know me. I spend a lot of time walking around, visiting and talking to people and making new contacts. I go to a lot of events as the token American. I also keep busy with clubs. At any one time, I have between 10 and 15 clubs per week. I host clubs for kids, older women, teaching dance, English, sports, health, you name it. My sitemate Stephanie and I just wrote a grant for a summer arts camp, and in August we plan on painting a mural of the world on a wall in the children’s library with all of the kids who attended the art camp.

1.     Check out the hyperlink on the answer to Josh’s question above. On top of that schedule, and the various clubs and events I have talked about, I try and stay active and involved in the community as much as possible. I make it a point to go and play Nrd (Azeri backgammon) with my host father once a week, visit my friend who runs the internet café, have dinner with my sitemates once a week, have tea with my landlord, and generally accept any guesting invitation I receive!
2.     The Peace Corps chose to send me to Azerbaijan. I did not put a preference down on the application for where I would like to serve, but I am so happy to have been assigned to Azerbaijan. It is such a young country, but it growing ever so fast and is starting to form its own identity. Its wonderful to be around to see this happen!

1.     There are no skills that they specifically target. For Azerbaijan, there are three programs currently operating: Teach English as a Foreign Language (TEFL), Community Economic Development (CED), and Youth Development (YD), but there are many other fields including construction and health. As long as you have a college education, you are eligible for Peace Corps service. International travel experience certainly helps, but I actually know volunteers who had never left their state prior to joining the Peace Corps! Above all, they are looking for motivated, independent individuals who are sincerely excited for a new experience that will take them far out of their comfort zone.
2.     Keeping in touch with me is the best way to be involved!!! According to the Peace Corps mission, it is my responsibility to:
1.     To help the people of interested countries in meeting their need for trained men and women.
2.     To help promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the people served.
3.     To help promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of all Americans.
That third goal means that I am equally responsible to the people back home. I am given the duty of sharing with people like you my story, so that you too can have a better understanding of Azerbaijan and its people. Keeping in touch, and sharing your communication with me with your friends and family would be doing Peace Corps and me a huge service.

1.     Hola! So, I was lucky enough to be given an office of sorts when I arrived. I have a room in the Culture House in "downtown" Balakan. This room has since been turned into a resource room. There are maps, English grammar rules, and posters and pictures that kids made decorating the wall. The shelves of the bookcase are filled with arts supplies and there is a very old computer (probably the first ever made) that I have loaded a couple of movies with subtitles onto so that kids can practice there listening comprehension while watching movies like Ice Age, Princess Bride, and Rush Hour for the older students.
2.     I work with a whole mix of people. I am YD, so my focus is on youth, but I also work at a Women’s Rights Organization, so I concentrate on women. At the same time, I also have clubs for men, so it runs the gamut from young to old, men to women.

1.     I like the food here. It is a Muslim country, so unfortunately, they do not eat pork, but produce is plentiful and cheap. Almost every dinner (as is Azeri tradition) is accompanied by cucumbers, tomatoes, radishes, herbs, pickled vegetables, especially eggplant and cabbage, and bread…SO MUCH BREAD. And, you never EVER throw out bread!!! Along with these accompaniments, some of my favorite meals are:
a.     Yarpaq Dolma (my favorite): Grape leaves with meat inside covered in fresh yogurt.
b.     Plov: Rice made with milk, butter, and oil with beans, sautéed squash or pumpkin, sautéed onion, and meat on top.
c.      Peroskis: Fried dough filled with potatoes or meat and vegetables or a combination of it all.
d.     Xengal: Dumplings, filled with either meat, pumpkin, a very salty cheese, or greens.
e.     Qutab: Azeri quesadillas.
f.      Sac: A steaming cast iron bowl of mutton and mushrooms.
We also drink tea 1,000 times a day!
2.     As I said above, I am enjoying the language very much. I find it easy to comprehend, grammatically, but as locals get used to me and start speaking normal speed, I have trouble keeping up, so it is a constant struggle and I must continue to study and improve my language.

1.     Check out the answers above to see what my daily life is like.

1.     That is an excellent, albeit difficult question to answer. Yes is my first impression. The Iron Silk Road is an excellent way for Azerbaijan to connect with the western world. However, Azerbaijan’s natural resources of oil and gas make it so it could certainly survive independent of such a trade route. Even though its reliance on oil revenue might make it a bit reluctant at times, the BTK railroad will help bring Azerbaijan to the next level in the international trade market.
2.     Azerbaijan certainly recognizes that a move westward through the BTK railroad brings with it unprecedented wealth. I see it in Baku every time I go; new western hotels, tourism billboards and brochures, five star restaurants. The country is doing everything it can commercially to connect to the west, including its government maintaining a very secular stance when it comes to national policy.

1. I am going to wrap all of your questions into one. Unfortunately, I have no real crazy stories about eating eyeballs or anything like that, but with winter now well into the past, I will share one of my more shocking cultural discoveries about this past season. In the wintertime here, people shut down completely – much more so than they do in America or Canada. As a volunteer, and especially as a YD, it is a challenge you have to just accept. Work, school, and tutors carry on, but activity outside of these essentials comes to a screeching halt. For someone who is meant to work with youth after school, this is an overwhelming obstacle. The weekends especially are an interesting challenge. Back home, even in the winter, the weekends were a time for rest and relaxation. The same goes for here. Simple. However, back home, Saturdays and Sundays were also a time to catch up on work, be active and play sports, and generally take care of tasks you usually did not have time for during the busy week. Here, in winter, they really like to stick to that whole “rest and relaxation” mantra on the weekend. Most people do nothing, and I seriously mean nothing. Short of getting out of bed in order to move to the couch and opening your mouth to eat, you do absolutely nothing productive!
I must admit that the other extreme, the “go go go” busy-bee attitude of the western world I came from has its problems as well. In training, we talked about the “art of sitting”. We discussed how the western world mistakenly perceives much of the developing world as lazy when they see footage of men and women sitting and simply talking for hours on end. “Where could they possibly find the time? How lazy are they! Don’t they want a better life?” Although this can, at times, be attributed to social problems like unemployment and general idleness, it is most often just the way of many cultures. Social interaction is a central part of everyday life. Dialogue is far more valued than it is back home. I have come to very much enjoy this tradition and believe that Canada and America especially could stand to slow it down a few notches. Spending a little bit more time stopping and listening could do us all some good.

1.     The best part of my Peace Corps experience, thus far, is when I feel like I am a member of my community, and not a visitor. It may sound corny, but we spend so much of our service working tirelessly to integrate into our assigned communities. More often than not, we experience the fish-bowl effect and feel more like long-term guests. Such feelings can be utterly exhausting. Whether it is going for a run without anyone staring, going to an event and blending in, sitting at a tea house among other people, or playing a pick-up soccer game with the locals, those little feelings of integration make me feel like I am actually doing something here and make the 27 month commitment totally worth it!

1.     I believe I answered these questions above. No, I did not get to choose where I was sent. However I was ecstatic about my post. In my opinion, as a very young (gained independence in 1991), secular, Muslim, post-Soviet, oil-rich republic, Azerbaijan is the most interesting country I could have possibly been assigned to! The only requests I made was that I did not want to be a teacher. Although I do a lot of teaching, I wanted a more open-ended position that gave me the autonomy to take on the projects I was most interested in, instead of being assigned to a school with specific teaching hours.

1.     I talked about food above.
2.     With regards to free time, as I discussed above, creativity and spontaneity are seriously lacking, so kids are not always as freely active as kids like you. After school, most students go to private tutors for all of their school subjects, as it is essentially understood here that school is not sufficient in preparing kids for passing the exams needed to get into university. This takes up A LOT of their time. When school and lessons are over, there is very little free time left, but with the time that they have, there are pretty strict gender lines. Boys spend A LOT of time playing computer games at local internet cafes or less often at home if they are fortunate enough to own a computer. Short of that, they play many sports like soccer, judo, and wrestling and spend, in my opinion, WAY TOO MUCH time standing around on street corners or sitting in the park. Girls are more limited in their extracurricular activities. They spend a majority of their time at home. Just like you, they enjoy social networking sites. Volleyball is popular among girls, but they usually only play in school. Girls are seen out socially walking in the park (never at a tea house or internet café), but only in groups or with family during a special event.

1.     Check out the answers above. I hope I already answered your questions.

1.     See above for that one!
2.     Thus far, my favorite thing to do is be outside. I love going to the outdoor bazaar and walking around all of the vegetable stands, trying new things and speaking to all of the vendors. I also love going on hikes in the mountains and playing sports with local kids. I am most happy when interacting with people who sincerely enjoy my presence.

1.     Check out that answer out above.
2.     As I talked about above, with all the time on my hands, I have been able to do a lot of self-assessment and think that this will certainly lead to a lot of personal growth. I also think that I have learned to slow down and be a little more patient. By nature, I am an impatient person who always likes to be busy and in control. Here, life moves a little slower and such characteristics will surely kill you, so I am forced to recognize, adapt, and ultimately change!
3.     I also touched on this above. I don’t expect to make any drastic changes here. Then again, that’s not really my job. I just hope to bridge the gap of understanding between Azeris and Americans like you, and give the youth here a taste of the opportunities I was afforded as a child growing up in Falmouth. If I am lucky enough to make a change here, it is not likely that I will see any of those changes manifest themselves while I am still here. I am planting a seed...my role is to be a catalyst.

1.     I answered that question above.
2.     In the future, I plan on getting my master’s degree in international development. Currently, I am most interested in gender equality and its impact on development. I would like to study in London. Short of that, I am just trying to keep my head above water and enjoy the experience of being here, one day at a time.
3.     As PCVs, we are warned of all matters pertaining to the conflict. We have an apolitical role here, which puts us in a precarious position with regards discussions surrounding the conflict. Some volunteers do work with IDPs and refugees, but we are forbidden from certain areas of Azerbaijan and our work cannot be directly related to the conflict in any political way. It is an incredibly contentious and emotional issue. Oftentimes, the first question an Azeri will ask you, even before your name or what the hell you are doing here, is your stance on the war with Armenia. Usually, they use very harsh language towards Armenians and ask very serious, abrasive questions that no one would feel comfortable answering. People here, understandably, are very passionate about this issue. They know that Armenia has quite an influential lobby in the US (part of the reason we did not have an ambassador for a while), so as Americans you can really be backed into a corner and it is often best to just avoid such conversations all together. Most volunteers go as far as to not even mention the word Armenia, replacing it with “Kansas”. Admittedly, if an Azeri wants to have a genuine conversation with me about the conflict, I am all ears, as it is important to learn about Azerbaijan’s history.

1.     Answered above.
2.     Most of my answers have discussed this issue in some way. The best way to overcome such barriers is to commit. To accept where you are and what you are doing is the best way face such challenges. When I am faced with a problem, I remind myself what a fantastic experience and opportunity this is, and I face the barrier head on. Using the barriers as learning experiences makes them far less daunting.
3.     Lately, one of my conversation clubs for 8th and 9th formers has begun to slowly transform into a volunteer club. We are beginning a used clothing drive for the local orphanage. Most of the ideas for service projects came from the students. I am just trying to help them understand to concept of volunteerism, one that is completely foreign to most Azeris.


3.     I am sorry I do not have a better answer for you, but I think, like most people, I had no idea what to expect from Azerbaijan. I can tell you that Peace Corps in general is not the experience I was expecting. I was prepared to live in a hut and be alone for 27 months. Now, most projects that I have I do with other volunteers. We are in constant communication, throughout the country, and I see my sitemates nearly everyday. I even have wireless internet in my apartment! So no, not quite what I expected!

1.     I hope I answered all of your questions above!

1.     I hope I answered your first two questions above.
2.     With regards to your third question, we have already discussed the problems facing the youth of Azerbaijan specifically. Now, with regards to Azerbaijan as a whole, I believe that their most serious problem is finding their own identity. I know this might seem like a bit of a cliché, but it truly isn’t. Azerbaijan is not a country wrestling with starvation, malnutrition, or HIV/AIDS epidemics like some Peace Corps countries. But, Azerbaijan is still a very young country, and its natural resource endowments make it a relatively wealthy country with a growth rate that is almost too great to control. The government maintains a strict hold over all aspects of life, I think in part to maintain order in the midst of such change. It is still wrestling between its post-Soviet secular past and Muslim origins, while at the same time adding in a strong hit of modernity. Thus, its people are still trying to figure out who they are, what they want, what they expect from their government, and how they will move forward. All of these problems add up to a country that is moving a million miles a minute, but with no set direction. I think the next couple of decades will be an incredibly enlightening and drastic time for Azerbaijan and its people.

1.     Aside from my specific work at site, I am also the outreach coordinator for the WID/GAD (Women in Development/Gender and Development) executive committee. This is a committee that is present in all Peace Corps countries. 4 volunteers are elected to the post for a year term. We are responsible for creating initiatives that relate to women and gender development. The initiatives are usually more far reaching, as they are not site specific, and are meant to benefit all PCVs. We are currently planning public health trainings that will be administered throughout the country starting in August. I am also involved in other Peace Corps initiatives, including ABLE (Azerbaijan Boys Leadership Experience) summer camp. I am an evaluator for this national camp. I am responsible for reporting back to our donors on the success of the camp. I was also involved in the Writing Olympics and coach a softball team for the national Peace Corps league.
2.     I believe that they are very pleased to have us. As a young country that was so recently part of the USSR, and thus America’s enemy, many are confused as to what I am doing here. I often am accused of being a spy (asking them what information they have that I could possibly want usually shuts them up), but in general I am incredibly well received and my community is pleased to have me. They love when volunteers visit and are quick to invite us to dinner or a wedding so that they can learn more about our country and culture.
3.     Anything this different is difficult to adapt to. Thankfully, we are put with host families. This makes the adjustment so much easier. My families’ took their duties as my host family very seriously. My first family still calls me every week and I visit whenever I possibly can. My family now looked out for me every step of the way. Although I moved out in search of a little more independence, they still have me over for dinner and tea fairly often and have told me that they still consider me their son. So yes, the adjustment was difficult, but the host family policy that Peace Corps has in place makes the adjustment process relatively easy.

1.     Azerbaijan is an oil country. So, essentially its entire economy is dependent upon oil exports.
2.     Welcoming Peace Corps was a good start! Baku is filled with foreign nationals, mostly related to the oil sector, and Azerbaijan is fostering growth of non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and international organizations throughout the country. Such initiatives are a wonderful start, but Azerbaijan is a very young country and it still has a lot of growing to do.
3.     I am not exactly sure what you mean by this question. Azerbaijan is a small country, but it is trying to do its part globally. Azerbaijan has troops fighting side by side with American soldiers. However, I think Azerbaijan is quite preoccupied by its astounding growth (due to oil) and its ongoing conflict with Armenia, as well as its own internal development.

1.     As I have mentioned, living conditions are incredibly comfortable. It’s nothing like I expected, as I said in the response to Joseph’s question above. Now, I am living alone. I spent the first 2 ½ months living outside of Baku with a host family training and studying the language. Then, I moved here to Balakan, my permanent site. We are required to live with a new host family for 4 months. I had a wonderful experience with my host family here, and we remain close, but I need my independence. So, about a month ago I move into my own apartment. Volunteer housing completely depends on the region you live in. Some people have full house with yards, others have a small house or room in the same compound as another family. I have a small apartment with one room, a small kitchen, and an indoor bathroom (a huge luxury in this country).
2.     We study the language 4 hours a day for the first 2 ½ months of training. At the end, we have a language proficiency interview where they assess our language ability. Each program has different requirements. YDs (me) are required to have a minimum “intermediate-mid” rating. Throughout service, we are required to take periodic assessments to see where our language ability is. In the field, speaking the language wholly depends on your site placement. Some volunteers are assigned to large organizations with many English speakers, and thus do not speak the language very often. Others, like me, are placed in smaller regions where fewer people speak the language. My counterpart and many of the other community leaders that I work with do not speak English, so I must speak a considerable amount of Azeri on a daily basis.
3.     As I discussed above, Azerbaijan and Armenia are in a state of war and most Azerbaijanis very passionately dislike Armenians.

1.     I believe I answered your first couple questions above. As for #3, yes, it has been a big adjustment. For all of the reasons above, it has been difficult to adjust. It has taken quite some time to accept that for the next two years, this place will be my home. I think I have finally started to come to terms with that, and I am doing it with a huge smile on my face!

Okay ladies and gentlemen. I hope I answered your questions. It is so wonderful hearing from all of you. Honestly, it is very uplifting and inspiring to receive your comments. I have so many wonderful memories of FHS and, in particular, of sitting in Ms. Stankard's class! Enjoy your time in school, it goes by fast!
Keep in touch, I look forward to hearing from you again!

Thursday, April 28, 2011

Azerbaijan Lesson #1

I just wanted to share a few facts about the Azerbaijani population, in general, that I recently came across. They are random facts about friendships, foreign policy, and media, but they paint a great picture of the Azerbaijani people in general and certainly will serve to motivate and inspire me as I begin to think of projects that I would like to implement here. The facts are compliments of an annual nationwide Caucasus Barometer conducted by the Caucasus Resource Research Center (CRRC). I will refrain from making comments on many of these facts because of a lack of knowledge on my part, but I hope to learn more as time passes and I integrate further into my community.

1.    Only 1% of Azerbaijanis approve of friendship with Armenians.
2.   In Azerbaijan, 27% of respondents said that they had no close friends. When the results are disaggregated by gender, they show a clear divide: women have far fewer close friends. Thirty-seven percent of women reported having no close friends compared to only 17% of men.
a.    Focusing on the settlement type, about a third of the female respondents asked in the capital and in other urban areas replied that they no friends compared with about half of rural women respondents.
b.   Why are so many Azerbaijani women, particularly older rural women, lacking close friendships? Perhaps the isolation of rural life combined with fewer possibilities to do communal activities is leaving women with no one to call a friend. Are they less likely to be involved in public life and activities outside the home? What could contribute to a more socially active and connected female population? This kind of fact and these queries are why I am here. I cannot wait to get started!
c.    My new site mate Bailey suggested that this may also be contributed to the divide between public and private life. Here, people do not really let people into the private life, which she believes stems from the fact that during Soviet times there was a lot in inter-spying going on.
3.   90 percent of the population chooses television as their primary source of information on current events with over 40 percent choosing family, friends, neighbors and colleagues as their second main source. A common held belief is that the influence of the media is especially strong in environments where citizens depend on a limited number of news sources (Azerbaijan).
4.   Furthermore, as the same theory on media effect also argues, those with little or no interest in politics are more prone to influence from the media. In Azerbaijan, 64 percent of people are not at all interested or hardly interested in foreign policy.

CRRC’s report, Armenian and Azerbaijani International News Coverage – Empirical Findings and Recommendations for Improvement, suggests, “while the media can amplify existing tensions and reinforce differences, it also has the potential to build confidence across existing fracture lines by covering a wider spectrum of issues, diversifying sources, representing more voices than just the elite, and consciously eliminating bias from coverage.” There is hope. Discussing issues beyond the conflict would be a great start. Let’s look at similarities:
“In both countries the biggest concern in 2009 was the need to reduce daily spending in basic expenditures, both are worried about western influence, both perceive poverty as the biggest threat to the world, and in both countries, while generally uncertain, a significant percentage hopes that their children will be better off than they are.”
These are the kinds of things that should be focused on. 

Saturday, October 30, 2010

Wait A Second, What Is Peace Corps, Anyway?

I realize that an explanation of what exactly I am doing here might be a good start to this written relationship. When I wrote my first blog to you, I, myself, had no idea who I was or what I was doing. Was I going to save lives, was I going to change people forever? Hell, was I going to become a national hero? One month has taught me a lot.

I dramatized the Peace Corps so much. I built it up in my head so much that I almost gave myself goose bumps thinking of all the great, selfless, heroic acts I’d be doing in the upcoming 27 months. I felt so inspired knowing that I’d be saving lives, “roughing it”, and losing all contact with the world I knew. My life in the past month has been so far from that imagined utopia that I almost forgot I was in the Peace Corps all together. In the past couple weeks especially, as I started conversation clubs with local youth and inched closer and closer to the end of my training and the beginning of my actual service, I realized, this job doesn’t need any drama! The people I work with are not interested in being saved, and the Peace Corps is not interested in me doing any saving. I realized the other day, as an AZ6 (I am an AZ8) gave an account of his past 2 years here, that to come here interested in being a hero and changing people is a terrible mistake and the opposite of what Peace Corps is trying to do. To have such an attitude, as counter-intuitive as it seems, is the most selfish thing I could do!

As far as I have come to understand, the Peace Corps is built on the foundation of an “asset-based approach” to development. In other words, we are not here to bring about drastic change and foster eternal prosperity for all Azerbaijanis. We are here to encourage. We are here to use the resources the Azerbaijanis already have in order to develop what they already know and support what they have already started. To do this, I must observe, participate, ask questions, and learn. Then, and only then, may I work WITH locals to foster positive change. The aim of Peace Corps is not to bring change to Azerbaijan, or work for Azerbaijanis in order to bring about said change. The goal is to work WITH Azerbaijanis, and eventually see the work done solely BY Azerbaijanis.

A secondary goal of my job is simply cultural exchange. In fact, writing to you at this very moment is part of my job. Introducing myself to people in my community and having tea with locals is part of my job. Playing soccer with kids is actually part of my job! I am here to learn and to introduce. The greater our (as Americans) understanding of Azerbaijanis, and the greater their understanding of us, the better off the world is and the brighter our future as global citizens can be.

In conclusion, the quote that best summarizes my job description is: “Change begins at the moment you ask the question.” Early on, we face a lot of problems trying to explain to locals exactly what a Youth Development Facilitator is. In fact, I have trouble explaining it in English. I am not an English teacher and I am not a businessman. My belief as to what I am doing here is that, in working with youth, I can help to awaken their senses. My goal, by observing, participating, asking questions, and learning, is to lead them to focus on their dreams for the future. When I look at it that way, the word “facilitator” makes perfect sense. I am not here to save anyone or create anything; I am just here to serve as a spark from which the youth of Azerbaijan can reach their true potential.

I am currently living in a city called Khirdalan, about 20 minutes outside of Baku, the capital. I have 4 hours of language training everyday, followed by a few hours of technical training. I live with a host family. I will be in Khirdalan until December 9, at which point I will move to my permanent site (which I don't know yet).
I look forward to any questions you all may have.

Monday, September 20, 2010

The World Is Not Enough

Greetings (Salam) yachtsmen,

As the above comments indicate, I graduated from Falmouth four years ago. I completed my Bachelor’s degree in political science and economics at McGill University in Montreal, Quebec, Canada in May. I played lacrosse for McGill and also volunteered for Right To Play, an international humanitarian organization. More than a year ago, I applied to the Peace Corps. After a yearlong rigorous and competitive application process, I was accepted and given my assignment as a youth development facilitator in the small, former Soviet republic of Azerbaijan (about the size of Maine). The correspondence match program allows me to share my experience with classrooms back in the United States. I could think of no one better than you all!

It is an absolute pleasure and an honor to be able to share my experience with all of you. I hope that our correspondence will serve as a valuable tool as you study this area of the world and as you grow as young men and women. As a youth development facilitator, I will be working with people your age. As such, you will have the unique opportunity to see how people your age live and grow up, over 6,000 miles away!

My hope is that this correspondence and the accompanying blog will provide an alternative way of learning that you will find both educating and entertaining. I will post a blog entry at least one time per month, and you will all reciprocate with questions, comments, and responses. I will work with your teachers to make this relationship as valuable as possible to your overall studies. Hopefully, you will find it interesting as well!

The title of this post, “The World Is Not Enough,” is of particular importance. Although it may seem like a lame, cliché way of romanticizing my trip, I promise the actual meaning is far more intriguing. Ever since I was given my assignment, I have been asked the question, “AzerbaiWHERE???” at least once a day! The title stems from the James Bond film that partially took place in Azerbaijan. Sadly, this is usually the only reason someone in North America has ever heard of Azerbaijan. It is for this exact reason that I am so excited about this blog. I want to give you all the opportunity to learn about a country that has so much to offer. The two articles below will help to introduce you to the Republic of Azerbaijan!

The first article was one of the feature articles in the August edition of National Geographic. This article gives a tremendous account of the future of Azerbaijan and its economic potential. It also serves to explain Azerbaijan’s relations with its neighbors, including Georgia, Armenia, and Turkey. Additionally, it includes a lot of beautiful pictures for those of you who are just sick and tired of reading!!!

The second article, although short (YAY!), gives a wonderful explanation of Azerbaijan as a nation and a culture. It is a timely article that challenges you to open your eyes and avoid generalizing.

I will end this post with a challenge. I challenge each of you to take advantage of this blog, of this correspondence. This relationship your teachers have helped foster is a tremendous opportunity for you to broaden your horizons and really learn about the world. So, ask me questions, do your own research, and become global citizens!
I look forward to hearing from you all!