Thursday, September 27, 2007

The First Day of School

Saturday, September 15th was the first day of school – a holiday that is called The Day of Knowledge in Azerbaijan. I have spent two and a half months preparing for this moment, and here it finally was.

The first day starts with a ceremony, then, the kids go into classes. The ceremony takes place in the courtyard in front of the school. It started at 8 am. Which, in azertime, means it didn’t actually start until about 8:30.

I got to the school a few minutes early – dressed up in my pretty brown dress, hair done and makeup on to make a good first impression on the whole school. I was terrified as I walked up to the building! There were already several students and teachers milling around. There was a table with a microphone and giant speakers set up on the landing going into the school – the “stage” for our Day of Knowledge ceremony. I greeted the director – who knows no English. Our conversations get reduced to the few words we can communicate with in Azeri and lots of hand signals. Immediately, he had me sit down at the table on the “stage.” No hiding in the background for me, I was going to be up front and center, on display. Yikes!

A few of the teachers I had already met came up and said hello. We chatted a bit while we waited. Then, the director asked me to give a speech. A speech?!?! But, it is ok, they prepared us for this in training. We were told that we would probably be asked to give a short speech introducing ourselves. I can do this. Then I asked a few questions about the speech – just to introduce myself, right? “Oh, no!” they said. “We already have introduced you. No, give a speech like you do on the first day of school in America, congratulating everyone on the Day of Knowledge and the new school year.” Ummmmmmmmmmmmmm. Never done that before. Luckily, one of the English teachers coached me through what to say and we came up with a good speech – well, they pretty much told me what to say. And, even better, I got to give the speech in English and they would translate for me. Phew.

All of the students stand in lines by form (grade) in the courtyard. This is how they begin everyday of school. This day, they just had the pleasure of standing there for about 45 minutes longer. The itty bitty first formers stood off to the side – eagerly anticipating their first ever day of school. And, these little ones all had giant bouquets of Azer flowers – plastic, surrounded by fancy netting and foil and ribbons. In virtually every case, the bouquet was larger than the child. It was probably the cutest thing I have ever seen. At least in Azerbaijan.

Finally, the ceremony started. Music started playing to signify the beginning. The students were standing in their lines. I was sitting at the big front table next to the Director and several other teachers and staff members. Two of the students mc’d the thing. First, the national anthem. And, of course, again, I got the giggles. I can’t really explain why, but every time… Luckily, I controlled it enough that I don’t think anyone noticed. The Director stood up and said some things. Then some other teachers said some things. A group of the little first formers came up and recited a poem. Again, super cute.

And then, it was my turn to speak. I stood up. All of the students cheered. Seriously. I felt like a super star. And here’s what I said… “Salam (hello). On behalf of the Peace Corps and the United States of America, I would like to congratulate the Director, teachers, and students on the Day of Knowledge. I welcome you all to the first day of school and I wish you great success in the upcoming school year. Sag olun (thank you).” And they cheered again. Even louder. That’s right, I am a super star.

Now, I don’t know if I can do anything on behalf of the Peace Corps, or the United States, but I sure did it. In my defense, they made me – I tried to say it in a different way as we were planning it before the ceremony, but they kept making me say it that way. I know that’s not a good defense. Oh, well. If I get in trouble - Oops. Sorry.

They finished the ceremony, closed it with more music, and the students filed into school. There are no English classes on Saturdays, so I was free to go. I checked the timetable to find out when I had to come back the next week, then, headed home to change into jeans and relax. Ahhh.

There have been more than a few completely surreal moments here in the AZ, but this one takes the cake – so far. I felt like I was in some bizarre movie. And, I loved it. Next year I’m gonna do the speech in Azerbaijani. I guess I’ll have to learn how to say behalf in Azeri.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

I've Got Mail

Now that I am a real life PCV, I don't get the "perks" of being a trainee. Which means, Peace Corps can't recieve mail for me anymore. I will have a permenent address in a few weeks, which I will give out as soon as I get it. For now, though, all of my adoring fans who have been sending me letters and such, get to take a break.

I want to thank everyone who has sent stuff. You have no idea how cool it is to get mail here. A letter or postcard or package from home has turned around many a bad day. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

I'm a PCV!

Well, it is official - I am a Peace Corps Volunteer. I know most of you thought that I have been a volunteer since the day I stepped foot in the AZ, but, technically, for the last 2 1/2 months, I have been a Peace Corps Trainee. That all changed on Wednesday, September 12.

The Swearing In ceremony felt a lot like high school graduation. It started with the Azeri and US national anthems. I have a confession. The Azeri national anthem ALWAYS makes me giggle. Maybe, by the end of 2 years it won't, but right now...

After the anthems came the speeches. First the Peace Corps Country Director. Then representatives from the three ministries we are working with - Education, Youth and Sports, and Economic Development. Each speech was given in either English or Azeri and then translated into the other language.

Finally the US Ambassador got up. She gave her speech in both Azeri and English. After her words of wisdom, the big moment was finally upon us. All 51 of us stood up, raised our right hands, and swore the oath to protect and defend the Constitution. One short paragraph and we were officially Peace Corps Volunteers.

I'm gonna be honest - I still can't believe that I am really a Peace CorpsVolunteer. As many of you know, I have been thinking and talking about this for years, I find it hard to believe that I am actually doing it. It is pretty great.

Monday, September 3, 2007

Trash Day...

Saturday might have been my coolest day in Azerbaijan so far. It was the first time since I have been here that I have really felt like I am in the Peace Corps. Training is super important, I know, but it gets a bit tiresome to be learning about doing something, rather than doing it. I am here to be doing good things and creating positive change for and with the community. On Saturday, we had a taste of that.

As I have mentioned, Azerbaijan has a huge pollution problem. I don't know where this information came from, but we have been told that the Caspian Sea is the most polluted body of water in the world and Sumgayit, the city we are living in during training, tops the pollution list worldwide as well. The whole place is filled with trash and litter. Plastic is a huge part of the problem. People throw their bottles wherever they may fall without a thought to it. Coming from the land of cleanliness and recycling, this has been more than a bit frustrating for all of us.

Shams, our training manager, organized a plastic pick up along the beach with a local organization. There is, apparently, a plastice recycling plant here in Sumgayit. So, Saturday morning, most of the trainees came out to pick up plastic. One of the coolest things was that is wasn't just us - about 30 Azeris came and joined us. There were a few current volunteers who came out, and several members of the Peace Corps staff - including Zoltan, our Contry Director.

We spent about 2 hours, walking along the beach, picking up plastic - bottles, bags, wrappers, you name it, if it was plastic, we picked up up. We filled a pretty big truck that was then sent to the recycling plant. It was definitely a spectator event - all kinds of Azeris watched the crazy Americans picking up trash. If you look closely in the background of this particular picture, you will see a few key members of our audience. Well, we were on the beach.

I can't begin to tell you all how refreshing and great it was to be actually doing something positive. Cheesy, I know, but true. Who knows if it will stick - with the Azeris who helped and the Azeris who watched. I hope - and believe - that the project will resonate with at least one of them, and maybe that can carry on and grow.