Friday, March 28, 2008

All By Myself...

Well, the time has finally come. After 6 months (9, if you count Pre-Service Training) of living with a host family, I finally get to move out and live on my own! This is the day I have been waiting for since, well, June. I do really like my host family, but, for me, move out day was like Christmas and my birthday all rolled into one.

The weeks leading up to March 13 were filled with house hunting. I had basically all of Lankaran helping me – my sitemates, my counterparts, all of the other teachers at school, my students, and any random person I met and had more than a 2 minute conversation with. The people at school decided that I needed to live in an apartment – they say it is safer. I would have been fine with either a house or an apartment, so I was ok with focusing on apartments.

As Peace Corps volunteers, we don't get a huge sum to be able to pay in rent. So, just finding something in my “budget” was a challenge. Then, if you find something too far in advance of when you can move in, you will probably lose it to someone who can move in immediately. And, in one case, I had a guaranteed, very lovely apartment... until the lady's kids said she couldn't rent it. Ugh. But, finally, I found a place, within my price range, that Peace Corps approved. As soon as it was ok-ed, I started carting my stuff over.

My apartment is nice, but sparse. I live on the fourth floor of your standard soviet style apartment building. I have a bedroom, guesting room, kitchen, toilet, and hammam (the azer word for the bathing room). A bed, a table, and 4 chairs are basically my only furniture. My landlady provided me with 3 plates, 3 bowls, 3 cups, 3 forks, 3 spoons, and 3 knives. She gave me a pot to cook in and 2 teapots (you can see where the priority is here!). I have a balcony on either side of the apartment, which is awesome. And here's the most exciting thing – I have a western style toilet. No more squatting at home for me! YAY!!!!

I still live really close to my school – my walk to work is about 5 minutes. I definitely like that. Among my neighbors are my landlady one of my counterparts, and no less than 5 of my students. That is really nice for lots of reasons. I am still a bit of a novelty in the neighborhood, but slowly there is less of the chatter about “the American girl” and more of the passing “hi, how are you”s.

It is truly wonderful to have my own space. I don't have to report my comings and goings to anyone, I don't have to ask to take a shower or do my laundry. I get to cook my own food. And, for the first time since I have been in this country, I have a place where I can truly and completely relax. And that is wonderful.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Happy Women's Day!!!

March 8th is International Women's Day. And it is a big deal here. In a country where gender equality is still far from present, I find it refreshing that they thoroughly embrace a day celebrating women. I could use this event to talk about the ever-frustrating gender roles here in the AZ, but I'd rather honor the true spirit of the day. So, I thought I would take a moment to talk about the women who inspire me in my life.

First, and foremost, my mom. Even without what she has done as a mom, she is amazing. She is passionate about what she believes in, but is also open to other perspectives and new ideas. She is strong and kind. She is incredibly smart. For what she has done for me and my sisters, I appreciate her the most. She has raised three girls to be strong, confident women who know they can do anything they want and are daring enough to try. Even when she doesn't completely agree with us, when we decide on something she supports us wholeheartedly. No matter how big the mistake (and I've made some doozies) we might make, she is there for us, and always reminds us how much she loves us. As a role model, I truly cannot think of a better person.

My sisters. Kara, who is bold and confident and knows herself and what she wants. She is proud of who she is and what she does. She is beautiful and cool and fun and happy.
Kate, who has strength I can only imagine. She is her own person, and doesn't let Kara or I try to change that. Her heart is bigger than anyone I know. She is silly and gorgeous and dedicated.

The RC Girls. Heidi, who makes being smart cool and who is absolutely one of the best friends a person could ever ask for. She guided me through some of my rockiest moments, and has always been there for all of here friends. And, I have to say, I kinda want to go back to school so I can take one of her classes.

Shannon who, as Heidi put it best, values her friendships and does what she can to take care of them. Shan and I have a somewhat rocky past, but she has been one of my strongest supporters in recent years – and does the same for all of her friends. Her support has gotten me through some of my hardest days here.

Heather, who somehow, makes owning a minivan seem right. I think she was destined to be a mom – and she is really good at it!

Amber, who has always seemed to be the free spirit to me. In a lot of ways, she inspired me to follow the path I was supposed to be on, not the one I was stuck on.

Beth, who is the coolest version of cool that I know. She is quietly confident and fun and happy. Having her as a friend has always made me want to be a better person.

Allison, who went through all of the growing pains of becoming actual adults with me – either in the same town, or over the phone. She is generous and loving, and without her, I wouldn't be the woman I am today.

The others. Alice, who is a wanderer and who helped me remember that being adventurous is not only good for you, but, often, necessary.

Bree, who is passionate and creative in a way I admire more than I can put into words.

Pat Berg, who not only got me my first job, but also showed me the value of hard work and loving what you do. Outside of that, she is a constant example of kindness and love for me.

My aunts, who, throughout my life, have helped me realize the value of a loving family.

Joanne, who is as much family as anyone I am related to. Disappointing her would be almost as bad as disappointing my parents. She knows how to laugh at herself and enjoy everyday life, which is something everyone should be able to do as well as she does.

Sue, who helped me find my way to my own ideas about politics and the things that are important to me.

The Peace Corps women, who for various and sundry reasons have all decided to make this ridiculous journey, which shows strength and independence and desire to make both other peoples lives and their own better. On a daily basis I can think of another woman here who makes me incredibly proud to be a member of the Peace Corps and a woman, and makes me want to do better to live up to their example.

There are so many women who have influenced my life – I wish I could list them all. If you are reading this, you are probably one of them. I am incredibly lucky to have had so many amazing female influences on my life. Each of you has helped me become who I am and makes me want to be an even better version of me. You inspire me and make me proud. Thank you. Happy Women's Day.

They Say Imitation is the Sincerest Form of Flattery...

Well, today, I discovered that it is also a proof that I am having some kind of impact on my students.

I try to make my classes fun – going on the idea that if learning is fun, you retain more. What that tends to turn into, though, is the kids laughing at my antics – my silly faces, my big gestures, my REALLY bad drawings on the chalkboard. I like to believe that it helps them remember the things we are learning that day, but I think they might really just remember the funny face.

Most days, my students have exercises to work on in class, or homework exercises to go over. When they are ready, they bring them to me to check. As I help and correct them, I talk the kids through it. I point at the part that needs corrected – typically with my pen – and ask questions to try to get them to the right answer. Now, in all honesty, I think most times they just guess until I smile and give them a big “yes! That's it.” But, still, I feel like I didn't GIVE them the answer. That's an accomplishment, right?

It is always hard to get the students to speak English. As often as not, I ask a question and they give the answer in Azeri, which illicits an over exaggerated, exasperated “In ENGLISH!!!” from me. The kids typically giggle, then struggle through the answer in English. Again, somehow this makes me feel like I am being semi successful as an English teacher.

So, today, my 5th formers were working on an exercise about opposites in class. They were given a word and had to write down the antonym. There is always a lot of whispering back and forth as they try to get the right answers. For some reason, I zeroed in on two girls sitting together. They had absolutely no idea that I was watching them. Lala was struggling with the word “summer.” She asked Shafiga for help. Shafiga sat up very straight and pointed at the word with her pen. She asked Lala what it meant. There was some azeri back and forth before I heard Lala say “yay” (the azeri word for summer). I saw Shafiga nod her head and ask – in azeri – what the opposite of yay was. Lala enthusiastically said, “gish!” To which Shafiga emphatically responded, “In ENGLISH!” Lala eventually got to winter, and I dissolved into giggles. Luckily the two of them didn't notice – they continued on with their exercise while I smothered my laughter.

Now, I am fully aware that the kids get a really big kick out of almost everything I do, but to see it so perfectly and unintentionally mimicked was taking it to a whole new level for me. Getting kids to emulate my ridiculous teaching antics isn't really my goal as an Peace Corps volunteer, but, for now, I'll take it. I mean really, at least I am having SOME kind of impact in the classroom, right?

Uncle Traveling Matt...

(That’s a Fraggle reference for those of you unaware of 80’s Muppets spin-offs)

My daily life has stopped making me think twice about where I am. There is very little that I see in my daily routine that makes me stop and think, Holy Crap… this is where I am?!?!?! But, for some reason, every time I travel in this country, I become acutely aware of the truth of where I am right now.

Some of it, I am sure, is how different travel here is from travel at home in America. At home, I would be behind the wheel of my little red car (now my sister’s little red car), a Starbucks mocha in one cup holder, a Diet Coke in the other, snacks on the seat beside me, and loud peppy music blasting from the radio. Here, I am crowded into a marshuka – I have never sat as close to another person as we do on marshukas. The xanim next to me always looks in wonder at my English book (there is often a conversation around me about “the English girl”). I plug into my mp3 player so I don’t have to hear the loud Turkish music blasting fro the radio. And we are off, for a bumpy, cramped ride.

The landscape is completely different, of course. Instead of the well kept green medians, trees, and sound barriers along the highway, the view is far more interesting. It is dusty (in winter, muddy) and open, with the random house or village or field along the way. There aren't trucks barreling past, instead, we often make death defying maneuvers to get around the slower traveling vehicles. The constant billboards beckoning you to Applebees or Motel 6 or Geico are missing. Here, the only billboards you find - with the exception of the odd Azerchay ad here and there - all feature Heydar and Ilham Aliyev. There is consumerism along the Azer roads – but it takes the form of men standing along the side of the road holding fish, chickens, rabbits, you name it, out for passing vehicles to stop and purchase.

But there is more to it that all of those quite obvious differences. I think there is something about stepping on a marshuka that takes me back to that very first day here in Azerbaijan. Getting off of the plane and climbing onto the bus for the long ride to Quba. The awe and wonder (and exhaustion) at where I was – how completely new and interesting everything I passed seemed to me. Everything I saw was surprising and fascinating. Being on the brink of my new and wild life. Anytime I am traveling here, I feel that again. I am excited by what I see. Looking out the window is still my favorite way to pass the time on the trip. And I always have the thought, “Holy Crap – this really is where I am. That's kinda awesome!”

While I have gotten somewhat jaded – that's not quite the right word, but I can't think of a better one - about my daily life, traveling brings back the wonder the life I am currently living. Traveling gives me a chance to think, reflect, really be aware of where I am and what I am doing. Somehow it refreshes my life and perspective. I get to see how different my life is from what it was a year ago. I get to remember that I am finally living something that I have thought, dreamed about for years. And while, at end of the bus ride, I will go back to my mundane day to day life, for those few hours, my life is exciting and profound again. I love that.

My Computer...

Before I left for the Peace Corps, my mom's office very generously gave me a laptop they no longer needed to take with me to be able to stay in touch with home. This was the most amazing gift ever! During my first few months in country, I used it almost everyday. I prepared stuff for my blog, saved pictures, listened to music, you name it. Then, tragedy hit.

As some of you know, in August – less than 2 months into my time here, I killed my lovely laptop. I am fully accountable for the death of it, too. I know very little about computers, but, for some reason, I decided that I could manipulate it to make it do what I wanted to do. Not so. Instead, I manipulated it into a very scary error screen that included the word “panic”. Great.

After following its advice and panicing, I tried everything to fix it. I even called my sister in America – who does know something about computers – to see if she could help. No success.

I called the Peace Corps IT guy. He said he'd be happy to look at it. So, I sent it to him in Baku, and waited. Now, in the advertisements for Peace Corps, they remind you quite frequently how important patience is. I sent my computer to him in the beginning of August, thinking he would look at it and – hopefully – fix it within a few weeks. 3 months later, I heard back from him. The people at the Apple store could indeed fix it. Yay!!! But, it would cost me 100 manat. Boo!!!!! 100 manat is about 115 dollars – and, as a volunteer, that amount seems exorbitant, and, quite honestly, impossible. I politely said no thanks, and got my completely useless computer back.

My amazing sister Kate again tried to talk me through ways to make it work again. And then she, and my mom, and who knows how many people at PRD, hunted and found the disks to try to reset the computer and mailed them to me. The fisrt attempt, in late November, was only semi-successful. The computer finally got off that very scary error screen, but it was in a really old version of the operating system, and no longer had any of the programs I actually used.

Take two. They hunted again and found updated disks and promptly put them in the mail. I received the package today. A combination of nerves and excitement filled me. What if it didn't work? Oh, please, please, please let it work. Insert disk, click on a few accept boxes, wait as it did stuff, and, voila! Magic. It worked!

So, now I have a working laptop, with all of the programs I need. I can write, save my pictures, listen to music, you name it. YAY!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Hopefully, for all of my devoted fans, this means that I will be able to write stuff for my blog more frequently. I can't guarantee that I'll be able to get it posted in a very timely fashion – better internet acccess is my next step in this process – but at least I can get it written.