Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Ahh, Home Sweet Home

Another week has come and gone and I don’t think I have missed Chicago or home so much as I did in the last 36 hours. On Sunday night, around 8 or 9, the temperature skyrocketed to about 70 degrees. I went outside to get something from my room and noticed what had been a cool night turned into a balmy and windy evening. So I opened the window in my room and basked in the warmth, as my room has not been that warm since October, I think. I woke up for work Monday morning and while it was a bit cooler than the night before, it still seemed like decent enough a day. I enjoyed my walk to work and checked out the destruction/construction of the park near my house to see what progress they had made. I arrived at work to find the office was still locked and waited with Aygun and Ziya for Arzu to let us in and everyone was in good spirits. This continued throughout the day despite the change in weather or maybe in spite of it. By 11:00 it was cold, windy and rainy. Just plain nasty. By 3:00 it was snowing and the flakes were absolutely huge. At least golf ball size… but flat, mostly, because they’re snow flakes. But they were huge! You know? It was still windy and cold, but thanks to the snow, it didn’t seem so nasty. We all went outside for a few minutes to try and catch some of the snow and take a small break from work. By the time I was heading home at 6, it was raining again and the roads and sidewalks were a nice mixture of slush and ice. By 7:00 it was calm and cool again. Good stuff.

To give a bit of an idea on what my office life is like I thought I would share a story. Everyone in my office is roughly my age, maybe a little older except for Aygun, who is 23. That being said, we occasionally like to let loose and joke around the office. Everyone gets their work done on time, so don’t worry about that. Well, a while back I got a package from Mom and Dad that had a couple baseballs among other items in it. To make me feel like home, I kept a baseball at my desk and we occasionally lob it to each other or I’ll throw it to myself while studying. Ziya, probably the most random person I have ever met, really likes to play a game with the baseball that is a weird and sometimes violent hybrid of catch. Instead of gently tossing the ball to each other in the office, he insists we hit it to each other using the palms of our hands. The first one to let the ball hit the floor loses. Ideally, the ball is hit to you with a little bit of air under it so it’s not coming in a line drive right at your face or lower to a more dangerous and painful destination. Also, you want a chance to hit it back so you don’t lose. This sounds simple and risk free, but those who know me should know better. Thankfully and unbelievably, the near incident wasn’t of my doing.

Ashley walked into my office in the middle of one of our games and was coaxed into playing by Ziya. So there we were, all three of us (Arzu and Aygun sat off to the side in what is usually a smart decision) in my little office with two computers and four desks, hitting a baseball at each other with the palms of our hands. Ashley, being the newbie that he was, hit the ball back to Ziya a little lower than ideal and also to Ziya’s offhand. Instead of letting the ball drop to the floor and accept defeat, Ziya attempted to make a big play and took an awkward swing at the ball with his left. I was already laughing as he swung his body trying to get into position and almost fell over when he connected with the ball and sent it on a straight line drive across the room. All the air was sucked out of the room as everyone realized that the ball was heading straight towards one of the two computer monitors. I started laughing again as soon as the baseball passed cleanly over the monitor and picked off a little calendar that was sitting on top of it. Both items sailed about 5 feet to the wall where they both slammed to a rest. Ashley proclaimed Ziya the winner and he took his victory lap accordingly. Needless to say, some of the more fragile items from Arzu’s desk were removed that day and put safely in her home. Also needless to say, this game has not been played again. Now we just talk and joke around for fun, which I must admit, takes some of the excitement and anticipation out of the day, but I suppose it’s for the best.

For those of you who are wondering how the game tournament is going, here’s a brief update. Ashley has broken out to a commanding lead in Monopoly and we are almost dead even in Rummikub. I have a one point lead in that. Risk hasn’t been played in a while, but I’m pretty sure I have a couple games lead in that as well. As far as Yahtzee goes, I have a solid points and games lead. We have started playing Sorry! (The sweet game of revenge… or is it the game of sweet revenge… either works, I guess) and I have been purely dominating. Same with Connect 4. I think Ashley has actually given up in Connect 4 and may be reaching his breaking point in Sorry!. I do realize that by typing this I risk putting a huge jinx on myself, so we’ll have to see how that plays out. A funny tidbit about Connect 4 and Sorry!. While Ashley has yet to beat me in a limited number of games of Connect 4, my 13 year old host brother Ulvi has beaten me 3 times already. Granted, we’ve played many more games than Ashley and I have. As for Sorry!, Ulvi also has a better success rate so far.

As for work, things are picking up. I am developing some short training courses for the people in my office. I have completed one based on teaching typing skills instead of the tried and true hunt and peck method. I just finished this today and we will work on it as time allows. I am also working on Customer Service, Project Management and Internet Research training. I hope that some of these will be successful enough that we might be able to do them for larger audiences at the local business center. The conversation clubs are still taking shape and we expect to be starting those within the next few weeks. The other bigger project that I have been waiting to hear back on is getting some legs as well. Our initial proposal was not accepted in it’s original state, but we had a meeting yesterday to discuss revisions and adjustments and I re-submitted the proposal today. This is the same proposal for tourism brochures/booklets for the region. So now it is back to the waiting game to see what other feedback we get. I don’t have any pictures to share this week, unfortunately. If I take any or find any that I deem noteworthy I will put them up here. That should do it for now. Take care, stay classy and BEAR DOWN!

Wednesday, January 24, 2007

Just Shufflin' Through

Who wants to go to Miami??? I do, I do! Or at least somewhere in Baku where I have been told I should be able to watch the Bears play in the Super Bowl. I may have to take a vacation day or two, but it’ll be totally worth it. Whew, ok that’s enough on the Bears for now. This past weekend Ashley and I had some volunteer guests stay at my house. They were supposed to arrive Friday but couldn’t make it until Saturday afternoon so we had one night of great fun. Basically, we just sat around and played games, but its always fun to party and hang out with other volunteers, if for no other reason than giving me and Ashley someone else to look at. I think one of the highlights was definitely our Sunday morning breakfast of a brick of Velveeta cheese with Rotell, tortilla shells (thanks Aunt Barb and Uncle George!!) and 15 slices of pre-cooked bacon (thanks Marissa and Sarah!!). It tasted amazing. Chase it with some Riptide Rush Gatorade and you have yourself some very happy volunteers. It’s amazing that after such a fun weekend, the melted cheese and bacon might be my favorite part. Then again… what’s not to like about melted cheese and bacon???

Hopefully I’ll be starting a conversation club with some kids in Lankaran which will allow them to be able to practice their English skills. It doesn‘t sound that hard to start, but you have to find a place to meet, a good time when all the kids can be there and make sure the school is ok with everything. You know how it goes. It should be fun to teach them games and introduce topics that they may have not addressed before and to get them to think differently about certain things. My hope is that through the conversation club, I can also get the kids to think about some small programs or projects they can do within the community with other classmates or friends to get them more involved in volunteering and the community.

I am also working on some training programs for my office that I might be able to do and think may be useful to them. My counterpart and I are going to sit down this week and discuss a couple ideas and with any luck I will have those moving along somewhere. Ideally, if they are successful with the people I work with, we may be able to offer them to other NGO’s in town as well as business owners and their staff. My hope is that these trainings will spawn more ideas and lead to other potential projects that we can do. Other than that, it should be a quiet week.

In other news, the entire city of Lankaran is under construction it seems and the weather has been amazing. There is a building around the corner from my house that has been destroyed, the big park with the Buckingham Fountains has been doubled in size and the small park that I walk through (pictures from 11-15-06 update can be seen below) has had almost all of the trees cleared out. There is also another part of town near my office that is being leveled and looks like they are going to make it similar to the big park, but mini-sized. It’ll be interesting to see what will come of the little park by my house. It was always very nice to walk through and looked gorgeous in the fall with the leaves changing colors. Tomorrow I will try to get pictures up of the addition to the big park and the tear down of the little park as well. There is also a picture of one of the World War II statues in the big park. I know it’s a short update, but no one wants to sit here reading this all day long, do you?

Thursday, January 18, 2007

Play Day... GAME TIME, WHOOP!!!

That’s right, Play Day. This past weekend 10 Volunteers, including me, got together in Imishli with an organization called Right to Play. We arrived Saturday morning for a brief training. Getting there should have been relatively simple, but it turned out to be a long and somewhat painful journey. On Tuesday or Wednesday we called to the bus station to see what our options were on getting there and found out there was a bus going to Ganja that went through Imishli and left on Saturday morning at 7 am. I wasn’t looking forward to getting up at 6 to get to the bus on time, but you do what you have to do. At least I wasn’t Ashley being woken up by Nana at 5:15 to eat some chicken. So we get on the bus a little after 6:30 and sit there. Then we sit a little longer. Some more people got on and they sat there while we sat there. We sat a little longer and then around 8:00 it seemed like we were finally leaving. The coolest part up to this point is that the guy across the aisle from me brought a duck on to the bus. A real live duck. It was in a plastic bag. The aisle was full of stuff, so the duck in the bag sat on the aisle right next to my feet. Some people had to climb to the seats in the back over all the stuff in the aisle and I think one of them kicked the duck in the head on accident. Once we started moving, the guy took his duck and moved farther back. After a little more sitting but finally moving, the guy who takes the money started yelling at two passengers and told the bus driver to pull over while he yelled at the passengers and threatened to kick them off. This went on for about ten minutes at which point we finally started moving again. Eventually we made it to Imishli but not after we got dropped off on the side of the road not knowing where we were and having to take a cab into the city who wanted to charge us way too much. While we thought we’d get there around 9:30 or 10 at the latest, we finally got there jut before noon. Luckily training didn’t start until 3.

Training wasn’t too bad or long and was mostly fun. Basically they told us about their organization and taught us some games, which was the fun part. Then we had an awesome dinner and all hung out and had a mini-party. On Sunday morning, we broke up into groups and headed out to the schools. Our school was set up for a refugee settlement. We received a very warm welcome by the school director and several students who came and gave brief speeches in English. You could tell they were nervous, but they did a good job. It was great to be welcomed so much and also tough to hear their story. But then came game time which was a blast.

Each volunteer had a group of about 15-20 kids and one of their teachers that we were assigned to. We weren’t really assigned, but more like walked up to a group and stood there waiting for further instructions. When we arrived, all the kids were lined up in a gymnasium in their groups just waiting for us. Since it was so nice outside, we all moved out there to have more space. I played Duck, Duck, Goose first. No one picked me to be the goose. I think they were all intimidated. Then we switched games and played a game called Snakes and Tails. The kids line up in two groups holding the person in front of them by the shoulders. They then chased each other around and try to catch the other “snake’s” tail and add to their own tale. This was fun and kind of mayhem. After that we played a game I think is called Mouse Trap. The teacher would pick five or so kids and the rest would form a circle and hold hands. She would say “Open” and we would raise our hands and the “mice” would run into the circle and try to get out before she would yell “Shut.” Any mouse caught in the circle had to join the circle. I think I caught two mice. The next game we played was similar to Duck, Duck, Goose, but instead the person would walk around the circle with a rag and drop it behind someone who would then have to try and tag the other person with the rag before they sat down in their spot. In this game, the kids kept picking me… and I dominated! I will admit though, I got a little winded. Man, I’m outa shape. We played this for a while and then I showed them the three-legged race which they really enjoyed, but we ran out of time. We only got to play for a little over an hour. Everyone had a great time.

Afterwards, we were invited inside for tea and sweets and we talked more with the director of the school. Once that was done, we all got back into the cars and got dropped off at a rest stop where we could catch a bus to Lankaran. All in all, it was a great weekend. I didn’t know many of the games we played or that other people played so I even got to learn, which we all know is neat. I’m not so sure what this weekend brings, but I’m sure it will be a good time. Ashley and I will either have a couple guests stay at my house where we will build forts and play games, or we will go to Baku, where we will probly build forts and play games. Either way, it’s guaranteed fun. One of the pictures is what I look like while screaming at one of the DVD’s of the Bears games that Steve has sent me so you all can imagine what I would look like if I were there to watch the game on Sunday and the other is me with my group of kids from Play Day. Enjoy!

Wednesday, January 10, 2007

Quick One (With Paragraphs!!!)

Bear Down, Chicago Bears! If you can’t tell, I’m very excited about the Bears game this week. In case you were wondering, I will either be huddled in my bed on Sunday evening checking the scores every two seconds on my phone or online trying to get play by play updates. Either way, I’m expecting big things. That being said, it has been pretty slow around here lately. Last week I didn’t do too much since I had the entire week off, which was nice. I spent a lot of time with my family playing Mortal Kombat (and losing quite often) and just chillin’ watching music videos (of course).

I am back at work this week, which is nice. I missed the people I work with and it’s good to get back into my normal rhythm. I am focusing on putting more of a concentrated effort on getting better at the language and looking for project ideas to do with my organization.

On Saturday, a group of about 10 Volunteers are going to a nearby village, Imishli, for a Play Day organized by Right to Play in Azerbaijan. Community members and teachers get together with volunteers to play games with disabled children between the ages of 7-13. We have training on Saturday, then Sunday morning we all head out and play games for an hour or so. We are all very excited and looking forward to this weekend. I have heard from other volunteers who have done this before that it is a fun weekend with the kids and of course, other volunteers. Now if only we can figure out how to get to Imishli, we’d be set. There are no direct bus routes from Lankaran, so we are trying to find the best, easiest way out there. I’m fairly confident that we’ll figure it out one of these days.

Also, thanks to some newly arrived Christmas presents for both me and Ashley, we are fully stocked on games. Between Chicago Monopoly, Regular Monopoly, Sorry!, Risk, Connect Four, Scrabble, Rummikub, ESPN Sports Trivia: The Game, Yahtzee, Clue, a deck of regular playing cards, Sega Genesis (that we are still trying to get to work) and my brothers’ Playstation One Ashley and I plan on having a tournament royale to determine the Gaming Czar of the Universe. Or we’ll just come up with a goofy bet that will cover the two years we are here.

As for other projects, there are a few things in the works. Ashley and I are working with a local teacher on a project she wants to submit and my organization is always looking for things to do. We are still waiting to hear back on the proposal we submitted right before the New Year so hopefully that’ll pan out. The pictures are of everyone in my office (left to right, they are: Ziya, Aygun, Me, Rufat and Arzu) and the office Christmas/New Years tree. Hope everyone is doing well. You stay classy, U.S. of A.

Monday, January 01, 2007

Welcome, 2007

HAPPY NEW YEAR!!!! Ahh, you gotta love the holidays. It’s been a pretty low key week, and this week will be super low key as I have the entire week off of work. Plus, Ashley is in Georgia skiing, so I have no one to get in the way of my malaise. Before I talk about how I rang in 2007 with my family, I’d like to mention last week very briefly. On Monday I didn’t go to work seeing as how it was Christmas and all. My coordinator is really good about offering American Holidays off to me… he even offered for me to stay home on Columbus Day, to which I declined. Not to knock Columbus Day, but it didn’t seem necessary to stay home. Christmas, though, is entirely different. On Tuesday, it was back to work. During the day I finished off the Tourism Development proposal I had been working on with my counterpart and the Community Development Committee. We’ll see where this goes. Later on in the day, my office had organized a “roundtable” involving many of the local NGO’s and other community members, including the two other PCV’s in Lankaran, Tim and Ashley. After a brief introduction from my coordinator, my counterpart Arzu gave a background of the organization I work for (Center for Legal and Economic Education). For those of you who don’t know, CLEE was founded in Baku in 1997 and is supported by several international NGO’s. The Lankaran branch was opened in 2002 and it’s mission is to provide assistance by promoting human rights, rules of law and democratic institutions through legal and economic educational activities. Essentially, my office provides free legal advice and services to vulnerable groups of society who would otherwise be unable to find such help. Next, Ziya and Aygun spoke of several holidays including the three that we are currently celebrating, Gurban Bayram (Sacrifice Holiday), Azerbaijan Solidarity Day and, of course, New Years. Gurban Bayram, as I mentioned, is the Holiday of Sacrifices. The explanations are taken from handouts from the roundtable. It is celebrated 70 days after the end of Ramadan. This holiday is connected with the Biblical prediction about the prophet Abraham who wants to sacrifice his son Isaac to God. At the last moment God sends the archangel Gabriel with a lamb and saves Abraham’s son. To commemorate this day, each Muslim must sacrifice a sheep or some other animal while reading prayers and then distribute the meat among the poor. Azerbaijani Solidarity Day was established in 1992 to commemorate the 1st World Congress of the Azeri People that took place on December 31st in Istanbul. New Years, as in most places, is celebrating the new year. After Ziya and Aygun presented it was my turn to speak about Christmas. I spoke a few minutes about the background, how families typically celebrate in America now and a little bit about our Santa Clause. After that I played and sang the Christmas Song by Dave Matthews on my guitar. Not the most Christmasy song out there, but a good one, and everyone enjoyed it. Most of them didn’t understand the lyrics, as I sang in English, but they were given a brief overview of what the song is about. All in all, it was a nice get together and good to see some of the people in town that I don’t get to see very often. So that explains why I have no work this week. My family had a pretty low key celebration. All day Saturday was preparation of the food. When I woke up in the morning and headed down to the main house, there was a GIANT slab of meat sitting on the table and Nana (back from Moscow) was busy with the meat grinder. There was also a pretty big fish sitting in a bowl that I was less excited about and several birds and chickens waiting to be grilled. Sunday brought pretty much what I thought it would… lots of eating. I woke up and had some cake, then some beef kabob, then some cake, then some potato salad, tea, cake, tea, chicken, salad, chicken, cake, tea, salad, bread, bread and more bread. All day we were eating. I couldn’t tell, but it didn’t seem like we really sat down like we normally do and ate a meal… I think we just ate all day long. While we weren’t eating, we just chilled and watched TV almost all day. You could tell the anticipation for midnight was just eating at everyone. Or something. Eventually, midnight and 2007 did arrive. I knew my little brothers had bought some firecrackers that are very similar to our black cats and just make a big noise. We also had bought some roman candle type fireworks so I knew our celebration would be fairly small, but fun nonetheless… who doesn’t like making a ton of noise and shooting off roman candles. What was really amusing was that throughout the entire day you could hear random POPS and BANGS as people all over would toss a firecracker for no real reason. When we walked outside at midnight, it was ridiculous. I think every single person in Lankaran was lighting off firecrackers and roman candles and bottle rockets and who knows what. All you could hear and see were loud pops from every where that never ended and bright flashes of light over the houses and around the corners. It was pretty awesome. So we lit a bunch of our fireworks and watched some others. No one had any real big ones, just the loud little buggers. Hopefully everyone used all theirs up so I don’t have to jump on my way to work when one goes off two feet behind me. Some people around the corner had some pretty big ones, but I’m not sure they were used or worked right. I rounded the corner to see a HUGE red ball and people running all over the place and loud bang followed by uncontrollable laughter… a lot of it mine. No one was hurt, I made sure of that before I laughed. So that’s how I celebrated the new year. AND, I found one constant from celebrations involving lots of cooking. Way too much gets made and then you eat the same meal 4-7 times in a row, so there’s some more continuity in the world, if you’re looking for it. I’m not complaining though, kabob and chicken and cake is delicious. I pass on the fish, for those of you keeping score at home. Sorry I have no pictures as of now, maybe this week I’ll find a few or take some new ones to put on here. Hope everyone had a safe and fun New Year! Oh, and Ashley and I won our NFL Fantasy Pick ‘Em League against 11 of my friends. I still can’t believe it and I’m pretty sure they will never hear the end of it. Feel free to taunt them at will (namely Tyler and Zach).