Saturday, January 16, 2010

The Little Ones

17 January 2010

I’ve come to realize that 2:48 in the morning is the best time to write a web log entry. Why? I don’t know. I just felt like saying that, since it is, in fact, that late.

So I hope everyone’s well, as we ease, slowly but surely, out of the holidays. It’s not exactly a good feeling to step into work the first day after a break, but before you know it, you’re in the groove, and you don’t even think about it anymore. Then again, if you have a job like Dad’s, and your work is Christmas, you may even forget, or not give credit to, the fact that the past holidays included rest and relaxation, for some at least.

I, for one, am getting into the swing of things okay, like the rest of the volunteers, and I’ve recently been thinking about something I’ve just gotta elaborate on.

Kids are great. I mean, seriously, nothing brightens your day like the smiling face of a seven year old. They’re amused by things you’re either too sophisticated or embarrassed to be amused by, and you can’t help but sit back and laugh as they talk amongst themselves. That’s, at least, what I do, most of the time, in a daily, thirty minute class frequented by two fifth graders. These two girls are so hilarious that it doesn’t even matter how bad my day’s been up to that point. They fix everything, and I can never repay them for it, except maybe teach them a little English.

First off, they typically show up about a half hour early, while I’m teaching another class. They’ll knock on the door, ask if they can come in, and about ten minutes after I tell them no, they come knocking again, then I tell them no again, and so on. Sometimes, I let them come in and sit during the other class, but they often occupy themselves with other things. For example, one day they started playing chess with their little travel kit. On other days, they’ll sit for a few minutes, then get up and run in and out of the classroom (for some reason), which doesn’t bother the current class at all.

When their time rolls around, we pick and choose what we’re going to do that day. It doesn’t matter so much what we do, because they’re pretty much down for anything. Nowadays, they’re really into “How do you spell…?” where they ask each other what letters make up each word. What’s great about letting them do something like this, where just the two of them are involved, is that they start arguing with each other about…whatever…and instead of straightening them out (which might not work anyway), I just stand back and watch things unfold. Clearly they’re debating some very big issues, and I don’t wanna get caught in the middle of it. Plus it’s funny, and I need humor in my life.

And despite the amusement I derive from teaching these two, everyone also knows that little kids learn languages better than anyone else, and Fidan and Mələk are no exception. It’s just great to see minds at work, especially at their age, and to see them try so ardently. Makes teaching a pleasure.

Now, my brother’s wife, Sara, is pregnant. Although it may be known by now what gender the baby will be, I, in my unknowing state, could care less if it’s a boy or girl. If it’s a boy, great. We can have uncle-nephew bonding time. But, judging by my experience in Azerbaijan, a girl would be great, too. Perhaps I could teach her and a friend Azerbaijani, and live it all over again.

Pray for those in Haiti.

Monday, January 11, 2010

Teachers' Meetings

11 January 2010

I’m bringing up this topic more, I think, because I simply feel like writing after a nice dinner at a friend’s house. Especially on rougher days, going "guesting", as we say, at someone’s home can really brighten things up. Not that today was bad. I just felt like saying that.

The semester started out well today. I had three classes with a couple teachers, one of which, Mrs. Ruziya, is a nice, young, woman with whom I’ve barely started out. The administration at my school suggested I start working with a couple young teachers to help them along, and I’m glad to be doing it. They’re nice and appreciative, and we can get some work done.

I had three classes today, although I was supposed to have four, but one was cancelled due to the teachers’ meeting at noon, which I’ll talk about in a minute. They were fine. I asked the students about what they did for New Year’s and where they spent it. Most said they were at home, like many Azerbaijanis, and I wouldn’t’ve minded that myself, had I been able to stay in Qumlaq and not had a meeting in Baku on December thirty-first.

The last class I taught with Mrs. Ruziya today was a "two-in-one", which are always fun. Sometimes, a teacher is ill or just can’t come to class for whatever reason, so they put class ‘A’ and class ‘B’ together at one time. Seeing as you’re with a teacher that doesn’t normally teach the "other half" of the class (And you yourself may not normally teach that other half, either.), an interesting lesson ensues. The extra kids may not have a clue what you’re talking about, which either results in you explaining, perhaps futilely, the material or just going on without them. I mean, the former is probably better, but what are you gonna do with thirty students, half on one page, the other half on another, in one space, not to mention with a teacher that isn’t used to teaching them?

Another thing that gets me are these kids that kinna "show up" every now and then. I may not have seen a young man for two weeks, and then, boom, there he is again, strapped in and ready to learn. I’ve even had my primary counterpart, Mrs. Adilə, call on a kid and ask, "Who are you?" since he’s only around once in a blue moon, or may have only showed up one time ever. It’s this lax stance toward education that gets me when I think about it. When I picture myself growing up, I can’t imagine being in a school where kids just kinna "come and go", or lessons get rescheduled due to…whatever…and I end up finishing the day a class short because I didn’t know. But like most things in life, I’ve adapted to it, as all folks must do, and it’s become "normal" for me. Why should I complain, anyway? This isn’t America. This isn’t the American education system (which has issues too, eh?). I come from one place that does its thing and now live in another place that does another thing. And while I may stop, think, and throw a fit about how different it can be here, I’m not gonna be so ridiculous as to declare one thing "bad" and the other thing "good". I gotta live in the context of my situation. I gotta accept it and provide what I can. This isn’t a fatalistic, "Oh well, I tried" attitude, either. I’m just saying you gotta understand where you are.

And one part of Azerbaijani education, which you got everywhere else, too, are teachers’ meetings. Yep, they don’t skip out on those, either, though I’m not always a full participant. In fact, I’m never a full participant, because, a lot of the time, I don’t know what they’re talking about. I just awkwardly sit there, with a sincere look on my face, nodding when I think something important’s been said. Though I can speak conversational Azerbaijani okay, I can’t understand "meeting Azerbaijani" much at all, which might explain why I left today’s get together early.

Basically, what happens is all the teachers gather in the teachers’ room. Some chairs get moved into the center of the room to accommodate everybody. When everyone’s seated, the director comes in, and when he enters the room, all the teachers lift their rumps out of their chairs and kinna rearrange themselves slightly, out of respect. This may sound kinna weird, but you may know what I mean if you saw it, and I know every Peace Corps volunteer is familiar with this kind of "respectful rump rearranging", or "R.R.R." for short.

As far as what happens next, your guess is as good as mine. Today, I think Fəxrəddin Müəllimi (our director) was talking about the results of recent state testing. Seeing as this had just about nothing to do with me, I left before everyone else, which I don’t regret too much (In fact, I’d say I regret not leaving earlier.). One day Charlie went to a teachers’ meeting, and after he left, I asked him, "How was it?" and he said, "I learned we’re no longer supposed to grade in pencil." I’m sure he was relieved.

I don’t know. I guess this just kinna goes back to the differences between two places. Number one, there’s a language barrier. Number two, they’re talking about stuff that doesn’t apply to me so much. And yet, I still feel I should be there. You know, I wanna be part of the group. And even though I cut out early today, at least I got to check it out. Perhaps that’s the moral of this story. Check it out. Check it all out. You never know what you may see.

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Christmas in Tbilisi

10 January 2009

I’m digging on the quietness of twelve seventeen in the morning on January tenth, two thousand ten (It is a new year, isn’t it?). Well, I guess the rumbling of the radiator in the corner is the only other noise besides the sound of my typing, but at least the other noises that exist on a piece of property with six people are yoxdur (nonexistent) at the moment. Like I said, I’m digging it.

Tonight, I’m gonna talk to y’all about a little trip I took with Charlie these last few days. The title of this entry says it all, and, I must say, it was a kick ass trip. Couldn’t’ve asked for anything more out of about forty-eight hours in the capital of Georgia, and let me tell you why.

I met Charlie at the Oğuz bus station at about eight o’clock on the morning of the sixth. It was a cold day, and we were glad to be in the heated marşrutka headed for Şəki at eight fifteen. Upon arriving in our neighboring rayon, we immediately hopped on another marşrutka bound for the beautiful (and sexy) rayon of Zaqatala, which is just a couple rayons over from Georgia. We ran into a bit of turbulence at the Zaqatala bus station, mainly due to our own stupidity. When we got there, I quickly asked the dispatcher how we could get to Tbilisi. He told me we had to go to Balakən, the next rayon over. No problem, I thought, and we went over to the Balakən van and saved our places with our sleeping bags (totally legit). Then we went to a nearby store and grabbed a snack or two for the road, but once we got back to the bus station, the van was leaving, full, and I angrily banged on the driver’s side window and asked where our sleeping bags were. The driver didn’t stop or open the window and just pointed behind him (which pissed me off), and, lo and behold, our sleeping bags were sitting there on the sidewalk in front of where the van was parked. What a bummer. Luckily, these marşrutkas leave frequently, so we simply saved a couple spots (with our sleeping bags, again. Still totally legit.) on the next van and went and had a pot of tea at a çayxana (You see where this is going.). Surely they wouldn’t leave without us again. Well, yeah, we clearly didn’t learn our lesson the first time because the damn sleeping bags were sitting on the sidewalk again, and we were left behind again. Oh, how foolish of us. The third time was a charm, though, ‘cause we simply sat on the van and didn’t move once the next one came around. A few minutes later, we were in Balakən, a rayon, up ‘till now, seldom frequented by Peace Corps volunteers, quite beautiful, if I may say so myself.

We took out some money in town and were soon at the border, which we passed through easily. This was the third time we’d done this, and we’re still amused by the contrast between the Azerbaijani and Georgian border patrols. On the Azerbaijani side, men (and boys) in military garb, hoisting large guns and smoking cigarettes, take a look at your passport, don’t check your baggage, and let you though at their leisure. The Georgian side is a bit more, eh, organized. We all stand in line, the officer quickly stamps our passport while sitting next to a fancy computer with a camera we have to look at for identification, and our bags get scanned by some high dollar machine from Japan. We quickly were through the border and haggling with the Azerbaijani-speaking cab drivers about rides to the town of Lagodekhi (the first rayon you hit in Georgia).

Once we got in town, we began deliberating over how we’d get to Tbilisi, which is about two hours away (depending on how fast you drive). We initially thought to take a marşrutka, which was just seven Lari (the Georgian currency), but we were discouraged because we wanted to get to the city as quickly as we could and the van wouldn’t be leaving for another forty minutes. We then discussed the possibility of taking a taxi to Tbilisi with nearby cab drivers who surrounded us as if we could restore sight to the blind. We cut one driver down to a decent price (thanks for Charlie’s Russian skills), but after we put our bags in the trunk, he was in no hurry to leave. I suppose he was waiting for more passengers to come along so the trip would be more worth his while. Can’t blame him, but we eventually decided, after waiting a little while, that we might as well take the marşrutka, and that’s what we did. And before the marşrutka headed out of Lagodekhi, we had the good fortune of meeting an adorable, sweet, girl who was born in…(cough)…the nation just below Georgia. Her name was Christiana, and she could speak five languages, including Polish (I couldn’t even tell you what Polish sounds like.). She was excited to meet handsome, charming Americans like us, and helped us with purchasing a bag of chips at the store. You never know who you might come across.

The drive from Lagodekhi to Tbilisi was pretty awesome, if anything, because we got an intimate glimpse of the rayons of another country (And I’ve come to realize, also, that everything looks cooler if you’re listening to Dark Side of the Moon while viewing it.). We got into Tbilisi at about five or so, and used the cell phones of two kind gentleman before finally meeting our CouchSurfer, Vasi, near her apartment right next to Vake park. Now let me tell you about Vasi. Oh yeah, and if you’re not familiar with CouchSurfing, it’s a global network of individuals that willingly host travelers for free in their homes. Pretty sweet. Anyway, our hostess, Vasi, is a twenty-six year old badass who works for International Orthodox Christian Charities. Yep, we got extra lucky this time around. We came to Tbilisi to check out Orthodox Christmas, and our CouchSurfer just so happened to be a committed Serbian Orthodox Christian, and a sweetheart at that. She took us in, was very pleased with the wine we bought her, and provided us with hot showers when we desired (hell yes).

Shortly after putting our stuff down, Vasi walked with us down the road and showed us where we could find something to eat. She eventually returned to her apartment (It was cold.), and we soon found a little eatery, where we ordered up a couple beers and some cheese and bean xajipuri. As we were sitting there, eating and shooting the breeze, a gentleman, who spoke great English, asked us where we were from. The guy’s name was Shalva, and he’d lived in Atlanta for a number of years. He was a heck of a nice guy, so nice that he bought us dinner (more than once). He was also friends with the president of Caucasus University in Tbilisi, and he randomly picked me up from a restaurant one night and drove me to his office so I could meet him. We ended up seeing Shalva a few more times during our stay in the city.

After dinner, we chilled in the apartment and chatted with Vasi before Charlie decided to take a shower and Vasi went for a nap (with good reason, considering what Georgian Christmas entails). We left for midnight mass at about ten forty-five, because Charlie and Vasi were going to have confession with the priest before mass started. Well, that didn’t pan out so well because once we got to Vasi’s church, everybody, and I mean everybody, was there. May I add that, although I’ve lived in three Latin American countries and middle Tennessee, Georgia is undoubtedly the most Christian place I’ve ever seen. The churches are packed, and you can only guess what Christmas is like. We waited outside the front door of the church like we were waiting to get into the hottest club in town. We had a feeling we wouldn’t be able to squeeze in, but, I’ll be darned, we made it in the church and mass started soon after. We were packed so tightly in the sanctuary that we didn’t even have to try to stand (May I add it was standing only, the standard Orthodox style I’m guessing.). Charlie couldn’t even cross himself, at least not all the way.

The service was beautiful, fully loaded with incense and a thousand and one Georgian chants. I even started singing along after a while, although I had no idea what the words were. Sometimes I just had to look around at all the people there. There’s something profoundly beautiful about the Orthodox tradition. The idea that all the people, everyone in the neighborhood, is in there, standing together in one place, was moving for me. The fact that the seventy some odd years of the churchless Soviet era has been followed up by this kind of commitment to church life is pretty amazing.

After Vasi received the bread and wine communion mixture from a golden spoon, we headed out of the church and received free shots of wine and little pieces of bread and met Vasi’s friend who works with her at I.O.C.C. This gentleman’s name was Archel, and he was a class act who took us around the city after church. We first went to the massive Sameba church, which was beautiful and boasted some of the best chanting I’d ever heard. We hung around there for a little while, and Charlie pointed something out about the Georgian Orthodox tradition. It seems like, for Protestants and Catholics, at least, church is a pretty formal place. You go into the church to worship, not necessarily to socialize. We noticed, however, that this humongous church was full of people who were either praying, chanting, venerating (a hobby of mine), or just hanging out. Plenty of folks, particularly teenagers, were sitting on the floor, just chatting. It kind of gave a different meaning to what we initially conceptualize as the worship space. That night, it seemed more like a community center (That is, a community center where people waited to pray for healing by the remains of a saint like they were waiting to get Jerry Garcia’s autograph.).

After that, we headed to a restaurant to bring in the birth of Jesus in genuine Georgian fashion, by drinking vodka and easting delicious food. The restaurant was packed with people, old and young, participating in post-mass revelry (I think you’d do the same, too, wouldn’t you?). Mind you, it’s three o’clock in the morning at this point, and seeing as I’d gotten up at six in Oğuz, I had to order a Turkish coffee to keep up, and I’m glad I did, ‘cause we got our good eatin’ on and our good drinkin’ on. We had some kind of chicken soup that was simply to die for, pork kabobs (That’s right. Pork kabobs.), two kinds of xingali (round dumpling like things with meat or cheese inside), beer, and vodka. Couldn’t complain about that. When we were finally bursting with gastronomical pleasure, we rolled out of the restaurant, and Archel dropped us off at Vasi’s apartment. We ended up chatting ‘till almost seven in the morning, and I crashed hard when we finally hit the sack.

We got up the next day, and after a little breakfast, we went to Vake park and hiked up to Turtle Lake, a beautiful body of water with some nice restaurants around it. I tried to run up the hill towards the lake, and was humbled by nearly keeling over from being so winded. After a cappuccino by the lake, we headed down the hill and met a good friend of Vasi’s. This was an interesting situation because this girl couldn’t speak English. However, she lived in Barcelona for some time, so she could speak Spanish. While hanging with her, I comically stumbled through my, now, crappy Español, which was kinna funny.

We ended up spending much of the evening with Vasi and her friend. We walked around town with them and came back to the apartment and hung out some more. She eventually headed out, and we stuck around the bachelor pad and drank way too much together, and we all ended up crashing around…I don’t even remember what time it was.

The next day, we casually got up and had a lovely breakfast, which included bacon, another pork product. Archel came over briefly and ate with us and chatted, and Charlie and I soon after got our stuff together and headed out the door. We hugged Vasi, our new best friend, and rolled over to where our taxi to Legodekhi would be leaving from. We crossed the border into Azerbaijan once again at around six that evening and ended a pretty dang good trip to Georgia.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

What I'm Thinking About

Good day, campers! Rise and shine (although I'm not sure what time of day it will be when you read this...if you read this)! Better put on your booties, 'cause it's...unseasonably warm in Baku. At this time last year, we were finally rolling out to the rayons on this day. There was a freakin' blizzard in Baku (We were embarrassingly falling all over the sidewalks.) last year, and we were stuck here for an extra night, which wasn't too bad because we got to chill in the Peace Corps lounge, with its D.V.D.'s and Internet. Oh yeah, and our friends were also there, but who needs friends when you have that kind of electronic stimulation? I mean, you should look at us now in my buddy Corey's apartment. We're connected to Dlink's (whoever that is) wireless (which only works in one room of the house. You have to understand the geography of leeching others' Internet.). Two computers are sitting open on the kitchen table, and I'm son a bed next to Mariel, an AZ7, who has a computer sitting on her lap. We aren't talking to one another, and why would we?

So what's it like in old Azerbaijan these days, anyway? One one note my friend Corey, who has the sweet apartment in Baku, was a volunteer in the rayon of Davachi. He eventually decided to give that up and take a job in Baku teaching English at Baku Oxford school. Considering the fact that he makes over a thousand Manat a month now and he's spending time in the classroom with students that speak great English, I wouldn't say his decision was too bad. Oh, and let's not forget the fact that his apartment is simply lovely, with a washing machine. Seriously, a washing machine. Have you heard of these things? They're simply wild. You take your clothes and put them in there with a little soap. The clothes get shaken around for a little while and, voila, they're clean. I've never seen anything like it. They must run on witchcraft or something.

Anyway, what the hell was I talking about? Oh yeah, I guess I can't entirely blame Mr. Corey for putting a halt to the Peace Corps gig and taking up a nice job in the big city. I mean, considering how often I come and stay in his apartment, my feelings can't be too negative. He's a good dude.

Okay, I'm not gonna lie here, people. I don't know what I'm doing at the ol' computer right now. I simply decided, with the quick access to Internet, to just get on the web log and write. I've also been enjoying myself pretty thoroughlly in the Baku for the past couple days, which, as you can imagine, can put one in an interesting place.

So what's it like in January in Azerbaijan? Well, let me tell you this. You see, January is the month after December and before February. It's also the first month of the year. Last year, I don't recall doing anything in January, besides starting to teach and being overwhelmed by the amount of time I'd be in Azerbaijan. When you're unsure of what the heck you're doing but entirely sure of exactly how long you' unsure of what you're doing, your spirit goes into a, to say the least, interesting place, but that's life, eh? Mountains and valleys, strikes and gutters, you know. I can honestly say, at this point, that I'm glad I'm here and most certainly happy I've stayed in this lovely country through the ups and downs.

I'm pretty much planning on not doing much for the next couple months. By "not doing much", I mean I don't think I'll be going anywhere too exotic, unless you count Ismael's market in downtown Qumlaq exotic. Sometimes he has chocolate covered dates in his store. I mean, that's pretty crazy, huh? What's next...uh...tacos stuffed butter? Okay, my attempt to be witty has failed, although I must say that, after eating the same three Azerbaijani meals for over a year, I probably wouldn't turn down a peanut butter taco. It's actually not a horrible idea. You're pretty much just taking the best of Mexico and America and putting them together. At last. Okay, that was truly unnecessary.

Alright, now I really don't know what I'm talking about or why I even sat down at the computer to write this stupid thing in the first place. I humbly apaologize to anyone who's actually reading this. I swear, if anyone were to open up my head and peer in, I fear it would be similar to splitting an atom. Sure it looks harmless at first, but just crack that thing open and all kinds of nonsense would burst out. I don't recommend it, which might justify my quitting to write at this very monent, for mine and your sake.

Seriously, you're free to navigate ("Navigate". There's a great word for surfing the Internet. What are we? Sailors?) away from this web log and go check out Wikipedia at any time. I mean, how else are you going to know about major court cases in Madison County Mississippi in September of 1965, or who the governor of Montana is? This knowledge doesn't just teach itself.

Alright, I guess I'd better log off and figure out what I'm going to do today. I'm sorry if you're on the brink of dozing off on your keyboard. I mean, if you do, just make sure your nose doesn't land on one of the keys. It'd be embarrassing if someone were to walk by you at your computer to see ten thousand commas on the address bar. I don't think the Internet would recognize that.