Saturday, July 30, 2011

So you want to camp it up?

One of my newest projects is writing a basic how-to guide for organizing a summer program (read day-camp) in Azerbaijan. Of course, writing such a thing is a lot harder than I imagined, but eh. I got skillz (that's right. Skills with a z).

Anyway, I thought I would post a few basic guidelines here. For all of you out there who have got some suggestions, comment me away!

Start a year out. 
For most PCVs, at least a year is needed for summer program planning. Everything from applying for a grant to collecting special materials takes inordinate amounts of time when you are living in a developing country. My advice, be a helper at other PCVs' summer camps before deciding to do one on your own.

Major decisions.
Figure out our camp focus. Is it going to be an English camp? A sport camp? An art camp? Are you doing this thing with local help or lone wolfing it? Do you need a grant? Who will write and manage the grant? How many kids do you expect will attend? How many kids do you want to attend? Is this a kid's camp or an adult training program? Will you need PCV help? Will locals have an active role in organizing or facilitating the camp?

These questions (and many others) are really important. For the major PCV grants (SPA and PCPP), you need at least 6 to 8 months. Personally, I tried to include as many locals as possible at every step. It made the process longer, but I think it transferred more skills. I am still impressed that my counterpart wrote her own grant a few months ago for sports equipment - a skill she learned while we wrote our own camp's SPA grant.

This is where things get tricky. You got to tell the head dogs, the local government, your director, counterparts, kids, other PCVs - everybody and their grandma, what you plan to do. Making sure you have government approval is really important. Making sure your host org will support you (either with time off or resources) is crucial and of course, making sure PCVs know what is coming up helps them plan their summers accordingly.

Money is in and it is time to buy. Keep detailed records of money and receipts (this will save you a lot of head aches on the final grant reporting side). Make sure you inventory your supplies and have enough for everything. Will there be a counterpart training? Print the hand-outs and make sure you have every contingency planned for (such as someone not showing up).

Sending out the summons.
Hopefully, by this point you have potential campees, but do you have PCVs? Get firm commitments and communicate your community and house rules. Are shorts allowed? What about smoking in public? Should people pitch in for food, toilet paper, electricity (for the constant use of your fan)? Are PCVs expected for the whole week or just part? Be clear and stick to your guns. The goal is for this to be less of a headache for you, not more.

Remember to eat and drink lots of liquids.

Clean up.
Always follow that Girl Scout motto and leave a place better than you found it. Debrief counterparts and make sure the lessons you were hoping to transmit were actually transmitted. Write up your final grant report. Post pictures online and thank donors. Get your house right (after lots of guests...this can be touch).

Plan for next year???

Monday, July 25, 2011

How to Succeed in Peace Corps

Being a PCV is hard.

It's hard for several reasons - most of which I have previously discussed (Peace Corps Experience [link]), so this post ain't about that. It's about how to really create sustainable, lasting change in a community.

Sure, I can teach a group of local girls to write a resume, but that doesn't mean they can update it (or even find it again) once I leave.

I definitely can sit around a table late at night explaining the nuances of America to a local counterpart's family, but that means squat when some guy decided to burn a Koran.

And of course, I totally plan on going home and talking about my experience and PC till I am blue in the face, but nobody (except another RPCV) is gonna get what I am trying to spit out.

That lasting sustainable change is an elusive beast. As I come closer to my COS (Close of Service) date, I cannot get it out of my head. What will I leave behind in this community and what will I take with me?

I have no idea. I mean, I totally plan to continue this blog for 9 months (until my 29th birthday) after I COS, so conceivably, I will be able to tell you later, but for now, I am just gonna have to guess.

So, my guess is this: friendship is important. 

The more I learn about Azerbaijan, the more I realize that how we (Americans) view friendship and interact with friends is culturally very different. If I can transmit any one thing, it is that taking the time to hang out, enjoy the company of, and stopping to smell the flowers with a friend is the most gratifying and pleasurable thing in the world. Friends are important. Having a good friend is worth their weight in gold and being a good friend is priceless.

Inshallah, this is what I leave behind as my legacy.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Fan Mail

As I started to write this post, I realized that every sentence sounded like a complaint, so let me throw some stuff out there:

  1. I am extremely grateful and humbled by the amount of care packages I receive.
  2. I love emails and even some of the forwards my dad sends - even if I have no idea why he sent them to me.
  3. I am a processor, so I need that constant contact. I need it.
With that being said, mail is a weird thing for a PCV. At first, you get quite a lot of it. Boxes from friends and family arrive with haste. Handwritten letters are not uncommon; and that run-on email from your bestie reminds you of all the stuff you are missing at home.

Unfortunately, over time, these things decrease in frequency. This is completely natural. After your first year of care packages, your stockpile of awesome loot is pretty high. You know that your shared experiences with your friends and fam remain the mainstay of your identity, but they are replaced by crazy "only-in-Peace-Corps" stories that nobody but other PCVs understand. You simply start to lose contact.

This happens. It has to happen. Without the slow integration of you into your host community, you would never be able to operate effectively in your host country. You have to lose some (if not most) contact with home so that you can put that energy and focus into your service.

Anyway, the other day I got a random post card in the mail from a reader of my blog. I was surprised and a little freaked out that somebody other than my dad, mom, and sister read this blog. The card now sits on my shelf, next to my Azerbaijani wedding pictures. It reminded me that even though the letter and emails have reduced in number, people are still out there who care deeply about what I am doing.

Monday, July 18, 2011

BUZZ WORD: Sustainability.

I think I heard this word at least 148 times during my stint in PC training. Everything and everyone dropped sustainability into the convo like it was the name of a famous friend.
PC Staff member: Hey Löki, how is your community mapping going?
Löki Gale: Um...good?
PC Staff member: Good, good. It is always an asset to know what your community has because you can help establish sustainable projects.
Löki Gale: Huh? I don't get it...
Yup. Sustainability is the name of the game. For me, it has been a struggle. The photography project (after much revamping and reorganization) has finally begun to see the sustainable light and last week, Jessica A., Mike R., Jane R., and I worked our hineys off to take that next step with our "annual" summer camp (2 years makes it annual, right?).

Along with a few other awesome PCVs, our Zaq group trained a gaggle of counterparts to organize and lead a 6-day day summer camp. Similar to last year, the counterparts lesson planned and facilitated the day program; however, unlike last year, all the preparation was left to them. The Sunday before camp, I was laid out on my couchbed, watching NCIS re-runs instead of spending hours making play dough and stripping magazines for beads.

Of course, our summer program had a few hiccups and several bumps along the way, but overall, I think it was fantastic. The kids enjoyed themselves, the counterparts learned a lot, and I got to see a preview of just how next year might go. Obviously, I am going to be emailing and care package-sending the counterparts here tons of materials, but eh. Sustainable does not mean doing it alone.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Toyin It Up

Serendipity is exactly how this happened.

Earlier this week, I was invited to a boy's wedding.

Now, I had no idea it was a boy's wedding. I arrived thinking that the father of the bride had invited me. Turned out, he was the father of the groom.

Anyway, 98% of all my friends in Azerbaijan are 20-something girls, so the probability of me ever going to the "boy's wedding" has always been pretty low. Wonderfully enough, after a few awkward moments, we came to realize that the wedding was indeed a boy's wedding...let the fun begin.

First, a boy's wedding and a girl's wedding follow the same exact patter. Look at my previous post [link] to know what that is. The only real differences are:

1. The bride wears a white dress with a red sash around her waist; and,
2. The bride does not return to her parents' home after the ceremony.

Otherwise, normally, the boy's wedding is bigger and attended by both sides of the family. Things go pretty normal - about 4 hours (maybe 5 if you are lucky) of dancing, eating, and drinking.

Personally, 4 hours is my cut-off. I usually leave after the special wedding rice pilaf has been brought in. Unfortunately, many people think this is exactly when the party gets started. Most of time, I end up having to dance myself out.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Who Will I Be?

Going along that same track of trying to figure out what next to do with my life, I have been thinking a lot lately about what am I going to be like when I return to the US.

I mean, the 2008 model of Löki has left the building. For that matter, so has the 2009 and 2010 models.

Obviously, so has everyone else. That is the only constant in life: change. It is just, I know (and after my brief exposure in the US) I am going to surprise the pants of some people. I feel mostly the same as when my cousin dropped me off in Philadelphia, but I also know that some things have undergone dramatic shifts.

This is the same for every PCV out there. Peace Corps will talk and talk your socks off about re-adjustment and what to expect. Of course, I got a closer preview as my Az6 friends all left in December and have been re-adjusting for the last six months.

It doesn't sound easy.

It actually sounds harder than adjusting to Azerbaijan.

I mean, think about it. After two years away, you return to the land of milk and disposable income. Instead of one type of juice and tomatoes whenever the store owner harvests their garden, you have a gigantic Fred Meyers stocked full of items you forgot existed.

Besides all that, half the people you run into have no idea you were away and if they did, they have no idea what to say, so they just switch to a familiar topic instead of allowing you to pontificate about your last 27 months. You are no longer the American and in most cases, you are much less interesting than your sister's new baby.

There really is nothing that can be done about it either. I mean, I could tell you (friends and family readers) to listen to your PCV, allow them to freak out, ground them when you can, and help them ease into re-adjustment with bacon and beer...

But I am not even sure those things will work. I just expect a rocky 6 months...bare with us all.

Monday, July 11, 2011

The Girl's Wedding

As previously mentioned [link], this month we are taking about Azerbaijani weddings.

So...did you know that the bride and groom have their own weddings?!

Yup. That is right. As a bride, you get two (TWO) parties to celebrate the momentous occasion of marriage. At the girl's wedding (a few days before the boy's), the girl wears a colored dress, enjoys the company of her family, and smiles, a lot. She then goes back home and prepares for the boy's wedding which will happen in a couple of days. The boy's wedding is a much more traditional affair, complete with white dress, red sash, and no smiles. The girl does not go home after this party. Instead, she starts her life as a married woman.

Last week, I went to a girl's wedding. My friend, Ş, wore a lilac dress and smiled up a storm. I wore a black dress and sat a lot because I had recently hurt my Achille's tendon in a tiger-street fighting accident (actually, it is not so dramatic and a much longer story).

The best part about this wedding? I got to MOW DOWN. U.S. wedding food has got nothing on Azerbaijani weddings. We are talking at least 5 courses of salads, meats, kebabs, and special wedding rice pilaf.

For this wedding, my friends and I arrived at 6 p.m. and stayed until about 11 p.m. Food started arriving at 7 p.m. - so..that is about 4 hours of foodage. Mix in toasts and dances every six minutes or so and you got yourself an Azerbaijani wedding. Oh yeah, do not forget the 10 decibel tar-centric music.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Happy July 4th

And for the 2nd Annual AzerDash...

Of course, who knew that moments after the race, my ankle would swell up to the size of a softball. So much for my new exercise regime...(I am doing Insanity. It is insane!).

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Weddings in Azerbaijan

Welcome to my newest label, Azerbaijani Ed. Over the next 6 months, please join me in learning more about Azerbaijani culture and communities. If you have any questions or comments - click the Comment link below!

This month, we be focusing on Azerbaijani weddings.

Okay guys, dig in because this is a pretty big topic. I definitely do not have enough space in this post to talk about the whole shebang, so I am going to break it off into smaller pieces. The most important thing to know is that weddings in Azerbaijan, although called weddings, share few similarities with American weddings.

Firstly, weddings are big deals. Actually, they are the deal. My counterpart (a few years my junior) has been to as least 60 weddings in her life. There is no US equivalent to describe how big a wedding is in Azerbaijan, so it is kind of hard to wrap your head around unless you have lived here.

Secondly, the prep of a wedding kind of follows that expected path. There is an engagement party, a bachelorette party (usually where henna is used), a girl's wedding, a boy's wedding, and then the day-after party.

Last week, I went to a bachelorette party. Amid Turkish traditions and probably some Persian customs, we ate, drank tea, and danced. One tradition is to henna your future mate's initials into your palm. I did not do this, but the future bride certainly did!

Next week, the girl's wedding!