Saturday, November 21, 2009

Hey hey ho ho Azerbaijan here we go

So I have now been in Azerbaijan for just over a month now and this will be my first post in country! What a month & this is your first post? No I am not a lazy bum... let me explain to you the life of a Peace Corps volunteer in Pre-service training. I get up every day around 7ish. If I have hot water I'll go for the shower but personal hygene kinda goes out the window here (I am able to take a shower every other day here and I'm one of the lucky ones here!). I eat a quick breakfast of bread & butter and maybe an apple or too (which are really good here) and of course a cup of chay (tea). I then walk about 25-30 , minutes to my local school in my training city of Xirdalan (a suburb of the capital Baku). I have 4 hours of intensive language class in Azerbaijani with my 4 other cluster mates. Then we have an hour break for lunch. Then we head off to another town about 20 minutes away and have 3-4 hours of TEFL technical training (which can be anything from new teaching methods to learning about the Azerbaijain school system)or we met at the training hub school an hour away for a group debreifing. So I return to my host family around 6 or 7 pm completely drained.

But things have been great so far! My host family is great! I have 3 brothers all around my age abd one pretty much speaks fluent English so I totally lucked out! They are all very kind and helpful. The food here is much better than I thought it would be. It is generally Turkish dishes with some Middle Eastern & Russian influnces. They have grape leaves, kabab, donar (like shawerma), Kifta, lots of soups (which I love! I'm becoming a borsh freak!)and bread, bread & more bread. They are bread fanatics here. It is eaten with every meal regardless if you are also having another starch like rice, patatos (another biggy here) or pasta... patato sandwich anyone? They also have lots of fresh fruits & veggies here since many of the regions here have very good soil. Right now it is apple, cucumber, pomigrante, hava & pear season! My host father works in the legal profession but not as a courtroom lawyor (i think he is a legal consultant). He use to be a police officer, but after a few years he had enough and moved on. He likes to talk a lot about the Soviet period and how the conditions were much harder than today. My host mother is a former English teacher her self and although she has forgotten a lot of the langauge we can comunicate pretty well. They make me feel like one of the family! They are a little more progressive family since they use to live in the capital of Baku & so we have some interesting discussions. They also have pet cats which is rare among Azeri families.

Last week I recieved my site placement. On dec 10th I will be moving to a village called Tazakand in the Ismayilli region. It is 3 hours north east of Baku (the capital) and in/near the mountains. Its a very beautiful region with large forrests & even water falls. There are also many historical towns from the Middle Ages, but looks like I'm gonna have to deal with snow... again... My school has about 350 students and only 3 other English teachers. I was able to meet one of them the other day and she seemed very nice & happy that I was coming to their school. And her English was actually very good compared to many other Azeri English teachers I have met. Being able to speak English isn't a reqirement to teach it here in Azerbaijan. Many teachers here are very good at grammar (in many cases better than me), but can't hold a conversation in English to save their life. The students here are actually very excited to learn English. I have taught a handfull of classes at my training school. At first I was worried since I don't have a lot of English teaching experience, but after witnessing the teaching style here I can't really do any worse. Azeri teachers (generally) just read from the text book (which is in British English & also full of mistakes... and my favorite passage is the 5th form text on "my pussy (cat* but it isnt stated in the text) & me") and have the students translate it. The teachers here are very dependent on the textbook so part of our job here is to try to encurage teaching with activities from outside the book. But the old Soviet teaching methods are difficult to try and change. Also the local teachers classroom managment skills very different from those in the USA. Many teachers will only focus on their 2-3 star students and if you call on anyone else they get very frustrated. The back row is full of the poor students who can bearly say a word of English even in the higher grades.. they are just pushed on through the system. One of my clustermates while teaching called on a student in the back and the teacher then said that that student was stupid and new nothing and should never be called on. But she stood her ground and continued to work with the student and quess what the kid answered the question correctly so there is hope! Also we need to try and push the concept of critical thinking. Here students are use to answering the questions from the text, but if you then give them a curveball question outside of the structured dialogue they in most cases freeze up.

The task ahead of us is very difficult and after visiting some AZ 6 Volunteers (they have been here one year already) I had to rethink exactly what I think I can get done here, but I am still very positive and ready to get to work. I am learning a lot here and can't wait to explore the region after training is complete. Now only 2 weeks until I go to my new site for 2 years!

*** Sorry for all the errors but I forgot my flash drive so I have to quickly type this out in a local internet cafe & time is money here... money I dont have hahaha

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Here we go again...

Later today I depart for Azerbaijan to attempt begin my Peace Corps pre-service training again, but after all that has happened these past few weeks I wont believe it until we land in Baku (capital of Azerbaijan). The process to become a Peace Corps Volunteer is long and tedious. After being nominated for service back in December 2008 I didn't receive word until July 2009. Peace Corps (PC) likes to emphasis patience as a key virtue while serving as a volunteer and you will get plenty of practice in patience during the application process. Before preparing to ship off to Azerbaijan I had my country assignment changed multiple times. Originally I was nominated to teach English somewhere in Sub-Saharan Africa, but then I was ask to switch to an assignment in Central Asia and would have the chance to leave 2 months earlier. I soon learned my assignment would be Turkmenistan (T-stan) and after a month & 1/2 of preparing I set off to Philly for staging. Just as I began to meet my fellow T-18ers (we would have been the 18th PC volunteer group volunteering in Turkmenistan) we were informed by the PC staff that Turkmenistan had, without explanation, refused us entry to their country. The hotel conference room was silent. Many people had quite their jobs, sold their homes and had made other life altering decisions intending to be serving in Turkmenistan for 2 years. We were then sent home the next day and told to call in later that week in hopes that we could be squeezed into recently departed or upcoming programs. It really was annoying that we weren't given a reason for the cancellation which points to it being a political decision on the part of the Turkmen Government. The decision most likely had to do with recent developments in neighboring Iran or US criticism of education policy in T-stan ( What ever the reason I was extremely disappointed after being dumped by T-stan I held out hope that I could get placed in another country that I had higher in my list. I then received news that I might be placed in the Ukraine, but I had a few serious reservations about this program and after talking with the PC main office they then decided that my concerns were legitimate and decided to send me to Azerbaijan. I was extremely happy with being sent to Azerbaijan since it had been one of my top choices when I first applied to the PC. Now later today (If I can get any sleep) I will fly out to DC and then met with staff and fly off to Azerbaijan and begin a 6 week intensive training.

Azerbaijan is located directly north of Iran, south of Russian, east of Armenia & Georgia and west of the Caspian sea. Azerbaijan population about 8-9 million and they speak Azerbaijani (Also known as Azeri). Azeris are primarily religion is Shia Islam, but the government is secular. Azerbaijani is a turkic language related to both Turkish and Turkmen (the language spoke in Turkmenistan). Azerbaijan gained independence from the USSR in 1991 after decades of Soviet rule. But their Independence was marred by ethnic conflict and war with neighboring Armenia. The war resulted in hundreds of thousands of casualties and many refugees (primarily Azeri) and at the end Armenia occupied 20% of Azerbaijan's territory. Both side refused to agree to peace terms and still the boarders are closed and refugees waiting to return home.

I am excited to serve in Azerbaijan, but after recent events I'll just be happy after we land in Baku! Wish me luck!