Friday, May 28, 2010

building a library from scratch

I've been working quite a lot recently. I wrote a grant for an English Language Resource Center and received approximately 3,000 US Dollars from USAID. And now that the money is in hand, Gulshan (my Azerbaijani friend/work partner) and are creating this resource center (ELRC) from scratch.
What does this require? Well, written into the budget of the grant is a laptop computer, flash carts, headphones, a projector, blank DVDs, English resource books (dictionaries, instructional aides), fiction books for all different levels of readers, furniture (hired a carpenter), etc. Last week, Gulshan and I traveled to Baku to purchase the majority of these items and haul them back to Mingechevir. This might sound simple, but it isn't. In the US we comparative shop by going into different stores and looking at different prices. Heck, we can comparative shop from home via the internet. But, obviously, Azerbaijan is different. Azerbaijanis bargain...a lot. So, comparative shopping is a little funnier. For example: One computer store would sell us a 855 Manat (AZN) Toshiba laptop for 800 AZN and would throw in a computer case and mouse for free, whereas another shop would sell us the same model computer for 780 and would throw in a free mouse, but not a free computer case. So which one is cheaper? Depends on the computer case, right? Also, which location/seller do we trust? There is a Toshiba one year warranty on our laptop, but so many things in Azerbaijan are counterfeit and I confess, I don't know all the ways counterfeit products can be added to my Toshiba, e.g. software programs etc. Of course, all of this dialogue takes place in the Azerbaijani language, but luckily Gulshan could handle all that dialogue. I'm positive if I attempted to purchase these items on my own I would of been charged an extra 100-200 on the price. After all, I don't have a feel for how much to bargain for various products. I bargain for fruits and vegetables, but computers are different.
Also difficult was the transporting of all these goods. We couldn't pay for a many taxis, so we had to be clever about how to get a ton of books from one place to the next. Unfortunately, Azeris also get scammed sometimes. Our bus driver forced us to pay an extra 2 AZN for our luggage...which was unnecessary and abnormal. Gulshan said she thought we were scammed simply because I'm a foreigner. Well, this isn't news to me, but its all a new experience for Gulshan. That is, Azeris don't realize how much harassment and unfair treatment we receive on a daily basis just for being foreign.
This brings me to another point: How much both Gulshan and I have learned thus far...a lot. This is the first time I've written and carried out a grant entirely on my own. My last grant was co-written and I did not write the budget. Also, my last grant required very few purchases. Going through this process has made me realize to what extent budgets can diverge from expectations. For example, Gulshan and I didn't realize that a better, newer computer would mean it wouldn't have a dial-up capacity. This means we have to buy either a much cheaper computer or an external modem. Decisions, decisions.
Overall, the work for my grant is just beginning, but it has been a very worthwhile experience. It is nice to see the excitement of teachers' and students' faces. It is nice to know that you contributed to the curriculum. For example, we bought ten versions of the same fiction book. Consequently, kids at the school can now read the same book at the same time and work on projects related to their shared reading. Previously, this wasn't a possibility.

Monday, May 17, 2010

Random Georgia

Colleen trying on the gas mask Beth purchased for her sister...this is an officer's mask: note the holes for speaking.
the idea with this advertisement is that the guy urinates fire because of his energy drink. ouch.
This picture doesn't belong here, sorry. This is a picture of the IDP (Internally Displaced Persons) housing in Georgia. IDPs from the recent conflict with Russia, that is (from South Ossetia and Abkhazia).

Travels Explained

One annoying thing about posting is that everything appears in reverse order. I had to post pictures while I could and then wait for to explain post-posting (

My dear friend Beth, who is a RPCV (returned Peace Corps Volunteer...get used to this new acronym!), came to visit me in Azerbaijan. Beth served in Madagascar and woa! her experience in the Peace Corps couldn't differ more than ours in Azerbaijan. This shouldn't be too hard to imagine. For one thing, Beth was three days of travel from the capital...I'm a 4.5 hour bus ride (buses leave daily...her buses might leave in a day or two, who knows). Also, they didn't have cellphones so just imagine what would happen in case of medical emergency! Or don't imagine...

Anyhow, we had a great time. First we traveled through Azerbaijan visiting the cities/villages of: Baku, Quba, Xaniliq, Mingechevir (my site), and Sheki. Sheki was lovely minus the continual rain. That part blew. Afterwards, we took a taxi from Zaqatala strait to Tbilisi for a total of approx 16 manat a person (20 bucks). Not bad, I say.

In Georgia we did a whole lot of relaxing. We also traveled with two other PCVs (Chris and Colleen) and became very practiced at the arts of eating, drinking, and being merry. Not to say we didn't take day trips, which we did (see posts below this one).

While in Georgia we also met some Georgia PCVs. When my group first came to Azerbaijan, Georgian PCVs had just finished getting evacuated do to the fresh Georgian/Russian conflict. So, the PCVs we met had only been in country 10 months...newbies. Still, it was interesting to compare notes with our cultural neighbors to the West. Yes, the countries are very very different. But, they are still both Caucasus and share similar geopolitical and social-political problems. In short (which is never a good idea....but I'm doing it), men in Georgia are also sexist, but Georgian women drink wine. I met a fellow female runner in Georgia and she also has been followed and somewhat harassed, but she still me. Although I find Georgian food to be rather tasty, yes it is still horribly unhealthy (mmmmm melted cheesy bread).

One interesting note: although there is still a ton of corruption and political upset in Georgia, there is a a political process. People can gather in support of candidates without trouble from the police. Georgians speak their minds about politics to foreigners continually. Many of them are very upset with their current state of affairs and they blame their leadership and Saakashvili. And boy oh boy did I enjoy hearing about it. Not because I necessarily agree (I'm not stating my opinion on this either way), but it was GREAT to hear citizens and youth expressing an opinion that differs from the party line. In Azerbaijan it is incredibly rare to hear anyone disagree with any of the status quot. The ability to dissent, to argue, is a vital aspect to any hope for democracy. At least this is very present in Georgia, despite anything else.

Now, I am back at site and working my butt off. My SPA grant funds have come in and I need to work work work until I go HOME for vacation in late June...YAY!

Friday, May 14, 2010

travel partners in crime...

chris, myself, and colleen. but we are missing beth!
frisky? i blame the cheap georgian wine.

Jvari Monastery

A tiny monastery, but with a big big view of the old Georgian capital...that "M" word from the previous post.

Mtskheta's Svetickhoveli monastery

I'm not a big monastery person, but this place was beautiful and serene. The inside was also quite interesting as it is a hodgepodge of religious history. This is a working monastery and as a result they keep adding to it over time. And you can spot monks...


Mtskheta is the old capital of Georgia and only a 20 min drive from Tbilisi. Situated in Mtskheta is Svetickhoveli and just outside atop a rock hill is Jvari.

Cave City outside Gori no non-Georgian can pronounce

Otherwise known as Ufliscikhe. Yeah, you try pronouncing that.

It is called Up

Ufliscikhe, by the way, is close to Gori, the birthplace of Stalin. It was also a PCV site during the recent Georgian/Russian conflict and did indeed get bombed while a PCV was living there. I can't imagine it.

Part 2: Tbilisi Georgia, random pictures

We call this strange building the Jenga building. It is abandoned...but guarded by wary cops (as we found out).

Women playing games! This doesn't happen in Azerbaijan. I haven't seen women playing games publicly in Azerbaijan...ever.

Colleen and Beth

Vacation Part 1: Xaniliq...the most ancient site in Azerbaijan

Tucked high up in the mountains is Xaniliq, the most ancient site in Azerbaijan. It is located in the first northern finger near the small city of Quba. I had the pleasure of traveling there with my USA visitor Beth (an RPCV friend from my former work place), Chris, and Micah. Xaniliq actually has a language that is distinct from Azerbaijani, but we had no problems getting by speaking Azerbaijani.

As can be seen in this picture, Xaniliq is tucked way up in the Caucasus and surrounded by some sharp and beautiful peaks.
Beth and I on are way....