Monday, March 28, 2011

This is chicken Kebap this is lamb kebap

Day one in beautiful Istanbul Turkey is a bit difficult to remember. It seems so long ago. Most of the day was spent waiting to check into our hostel, the Tulip Guest House. We walked around our small touristy neighborhood inside the Sultanhmet district. It is very difficult to get a real feel for Istanbul in this neighborhood because everything has been catered to foreign tourists. As we walked around we spotted the Haggia Sofia and the Blue Mosque. Both were absolutely inspiring from the outside but we did not want to venture in until we met up with Darren. So we found a Starbucks and ordered Chi lattes. You have no idea how amazingly comforting it is to be inside a Starbucks after an 11 month hiatus. All I can say is that it was blissful and every last sip was well appreciated.
At about 2:30 we finally met up with Darren, my friend who lives in China. While planning my trip to Istanbul I began to get a little bit nervous about Ash and I travelling alone. The two of us seem to be targets to Armenian males, and I didn’t want this to be a problem in Istanbul. So at the suggestion of my sister I invited our friend Darren who has been living in China for the past few years. At first he was a bit tentative, and I wasn’t sure if he was going to come, but like my sister said, Darren can’t resist an adventure and he found his way all the way from China to Istanbul.
As Ashley and I were waiting for him to meet us at our hostel we decided to go get a bag of chips to fend off our starving bellies! Plus chips are very rare in Armenia, and even when you do find them they are disgusting knock offs. As I walked outside of my hostel I noticed an Orange sneaker peaking out from a bench. I couldn’t see anything but the sneaker. I peaked my head over the doorway and there was Darren sitting on the bench quietly waiting for us. Poor guy had been lost all morning trying to find us!! I was so happy to see him. The first person I have seen from my pre-Armenian life. It felt so good to get a hug from home!
It was about three and none of us had eaten so we decided to find a place to eat. Darren had gotten a recommendation from a Turkish foodie so we decided to find it. It was off to Taksim square, the strip mall in Istanbul. When we stepped out of the cab into the square Ash and I were in awe. First there were American stores everywhere! The Gap, Clinique, and even MAC! I immediately wanted to shop and to be honest I did. I have needed an eye cream from mac for awhile now but I know how expensive it is so I didn’t want to ask my family to buy it. Seeing it in Istanbul made me so unbelievably happy. I think no matter how long I am out of the country for, I will always love to shop! The other reason we were in awe was because of the sheer amount of people. Armenia is a small country with a tiny population. I never see crowds of people here. Even in Yerevan the biggest crowd is about 100 people. Well there were thousands of people in Taksim square. We could hardly walk it was so busy. Being around that many people after such a long period of isolation was a bit scary and jarring.
When we finally found our restaurant I was a little bit nervous because there were not many people inside. Darren handed the waiter a list of food that the man had wrote for us to order. Soon plate of levash, yougurt dip and cheese were coming out then lamb and rice and vegetables. The waiter also came to the table with a bottle of vodka and a bottle of mineral water. He poured the vodka first and then added water. I forget what the drink was called but it was basically a black licorice concoction that was delicious. Everything we ate was so good, and some of it was even similar to Armenian food. We stayed for a long time and the Turkish waiters seemed to love having us there.
After eating we made our way over to a coffee club/ hooka bar. We drank Turkish tea and smoked hookah. I have actually never really tried it before so it was a first for me and I have to say I don’t really think I feel the need to ever do it again. But I was in Turkey so I figured it was the appropriate place to see what it was about. The club that we were in was full of locals playing backgammon and chess and listening to Turkish pop music and drinking Turkish tea. It was a really awesome place and the music was fantastic, from that moment on Turkish music had a fan in me.
All in all our first day was pretty restful and uneventful except for the fact that we did witness a Kurdish protest raging down the center of the square, but even that seemed to be peaceful. We were back in our hostel beds by 9 pm and fast asleep until 4 am when the call to prayer was sounded. I woke up to speakers blaring out music and not really remembering where I was. Quickly I got up and started to dress and make my way outside, only to see that it was still pitch black. I was so disorientated!! The funny thing is no one else woke up!! Every morning around 4 am I was woken up by the prayers but no one else even stirred!!! By the last day of our trip I was waking up five minutes before the prayers ready and waiting for it. You would think as a non Muslim I would be annoyed by this, but I actually found it to be very lovely and a little enchanting. It reminded me each day to pray and to be thankful for what I have. It also left me in awe of the devotion of some Muslims. I can’t imagine getting a 4 am wake up call, showering and running for the nearest mosque just to return home to sleep for an hour and then go to work.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

I've fallen in love with Istanbul

There is nothing like stepping off of a plane onto a taxi and driving into a whole new world to make you realize how blessed you are. Istanbul has been a trip of a lifetime for me, two days after I have returned home, I am still sitting here in awe of her. It’s not that I am in awe of her beauty, as I have seen many beautiful things in my life, but it’s more that I am in awe of her soul. She is spiritual yet modern, Eastern and Western, coastal, free loving, embracing, awe inspiring, historical, kind, caring, multi cultural, empathetic, musical, colorful and distinctively her own. Words cannot express my new found love for Istanbul and I can only hope that one day I will be lucky enough to be able to call it home, even if it is only for awhile.
First I want to clear one thing up. I think in America we have such a skewed and distorted vision of what Turkey is and who her people are. I know that I approached her timid and unsure, having heard bad things about her culture. .. I know that many of my family members were worried about me being there. All I can say is that I have never felt safer overseas. Turkish people are beautiful, friendly and spiritual. Lost in the city with only a confusing map to guide you? You need not worry; some amazingly kind Turkish gentleman will stumble upon you and guide you to where you are going with a smile on his face, making you believe he is more happy to help you than you are relieved to not be lost and stranded. The Turkish soul is a kind, happy soul. The happiness of the Turkish people is palatable. Smiles are not saved only for friends as they are in Armenia, no they are shared with the world because how can one hide his happiness? Just being around Turkish people made me feel ten pounds lighter and free. They do not wish to share their troubles with you, instead they wish to celebrate their happiness with you. As a good Turkish friend that I made told me “Shit is in the past. You have to let it go if you want people to see you have a good soul.”
My decision to come to Istanbul was made with ease and decisiveness. In a way it has always been a part of my soul. When I was a little girl I loved nothing more than to shut myself in my room and read books. The books that I feel the most in love with spoke of foreign lands that a little girl growing up in poor Azusa California can only imagine. No one in my family had ever travelled, so everything I learned about the world came from books. My favorites were about the Roman Empire. I loved mixes of history and fiction. I would even credit my interest and good grades in history to my love of reading. Most of what I learned in school about the Roman Empire I had already read about in books. They of course were often fictional so they constantly left me in wonder. Looking back to my past, the best books anyone ever gave me were picture books of Italy. When I was little there was no internet and this was the only way I could ever imagine seeing the world. I would look through the books and pray to God that he would someday allow me to experience it with my own eyes. As time passed and I graduated college, all my friends travelled abroad and I sat at home looking through their pictures with a jealous heart. I began to believe I would never have the money to see the beauty of the world with my own eyes.
But now I am here and have the opportunity of a life time. My trip to Istanbul has helped me to see that the fairy tales and histories I read as a little girl are still such a big part of my heart and that my heart will not be happy until I have fulfilled my dreams. This trip to Istanbul has opened up my mind and my heart and restored my inner peace. I can’t wait to share some of my stories with you! But for now some pictures will have to do!

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Spring is here, life is sunny again!

I had such a great day at my school today! It started off as a normal day, I got up at 7:30 am, drank tea and got ready for school. As I was getting ready my brother popped up on instant message! I have been missing my brother a lot and have been trying to contact him so it was awesome to start my day off with him.
As I walked to school I could feel a bit of warm sunshine on my face. For the past few weeks all the volunteers around Armenia have been speaking of this thing called spring, but we have not felt it in Spitak. While others were packing up their heaters, snow was still falling in Spitak, and I was secretly cursing the others…. Actually in all honestly I didn’t think winter was so bad. Yes it was cold, but it was livable. This California girl survived her first winter pretty well I’d say! Anyways the last three days the snow in Spitak has finally begun to melt and spring is on its way in.
I dropped Sophie off at my counterpart’s house, as I do every day, it’s pretty much her doggie day care. I go to work and she plays with my counterparts dog Micky. This way she never gets lonely and I don’t feel the need to rush home from school.
When I got to school I found out that two of our teachers were celebrating birthdays, which meant lots of candy and cake, so much for my pre-vacation diet! Then it was time for my first class, 4th grade. My 4th graders are angles, they really are. I never have a problem with them, and they seem to understand just about everything I say, which is amazing for second year English students. Today’s lesson was a review. As we went over the old vocabulary all the children fought to shout out the answers. They all remembered the words perfectly. For the past three weeks I have been teaching my classes without my counterpart because she had medical problems, so it meant so much to me that my kiddos actually absorbed what I taught them. It was almost like a test of my teaching skills and I couldn’t be more proud of them. Even better, my counterpart was so thrilled and went back to the teacher’s room raving about how well the kids learned while she was away! Also during my fourth grade class I gave the student of the month award to a very special student. This student is one of my reading club students. At the beginning of the year his mom invited me for tea and explained that her child was behind because he couldn’t read and she couldn’t help him. He didn’t know any of his letters, let alone grammar or vocabulary. He received mostly 4 out of 10 on every test. Now he is reading and doing so much better on his test, receiving mostly 6s or sometimes even 7s. When I called his name for student of the month, he began to look around the class. He thought that I was joking because no one has ever told him he was a good student before. When I explained that he won the award because of the effort he put in and the progress he made, all the students clapped for him and he looked so happy. During the break his class master told me that he was really proud and couldn’t wait to show his mom. These are moments that teachers live for! It made me so happy.
After an hour break I had my tenth grade class. The previous class I had given my students a project, which is not really something I have ever really been allowed to do before, but I decided to try it out anyways. I assigned my students to make a poster board answering the questions: who am I, what kind of person am I, and what do I look like. I told them that the best project would get candy. Any time I give an assignment I expect maybe ½ the class to do it, and only three or four of them to do it right. When I came to class I was surprised to see that most every student had a poster board. I asked for a volunteer to present their project and all of the students volunteered. I felt that it must have been some kind of joke, this just doesn’t happen here! The first girl to give her presentation completely rocked it. She impressed the hell out of me. Normally she is an average student but she always tries her best, and this time she really shined. My counterpart once again was blown away, and explained to me that this never happens and she can’t believe how well they did. One of my boys who always tells me he can’t do anything because he doesn’t know English, gave one of the best presentations. It made me so happy that they would all put so much effort into an English project. At the end of the class they even thanked me for giving them a fun assignment and asked if they could take me on a trip during Spring Break. Even though I will be in Istanbul for Spring Break, it made me so happy that I told them that I would bake all of them American cookies. I can’t wait to go to their class tomorrow morning with a huge plate of Snickerdoodles!!!
Finally at the end of school, I walked out to a group of my third graders who had been waiting for me. They asked if they could walk me home. It was so adorable! They grabbed my hands and led me down the street. I am so lucky to have been assigned to my school. I really do have the best students in the world and the best co-workers! I am so happy that spring is here. In two days I will leave for vacation and it will be awesome, but it’s great to know that I get to come back to a place where I am appreciated!

Friday, March 11, 2011

Happy Birthday Dr. Seuss!

Last weekend I helped Spitak celebrate the birthday of one of the most beloved children’s book authors, Dr. Seuss! To many people this might seem a little crazy, even other Peace Corps volunteers gave me funny looks when describing my project. But since my college days of the good ole Pi Beta Phi, I have been part of literacy philanthropy. In the literacy world, Dr. Seuss’ birthday is a huge deal! Dr. Seuss is used to introduce children to the joy of reading and he serves as the perfect ambassador to literacy. Even after college, I volunteered for reading to kids and celebrated this national literacy day. So it seemed to me a good excuse to have a story time in Spitak.
This was my first event done outside of my school, with other children in my town. I worked with the Spitak YMCA staff and asked them for their permission to host this event, and they of course loved the idea and helped me see it to fruition. I invited other nearby PCV’s to participate as readers for the event, and was lucky to have Ashley, Sam, Greg and Joseph agree to come and help. The one snag in the event was that due to unfortunate circumstances I was not in Spitak for the week before the event. This meant that I did not get the chance to publicize the event as I had wanted to. I actually didn’t even get the chance to tell my own students about it!!
So the day of the event I was a little bit nervous. I had no idea if any kids would even show up! But as I was making my way down to the YMCA I noticed I had a following of school children behind me. As I stopped and waited for my friends to meet me, the children ran toward the YMCA with excitement. They were actually excited to attend a story time on a Saturday!!! It turns out that I had nothing to worry about. We had over 25 students attend the event and only 3 of them were my own students! Though I had originally hoped that the turnout would be closer to 40 students, I think it was a great turnout for my first event. I think the kids had a lot of fun and would love to come back! I love doing projects like this!! I hope that next school year I can have a story time for children once a month! I also hope to start some other programs at the YMCA. It is such a wonderful resource that we have here in Spitak! They have an awesome staff that really want to do exciting programs for the youth.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Where everyone knows my name

The first thing that I saw when I came to Spitak was a grocery store. At the time it resembled any other store in Armenia other than the fact that it had air conditioning!! I think the first text I sent in Spitak to other Peace Corps volunteers went something like this “omg I am in an air conditioned grocery store!!! Spitak is awesome!”
Well since I have been here this little store has turned into an Americanized grocery store, and I have to say it is awesome!! My favorite thing to do in Spitak is to go grocery shopping! Maybe I shouldn’t share this because everyone laughs at me when I do, but when I get really lonely I go to the grocery store! I feel like all the employees are my friends there. They are so friendly and nice to me. They read the Russian labels and translate them for me. They play with Sophie, who I have been bringing into the store with me since she was small enough to fit in my purse!!! Now she is getting huge, but they still let her come in, she just sits in the cart. People don’t even look at me funny anymore. It’s a normal scene for them to see me pushing Sophie around in the shopping cart.
Also part of me just loves to feel like I am in a modern place; it makes me feel not so isolated. And maybe just maybe I have a little crush on a store employee!! =) Anyways here is a picture my best friend Ash took of my everyday life in Spitak, and trust me I do find a reason to go in there just about every day.