Friday, May 27, 2011

Nature, Wrapping It Up, and Letting the Good Times Roll

The internet and I have had a curious relationship ever since I arrived to Georgia. Never has such a significant part of my income taunted me for internet access yet only in small quantities (1 gb or 5 gb with Georgian mobile provider - Magticom). Before Georgia, I don't think I ever appreciated the ability to have unlimited access to the internet. In America, you do generally pay a good bit more for access, but after reading an article from the technology editors at The Economist, most people only use a small amount of bandwidth. They were discussing that one major internet provide company (can't remember who) is going to charge more for people who use beyond something like 140 gb of bandwidth. They said that people should pay for what they use, and things like this are turning the internet into a measured consumable product. A forecasted downside of this new trend is that innovation through technology and internet-accessible resources would be limited. The internet has come a long way simply because there haven't been limits placed on it.

This brings me back to Georgia. When we first arrived, the "obscene" amount of money we paid for internet was able to provide unlimited internet access. The USB-wireless technology was released in 2007 in Georgia and limited in 2009 (still in the midst of an economic crisis). Their justification was that it was to model after companies like AT&T which limit bandwidth consumption on their 3G devices. While internet access is available in unlimited quantities with the land-line based DSL and cable internet providers, Georgian mobile companies, such as Magticom, may be making major money in the short term, but I don't think that the Georgian economy or people can support such an expense in the long haul. Of course, there's the actual cost, but there's also potentially lost innovation. In Georgia's developing economy, it needs all the innovation it can get.

I have found in general in my business-sense observations in the former Soviet countries, that there's this grotesque misconstrued version of capitalism. Capitalism in America does have its dark side, of course, but in Georgia for example, businesses and some people catch hold of all of the darkest side of capitalism and run with it. There was an article (most likely sure through Fortune Magazine) saying that Georgia is one of the best places in the world to start a new business. A friend of mine claimed that it's because there are no regulations. I'm neither here nor there on this, I personally think capitalism and a free market keeps things competitive, however, without the guiding hand of regulations and monitoring, dishonesty and (in some cases) corruption brew easily. Whether it be an individual language tutor charging outrageous prices for poor quality lessons in the capital or a private school like St. George's School in Vake (calling them out again) running a money machine and providing poor to no education at all. In general, people in Georgia think: if you pay more, it's better. To a degree, this also exists in America, but with the long-standing record of scams and scandals in the past, most experienced eyes in America can recognize this before.

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On a not serious note, you've probably been wondering what's going on with me. :) Well, I have been continuing my IT classes in the IDP settlement, and today I'm finishing my last class. It has been a good, but challenging time. On the surface, my kids are normal Georgian kids, just like any other classroom. However, the trauma many of them and their families suffered from being uprooted from their homes and transplanted elsewhere with essentially nothing has taken and will take its toll. Some of the kids have told me to "go f*** yourself" (in English, ages 10 and 11) and another 10-year-old girl told me in Georgian to "go to hell" when I asked all of them to remain quiet. I think the parents in this settlement have this overwhelming sense of apathy towards parenting and their children's success. As a result, most of these kids have no idea about what respect for teachers or discipline are. I'm kind and encouraging, but tough love comes out when they misbehave. I started with 30 students. Through my "tough love" principles, I will finish this 3-month project with 10 or 11. The 10/11 that will finish are really good kids. They still misbehave, but I've been able to make progress with teaching them computers and about life. Next Friday, we are going to have an open-house/ceremony for the parents to come in and see their children's work, have refreshments, and students will be presented with certificates and a flash drives for completing the course successfully. The NGO liaison and someone from Peace Corps are coming as well to give it more officialness. The 10/11 students are really excited, and I am too!

One thing that really bothers me in the center I teach in is that there's an art teacher who teaches on the same days as me, yet he rarely comes. The children don't really have any activities to do and they look forward to any courses or classes. They wait eagerly for him to get off the bus with me and are disappointed when the bus drives away. Then when he will come some days, they are all excited and forget that he never came the last time. They are just so happy to see him and have something interesting to do.

I had a similar experience in my town when I was taking dance classes. The dance teacher commuted from Tbilisi, and he made the children feel bad when they had trouble learning the dance steps with a, "I came all the way from Tbilisi to watch this!?" I know there are aid workers in the NGO like the one I'm teaching through that are amazing, but it makes me upset to experience a neglectful attitude towards the emotional well-being of children especially and other groups that need the most support.

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Ok, so I tried to steer away from the serious. Maybe this next try'll be more successful. :)

In the beginning of May, I went with my primary counterpart to her village in Eastern Kakheti for the "7-days after Easter Festival." I had gone the previous year, and having already met these people the year before, it was comfortable with so many familiar faces around. I took it easy, might have gotten some form of parasite (currently dealing with), and just overall relaxed. We went to "Nekresi" Church in the region of Kvareli (nearby) which was perched on the top of a mountain.

Photo #24 - Nekresi in the Mist - A steep walk or short car ride up the
mountain is worth it to check out this quaint church remodeled from the
sixth century.
I love this particular area in Kakheti, because it's truly beautiful and calm. None of the street noise from my town/apartment.

Photo #25 - Village Views in Chikaani - Just beyond this lush greenness
lies Dagestan and Ingushetia. It's hard to believe how small (and beautiful)
 Georgia is sometimes.
After arriving back in my town at 3 am from the village, as we stopped over in Tbilisi at midnight to make achma (Georgian lasagna without meat or sauce), I continued on with May. I have been reminded this spring about the insane number of holidays, and as a result, a lot of class time has been interrupted. I and several other volunteers greeted the new group of trainees in late April at the airport. 43 arrived and I think only 1 so far has dropped.

Then not too long ago, I went out to help the trainees with cluster mentoring in one of the villages. They had to create and implement lessons with a counterpart at the village school, and I observed and gave feed back, also answering any questions along the way that they might have. I stayed with a trainee I'll deem "Good Aura" (as she is also referred to by villagers). It was really good to hang with them. It was different from when I did cluster mentoring last year. The Georgian that I speak, which is by no means perfect, did evoke the sort of "Oooo - ahhhhh" effect I've witnessed before. And! it was a great experience. The town was cold and one of the trainees' host family members commented that the town is just cold in general, year round. However, it was beautiful. Take a looksy:

Photo #26 - Village Views, Borjomi Region - An afternoon coming back
after observations, I noticed the view. These are some lucky trainees. You
can't get much more beautiful than this for a training site.
In other news! I was busy missing school with helping out with training, that I worked extra hard to catch up. I missed the senior class's "Last Bell/Call" performance due to the IT trainings, but half of the graduating senior class went out of their way to invite (and take) me to their banquet. I had only taught them for the past school year, whereas the other half I taught for the full 2 years, yet wasn't invited to anything. O well! Can't win em all, eh?

Photo #27 - 12b Banquet Entrance - As the banquet began, teachers were
seated at one table, students at another, and parents at another. Teachers
cheered on the fancily clad seniors getting ready to take their seats.
Then, the next day, there were transport troubles for 2 trainees who came to my site for job shadowing, due to the government shutting down regional transportation to/through Tbilisi to prevent the number of protesters who were scheduled to arrive to try to get the current prez to resign/ousted. Nevertheless, they made it. They observed one class because of 12th graders taking their cumulative final exams preventing some students from going to their main class rooms. Many students came to school and left shortly after seeing the blockaded hallways. Then the next day, due to scheduled protests in Tbilisi the following days, the trainees left. While they were here over the weekend, I did introduce them to some of my close Georgian friends in town. We went to Dmanisi to try to catch a glimpse of the "first Europeans" - Zezva and Mzia. That's right! They were Georgians. Dmanisi is an ancient settlement and archeological site.

My friend Nona is pregnant with her first child, and I was so surprised on the ride back from Tbilisi when she asked me to be the baby's godfather if I will be in Georgia. If she's serious, I would be thrilled. I have no god children as of yet, and it's such an honor to be asked to be someone's child's godparent, especially in Georgia, as it makes you a member of the family. She said in partial jest that anything her child does, good  or bad, she can blame on me. I'll keep you updated on that front. She knows that she will have a boy, and her and her husband have decided to name him Saba.

ANNNND... finally. This past Tuesday, we finished reading "Charlie and the Chocolate Factory," and we had a chocolate potluck party and watched the film (original version) to celebrate. Everyone brought in something chocolate. I made m&m cookies and fudge. I think everyone had been so busy cooking their dessert that when it came time to eat it among all the other chocolate dishes, everyone felt nauseated. :) It was a really great experience.

Photo #28 - Charlie's Chocolate Factory Party - Here is a glimpse of most
of the dishes. If you'll notice, we did interrupt the chocolate with bananas
and Turkish delight to create some balance.
It always feels good to finish a project you've been working on for a while. After the IT presentation of certificates next Friday, I'll be officially done with that project. I think I'm going to start preparing to retake the GRE. I was notified that I got a job offer with American Councils' FLEX office in Ukraine for the fall as a recruiter conducting interviews and testing for potential exchange students. In addition, I booked my flight home to America, am planning a cruise to the Bahamas or something with my best friend, and before flying back planned a trek across Georgia with some soon-to-be RPCVs (Returned Peace Corps Volunteers) from Ukraine who are coming to Georgia. I am feeling fantastic about life, and hope the same can be said about you! :)

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Criticism - Death of the Modern Friend

So, after some reflecting on a marshrutka, I came to a realization. In Georgia, and you could even expand this to life in general, it can be difficult to maintain friends. In my control, I'm willing to go out on a limb and narrow to 2 things: 1) I'm overly critical of others 2) Those I'm not critical of feel as though the expectations of a friendship with me are too high. I've been trying to put a finger on this for quite some time. In Georgia, it's more apparent, as there are simply less people to be friends with. I'll make some general observations, some of which you might be able to identify with or already knew, in which I hope not to bore you. ;)

So, in life, let's say you find someone you connect with. First scenario: you spend time together up until a certain point, and you criticize them or a choice they've made, because as their friend, you care about them. Then it's either received well, but often it isn't. Some examples, "he/she's not good for you," "you really hurt my feelings when...," "you should really be more careful," "I wish you wouldn't say...," "I kindly disagree with you on...," etc, etc. The fact is: most people can't take criticism.

Second scenario: you spend time together up until a certain point, and you criticize something in the environment around you. Most likely, it's a person that triggers an undesired effect. Some examples, "Can you believe what he/she's wearing," "I thoroughly disagree with his/her moral beliefs," "Can you believe him/her?," etc. etc Your new found friend hears something, and it connects with some part of his/her self that he/she admires, values, or identifies with. An argument might ensue, or your new found friend might have just made a mental note about you. Maybe that person is disgusted with how critical of a person you are of others. They might also worry, "When will I be criticized?" and come to the conclusion, "I just can't live up to their expectations."

I can say while I've definitely been the criticizer that ends a friendship more often than I'd like to admit, I've also experienced the above scenarios as the offended friend which is why I feel that I understand them. So then, friends, you have 28 people in your cohort of Peace Corps. Do you criticize them? Is it worth the risk of finishing your 2 years with  only maintaining contact with 1-2 other people?

I think it also could bubble over into an employer-employee relationship. Everything goes well and everyone is happy until you give a piece of harsh, real criticism, call it feedback if you like. Maybe it's true, but how many people would admit being accepting and open to truth?

That's where I think we bubble down our pool of friends to the "5 Good/True Friends." Everyone says you can really only count your true friends in any lifetime on 1 hand. They are your most valued, loyal and trusted friends. I can say people that I consider my true friends are ones that I can criticize. While there still may be an argument, I know that we'll come out of that argument just as strong as before. I know that I can go to Peace Corps for 2 years; they'll support me through the tough times; and be there for me when I get back.

Have I met any "True Friends" in Peace Corps? And I can answer honestly by saying, "I think so." Time will tell of course. Geography and situation can have a lot to do with creating and keeping true friends. The people in Peace Corps, and in my group especially, are people that I've been through a lot with. I have been extremely critical of my colleagues, and I thank those who took the heat. I thank my "True Friends" back home that take the heat and have done so during our relationships. I consider myself very open to criticism, so feel free to leave it/deal it out any time. My advice to you is, be ready to take it.

I would rather be open, honest, and communicate fully with those around me, than put up a front and give a false smile. I'm a very sincere person. Know that if I'm smiling at you, I mean it. As far as a friendship with me is concerned, if I'm your friend, you meet my expectations. I know that no one's perfect, nor do I expect them to be. If there's criticism involved, we can hopefully resolve it and move on. I use criticism as a tool to keep the relationships around me honest, sincere, and healthy.

I know there may be some flaws in my logic, this entire blog might be written off as too juvenile, or you just don't care. However, human relationships are ones we spend our entire lives trying to understand. I just felt to need/want to get these words out there. Love you guys, thanks for reading.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Photo #22/23- Zambakhi aka Iris Iberica

So, just this past week, I was making my routine trip to the village to teach computers. The kids this time were not-so-nice which prompted me to cancel their class. What brightened my day most was this: on the way back the bus driver said a flower was in bloom this year, and we should stop and pick some up. I had Flap as a visitor, and so in maintaining my "machismo" position in society, I asked her to do the pickin.

Getting back on the bus to continue our journey, the driver told us this variety of flower only blooms in the mountains of the Caucasus (and Persia), and in Georgia, only blooms once every four years. It was such an odd surprise! It's seriously such a gorgeous flower, and I would like you to imagine a field of them covering the landscape. I didn't have my camera with me at the time, so it doesn't hurt to brush up on your visualization skills. Without further ado:

Photo #22 - Iris Iberica (side view) - Simply Exquisite. By
far, this is the most beautiful/exotic flower I have ever seen.

Photo #23 - Iris Iberica (aerial view) 

Saturday, April 30, 2011

Hold Your Horses for: Celebrations, Conferences, and Competitions

Dear readers,
I slipped again, what can I say? I feel like apologies go unneeded, because I’m sure I’ll lapse again in the future. My momma always used to say that you should only apologize for something once and never do it again, otherwise you don’t mean it. It’s life.

So March was an insane month. I’ve said it, and I’ll say it again. It finished, however, some of the to-dos are still lingering. I would prefer them to get cut off before the end of April so we’ll see what I can do.

I spent today sobbing over “Fried Green Tomatoes” (1991) and oddly a few scenes from “Julie and Julia” (2009). I really enjoyed them both. I think I may have solidified a new quote into my vocabulary, “The secret’s in the sauce.” Overall, I really enjoyed “J &J.” I think it gave me the motivation I need to finish this cookbook I’ve been working on. I can’t promise it’ll be as amazing as “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” (1961), but it’ll do. The movie really touched home with the point that in my mind I start developing all of the projects, but so many of them go unfinished. I’m going to try to remedy this. I have to say that I was upset in Julie and Julia that it doesn’t seem as though the two of them ever patched things up in the end or before Julia Child passed away. It’s not always necessary to have a happy ending, but it would’ve been nice.

So I think I’ll catch you up to speed with what I’ve been up to these days. So all of April, I took a “staycation,” however I didn’t really stay anywhere. I at least got the energy to get back on my feet from March. 2 days a week I’ve continued my computer class in the IDP village and continuing the book club reading of “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” with my adults on Wednesday nights. The Fair Elections Center I used to hold it in is in a transition period, so we did this last Wednesday in the English Cabinet in my school. What lasted for so long as 12 people in my group has the past two weeks dwindled to 4. Nothing lasts forever I guess.

I spent this past weekend through Tuesday in Borjomi for Passover with a dear volunteer I’ll call “Harucet.” I got to know this person much better and truly enjoy their company. Harucet organized the Seder for their English club and family. I was invited and helped to prepare the dishes as well. I’ve been to many a Passover Seder in my day, but this was the first one I helped prepare. We made traditional dishes (and then some) and set up the table with all the symbolic elements for the guests and retelling of Exodus. I myself am spiritual, but it was such an experience. Harucet did an incredible job at the reading, and we even had some Pre-service Training staff join us for the dinner. It was one of the most special nights I’ve had in Peace Corps for sure.

En route to Borjomi, I made a stop at the Bude (Buddha? Buda? Meh?) Bar in Tbilisi. I had heard many things about it from couchsurfing listservs, and it was an experience. I learned some interesting yet inappropriate phrases in German and Chinese.

The second weekend in April, I went to Telavi and fooded it up with the Telavi quad. INCREIBLE! (it was) Worthy of note: we made baked buffalo wings with bleu cheese sauce, a scrumptious salad (real lettuce!) with caesar dressing, and a warm flourless chocolate cake with caramel sauce. All of it was from scratch, and all of it was amazing. Note: Someone also pointed out recently that I use that word (amazing) a lot and that is because life. Is. Amazing.

The first weekend in April (April Fool’s Day! And etc.) I went out West for the 4th Annual Baghdati English Language Competition. We had about 100 students in attendance from 8 schools. There were some snags with minor things, but compared with last year it went so, so, so smoothly. I believe everyone had a great time. With the help of all the volunteers helping, I had so much fun putting all the pieces together. Thanks to all the guys who volunteered! It seriously would not have gone so smoothly without you. A HUGE thank you also goes to the elementary school I correspond with back in the US. They sent so many prizes that made all of the kids winners (Cheesy but true). 

Photo #16 - We Are... Your Friends - Students created posters for the
elementary school that donated prizes for the event. Even though there
were a few spelling errors, the heart is all there.

Speaking of which, I have discovered the joy of popping popcorn over the stove. It’s so easy, and the taste is so much better. Here’s my recipe (also appearing in the sooner than never cookbook):
-          2 tbsp oil
-          1/3 cup of popcorn kernels
-          Salt
Directions: Place the oil and 3 kernels in a pot with a lid enough to hold a large bag of popcorn over medium-high heat. Heat the oil and three kernels until the 3 kernels pop. Remove from heat. Add the remaining kernels and cover. Roll the kernels around in the oil and wait 30 seconds. Then return to heat, occasionally rolling the kernels around to keep from burning. It will pop soon. As soon as popping stops for several seconds, remove from heat, add salt as desired, and enjoy.

It’s really simple, but for those who haven’t tried it: give it a go!

Ok. Now let’s jump to the end of March. Twas Novruz Bayram. Novruz, in many Muslim traditions is the celebration of the New Year. As I live in an Azeri (Majority Muslim) community, it’s kind of a big deal. It was a fun and long day. I had guests in from out of town, and the main event was that the Georgian President was coming to my town. I had my municipality’s flag hung out on my balcony. I thought it was oddly fun at first, but continually had government representatives yelling at me to fix the flag. It wasn’t as carefree as I originally had thought.

Photo #17 - Novruz Parade From Balcony - People marching up and down
the streets with the pride of the municipality blowing in the wind before
Misha's (the president's) arrival.

The day started with a small parade, followed by a concert where famous pop-singer “Manana” performed. Manana and Saakashvili (Georgian Prez) appeared at almost the same time, so attentions were divided. I like to think for fun pronunciation purposes, Manana is Azerbaijan’s second-rate Madonna. Manana’s Georgian, but she is more popular in Azerbaijan than she is in Georgia.

The video below is a street performance of local Azeris celebrating the holiday with impromptu traditional dancing and music:

video


Anyways. The Azerbaijan President was also scheduled to come, but it didn’t work out. Azeris and Georgians united across town in the days before to prepare for their arrival. I’ve never seen such large-scale, last-minute preparations. They cut all the limbs off of all the trees lining the road. They also painted the bases of the trees white. They painted the trees by actually slapping paint onto them with a straw broom. I guess I understand that phrase now. (slap some paint on it) I’m sad that the trees will not be leafy and green any time soon (no branches), but optimistically, there should be a lower amount of bugs this year given that they have one less home, although currently, my kitchen is plagued by mini manbugs (ugly lady bugs).

During Novruz, I was rather disappointed with how they handled it. The prejudice became very apparent between a few of the police in dealing with Azeris. I had all sorts of things in my pockets, and I slid on through the security check point, even though the metal baton went off as it glided over my pockets, but Azeris searched by the prejudiced police had everything searched. This is a similar situation to what you might see in the US, and it could’ve been worse. I was just disappointed in seeing some police officers behave that way.

Photo #18- Novruz Parade Close-up - The group of locals dressed up as
pirates in Mardi Gras fashion marched up and down the main street in town.
While not traditional, this event was rather festive.

My friend who documented the event for a peacebuilding publication was told by Saakashvili’s police detail that they did not have authorization to document the event, because my friend mentioned that they were a journalist, whereas, I myself could’ve taken pictures (as people actually were) with no problem. I’m such a fan of freedom of the press in America.

It’s good that the Georgian President came out to Marneuli for this special holiday for minorities, but I overheard several people comment that they wished it wouldn’t have been so much about Saakashvili. They felt that it really took something away for what should’ve been a full focus on a festive traditional holiday. I guess it’s a delicate balance.

After the public celebration, everyone goes to their home or home of a family member to have a family celebration until (and after) sun down. I was invited over to one of my bookclub student’s houses. I went with a new friend of the journalist I met at the public celebration. From the day, and days leading up to it, I learned a lot about the interworkings of Azeri culture and their responses to foreigners and gender roles/limitations. My student really blew me away with some amazing desserts that she had spent 2 days making. It was incredible. Unfortunately, I had to leave soon after my arrival, as it was in a village, and I had to get back to my apartment before transportation discontinued for the day. Usually, Azeris will jump over a bonfire after dark. From what I gathered, the belief is that when you jump over the fire, all of the negative things (problems, worries, etc) you have drop in to start the New Year cleansed. They refer to it as a New Year, because it is the day that the hours between light and dark are in balance. Overall, it was a great experience with great people.

Photo #19 - Girls with Wheatgrass - These group of little girls carrying
wheatgrass to symbolize new life just finished opening for Manana with
Azeri and Georgian traditional dances.

I hustled after Novruz to Tbilisi for our Close of Service (COS) conference. I was on the COS conference planning committee, and did a couple sessions. I could’ve done a better job, but hey! It was my first time doing this. Usually, volunteers do not take a major role in planning sessions, however, (in my opinion) due to budget cuts, we did.  It’s basically a conference on how to adapt to the US when we get back. We talked about reverse culture shock, had a professional panel come and talk to us, had a surprise* and also had some press opportunities. Our surprise was that we were invited to meet with the Prime Minister of Georgia (aka second in command/VP)! It was nuts, so we met with him, and the most shocking was that he asked us how he could improve their country. We gave some feedback. I was one of the few to voice their opinion. I basically mentioned the problems with schools in minority areas: not having enough space and problems with language/integration. Schools are very much ethnically segregated—Azeris in one, Georgians in the other (for example). Of course my school is 50% Azeri, but that’s due to overflow, but within the school there’s further segregation. I said that schools should just be schools, not Azeri, Armenian, Russian or Georgian schools, but just schools. Also, language of instruction should be Georgian, but there has to be a system in place to make it happen. Also, ethnic minorities should be able to retain their languages and cultures. It’s another problem in the US, but one that I feel that they at least address. Here they offer Georgian (ethnic) teachers pay incentives to go to Azeri schools, but it should be the other way around, too. There should also be pay incentives and a system for Georgian teachers to learn the minority language. Georgians are always saying to me how amazing it is that I speak Georgian after only 2 years. Well. Why not learn a minority language for them? It would help with integration and regional job opportunities. I know there’s a lot of disagreement about this, but those are my thoughts. I think our feedback was well-received by the Prime Minister.

Photo #20 - The Round Table of Le Prime Minister - Usually government
officials meet in this room, but just a few minutes after these seats would be
 filled by the warm bodies of Peace Corps volunteers and the Prime Minister
of Georgia.

AND right from the COS conference, I bounced across town to the FLEX (Future Leaders EX-change) alumni training—“FLEX-ability” where I trained 15 (5 Armenian, Azeri, Georgian) alumni on themes of Project Design Management for 4 days. There were 3 groups of 15. The other 2 trainers were also Peace Corps Volunteers, but 1 from Azerbaijan and 1 from Armenia. Our group thought of doing a trash clean-up for (most of them) their first project to help in creating a volunteer culture among youth in the Caucasus. Amazingly, FLEX alumni from Armenia and Georgia were already able to pull of this project. My Georgia group additionally wrote up their project proposal and submitted it for a grant. It’s amazing to give a group some tools and guidance to see what they can create! My group was awesome and we had so much fun!

As a sort of team-building exercise, we had to do a skit (video-taped) of our region for the next year’s future FLEX students to watch at their orientations, like a travel promotion of sorts. Since the South group was full, I was with the Western Mountains. I was so lucky, because I couldn’t have worked with a more amazing group of alumni for this. We were really goofy and had a great time. For our skit, we made “videos” within the skit for a couple to watch. Since we were short-staffed, I was the travel agent and acting in some of the “videos” (skits within a skit).

Photo #21 - Mt. Rushmore Cover Band - For the FLEX-ability conference,
this was a scene from our skit acting out the tourist destinations for the
Mountain-West Region of the United States.

Final note: Not long after FLEX-ability, I went with my anime watching partner to McDonald’s. We ate our meal and wanted to play “Phase 10.” We deal our cards and a female manager angrily comes up to us and declares in English, “CARDS NO!” I ask in Georgian, “Why?” She responds with a sneer, “Because.” I’m sorry, and I’m learning that it’s a cultural no-no to play cards in public, but McDonald’s should be an exception. It’s already a wonderful place (service 1000% better than in America). Why the hell did this floozy ruin our good mood? It was the cold slap in the face that we were in Georgia. A note for this woman (but more for my own satisfaction): "Because" is not enough justification for some rule. It is not a satisfactory cover-all explanation, unless you’re 5. It’s irritating, and I’m boycotting the Rustaveli McDonald’s until I get over it. I wish she would’ve come up to us calmly and said, “Excuse me, but it is not allowed to play cards in our establishment. I didn’t make the rule, and I’m very sorry.” I would’ve been pissed anyways, but at least it wouldn’t have been personal.

Alright folks! Thanks for your patience and hopefully this wasn’t too much! xoxo Until next time!

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Time Flies Talking with Princesses

For some people, they might say every week is the same, but if you pay attention to the subtle details no matter how mechanically you operate, every day/week is different, whether it be from the progression of friendships/conversations/work or whatever. Well this week took the cake for different.

On Monday, we had our usual semi-annual VAC (Volunteer Advisory Council) meeting in Tbilisi. It was earlier than usual though, 10 am, which required me being at the marshrutka station to get to Tbilisi at 7:30, and waking up at 6:00 to be awake enough to put in my contacts for being up so early. In Tbilisi, I have never seen people move so quickly in the metro. I guess I’m never there in the early morning rush where people are trying to get to work on time? I didn’t think people rushed to get anywhere in Georgia… you learn something new every day.

I met up with an elven friend for lunch, who conducts teacher training workshops in my region through a US embassy-funded/managed program. We had wonderful discussions, and before you knew it, it was time to get back to my site. I almost missed the last marshrutka. Whew! Totally lucky. I was freaking out worrying if I had been stuck in Tbilisi.

Tuesday was pretty normal. I did a presentation for St. Patty’s Day for Thursday. The kids really liked it, and I gave out green shamrock bracelets (sent to me by my AMAZING class in Tallahassee! :))

Wednesday, I taught in the IDP village and returned to meet a PCV in town for a meeting with IREX the next morning. I have my book club (Currently reading: Charlie and the Chocolate Factory) on Wednesdays, so we met and it went really well! Something seemed really odd to me though. You know how in college, people will stay after and talk with the professors about various things? Well, that’s now me after our book club! It’s very curious and feels strange to me, but I’m glad to be appreciated/valued on that level of respect.

St. Patrick’s Day threw me for a loop. We had our meeting with IREX to discuss civic education projects in several regions and our experiences with it in Georgia. Afterwards, getting to school, the students had skipped school for the day. I went to tell my director that I wouldn’t be at school next week on account of 2 conferences, and met 2 very different and interesting people:

1. Princess- That’s right. I met a princess. She claims to be the last remaining heir (granddaughter) of the lost Anastasia. She says she wasn’t contacted by Russian authorities until after the fall of the Soviet Union, but she has close contacts with Putin and various other political figures now. She was able to articulate every moment down to the times and explicit travel itinerary of what occurred after discovering that she was a princess. This lady could talk your ear off if you stayed around long enough. She discretely took pictures of me and my friend on her phone while I was talking to my director, but after listening to 30 minutes of her story before being rescued by a school administrator, I requested a photo with her and was shot down. Sorry bloggers! Another time.

2. College administrator- She is the one who rescued us from the princess. (Is that really how it’s supposed to work?) It turns out she’s opening a campus branch for a professional skills college in my town. She wants me to teach there after I finish Peace Corps. She offered to find me a good apartment and pay me a fair salary. She wants to create an incredible reputation for the college’s English program. She is pretty determined, but we’ll see. It’s always good to have back-up plans, and I’m flattered by the offer.

We departed and later showed up at the center where I hold the book club for an afternoon viewing of “Matilda” (1996), to watch a movie based on another Roald Dahl book. The students really liked seeing the similarities in style between the two. Everyone was sporting their green, and they put together a small party to celebrate St. Patrick’s Day. Then, they presented to me several bags of groceries from everyone to show their appreciation for me helping and teaching them. I was really touched and surprised. I don’t think anyone has ever done anything like that for me. Also, I have had a low balance on my bank account recently, as inflation prices have made some of the food products double, and I just felt like it was like God/karma/a higher power knew that and was helping me. I was wonderfully surprised. And so comes to an end, what was the best St. Patrick’s Day I have ever had.

Photo #15 - St. Patrick's Day Fiesta - While not too much, these goodies
made for the perfect St. Patty's Day snacks. Note: I love the walnut shaped
pastries on the far left. They are filled with caramel and sooo scrumptious. 

Today, I taught computers again in the village. We had a new student join us, and he corrected my Georgian while speaking, and my little students (circa age 10) all jumped in and defended me. I teach in Georgian. It’s not perfect, but they understand me. The little kids are so eager to learn. I asked this group of kids last week what was something positive in their day and again later for my book club. Maybe half of the group answered that that class was the highlight of their day. It’s not the first time I’ve heard that before, and I’m so grateful that I am given an opportunity to offer a course/class/something that the students can look forward to.

So Monday is Novruz Bayram, the Azeri celebration of spring and the New Year. Novruz, as a Muslim holiday is also celebrated in many other countries. A famous Azeri pop singer, Manana, is coming, along with the Georgian and Azeri presidents to my town! They’re doing a sneak-peek at the new sports complex, funded by the Azeri government, along with celebrating this holiday. They have been trimming all the trees, repainting road markings and anything else that needs painting, and cleaning. Slowly, my town is getting a little facelift. I talked with one of my students, and I’m so stoked to possibly get a membership to this new gym, if it will be affordable!

Side note: An interesting misperception I haven’t thought about since I was a kid: hamburgers, in fact, do not contain pork. They are safe to eat for Muslims. :) I had to explain this to several of my Muslim students recently.

There is only so much time in a day, and I’m glad to say that I feel like I’m maximizing it. Happy Novruz to you all!

Monday, March 14, 2011

Pearls of Wisdom and Women's Woes

DISCLAIMER: READER DISCRETION ADVISED. THIS POST CONTAINS SOME THEMES INAPPROPRIATE FOR YOUNG CHILDREN. PLEASE BE AWARE AND TURN AWAY IF THIS IS YOU.

I just had a really great conversation with my mom about relationships between other people (coworkers, friends, supervisors, mentor-mentee relationships, etc). It was really refreshing, and definitely made me feel good about the decisions that I have made in my life. In regards to behavioral change and personal growth, my mom said, "You know, growing hurts sometimes and isn't always easy." I could only think about the countless number of times where I have made mistakes, said the wrong thing, or just flat-out failed at something. They've all been learning experiences for me, and so I can't regret them. I believe that everything happens for a reason, and, in the case of a relationship, the mistakes you make weren't meant to work out with those individuals in particular, but rather to prepare you for some relationship down the road. Also, I feel like (once again for those who believe in it) a higher power, albeit God/god(s), will show you these paths and give you these opportunities to make mistakes, and it's up to you to make them. I constantly am telling my students with English that if they don't make mistakes now, how can they become better?

In short, conversations/encounters I have been dwelling on in things I shouldn't have said, actions I shouldn't have done, and/or just wondering why for SOME reason people drift apart under certain circumstances have all already happened. There's no sense dwelling or regretting on them, but instead how will those encounters influence who you will become tomorrow? When someone does you wrong, an option is to shut down that vulnerable part of yourself so that it will never happen in the future. My mom said, "There's no point in living if you shut yourself down to the world." Instead, a heightened awareness of self and others enables you to see events unfolding and playing the cards of wrongdoing are foreseen rather than by surprise, but the most important thing is to also identify those relationships which can be healthy and connect with these people with similar/harmonious motives/views. These are the people that matter.

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As mentioned, I have been doing site visits to advertise and connect with minority schools in my region for placement of the next group of Peace Corps volunteers (G11's,you can thank me later :)) So far, with assistance from some local community members, I have been able to generate 2 school applications. It's not a lot, but I've still got some other irons in fire. In my meetings with the English teachers and directors, we have had some interesting conversations with women, in which I will also regale you with some other stories I have heard in my time in Georgia.

One teacher asks me the usual questions: Do you like Georgia? Do you like Georgian food? Are you married? How much money do you make? How much do you pay for rent? etc. In response to the question about marriage, I replied that I am still on the market *wink, wink* She insisted that I'm such a good boy, that I should stay in Georgia. I asked why, and she responded that it was due to the high rate of divorce in America. If I were to stay in Georgia, logically, I would be able to have a happy, longterm marriage. Several teachers join in this conversation to ask me about divorce rates in America, especially, why are they so high? I responded probably due to the individualism of the culture. I wanted to add that also probably most people's basic needs are met and in striving to meet their other needs, they become overly critical of those they date/marry on their way to self-actualization, however, I was interrupted with the most important reason- "It is because in America, women think they are head of the household. This is the real reason. In Georgia, men are the head of the house. They make all decisions. Our marriages are like stable, well-running governments." "Like unmovable mountains!" chimed in another teacher. "In Georgia, divorce is so rare, and you can say it almost never happens." Not entirely convinced, I smiled and chuckled along, perhaps a little nervous about what to say next. **Note: I have been around the block in Georgia a couple of times, I know that overall in most of the regions, this statement is true. There are of course exceptions, probably most married Georgian women with internet access able to read this. Divorce is quite rare, and most men run the households.

The interesting thing is that (as has been pointed out by many), the women in this country do a large majority of the work. Many men/husbands, unwilling to accept a job not respected for men, will sit at home smoking cigarettes, getting drunk with friends, and/or watching TV while the women do all of the housework while having a full-time job. I admire Georgian women so much for their courage, strength, and drive to keep going. I have shadowed a Georgian woman who is a teacher in another region for one week, and I was exhausted. This is how she and so many other women in this country live their lives.

Another regional/village mentality, most likely mentioned in an earlier post is that many women desire these male chauvinists and see them as ideal husbands. "We don't want momma's boys! We want REAL men!"

Another trouble faced by both men and women in Georgia is access to educational materials about reproductive health and birth control. (Not only in Georgia but in many other parts of the world) Women who use birth control are considered loose women. In an HIV/AIDS health training I participated in, one man said, "Women who want an HIV/AIDS test are not loyal to their husbands. If they only have relations with one man, why do they need it?" ***Note: Pregnant women or people about to undergo major surgeries are required by law to have HIV tests to determine measures to take afterwards. All blood donated in Georgia is also tested before transfusions are given. However, it is common practice for men to go to prostitutes on a regular basis for services that "good women/wives" are not expected/socially permitted to perform. In Georgia, the HIV/AIDS epidemic's most at risk group is IV drug users, however, according to research from the Georgia HIV/AIDS institute, this is shifting to cover larger populations. Most people have never had an HIV/AIDS test so it's unclear in projecting infection rates/numbers.

Something else that is misinformation is that people also believe women who buy/use tampons are also loose or that tampons may take your virginity. In several recent surveys, 70% of the Georgian men tested said they would not marry someone who is not a virgin. I'm regurgitating a lot of information from other articles, but this "sexual asymmetry" or perception of is created as a result. There are ads in newspapers for cosmetic surgeries for women to have their virginity restored. It's true that reputation is everything is Georgia.

A friend of mine was teaching a graduate level course at a well-known university in Tbilisi. One day for their assignment, somehow the students got on the topic of the reproductive system. My friend was shocked to discover that, for example, the women (graduate students) could not explain ovulation, fertilization or any processes related to giving birth connected to reproductive organs. My friend brought in diagrams for the students the next class to teach full-grown adults, for the first time, about their bodies.

In doing a teacher training in the fall of 2010, I taught a session on incorporating health topics in the classroom. I mentioned that at first, it's good to start off with light topics like the damage/dangers of smoking and move across a wide-range of topics, incorporating parents and school administrators for support. I mentioned that one of the benefits of talking about health issues is that it makes the teacher someone the students can talk to that they might feel ashamed to talk about with their parents. As the session went on, and we talked about reproductive health in the classroom. ***Note: Currently health classes are not a part of the education curriculum in Georgia. There have been some pilot programs, but nothing has really gone full-scale.

We debated whose responsibility it is in discussing this topic: parents? teachers? both? doctors? who? Then, I threw out something controversial- I asked, "What would you do/say if your student came to you, as another female, and said she was pregnant and wanted your advice?" The response: outrage. Comments like, "You cannot understand our country!" "This never happens in Georgia!" "This is not America!" etc.etc. The teachers took complete offense. Well, I have another story for you.

This may be rare, but here goes. One of the other volunteers had a 13-year-old student give birth to a child in the school bathroom. Her parents didn't notice, apparently. I have to say this is a failure on the part of the parents and the school. The school should be a comfortable place for the students. Can you imagine how scared this poor girl must have been, giving birth on the bathroom floor? or what it must've felt like to hide this from everyone? She went through this whole thing most likely alone, or at least not of anyone who could've been emotionally supportive to her needs. The volunteer asks the co-teachers who were at the training, "So now, what would you do if she had come to you for support?" Response: they would have taken her to and told her parents. That is exactly why she didn't. If I've heard about it once in two years, it means it does happen. **Note: Georgian media has discussed this as well as various NGOs. Abortion is Georgia's most common method of birth control. I'm pro-choice personally, but careless abortions like this make me sick to think about.

So the argument is: if you teach it in schools, the schools could be responsible for increased sex among the student body. For a culture centered around religion, the church is not for this. However, I think it's clear that sex is happening in these schools already, and students should know the myths and truths about what will happen to keep them from making bad decisions down the road.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Big Teisti for One

Nothing is more depressing than eating by yourself in a fast-food restaurant full of families, friends and lovers. You might be thinking they are cheap boyfriends to take their honies to a fast-food restaurant, but as was probably mentioned in previous posts: McD's is the place to be. So I sit down with my "beeg teh-ee-stee" sandwich with two chairs at a table that bairly holds my tray. Then a man comes up to me and says, "I'm taking these." So I'm now eating alone at a tiny-tiny table that looks even more lonely with no-one else at it.

As others have noted, the people and service at McDonald's in Georgia are great. They greet you when you come in. They are constantly cleaning the bathrooms and tables. They'll even continually mop the floors when people are tracking in mud on a rainy day. After you get your food at the register, they always smile and say a "bon apetit" of sorts.

In being alone, I am looking around at all the people around me. I see 2 friends/lovers eating. The guy has a blank stare towards the girl while she texts on her phone for 20 minutes. Rude much?

Then I see a mom sitting at a table with her kid. The kid is playing with his happy meal toy and the mom has this blank-minded look of despair on her face. You can see her glancing around and either wishing her husband could've come out with her and the kid or that she had a husband to help out with the trouble of raising a child on her own. She goes to get two ice creams and proceeds to eat the ice cream in such a melancholy way that suggests she is trying to fill some void in her life.

Another 40'ish old lady is sitting at a table with her mother. She could have sat across the table from her mom, but instead her mom seems to be having trouble eating from the shakes, so she is helping her with her food.

I feel that so much of this country tries so hard to maintain a facade of happiness, even in the most wealthy of places. Of course there are people who are generally happy, but it's comparable to the number of people who have PhD's in America. I was thinking about this. Take my neighbors, for example. I laugh a lot in my apartment (and in life in general), whether by myself talking to friends on facebook or skype, or when I have company over. I always think (these walls are paper-thin and I know they can hear me). After a good laugh, I always have a shudder of guilt that I'm disturbing someone. I have never seen my neighbors truly laugh on the countless occasions I have lived next door to and interacted with them. I can hear them put a coat on a coat-hanger, but I never hear them laugh. Sure, every now and again, they'll have a good chuckle, but it still seems artificial.

I can count on my ten fingers of people I know who know how to truly enjoy life out of all the people I've met. It makes me sad. If anything it motivates me to prove as a source of humor or relief from life for them. I don't doubt that life in this country is easy for anyone, but you have to learn how to enjoy it. I never thought about this in America, but I think this principle could also be applied there.

I officially taught my first full day with the IDP kiddos in the village I will commute to twice a week for three months. These students are so quiet and well-behaved compared to my average school students. In part, this silence comes from fear, mistrust, and low-self esteem. Some of them are just fine, but they have all been through the traumatic experience of having been kicked out of their homes and relocated to an unknown territory. Their parents in most cases don't have jobs and even more so, have a difficult time getting up in the morning at the thought of being in the middle of nowhere and expected to start over from nothing. Sure they have financial aid in place, but they really need emotional support. I am somehow going to make these computer classes interdisciplinary in developing growth of their self-esteem. For example, one girl was so shy she spoke in a voice that was almost inaudible. When she didn't know where the keys were on the keyboard, she looked like someone who wanted to cry but had no tears left. She easily clammed up, and there was so much dirt on her hands, I wondered if her parents didn't use her for labor or if even she didn't have any parents. Today affirmed that this is an area I can have a great impact. Even if what I'm teaching them they'll never use, at least I have a chance to encourage them to keep on keepin' on.