Monday, December 17, 2007

Grab-bag-o-thoughts, Episode I

  1. I've lately found out that the –jan suffix-thing of endearment ("Mama jan," "Ryder jan," "hey babycakes jan") used in Armenian has its roots in Persian and likely the various Indo- languages of the Indo-European family, including Pashto, as is repeatedly depicted as well in The Kite Runner, a novel that takes place in Afghanistan, one I'm reading right now. The fact that I'm learning a language that has stuff in common, however few, with Pashto is freaking awesome possum.
  2. Georgian TV just ran a spot for some sports show coming up this weekend, using the Star Wars theme. I don't think that would fly much in the states. I feel like that'd be like your local news opening with the theme to Indiana Jones.
  3. I just got called up for jury duty. Classic! I'm sure they'll let me out of it, but if not, you all might be seeing me a lot sooner, and I want to go out for a drink at a place with microbrews on tap, and I'll be spending lots of time at Target just… having a religious experience. And reveling in the concept of flip flops in January.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

One Dry Sock

I just wrapped up my first semester of teaching at Public #2, and more or less, depending on what exactly I'm measuring "success" to be, I'd call it a success. It coincided perfectly with my site visit by Peace Corps staff, and turned out to be a good week of professional introspection.

My Program Manager, Eka, the PC Country Director, and the NGO sector Program Manager came to Ninotsminda to touch base and see how I'm getting along with my counterpart and school in general, a routine part of service, and I think they were quite impressed. So was I, unexpectedly. I'd been out of the loop with my own school for about two weeks, due to a volunteer conference I had to attend near the capital, and a nasty bout with bronchitis that kept me up at the office in Tbilisi on medical for a few extra days, so I'd been a bit unprepared for the whole spiel by the time that it came around. That said, hats off to my counterpart and supervisor, who took the surprise of a staff visit well and were wonderful about it being a surprise (not an intended one; I just seemed to miss every opportunity to give them a heads up about it.

I was a bit worried that they'd come in and observe one of my older classes, where I'm still struggling with a terribly uphill battle of classroom management with the teenage boys. Not that it's bad for them to see my rough edges; Peace Corps Georgia has been at this long enough to know that well, teenagers are pretty much unmanageable around the world unless you happen to have a "horse whisperer" ability to get into their heads. I don't. Still, I had hoped to tell them of my worst challenges, but show them my greater successes. I lucked out. They came when I was to teach my fifth graders.

Let me tell you, I love my fifth graders. They're sweet, innocent, disproportionately bright, and just plain fun. I teach the class more than half in Russian since it's their first year of English, and while I can for sure hold my own in that language, I have plenty of silly mistakes, and they giggle forgivingly through each one. Every day when I walk in I get a dissonant blast of wholehearted "HELLO MISTER COBEAN! GOOD MORNING! HOW ARE YOU!" and it picks me up and pins a smile right to my face. I love these kids. Well, this morning I tell them "we have guests!" and they all excitedly stand up and smile for the Georgian and American that walk into the room with me. As I'd been out for almost two weeks, I didn't plan a lesson with my partner teacher, but she had totally come through for the both of us. Now, I've found that when the class is cooperative, I can totally improvise in such a situation and deliver a good lesson and make good use of myself (it's happened a few times before where we haven't been totally on the same page walking into the classroom, and I know how to turn that lemon into a decent glass of lemonade already). Still this time she was set for us. We gave a lesson on "I like/I love" along with fruits and vegetables and describing them with colors, and as usual was blown away at how good my youngins are. They were at their best despite two surprise visitors in the back of their room and soaked up the lesson. Two delightful highlights came when one child inadvertently professed his attraction to pears ("I love you, pear!") in response to my question "what fruit do you like?" and another informing me adamantly that apples are tasty when gray.

Anyway, following the lesson I had a series of meetings with the PC staff and my counterpart to discuss progress to date, and I realized that I may have been overcritical of my progress so far here. I think I set, without knowing it, really high standards for myself in the first semester, and got disappointed and guilty when I said to myself that homework turn-in is still low, test results are pretty bad, and my students aren't behaving themselves.

Then I realized I'd been basically just focusing on the challenges in my upper grades. My 5th and 6th grades are absolutely amazing. Success comes slowly, but more importantly, I know that more than half the kids in both those grades look forward to English with Mr Cobean, and smile with every right answer they get. Whether that's me, the lessons, or just the enthusiasm of youth I don't know but I'm pretty sure I'm helping at least contribute a positive feeling to a difficult language to pick up in a tiny mountain town in the South Caucasus.

I was going to bring up the glass half empty/half full metaphor, but something more appropriate came to mind. I walk home in snowmelt mud-puddly dirt roads about half the time of each week, and rarely come home with two dry socks. For some reason it's always my right sock that gets wet. Nonetheless, I still have one dry sock.

Keeping your head on straight in a teaching job like this is all about recognizing the one dry sock. I've got tons of dry socks at site: my school is very professional, well kept up, my faculty genuinely respects me as a peer, and those students that haven't caught the bug of malevolent puberty give me good effort, and will probably eventually start showing fruits of their toils. In general, I've got lots to be thankful for at my school. My counterpart and I occasionally have misunderstandings, most connected with language miscommunication, but we have a great and open working relationship.

I think I'm going to teach the younger grades more next semester, all the same; they just make me really happy even on the challenging days.

Plus, I get a kick out of realizing to myself every once in a while that my college degree landed me a gig where I can legitimately blame getting stuck behind a herd of cows for being late every once in a while.

Ninotsminda is mega cold these days, and I'm battening down the hatches for the winter months which obviously have already started (oh a good two months ago). But I've stockpiled music (you'll note the recent celebratory comment on facebook about finding some Talking Heads on the internet… not kidding), am teaching myself guitar, and am intensely immersed in learning Armenian these days, all winter lockdown pastimes, in case I get snowed in. So far, so good. Right now I'm dosing myself with one of my few mp3s of NPR's This American life, and if you guys want a good care package idea, a burned DVD full of podcasts from this show would probably make me weep with joy. Weep.

Weather and political situation permitting, I'm hoping to make a trip sometime soon enough to Erevan, and am really looking forward to it. I hope to get up a post about how Georgia-not-Georgia compares to Armenia-not-Georgia.

I'm sorry it's been so long since I've chimed in, but I'll be honest, life is pretty simple and repetitive, and it's hard to make a blog post over the injustice of the Donor Kebab place in Tbilisi going from 3 lari to 3.50 or the merits of rabbit shashlyk at the Ossetian restaurant. I mean, that was seriously a good 20 minutes of recent conversation, right there. I love it here, it's just

Still, I recently found a bar in the capital where a live Georgian band played the Dire Straits. I don't know if I've ever been happier.

… Until I stepped out to my house's entry and looked out the big window at the stars. Just caught two meteors running through Taurus and Orion—I wonder if there's a shower I'm not aware of this time of year. I love the sky at night. Being from Tucson, I thought I was lucky to have such a bright night sky there. Now I'm living in a town of 6,000 people; the nearest "big" city of 30,000 is two hours away and behind a mountain so I've got the best view of what's above ever. It's hard to make out the constellations there are so many stars. Oh! Awesome! Lila just by chance told me it's actually the best shower of '07, and it's coming on the 13th. I'll be ready for it.


Saturday, December 8, 2007

On Russian TV

Okay, I don't often hear myself speaking any language other than English. I don't hear much Russian because I haven't been around an american friend who's studied the language for a good year and a half. That means that the only Russian I hear is good Russian.

I'm watching some cop drama with my host brother and this episode features an ill-treated American. Yes there are plenty of things to be said about how ... "great" the acting is or the ridiculous Cold War motif, but mostly I'm all self conscious about how I must sound when I speak now. This guy sounds like a doof. I don't want to sound like a doof. This is the international, patriotic or something version of hearing your own voice in a tape recorder and saying "Why do I *sound* fat? Can someone *sound* fat? I sound husky."

On another TV note, I watch a lot of RuTV, Moscow's answer to MTV, as we've got a 12 year old teenager in the house. Some of the family hits include "The Greater the Love, the Lower the Kiss," interpreted as some kind of tantric Victoria's Secret ad in a Gothic cathedral, or the one with the girl riding a gigantic flying washing machine in the desert as a computer animated house with chicken legs parades around in the background. Where's the wholesome Christina Aguilera drrrty video when you need it?

There's this show that I watch on the Russian gov't channel, forgot the name, but it's essentially the grand epic sportsman battle of the millennium, at least as far as it's billed. Except it's mostly a show designed to demonstrate Russia's team of former olympians and various performing artists' athletic prowess against a broad sampling of international competitors. That means the USA, China, and ... Kazakhstan. Yep.

The events, treated with all the seriousness of the Boston Marathon plus a baptism or Freemasons initiation rite, include dressing up like a sumo wrestler and throwing beach balls into a hula hoop while an angry bull tries to gore you, dressing up like a mouse and running through a spinning obstacle course, and dressing up like a hillbilly and running on a conveyer belt, catching bread in a basket from a fishing pole. After such an epic competition, I will never watch the olympics again.

When the Americans started losing I started rooting for the Kazakhs, as there were a few cute women and a nice guy on the team and I had to find at least one reason to keep watching despite the number of sumo wrestlers I watched get gored by a stressed out bull in a godforsaken arena somewhere in France. (Yes, the show is recorded in Paris. The neutral ground venue adds a certain World Cup/No Man's Land je ne sais quoi touch to the whole affair). My host family told me I wasn't being patriotic enough. I'm sorry. When we can get our act together and learn to catch a freaking loaf of bread from a fishing pole while wearing a straw hat and black tooth wax, I'll be the first to take off my hat and sing You're a Grand Ol' Flag. Plus, rooting for the home team felt like somehow sanctioning the whole experience, elevating it from "guilty pleasure" to "hallowed feat of brain and brawn"

...And then I remembered that we televise bowling.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Check out the Peace Corps Georgia Podcast

Sakartvelo: Stories of Peace Corps Life in Georgia was started in the summer of 2007 as a collaborative project of Peace Corps Volunteers in Georgia. Our goal is to promote the "Third Goal" of Peace Corps by educating the world about life in Georgia as well as raise awareness about our projects and accomplishments. We hope our podcast will entertain you, educate you, and maybe convince you to pay us a visit. Enjoy! Sakartvelos goumarjos!

Hail like Hell

If there’s one thing to convince an agnostic about the fire-and-brimstone vision of god, it’s golf ball-sized hail.

I often tag along on my host mother Marina’s work runs to nearby villages to meet with school officials. It’s a nice way to see familiar but different scenery. Really, they’re the same; Armenian villages in the south of Georgia can only be put together so many ways. You have your potholed dirt road, run-down buildings, haystacks, large-brick walls and tin roofs, all clustered together in the middle of nowhere. But then there’s the other side; in each one you don’t feel at all taken aback, overwhelmed; each feels made of the same stuff, so each feels homey. Then there are the little differences. Patara Khorenia has a lake, men washing their Лада cars at the bank on a Saturday afternoon. The nearby (and even closer to Turkey than Ninotsminda is) Orlovka is populated by “Old Believers,” a small sect of Christianity averse to the direction the East and Russian Orthodox churches evolved toward. Still, it’s fascinating that no matter how far out you go, still, there’s that “Enjoy Coca-Cola” sign hanging over the local market.

The other day on the way back from a quick visit to another school in Orlovka, black clouds appeared on the horizon. The kind that actually make you nervous, no matter how many Tucson monsoon seasons you’ve done. Tucson might put on quite the lightning show, but Ninotsminda has it beat on the “oh Jesus, find cover” factor. By the time we returned to Nino, a downpour had begun, but not a drop of rain was falling from these black clouds. Hail. All hail. Golf Balls. Pouring golf balls like the water comes down in Tucson in July. Aghas drove the rest of the length home tree to tree, hoping that a big one wouldn’t dent the roof or shatter the windshield. I love that the entire time, all I was thinking is this will be how I open late September’s blog post. Thanks God; you’ve just furthered the unhealthy self-absorption.

I’ve been teaching now for a week and a half, and it’s exhausting but good work. I’m pretty sure I’ll be working with the eleventh, tenth, seventh, and fifth graders, haven’t yet decided on whether I’ll also pick up the ninth or sixth graders as well. There’s more challenge and more work with the older kids, as I have to cut through the thicket of puberty to get anything in their heads; the flip side though is that there are those few really brilliant ones I’d really like to have a chance to work with before they’re off to university, if they go. If they’re not planning on it, I’d like to get them to the point of reconsidering that, or even applying to an exchange program that’d likely change their lives if they went. I won’t lie, there’s a bit of a saccharin “Dangerous Minds” plot in my dreams here. In all seriousness, though, that time abroad would be a career accelerator that I’m not sure many have thought much about. And it’s not like there aren’t hundreds of ways to study something in America on someone else’s bill. I’d really like to help the strongest ones find a way.

The fifth graders are a blast for mostly the opposite reason; they’re total blank slates with English. I taught them their first English phrases in Cyrillic and the Armenian alphabet, and teach in the class in Russian. They’re still young, so like children all across the world, they’re really loud, but they’re not yet too cool to learn.

We’ve been teaching without a schedule for the past two weeks, as it’s hard to figure out how to allocate the resources the right way in the beginning here. Due to this, I haven’t really been able to plan any lessons; rather I kind of do a tag-team improv thing with my counterpart teachers. It works more often than it doesn’t but it’s really really tiring. The daily process involves me “observing” until something gets really boring from the book and I scramble to come up with a communicative activity to save the day. Hopefully we’ll come up with a structured way of doing this once the schedule is finalized, so I can give my stomach lining and head a bit of a rest.

I’ve had some trouble with discipline lately, and find myself taking to all the tricks teachers have used in my upbringing with mixed results to handle the problems. I’ve had to break up teenage boys, I’ve guilt tripped, I’ve threatened with summoning the principal, but so far my favorite has been just shutting up and standing there. Silence is deafening, and it saves my own voice.
Still, each class has its gem student, and I love teaching to see what they’re capable of. I’m trying to get the eleventh graders comfortable with writing; I want them to start writing what will essentially become journal entries. It’s been an uphill battle to get them to do the homework, but I think eventually I’ll find the right difficulty-challenge level where they won’t mind taking care of it once a week. I have an ulterior motive, prompted by reading a book written by a Peace Corps volunteer in China, who learned tons about his site, Fuling, from the writing assignments of his university students. I hope to keep giving them assignments that kind of open my eyes to how they think and live here. It’s sneaky, but this is the whole mutual learning thing I’m after out here in the boondocks.

As far as family life goes, all’s more or less really well. Host dad and I bicker and laugh as much as always, and I really appreciate all the reality I get to taste. It’s strange to say, but I like hearing my host family get into quarrels, mom yelling at kid over homework, host sister with teenage eyerolls, etc. they’re so wonderfully real. There are people in the village that have begun referring to me as Aghas’s son; not totally sure what I think of that. It’s sweet, but I hope it doesn’t eventually interfere with my independence. Still, I love them all and feel really blessed to live exactly here for two years.

I think I got maneuvered into making burritos for the host family this weekend, the small and agreeable price to pay for bragging about the glory of Mexican cuisine. Hoping I don’t set the kitchen on fire. The nice thing about living in an Armenian village is that we actually have a plentiful tortilla equivalent. Armenian լավաշ (lavash) seems like it’ll make a really nice substitute. Hopefully I can line up an appetite with my time as honorary chef; my desire to eat is so erratic I can barely figure it out. Sometimes I’ll skip an entire meal and find myself starving, putting a Fanta and a Snickers in me between lessons to keep from crashing. Other times I down my weight in bread and cheese (death by հաց և պանիր). I’m sure that’s one of the many things that will eventually stabilize. I miss khachapuri; is that bad?

Wednesday, September 5, 2007

Dust off, bandage up and get back on the tskheni

So starts a new chapter of my life. That carries a number of meanings; beginnings and ends. I no longer live in Khidistavi; I am no longer in Georgia, even though I am in Georgia. I made it; the roughest part of Peace Corps (or so I am told), the mental boot camp that is pre-service training, is finally over. Though I've yet to begin anything I'd really call work, the past week has been sufficiently rough enough that the rest of this will be a comparative cake walk.

I swore in among some of the best friends I've ever had last Friday, the 24th. The ceremony was held at a large, Soviet-ly beautiful theatre in Tbilisi, our oath (the same oath the President recites—moving up in the world, I am) presided over by the American embassy's Charge d'Affaires. Speeches were given, along with the usual song and dance (literally); it was a nice event, marking a fairly important point in my life. I just gave the government two years of my existence. This isn't the army; we can go home any time we want. Still, leaving after this point, having committed to long term development work and real personal relationships in places Americans don't often trek, being THE face of the United States, early departure is basically tantamount to a dishonorable discharge and a guilty conscience court martial.

For all the crap that's gone on in my personal life lately, I'm really, really proud that I made it up to that stage in Tbilisi. I'm in.

Aside from Peace Corps and US Mission staff, our audience was filled with the various training host families, new permanent site host families, and host organization (business, NGO, school) directors. It felt a bit like a second graduation, my host mother Irma and host brother Lasha from Khidistavi in the crowd, as well as my new host father Aghaz and school director Artush, having made the trip all the way from Ninotsminda to see me swear in.

The meeting between host family members during the reception was quite a moment. Remember that I'm serving in an area of Georgia that really doesn't speak Georgian; for my Arizonan friends, I'm working in Georgia's South Tucson. My host father here in Ninotsminda, though very eager to improve (we're talking about starting a Georgian speakers' club here already), doesn't speak very well, his main languages are Russian and Armenian. Irma, my host mother from Khidistavi, speaks comparable Russian; not very well, and Georgian is her first language. So one side says in far-too-fast Georgian how great a person I am, the other says he agrees in far-too-fast Russian, while leaving everyone in the dust (especially me) while sharing a word with my director in doesn't-matter-the-speed-I-can't-freaking-understand-Armenian Armenian.

I'll backtrack for a moment while I'm on my linguistic woe-is-me to say I really did well during training with the Georgian; I'm pretty happy about that. Though I definitely lost steam toward the end, me ukve saertod normalurad vlaparakob qartulad, da me es ena dzalian mik'vars—dzalian saintereso, dazhe lamazia. ukve upro msiamovnebs laparaki qartulad, vidre rusulad. Somkhuri—ekhla es skhva kitkhva, magram praktika aq iqneba. I'm already speaking pretty well in Georgian, and truthfully I actually have more fun using it now than I do my Russian. I managed to hit Intermediate-mid in Georgian, which, considering I only had two months of it, is a promising portent for what may come with Armenian. As of yet I haven't had my eureka moment with it. Still looks like a bunch of typos when I see it written, and it still sounds like a bunch of threatening gibberish to my ears. But, so did Georgian two months ago, and Russian sure as hell did when I was a freshman in college. So I'm sure I'll get over it.

I've been in Ninotsminda already for six days and am experiencing a bit of the culture shock that comes from having been Georgianized quite efficiently, while the bun is still in the oven as far as Armenianization goes. But I've noticed my frustration waning a bit, and realize that if I just land a tutor for the Armenian, it will come before I know it, all the while as I lean on the Russian to prove I'm not linguistically retarded. A few months and all will be fine. Still, right now, I get pretty cranky pretty quickly, as I try to figure out what the hell is going on each time I hear "Inche! Skuzkuzenk gnatselem hamar voj karogh uzum em haryur vraastanum e! Vostegh! Enkerenere!" (most of these are actual words, some are random sounds I keep hearing and feel like I should know, but don't). Thank god almighty I speak Russkiy.

If there's going to be one big psychological challenge for me it's the remoteness from my closest friends in the group. Since the closest person I had to a sitemate decided to go home, I'm left without anyone nearby—she was to be twenty minutes away in Akhalkalaki. There are a few people in Akhaltsikhe about two hours away, but my nearest good friend is a 7 hour, 17 lari marshrutka ride away up in Gori. That's going to put me on edge. Peace Corps offered me a site change after Colleen left but I really want to try and make it work here in Nino. My host family is positively wonderful and my school is a real diamond in the rough. They say you usually only get two of three things how you want them in a Peace Corps post: family, job, site. So I'm very thankful for having two of them perfect and will give it a very determined and committed shot, which probably just means I'm staying but don't want to say that yet.

The family. This is a great group of people. I swear to god Aghaz and I are going to be an interesting pair for two years; my host father and I jokingly quarrel in that "welcome to the family, go cut the grass" kind of way about 30 times a day. I do something American, thus wrong, or in my own patent OCD Ryder way, and blame it on my American upbringing, and then get a lecture about how I'm ridiculous. I then, being myself, proceed to explain to him that I've been doing this or that my little American neurotic way for 23 years and nothing he can say will convince me to change my behavior, at which point he tells me he will stop feeding me or he'll go out back and get the sickle, which usually proceeds to us fake boxing in the living room, which usually leads to a coffee break and a hell of a lot of laughter. This man is awesome. He's as pushy and argumentative as I am, and you can tell he loves to bother me about my unsettling American ways of doing everything as much as I love unsettling him with them. Hard to put it, but there's just a really fun bond I've got with the guy already. Our relationship is something akin to a constant mutual international noogie.

Marina, the host mother, turns out to not just work for the local Educational Resource Center, but is actually its director. She speaks fluent Georgian (that's a bit out of the ordinary here), and just finished up a "night school" class teaching hopeful future police officers critical conversational Georgian. She's really smart and is positively a great person, and plays along well in my constant spar with Aghaz. Every once in a while I'll just fire a smile about whatever the current topic is—my sandals, the way I eat bread, my distaste for sugar—her way and she'll give me one back. Some kind of "yeah, he thinks I'm crazy for not liking the orange ones either. Knock the brim of his cap…that always works for me."

In general, this is my kind of family: warm, intelligent, happy, and already comfortable making fun of me for all my weird particularities. Basically, I don't at all feel like a doted-on guest, which is SO refreshing. I make the coffee, and tonight I helped Aghaz chop wood out back. I'm still cringing over the teenagers' (Mania and Vladimir) taste in music—mostly russkiy pop, but we've got two years to get used to this. eventually I'll be shamelessly singing along to Via Gra and Ruki Vverkh, and they'll be moping to Elliott Smith in no time.
School doesn't start for another three weeks, but I do have a summer camp to plan (basically after-school day-care style activities). I'm likely going to teach 'em kickball, capture the flag, and play as many games as I can come up with with a bag of water balloons as possible. Dylan, I'm eating my words of polite ridicule about Ultimate Frisbee. I'd get such exotic American sports brownie points if I had a disc and the knowledge of what the hell to do with it to make it "ultimate." Oh well.

So, life is churning around, I suppose a bit more violently lately than normal. Oh well, that's how it works I guess. Having it all happen again is starting to show me that what we had, while not a mistake, was just not right for the long run. We were passing strangers that met on the doorstep to new lives, and that never ends well if you don't admit it.I can immediately throw myself into work, real, productive, bigger than her crap work. That's huge for me. So, I'm really looking forward to tomorrow, when I officially declare my summer "vacation" over.

Awesome. I freaking live in the Caucasus. I just met my first Chechen. Awesome.
I'll write again when I've got more news from the front.

Ryder-jan (Րայդեր ջան).

PS: INTERNET UPDATE: The satellite dish on the net café in Nino broke, so I'm cut off unless I take a cab to Akhalkalaki or quickly use my host mom's computer at work. That said, the new date for internet at home sounds like late September, so get your Skype paraphernalia ready and I'll see you on facebook, as I stalk your profiles while you all sleep. Creepy.

Saturday, August 4, 2007

Travels: Bakuriani, Borjomi, Gudauri and Ninotsminda

Gamarjobat ojakhs da megobrebs!

It’s been about six weeks and I’ve been positively silent, so I’m starting another letter. I have trouble sometimes deciding what to put in these things, because my day in, day out schedule is pretty monotonous. Still, through the paint of an email writer’s brush, I’ll do my best to make it sound interesting. It’s raining right now in Khidistavi; thank god, because it’s been awfully hot the past week or so. More than 40 Celsius, which really knocks you out without air conditioning or reliable showers and having to dress “business casual” (my Rainbow sandals aren’t getting much mileage).

I’ve actually done quite a lot here since I last checked in with you all in the states. And on second thought, I’ve actually been having quite the interesting month. Peace Corps has finally loosened the reins a bit as we’ve learned enough Georgian to be given some time to do a bit of travel within the country. I’ve discovered I’m doing far better at the Qartuli than expected, had my first taste of teaching in a Georgian classroom, learned much of my permanent site and program assignment, have met with many of my site’s residents and leaders, and am counting the days to being able to work for myself in this country. There have been a few fairly undesirable things that have come my way over these weeks, but I’ll get to those later.

I am really proud to say I found out two weeks ago that I’m doing the best in the group (44 other trainees) as far as my progress in Georgian. We had to hit intermediate-low by the end of our ten week training, and I was the only to do so by our fifth week mid-assessment. I’m ecstatic. My LCF (Peace Corps-ese for language and culture teacher) said she’s had to resist the urge to run around saying “that’s MY trainee! That’s MY trainee!” Needless to say, I’m proud, and have enjoyed the star pupil status, for whatever that’s worth. For all the goofy ways I slip up here and there, and feel like I’m swimming upstream in technical training, it’s good to know I’m excelling somewhere.

Bakuriani and Borjomi

About two weeks ago, Peace Corps set us loose on our first independent travel experience. We’re on a pretty tight leash during training; there’s a 7pm curfew on Saturday and Sunday, the only two days we’re allowed to travel; no overnights. So, getting one weekend to get out to a hotel somewhere and see new scenery on our own became quite the precious experience. Relying on my Russian to get a hotel booked and their location in Gori to research marshrutka (minibus) schedules and rates, my friends and fellow trainees Kelly, Dan, Ellen and Jeremy (after far more deliberation than is worth mentioning here) decided to go explore Bakuriani, a small mountain village. While the weather ended up keeping us indoors the whole day we were there, the guest house and trip there were a load of fun. We convinced a Marshrutka driver to make an early run in that direction off schedule from Gori and arrived in Borjomi to connect with other transport a few hours later. My host father in Khidistavi told me about a passenger train that ran out of Borjomi’s station through the mountains to Bakuriani. As usual, taking a train proved to be a great choice. We really got a chance to appreciate the view on the long climb up, while talking to some interesting people (and fending off the attention of a few unsavory folk). That Russian’s a real mixed bag. I love the conversation but I could spare a few of the …colorful interactions It’s caused. All the same I’m glad to be speaking.
Bakuriani is pretty, but we mostly missed it due to heavy rain; the experience there became a pretty expensive trip for beer and khachapuri on top of a mountain. But we set out the next morning to check out cool, green, beautiful Borjomi, nestled between stretches of lush mountains. This city is home to a famous line of spring water, basically the Arrowhead of Georgia. At any rate the surroundings are very refreshing to a Tucsonan. Above is a photo; neither words, nor this picture, are likely to do it justice.

Gudauri Supervisor Conference

The weekend before last Peace Corps held a conference at an off-season ski resort in the mountain village of Gudauri, at which we would meet our supervisors. The morning of our departure to the north, the remaining 39 volunteers not in the multi-language pilot program learned of their sites, host families, and organization supervisors. Our supervisors were there, waiting for us at the resort, and upon arrival, we took part in a greeting ceremony that resembled something like a Revolutionary War battle’s setup—supervisors lined up on one end of the resort’s yard, trainees in our own travel-frazzled phalanx on the other.

Here I met my soon-to-be boss Artush, the director of Ninotsminda’s Russian school. I have to say it was a moment—there are many of these—where I felt really lucky to have the Russian to fall back on. While many of us were working through frustrating Georgian-English language barriers, here I am, speaking fairly freely with someone who by nature of his community and upbringing speaks fluent Russian as a first language. It was quite a surreal experience to sit during conference sessions in a room of Georgians and Americans, trainees paired with their respective supervisors, at the back of the room, with a PC Georgia staff member translating from Georgian to Russian everything being simultaneously translated to English from Georgian for all the trainees. It was as confusing to understand what was happening in the room as it just was to explain. The polyglot back-and-forth got to be so much that I gave up and started listening only to the Russian translations happening right next to me, occasionally doing some assistance in that for my Armenian supervisor. Having the Russian opens such a door for me; I’ve been able to have a far more “real” experience with people. Sometimes it feels like I’m cheating, but I wouldn’t miss out on the interactions I’ve had for the world. I spent the final night of the conference next to a smoky piano singing old Russian and Georgian songs and showtunes with various piano-playing organization supervisors and nearly our entire language training staff—all the twentysomethings PCG employs for PST. Hell of a staff we have here.

Ninotsminda permanent site visit

I guess one of the biggest events in the past month since I’ve last written (really hard to realize it’s already been a month) has been learning of my permanent site placement. For those of you whom I haven’t told, I’m part of a pilot program Peace Corps and the Georgian government are starting, sending PCVs into areas of Georgia relatively disconnected from the situation in the core. Georgia’s main two ethnic minority groups are from the neighboring Caucasus countries: Armenia and Azerbaijan, mostly populating Georgia’s southern Samtskhe-Javakheti (Armenian) and Qvemo Qartli (Azeri) regions. The problem, among others, for these regions is one of language: the local populations are unable (in some cases) or unwilling (in others) to integrate with mainstream Georgia, and often find themselves far more connected to Yerevan or Baku than with Tbilisi. In fact, Georgian is in many cases a distant third language for the population, behind the national language to which a group keeps, and Russian, which history explains well enough. Our role, in coordination with working with the local communities to improve the condition of English education, is to serve as a sort of conduit through which mutual engagement might start to take place.

I've been learning Armenian for about three weeks now, and though I can barely say a thing in it, it will help a bit when I first arrive at my permanent site. I did, however, get to take a visit for a few days after the supervisor conference, and I'm looking forward to working down in Ninotsminda come September.

Ninotsminda (ნინოცმინდა/Նինոցմինդա) is located far in Georgia’s south, about 15km from the Turkish border, 20 from the Armenian. It’s a different world down there. In a country the size of North Carolina, just about anything that could change about the surroundings from Gori indeed did. The climate is entirely different; I’m far out of wine (and cherry, peach, plum, apple, etc) territory down there; it’s visibly more arid but still looks like a jungle by southern Arizona standards. Much rockier, and it seems that the principal crop is grain, in various forms. Ninotsminda is located past the city of Akhalqalaqi (that’s the Georgian word for Novgorod, for you language geeks out there… akhal = new, qalaqi = city), which is literally in the mountains nearby, kind of located atop a mesa. That’ll be my nearest relatively urban experience, but with a population of 7,000, Ninotsminda, though still something of a village, is no slouch. It has street names, which by my standards makes it a small town.

The population is 98% Armenian, making the Georgian I’m taking right now of little local use. That’s a shame, as I’ve really grown to love speaking. That’ll come eventually with Armenian, but with only two weeks of it, I’ve far too little knowledge of the language to yet be excited about it, though I’m sure that will come. Generally, the population speaks in Armenian by choice, so I’ll need to learn to understand it, but most peoples’ primary language of literacy is Russian, so it will be playing a major part of the next two years of my life.

My school, public No. 2, was recently renovated, so I’m feeling pretty blessed. On an interesting note, the textbooks are not the ones used in accordance with the national curriculum; they’re actually supplied from Moscow. For any of you keeping tabs on Georgian-Russian relations that should be an interesting fact. Non-language classes are taught entirely in Russian. My pedagogue colleagues at the school include one English teacher with whom I’ll be teaching, one Georgian teacher (excitingly, an actual ethnic Georgian), and an Armenian teacher. I’ll start teaching about a week or two after the first day of classes, spending those first weeks observing to get a hold of how things are done there.

During my site visit, I had appointments to meet the sakrebulo (parliament) representative, head of the post office, and police chief, and met and stayed with my future permanent host family, the Zalalians. Just as kind as the Tlashadzes, I was surprised by the differences between Georgian and essentially Armenian home life. For one, strange as it may sound, architecture—I got very used to living on a farm in a Georgian-style house. Georgian houses are set up behind a walled-in courtyard very often, and sometimes break off various rooms into entirely separate structures. The focus seems to be on the yard. Right now, even, I’m typing outside and tend to do all my work at an outdoor table. In Ninotsminda, the designs are again focused on a single building, like an American home. As far as I can tell, the Zalalians eat meals together rather than in a come and go fashion. I was indeed growing to like that casual aspect. Luckily my host mother and father said they have zero problems with me making my own food and coffee or tea, rather than being waited on. That will be very welcome. My host father there joked, “when you finally move down here, we’ll have you out back with the sickle, cutting our grass!” Looking forward to feeling a bit more like a self sufficient human.

About the family: again, I’ll be living with a family of five; two parents, two children, and a grandmother. My host father, Aghasi, is the town’s dentist; the mother, Marina, works for the region’s Educational Resource Center (something of a governmental in-between agent that advises in administrative and legal, and budgetary matters for all these schools, public and private, not fully used to decentralization. They provide advice and assistance, but no direction. As an excellent windfall, she used to teach Georgian, and has to know it for her government job, so she speaks perfectly. We’ve already agreed to speak as exclusively as possible in Georgian. I’ve got a host brother, Vova, and sister, Mania (named after the Grandmother), about Lasha and Vaniko’s ages, respectively. Both will be my students. Vova’s got a bit of an unfortunate taste for 50 Cent and Russian pop. Mania is into gymnastics, and just returned from a camp in Erevan. The mother plays piano beautifully, and is teaching herself guitar. Overall, they seem like an incredible, interesting group of people to spend two years with. I’ll be very happy. As another completely selfish thrill, Aghas told me he’s getting internet (broadband!) sometime in September for the place, and will try to split it off into my room. I’ll actually be in touch again, and will know what’s going on in the world (what’s this about flooding in Tucson?)! Most importantly, everyone seems very grateful that I’ll be there with Peace Corps, which will make my time all the better.

It really seems like Georgia is trying to improve its relationship with the Samtskhe-Javakheti region. It is pouring lots of money into development here, and the currently awful stretch of highway between Akhalkalaki and the next major city, Akhaltsikhe, bare gravel for long stretches, is actually being paved as I type. Looks like it will be done by winter, maybe spring at the latest. This is good for the community, as it might ease access to Tbilisi and Georgia proper in comparison to Erevan (a little competition for goods and services will do nothing but improve everyone’s lot), will help Georgia for much the same reason, and will make my travel life (both business and pleasure) much easier come next spring. I hope to do lots of project work between here and Tbilisi, and would rather not spend all my time on a Marshrutka bouncing through potholes. In general, lots of progress looks like it’s just about to start; I feel very lucky to be here to live as a part of this community at this specific time in history.

That really sums it up as far as travel goes. I had the pleasure of going out to my current host father Alex’s apple orchard last week. Found out he has five hectares of apple trees nearby, and is looking forward to a good harvest in September. I love this picture of him, and had to toss it in.

Finally, the horror of horrors happened. I became the latest statistic on Peace Corps Georgia’s theft numbers. At the university in Gori where we do hub day training, some punk student swiped my mp3 player which had essentially my musical life on it. Considering my use of music as stress release #1, this has been pretty rough. I spent four and a half hours at the police station in Gori filing a report in Georgian, Russian and English, and they said they’ll do all they can to recover it for me. I don’t expect to see it again, but a man can hope. Thank god for the internet when I go to site. NPR streams, here I come.

Training continues, and I’ve had my first experience teaching students during practicum. It’s been great for the most part, very hard at times, and downright embarrassing when I write the occasional lesson plan that crashes in the first five minutes. Live and learn, teach and learn too. I’ll say this: vocabulary is a bajillion times more fun to teach than grammar, phrasal verbs are an educator’s worst nightmare, and the hormones of puberty are the devil incarnate.

Another three weeks until swear in, and I can't wait. Hopefully by the next time I write, you’ll all be seeing me on AIM and Google Talk again. Keep telling me how things are progressing with you—I look forward to the letters. I love you all and miss you tons.



Friday, May 18, 2007

Cherez mesyats...

This is really just a post to test formatting of everything for when things get going.