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.