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.