Wednesday, August 13, 2008

I'm safe in America

This whole situation caught me on vacation in Istanbul, but I got a message from Peace Corps two days ago telling me they were sending me home. You all know as much as me if you're reading BBC. But it IS as bad as the reports are saying.

Anyway, I will do better to write something of substance later, but for the time being, know all our volunteers are safe and accounted for, having been in the states at the time or evacuated to Armenia.

Thank you for reading... will update with whatever deems worthy an update. More will be here, just too tired to write now.

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Linux nerdery in the Caucasus

Once again, pictures attached. Reading on Facebook? Click Through. The captions are bound to look odd without the attached photos there.

It's been a while since I've had a substantive post, and for once I've got a good reason: I've been pretty busy. It's been really nice to be out of school for a good month now—given me time to work on other things on my own time.

First-ever Ninotsminda Region Linux Workshop
I've had a few secondary projects never really take off, and I'll be the first to admit that winter made me a barnacle out here (you've got no idea what getting sick every three weeks and not feeling your hands indoors will do to your work ethic – my only real secondary project became “mope in my room and listen to Ira Glass podcasts under a sleeping bag”). But in June one project finally took off and it was a surprising hit, for both me and the participants.

A little background: in the past year or so, the Georgian Ministry of Education and Science initiated a great program known as “Deer Leap,” with the goal of 'computerizing' Georgia's schools, from capital to village. I stole its objectives from a related website (second or third link on Google):

Deer Leap Project objectives:
  • to help local governments in developing IT infrastructure of schools, including support for establishment of Internet connections in schools;
  • to provide Georgian teachers with elementary computer skills, and guide them to use the opportunities provided by modern information technologies in teaching their subjects;
  • to support curriculum development with the assistance of an interactive learning environment promoting learning skills;
  • to encourage the creation of original software on Georgian language, culture, history, and nature in accordance with the National Curriculum;
  • to support schools in establishment of Internet connections.
In short, they're basically wiring the entire country, top to bottom, with new computers and internet to bring the schools into the twenty-first century. My school has yet to be wired to the net (they say this year, but the internet issue has been something of a վաղը, վաղը (mañana, mañana). Still, the computers are there and are waiting to be really best utilized. Understandably, this is one area where serving in Georgia as a teacher is an incredibly exciting time to be doing so.

I always joke that my story of the “old days” to my grandkids, as I sit in a rocking chair and whittle on a piece of wood while tounging my poorly-adhering dentures, will be “kids, let me tell you about the time they wired my middle school to the internet – these men came in with their fancy Apple computers and their network cable – no none of that fancy fiber optic hologram stuff you kids are all talking about, and what have you – we had Netscape Navigator, webcrawler, geocities and the likes that you saw on your trip to the museum – and if you wanted to download a dancing monkey “please wait” mouse pointer, you had to wait two hours – AND YOU LIKED IT!. Not as cool as the war stories and “uphill barefoot in snow both ways meet Susie at the malt shop before the sock hop” stories our grandparents tell, but I'm clinging to it. Now I get to relive this little moment in another country's educational history, and it's pretty cool. I get to even play a small part.

The one hitch in this otherwise simple tale of boring computer stuff is that the ministry (understandably) didn't want to fork over the additional $ million or so it would take to buy XP licenses for all these new rigs. They went another route: Ubuntu Linux. For those of you not familiar, Linux is a free operating system based on open source: the recipe for the entire thing is completely and freely available. What this means in the shortest explanation possible is that it is free to use and free to adapt. I'm a personal huge fan of this approach, but it's even better for developing countries, as money otherwise spent on the licenses can go to something else also important for the schools' improvements (we lack books, for example).

Even more importantly, a major project with Ubuntu is localization: the open-ness of the code makes translating the entire interface into the most rarely-used of languages basically just a question of finding people who speak the language and know how to code – no reverse engineering needed or breaking patents. It's all there. There's currently a team in Tbilisi translating the whole OS into Georgian, something you'll never see from Microsoft. While the Georgian isn't 100% done yet, virtually every app, large to small, is already available in Russian at least, so this works great in no-English environments.

Finally, viruses (trojans, better put) run amok here on people's pendrives (everyone's got one, they're almost jewlery around people's necks) and anti virus apps are rare to be found on people's computers, let alone virtually non-existent internet to update the AV databases. So it's usually a complete mess on any computer, which understandably hinders productivity. Linux OSs benefit from a rarity of viruses written to attack them, and a system much more resistant to them, out of the box. My laptop is running Ubuntu and I don't even have an AV installed, this after having to reformat at least three times due to some awful trojan that got past my AV on Windows before I just said “F it, I'll be running Lin for the next two years”. Actually, I'm enjoying the switch.

The only problem with this is that NOBODY here knows how to run these computers running Ubuntu, and they unfortunately come with a much steeper learning curve than Windows. This became painfully clear when my host mother, the regional director of the Educational Resource Center, requested some invoices from the regional schools, simple excel spreadsheets – and we received back piles of headaches: empty floppies and CD-Rs; the template returned as sent, no information saved to it; in one case we got a .jpg file back, a screenshot of the filled in spreadsheet, as the computer operator couldn't figure out how to “save as” or how to print. In one school in a nearby village, their Deer Leap computers collected dust in the box, because the operator couldn't figure out how to log in.

Ryder doin' his thing.
Please note the bags under his eyes :)
So, training was needed. Enter the geek.

I never really actively used Linux until I came here, but I did waste lots of time in college and high school screwing around on it. That seeming waste of time then paid off here marvelously. When I got to Georgia and heard about all this crazy open source software stuff, I decided to get myself up to speed, as eventually I could do something with this in my site. It all culminated last month, with a weekend training workshop, the first of several we'll do, to get the schools ready to use these computers in the classroom and the admin office for the upcoming school year. The goal this first time around was the administrative side and basic operation.

My host father, in addition to being a dentist, runs his own NGO, in Russian “Здравое Общество Джавахети”, unfortunately officially translated to English as “The Sane Population of Javakheti” (really should have been 'sound'... he went to register it a frustrating month before I arrived and could have proofread the translation. Oh well). The org is focused in public health and education, a pretty broad sector nicely tied up with the slogan, “Soundness of the body is found through health; soundness of the mind – through knowledge.” So, he financed the trainings through the NGO as an official Sane Population project to improve the outcomes of the ministry providing these school computers, as well as serving as my language wingman (though I taught it in Russian and was confident in my ability to basically pull it off, there were inevitably going to be those times when I'd end up saying “to log in to the washing machine, just enter your tomato on the password crate” -- so he was there for polyglot damage control.

Computer operators hard at work

We invited in from the village schools each of the computer “operators” -- we'd probably just call them “the computer guys” to this first training. Interestingly, out here, since 90% of the staff of any Georgian school is female, the vast majority of our “computer guys” were actually, indeed, “computer ladies.” So for me, this hit me that these trainings will be also providing vital real job skills for young women in the regions, killing two of my birds here with one stone.

I will say right now it was an enormously stressful 5 day period, prepping and actually running this workshop, as without fast internet, you're always going to come across that one missing driver file or program the computers will need, or the Russian menus aren't on this one, or this one won't burn CDs - I was up at the Resource Center until sunup 2 days getting everything set up, and of course I still ran into a few embarrassing bugs or general showstopping problems, broadcast right on the projector screen for all to see.

One of the frustrating moments:
Ryder wigs out and types in Georgian GOD

An interesting upshot of being up that late under exceedingly annoying circumstances with my host dad, is that it was yet another bonding moment for us. He saw how much of myself I was putting into making this work well, and I think he really appreciated the effort. We shared a few slightly off our rocker laughs, like the morning at 6 am, just driving back home to get a few hours of sleep, we had been out of cigarettes for a good 6 hours and slowly stalked the streets in his '80's Lada looking for a smoker with a pack to bum off of “... nope, he quit in '95... nope not a smoker... nope... wait, what, Ryder jan, that's a babushka...”

But was it a success? Absolutely. Fifteen operators arrived on the first day airing their complaints over this “unusable” operating system, complaining that the “government didn't bother to buy anything of quality” and left realizing that though it's a little tricky, it is capable of doing EVERYTHING they need to do in an office and school environment, and can do it without violating copyright laws, and without contracting viruses, and can now confident in their knowing how to take care of business on these machines. This was a classic Peace Corps project – used minimal resources, utilized assets already found in the community, and was really just about knowledge transfer.

The next step, I hope, is getting in the teachers – a training of trainers kind of thing, focused on not how to use Linux, but how to teach it in the classroom; how to transfer what knowledge local students have of Windows over to Linux.

After that, I'd like to open them up to the general public, and really focus on providing basic office computing skills to locals, especially young women, perhaps mimicing this great organization I'm familiar with back home that teaches such skills (typing, resume writing, etc) to single mothers trying to (re-)enter the workforce after missing out on the “computer revolution.”

In the short run, though, I dare say we just created 15 new computer geeks out in the Caucasus. They were so happy and thankful, Aghas and I received several invitations to go with them to the Black Sea in a group on vacation. Kind of a strange offer, but, hey I'm proud of myself.

Thursday, July 10, 2008

In lieu of jarring prose, here's the web equivalent of jingling keys at you. Look! Shiny!

Anyway, hi :)

I meant to write a nice long letter with photos about my recent and very successful Linux computing class I taught for the regional technology teachers, but ran out of face time with the comp to do it.

I might be leaving for site tomorrow, so I couldn't let the fast internet go totally unused for the blog, so I figured out how to upload video.

Here, friends, is a sample of Georgian national dance: I really can't describe it in any way other than "flatly cool". I shot this a year ago during our orientation to Georgia, in an old Soviet resort compound in Tabakhmela, outside of Tbilisi.

Those of you accessing this via Facebook will probably have to click through to get to the embedded video.

Enjoy, 'til I get back to you!


Saturday, June 14, 2008

My host grandmother, the agronomist

After reading Why Credit Cards are Getting Away With It
and The Cure for America's Chronic Recession
off Robert Reich's blog and this week's This American Life on the topic of the mortgage/credit crisis, I made an awkward effort to explain my "tsk tsks" and the general situation to The Sultan (my host grandmother). Turns out the woman is a pragmatist. NOW IS THE TIME FOR ACTION, she indicated.

My mother (that is, American mother) is in China, on an educator exchange program through her district, until the 20th. My host grandmother said, "Does your mother have access to email? Quick, write her before it's too late. Tell her to bring back with her four to five sacks of black Chinese soil, and I'll match it with four to five of our good Javakheti soil. You'll have 10 sacks, and can plant your own potatoes. Ekonomika mekonomika, retsessiya metsessiya (Armenian for economics schmeconomics, recession schmecession), the rest can starve. You'll be fine." She laughed loudly, and said "Your mother will think my 'chauffer has left the car' [gone crazy]. SEND IT!"

That's that: I think we're opening a subsistence potato operation in Tucson.


Thursday, June 12, 2008

Marshrutkas could haul a rocket and host grandmothers are great things to have

I just got back into Ninotsminda last night very late (the first time I've been on the road after dark, and I've gotta say... Georgia is DARK at night) last night, in a marshrutka carrying me, the driver, a commercial convenience store style refrigerator, and hauling another broken marsh in tow behind us through Javakheti's mountain range gave me lots of time to just zone out and think.

I've been out here for just about a year, and I don't even know what poignant thing to say about that, other than that I have. I'm surprised at how long it's been and how short it's felt, as well as how short it's been and how long it's felt. Mostly it just doesn't feel foreign or disconcerting here anymore, but that's part of the adventure.

The new volunteers are coming, and we're about to become the "veterans" in country. It really does seem like forever ago that I arrived here.

I'm not going to try and force an article in here that would sound forcibly self-righteous and overly philosophical. That said, I'll just upload a picture of my host grandmother I've been meaning to post for a while. This is right after she and I did some digging in the garden for more potatos. I think it's easy to say Tatik Manya "The Sultan" Zalalyan and I are the closest. I love this woman. I'd been going through some host family issues lately, and through it all, she'd been there for me without a budge. She still tells me she'll "break my fingers" if I don't make my bed, but I promise you it's endearing.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

Barf means snow

I remember a class I took a long time ago it seems (but not really) my sophomore year in college – this intro class to international business. We of course hit on the entertaining topic of internationally marketing a product – that there is a critical need to do your homework with regard to possible misunderstandings in naming or advertising your product in languages with which you might not be completely familiar.

The professor brought up a few examples: In the Spanish speaking world, when Chevrolet brought its new Nova car to a Spanish-speaking country – Mexico, if I remember correctly, it hit on a nice little embarrassment – I'm taking her word for this, as I know about as much Spanish as I overheard passively while living in Tucson - "no va" means something like "doesn't go." Bic advertised a click pen, saying it won't leak in your pocket and embarrass you, unfortunately using the Spanish verb closest to "embarrass," which has less to do in Spanish with feeling sheepish as it does with being impregnated. Zipping over to Germany, some kind of multinational cosmetic company introduced a hair curler or straightener or something (what do you folks do with something like this?) called a "Mist-stick" with the unfortunate downside of such a product being linguistically associated with, well, poop.

Making the same leap as I did in my final leg of the journey to where I am writing this, Germany to Georgia, I bring you Barf. This wonderful Iranian product is the local "Tide with colorsafe bleach," it cleans my clothing in the washer with the utmost of effectiveness, leaving all my absolutely gross reworn clothing (remember, I also only take a bath, if lucky, weekly) as spic-n-span as detergently possible every Sunday.

But Barf, as we all bemusedly know, should not be introduced to already soiled clothing. Seems like a frying pan to the fire kind of deal.

This would have been an endearing marketing misfortune, but it seems the folks in Tehran are on to us. On a bottle of their Windex-equivalent line, I recently noticed an addition. Written in the tiniest of letters, right under the product name, an almost legalistically fine-print bailout: "Barf means snow."

Needless to say, I appreciate this attention to customer concerns. On a side note, I've gotta say, it's in my head-trip column along with a long list of other things that my detergent is exported from the "Axis of Evil."

Happy summer!


Tuesday, May 6, 2008

It’s not teaching kids by the riverside in Teva sandals, but…

… I just had one of those "Peace Corps Moments™." And it, silly as it sounds, it made my day.

A long time ago I asked my mother to ship me a pair of boots, as the snow was clearly getting the upper hand on my poor New Balances I stupidly thought would do the trick. Well, she bought me this wonderful pair of boots that I eagerly opened at the Peace Corps office in Tbilisi, only to discover … two lefties. Something went tragically wrong in the actual boot selection process.

I'd let them sit for months in the office up north unused until my host father mentioned an idea, that he knew someone who'd lost his right foot, in an accident, the 1980s Afghanistan war (this was the USSR's Vietnam, essentially), something. Point is, he could use them. So the next time I went to Tbilisi I brought the boots back with me to Ninotsminda and gave them to this man, decked out in fatigues and crutches, now running a tiny produce market. He was incredibly, incredibly thankful—the boots were of far better quality than anything you can find in these parts, and he'll get to use them for twice as long… once one wears out, he's got another lefty waiting for him. These'll likely go for a good five years on him. He thanked me graciously, and I jokingly responded "ничего... это подарок от американского народа" ("it's a gift from the American people," like the signs on all the well-known USAID-completed things that have been done here (including a park and an open air market). We laughed, shook hands, that was that.

This was several months ago, and today I was passing by his produce shop, and he shouted out at me "Ryder you're totally not allowed to pass by me, come in and say hi!" I was greeted with a warm handshake and a heaping bag of fresh fruit. The value of such a thing cannot be underscored enough—for one, fruit is an incredibly rare part of my diet, as nothing grows here but potatos and garlic so it all has to be shipped from the really fertile parts of the country up north. And thusly, this bag was probably a good ten lari… seven dollars worth of food… several bananas, apples, oranges and even two pomegranates for good measure. Ten lari worth of fresh fruit inventory at the start of the season is a hell of a gift back. As I walked off, I peeled open the first banana I've had in probably a good seven months, and couldn't help but smile like it was going out of style.

Sounds hokey, but I think it's as important to note the good stuff like this as it is to say OH MY GOD I DON'T GET ANY SLEEP IT'S SO COLD I WANT A HAMBURGER RA, so forgive the snippet, but I'm having a great day today, because a one-legged veteran is making use of a stupid mistake a Tucson hiking gear store's manager made in my shipment. As is hung in my mom's kitchen back home, "when life gives you patches, make quilts…"

Ryderito for some, Rodya for others, Radik for yet others, Rubik for the next group, and Muttonpockets to a few of the PCVs (long story).

Sunday, May 4, 2008


I’m killing some time at my internet hookup here in Ninotsminda, after all ten of my kids stood me up for the inaugural RYDER DAVID COBEAN EXTRACURRICULAR ENGLISH ACTIVITY CLUB EXTRAVAGANZAFEST meeting, hopefully they’ll have a good reason for having done so, or I’ll bewitch them all with the evil eye (a phrase I have somehow managed to learn in Armenian).

I’ve been really busy with a bunch of projects, some going well, some… well, bumpy starts, or just a very rocky path toward getting them done. My mother recently reminded me of a quote I had written on my monitor back home, “I love deadlines, especially the sound they make as they whoosh by.” In the next few weeks I’m trying to get a pen pal book of letters, photos, and articles about Ninotsminda, Javakheti and Georgia off to my mom’s students in Tucson, start an English club so it gels by the end of school (I want to keep my kids and myself busy in the summer break, so none of us forget our English), I’m trying to get a book donation finished with my mom’s school, mine, and the necessary OK stamps in Washington, and I’ve got this Linux class I’m trying to plan out that I’m going to teach to school officials in the region, in all of two weeks. Add planning lessons, something I’m trying to do better at lately, and finding girls to successfully apply to this leadership camp in Bakuriani this summer, and well I’m not sleeping too much these days. PS Thanks so much to Michelle and Shara for your advice and help on my attempt at this English classroom… Despite my efforts, there’s just not enough energy in the community to support this at the time, so I’m baby stepping it (trying for the meantime to just commandeer a room for next year, and we’ll go from there with little things I can find locally to spruce it up).

I’m loving the incoming spring… it’s like winter has been waging a war since October with the warmth, and slowly but surely spring is gaining ground here. Every few days a cold snap will come through, but the freeze has lost his soldiers and is on the retreat… I haven’t seen snowfall since mid April. The warmth has meant that water is again flowing, and I couldn’t be happier. With the lack of handwashing I’d been getting sick about once every three weeks here, and it was getting me pretty depressed. Green vegetables are making a slow comeback into my diet, so even on that front things are getting pretty rad.

Most importantly, I’ve been able to sit outside with a cup of coffee in the morning now. I broke down in February and bought an electric grinder and a French press, and I’ve found the one store to buy milk at in Nino, so I’ve been having the best cups of Dunkin Donuts coffee since my 4am DD/IHOP outings a year ago with Goldy, Amjad and Lila. The taste is wonderful, though I wish I could find those three on the shelf at the Tbilisi supermarket.

A year has almost completed and honestly, I’m pretty shocked at how time flies. A year ago I was panicing over final details, trying to close up shop in Tucson, and now I find myself almost on the trailing end of my service, and trust me we all feel like we blinked to this point here. I’m going to do my best to not worry too much about the “what’s next,” as I’ve been proven time and time again lately that this life business has a way of unfolding pretty much on its own, and I’ll figure out the details as they come. Still, I’m going to start studying for the GREs soon, just in case… eek.

I really can’t wait for the summer here though. I want to take time to crack down into my Russian, Georgian and Armenian, enjoy waking up a bit later, and just having free time to work when I need to on what I need to without daily lesson planning. Not to mention R&R. Some of us are going to embark on the grand all-Georgia tour to be known as Villapalooza 08, so look forward to some snippets from visiting other volunteers’ outhouses :-) That, and my greyhound style “adventure” to see the coolest Spanish speaker on the planet since Tito Puentes, but with a hell of a cuter smile.

I don’t know what else I’ve got right now! I should probably just upload some pics from winter and spring; life goes on marvelously, frustratingly, but altogether well. Note: Apparently shouting RA GINDA DZAGHLO (WHAT DO YOU WANT DOG) at street dogs in Tbilisi turns them soft and placid. I witnessed a man birja squatting (I’ll have to upload a graphic to explain this phenomenon) with sunflower seeds avert a shepherd attack with those three words. I must not have the touch, I carry a zapper thing for a mean little gremlin on my street not bigger than a schnauzer…

Later bavshvebo

Monday, March 17, 2008

Sanguine Muck

Բարև, folks
Been a while, huh?

I want to let y’all know that I’m alive out here, though I definitely hit that point where writing constantly became … unsustainable? Nah, I’m just a lazy jerk. I’m still going strong out here, though the winter has taken its physical and psychological toll on me (and everyone). My carb-only diet would make Atkins shudder.

As I write this we’re getting ANOTHER blizzard coming our way. Sideways cornflake size snowflakes falling… sideways, visibility about 10m. I thought I had survived my first Georgian winter, and despite all the warnings and reminders from locals, really wanted to believe spring had finally taken root about two weeks ago. I had been out of my site, Ninotsminda, in the capital of Tbilisi for like 11 days—the longest I’d been away from Ninotsminda. More on the Tbilisi work week of heaven and hell later, but while I was gone, spring made an early teaser showing, apparently, while I was gone. Tbilisi is always relatively warm—the name comes from the Georgian word for warm, tbili, after all—and I got my first moment in 2008 of wearing sandals outside and having to yank off my jacket (done with the hugest smile on my face, mind you), but upon my return to Ninotsminda, the storks common to Armenia and this part of Georgia had returned to their huge nests on the non-functioning streetlamps near my house. The mountains were showing more brown than white—they’ve been covered from base to summit since November—and the dirt road, permafrozen and snow-covered since about the same time, was a disgusting, but sanguine river of snowmelt muck. I really, really thought that was it. I wanted to believe! Two days later, whiteout.

As I moaned in my laryngitis-ridden remnant of a voice (I’ve been getting sick here like I’m getting paid for it), my coworkers at the school all laughed and told me we’ve got a few more months of this ambiguous “what the hell season is this” junk. Snow has occasionally been known to fall here in June on a bad year. There’s a reason the locals call Javakhq, this region of the country, Sibir’ Gruzii—“the Siberia of Georgia.”

This all has other consequences: water has been a problem in Nino this year. The town laid new pipes in October, and the digging left the ground porous enough to let the cold down to freeze the pipes, leaving Ghojabek, my part of town, cut off from the mains, and the backup reservoir has been long since drained. So our water has been coming by daily runs to fill up barrels from a nearby-ish communal spigot, hauled back by sled. We’ve basically been without running water since the start of February, which has limited bathing (once every two weeks, by bucket), shaving (why bother), handwashing (thank God for Target brand hand sanitizer), or use of the flush toilet (I squat in a shack with a hole outside. Nothing says “toughest job you’ll ever love” like dropping your pants outside in 10-below Celsius weather).

Still, every other day we get a warm spell, and hit the plusses into the evening, which is a wonderful feeling. I’ve started being able to teach without a jacket at school, which is heaven for my Tucson-inbred tendency to strip off as much clothing as possible at the faintest ghost of warmth. I’ve stripped down (indoors, mind you) to a polo shirt and jeans on the occasional relatively warm day, and get scandalous looks from colleagues convinced that I wish to die of hypothermia, still bundled in Eskimo coats. Though I’m not looking forward to several months of trudging through the muck as the snow finally melts for good, I’m really looking forward to stowing my now gross and worn to death jacket, and even eventually wearing shorts.

Like I said, I was up in Tbilisi forever a few weeks ago, and while it cost an arm and a leg on my volunteer allowance, it was full of so much productivity; I returned feeling a sense of accomplishment I’d been waiting for since starting this gig in June. Finally involved in work beyond just teaching, I’ve gotten myself involved in a number of projects for my community I’m going to be really proud of when they get off the ground. The main reason I ended up there was for an in-service training with my partner teacher (“counterpart,” in Peace Corps jargon) focused around improving our team teaching methodology, better familiarizing the counterparts with the Peace Corps mission and the Ministry of Education’s larger goal of methodology reform, and, to generally inspire them to work with us on those reforms. We’re all working through a lot of Soviet past in the Georgian education system—top-down authoritarianism, language-learning-as-translation, insufficient supplies of, all the same, old textbooks, not to mention the challenges of working in relatively neglected periphery areas (some of us are in villages of less than 400 people, thank God I’m not, though we have our own challenges in an ethnic minority region).

I have been really lucky to have one of the best counterparts Georgia has to offer among those I’ve seen. It may sound strange, but many of the other Georgian teachers required simultaneous interpretation into Georgian at this conference, as English skills among teachers vary in the regions, but my partner, an Armenian not at all proficient in Georgian, held her own with remarkable strength in English the whole time. I’m really blessed on this end; my Russian and her English have given us a remarkable working relationship on the simple level that very little gets lost between the two of us in communication. That helped us build a kind of camaraderie by now that has meant that we’re open about frustrations and successes on a level that I think is rare here. I think getting out of the everyday patterns of work gave us a new freedom to talk about what she really thinks we need to do at the school, and in tangible terms, resulted in two new project plans Armine and I hope to accomplish, both initiated by her—the REAL goal of all this. We hope to replace our aging and hard to find textbooks with some supplementary materials, something I think critical to the lessons, and far more bold—develop a modern, western style, students-come-to-us language classroom, with A/V equipment, student centered group seating, a mini library, and most importantly, our own space to blanket with visual aids and language materials, a little slice of an English speaking country in the middle of a small town on the borders of Armenia and Turkey. It will take a lot of work to find funding for, but it’s very doable. The main thing is to get it done with significant local contribution, at least at the in-kind level. But it will reap immeasurable benefits on students’ ability to learn here, and serve as an example of how to create an environment conducive to language learning here. My sustainable development spider sense is tingling...

I also had meetings up in Tbilisi for a project I’m completely stoked about here. I’m officially the first man on the “leadership” of Camp GLOW: Girls Leading Our World. GLOW is a Peace Corps initiative; a girls’ summer camp led and organized by Georgians with PCVs’ assistance and advice to encourage girls to take a more active and prominent role as part of Georgia’s next generation of businesspeople, politicians, local leaders, and so on. Especially from the regions, where traditional gender roles really have limited their access to prominent positions in all fields in the country, girls will—along with Georgia, really benefit from greater participation in society.

The camp offers a number of programs, from women in the media, debate, public speaking, confidence building, guest speakers, and the usual fun camp trappings, all led by female role models. It’s an incredible and incredibly popular program in the five or so years it’s been going on, but hasn’t made it into the ethnic minority areas at all—which is where I kind of came in. I somewhat snapped over the winter after getting laughed at for washing dishes—women’s work—and decided to put my frustration into action. A few conversations with friends on the GLOW board, and before we knew it I ended up joining them in planning a short pilot camp in Ninotsminda we’re hoping to run this summer. This is going to take significant work—basically rewriting the curriculum to be appropriate for a non-Georgian speaking community, finding new funding, promoting it from zero in a town that’s never heard of it, building it from the ground up, basically. (I could go on tooting my horn, AREN’T I SO GREAT AND PROFESSIONAL??? HOW’M I DOIN’? HOW’M I DOIN’?) I guess I’ve been wearing it on my face and this letter that I’m so excited about it. My good friends and GLOW folks Katie and Jess kind of form the triumvirate on what we’ve dubbed “MiGlow” (minority GLOW), and I even get the little feather in my cap of “Minority Affairs Chair.” I’m getting a little self-conscious about how much hot air I’m blowing , but I’ve been dying for big-kid work. I’ve spent the past 6 months essentially teaching and hearing “Mister Kobin, do you like a pants? I like a cheese.”

In personal news, while in Tbilisi, I got the chance of crashing at an expat family’s house—a hell of a plush experience. The first time I’d seen a microwave in 9 months, I ate the most delicious bowl of grape nuts ever, and using Tide brand (not Barf brand, yes, Barf) detergent, I washed a whole hiker’s pack of dirty laundry, and wore delightfully dryer-shrunken-to-original-size jeans for the first time since June. Life was glorious.

I’m not sure if you all got wind back then, but I took a great trip with two of my close friends here, Kelly and the same Jess of GLOW renown, to Armenia’s capital, Yerevan back in January. While it was cold as saruits (ice), it was amazing. Yerevan is up in my list of favorite cities ever, stateside or abroad. While it lacks some of the living history feel of Tbilisi, it makes up for in an almost European (but not quite, which adds to it all) cosmopolitan feeling. I guess put short, Armenia’s diaspora has really helped it out. A foreigner doesn’t quite feel so much like a freak to be gawked at there, and there are offerings from other corners of the world in cuisine, music, and art, that don’t seem to be understood through distorted goggles (example: Pizza, Georgian style, is an inedible contraption in many restaurants that involves mayonnaise). Well, while in Yerevan I managed to not spend much more than $150 over four days as a tourist, yet I saw amazing live Jazz, ate the best pasta I’ve had in many, many years, regardless of geography, along with seeing a Sunday service at Etchmiadzin, the “Vatican” of the Gregorian Christian Church, touring the Armenian genocide monument, a modern art museum, a gorgeous piece of public architecture called The Cascade (a giant staircase up a long incline lined with fountains), eating remarkable Persian food, (real Persian food… Armenia borders Iran) and toured fascinating stone architecture all throughout the city. Along with this, I had my own nice benefit of seeing the center of culture of the ethnic group I locally serve in Georgia, and hearing and speaking the high-falootin’ city dialect of the language I’m learning, and the one I’ve learned as I’ve begun to forget Georgian at site.

Being surrounded by so much Armenian with the diversity of conversations of a city was awesome, it did for my spoken Armenian what weeks of tutoring might have over just a few days. Speaking in restaurants, transportation, stores, etc, etc. There’s only so many different conversations you can have in a very small town, so it’s hard to stretch the dialogue. So using Armenian in a capital really helped. But really the place is awesome. I’m definitely going to go back. Next up this summer, hopefully, is a bus trip to Istanbul (like a day and a half of driving by bus from Georgia’s black sea port, Batumi… masochistic in the extreme).

Reading: Reading Lolita in Tehran by Azar Nafisi and a December ’07 issue of Rolling Stone (thanks to my Country Director for that contribution)