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)