Thursday, June 28, 2007

I Swear I Still Like You. Some of You. Or: OK, That Was A Lie

Hey no new journal post but I wanted to mention that I've only been getting online during my half-hour break in the mornings (since there's wireless internet at the place where we have language class), and I can't do much in half an hour. So if I reply to someone's Facebook message or IM someone or e-mail someone but not everyone, I am very very very very sorry. Usually I'm mid-message when I start getting glared at by my teacher and I have to shut my computer off. I might start going to the internet cafe after our afternoon classes, but we're usually really tired by that point and everyone always wants to go to a bar (I will need to post about yesterday, when we started getting plied with vodka and beer and cherries by strange but gregarious Georgian men at a only supra-esque experience since I've been here)(a supra is a Georgian feast with copious alcohol and dozens of toasts, if I haven't mentioned that yet). But I want to be in better contact with most of you; I sent some texts but I don't think all of them went through.

My break is over so I have to wrap even this tiny post up. Keep on keepin' on, over there.

Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Even Americans Are Now Fascinated By Bearinacage

I don't have a new journal entry, but I wanted to respond to Tahnee's comment about Bearinacage in my last post. I will definitely try to find out more, but I don't have the language skillz to figure out whether my host mom is asking if I want something from the store vs. asking if I want to come with her TO the store, so I highly doubt I could ever say anything like, "Excuse me, could you please discuss bearinacage? Specifically, why Bearinacage is, in fact, inacage and not, perhaps, inazoo? You know that Bearinacage poopsinthecage, right? And that Bearinacage is really Bearinanunsanitarycage? Or Bearinadepressingcage?"

UPDATE: I have asked a current Peace Corps volunteer who works where I have language class about Bearinacage. Apparently there are bears in the wild somewhere around the city, and the people often capture them and keep them in such cages. There is also, apparently, a zoo in Tbilisi that is just as bad to its animals. I doubt the concept of "animal rights" has much traction here. Kids feed Bearinacage sunflower seeds and cigarette butts. I believe one child got his hand bitten off by Bearinacage once.

To sum up: Bearinacage is an endless, and endlessly depressing, enigma. Fin.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Peace Corps Post #4: Bonding With the Host Brother. Or: Seriously, It Would Be Nice if Someone Offered Me Alcohol At Some Point

Kitri da pamadori. I totally remember “cucumber and tomato.” I also remember several of the other words I was given. Great Success! Except, of course, many many many many many many many new words were given to me today. And I don’t remember very many of them. So it goes.

Today was the first day that I felt like I was actually communicating with my host family. I’m not stringing together stream-of-thought sentences quite yet, but I’m thinking them mere seconds after I actually need to use them, so I can reassure myself that soon I will be able to have an actual conversation in Georgian. I think I’m on the verge of getting everything to click. But I may end up being “on the verge” for weeks or months. Who knows. In any case, I’m pleased with how today went.

After language class this morning (we have four hours of language class even on Saturdays), a few of the small trainee clusters (we have our classes in groups of six called clusters) who are living in Gori met up at the Stalin Museum at the center of town. As I have mentioned previously, Gori is very proud that Stalin was born there. There are Stalin statues all over the city. My language class is held in a building on Stalini Kocha (Stalin Street). The street is next to Stalini Parki, at one end of which lies the Stalin Museum and the preserved house where Stalin spent his first few years. It’s a neat educational experience for the whole family, and if you think I’m going to make any jokes about it whatsoever on a blog that might end up being monitored by a Peace Corps staffer in Washington, you are out of your mind.

Anyway, after the museum we went to the tourist hotel nearby (although I don’t really know how many actual tourists come to Gori) to look for a bar. It was only otkhi saatia (4 o’clock), but we’re not allowed to be out after 7pm unless we’re with our host families. It’s a weird juxtaposition – drinking beer in a bar in the middle of the afternoon, and then leaving pretty early so your mom won’t get mad at you – but we adapted to it. The two patrons of the small bar seemed pretty surprised to see 12 Americans tiptoe in, looking for beer, but we quickly found that, yes, we could order beer, and that it was 1 lari (about 72 cents). We also discovered that there was a pretty decent beer garden-type setup outside the back of the bar, so we hung out there and told stories about our living situations and such. It was the first really relaxing moment for most of us since we’d gotten to Gori. We made plans to hike to an old castle on a hilltop near the city tomorrow.

I got home from the bar and found my host brother and host sister-in-law sitting in the kitchen eating sunflower seeds. I joined them, because I have been a bit too overwhelmed and tired (not to mention unable to communicate at all) until this point to engage in much social interaction. So we sat there for a while, saying bits of sentences to each other. I then successfully achieved three things that have been terrifying me since I got here: I gave my host mother the money her family is to receive each two weeks from the Peace Corps without turning it into a big scene (I was afraid it would be really awkward to hand her money), I gave her some of my dirty clothes to be laundered while making it clear that I’d rather be doing it myself (I really wouldn’t rather do it myself, but I wanted to make an effort to look like I did, because I knew either way that she would use physical force on me if she felt it necessary in order to keep me from doing my own chores), and, most triumphantly, I bathed.

Now, this may not seem like a big deal to you Amerikeli, with your showers and your hot water and your reliable plumbing and your soap and your macaroni salad. But my bathroom consists of a tub, a faucet that doesn’t have a setting above “trickle,” and several buckets. I had no idea what deda would decide to do if I asked to bathe. Surprisingly and thankfully, it went fine; I asked, she filled a large bucket with room-temperature water that she stores in bottles out on the porch, and then she added to it with hot water from the hotplate to make a pleasingly temperate mixture. And it ended up not being as difficult or humbling as I thought it would be to stand in a bathtub and pour water from a bucket on myself with a tiny pitcher. It was still one of those “your new life is completely ridiculous” moments, though.

After my bucket bath, my host brother took me on a walk through the city with a friend of his. I felt really self-conscious about it, because I was wearing my “house clothes” – shorts, flip flops, and a t-shirt – which consist of things that we’re told Georgians don’t wear, tending as they do towards more formal clothing. This message has been drilled into us enough that I felt basically naked as I walked along outside in shorts and sandals (I had gestured that I was going to change before we went out but was rebuffed), and I was sure everyone was staring at me because of it. We walked along the streets, chewing sunflower seeds, and talking a little – mostly pointing at things and saying the words for them. It was quite pleasant. We were bonding without having to say much. We saw many of the important buildings in the city, as well as a park that has a lot of carnival rides and small food vendors, not to mention – swear to god – a baby bear in a cage. Don’t ask my why Gori has bearinacage. I don’t have the language skills to ask about bearinacage. Bearinacage just exists, mannnn. My host brother even bought me an ice cream as the inspirational orchestra in my mind played a heartwarming strings piece. Then we walked back to the house as my host brother and his friend fought wordlessly for the coveted position of walking next to me (this American-in-a-foreign-land-making-a-concerted-effort-to-learn-their-obscure-language gig can have some ego-inflating side effects), and I hung out with a group of people, trying to absorb what they were saying, until I got tired and came up to my room, followed swiftly by deda carrying an enormous plate of cookies that I don’t want but which are sitting on my nightstand anyway.

So ends another day in Gori. I wish I had the time and the energy to craft these entries into pieces of literature, or at least to pepper them with more jokes, but it’s hard enough staying awake just to write everything down in the first place. You should, if everything goes according to plan, finally be able to read these on Monday. I will still not have been in the Peace Corps for even two weeks. I think I’m going to be 47 years old when this is over. I should write a new theory of relativity.

Peace Corps Post #3: Getting Used to Gori. Or: I Can Understand Your Gestures! Great Success!

Today was better than yesterday. That’s the first thing that should be said about it. It didn’t start out better – I woke up, frankly, in abject terror of my inability to communicate and my fading sense of the helpfulness of my presence in this country – but it has ended pretty well. And, I suppose, that is as much as I can possibly hope for – that each day is better and easier than the last, and that I eventually find myself comfortable in this country. I remain terrified of asking to wash my clothes and to bathe, because the water in my host house, as far as I can tell, is currently no more than a slight trickle, and I have no idea what my host mother’s idea of me washing myself might consist of (I’m sure not bathing sounds disgusting to you Ameriklebi, but we have been told by current Peace Corps volunteers that they bathe every few days in the summer and as little as once a week in the winter). But I am abjectly terrified of fewer things than last night. So progress is being made. We’re even communicating sliiiightly easier, though the proper analogy might be taking ten steps up Mt. Everest.

My host mother’s house is not quite a house, in the American sense of the word, so much as a flat or an apartment. People seem to hang out on the first floor, but it’s sort of like an unfinished basement, and doesn’t have many house trappings. The second floor is where the normal rooms of the house are. There’s a modest kitchen, a modest dining room, a living room, a bathroom, and a couple of bedrooms. But, according to Peace Corps host family policy, each volunteer has to be given by his host family a room with a door that closes and locks (this is a foreign desire to Georgians, but they are apparently briefed on Americans’ fondness for space and privacy, not to mention the fact that most of us are carrying expensive electronics that we’d prefer not get stolen by someone in the neighborhood). There is no door for my room – only a curtain. The lockable door is between the dining room and the living room, which is attached to my room. This means that, to close “my” door, I am keeping my entire host family out of not only ONE room but TWO rooms, out of five total upstairs rooms. I feel very bad about this, but they seem to be accepting it perfectly well. My deda (“mother” in Georgian, but I think I’ll use it to mean “host mother,” since it’s shorter) has started to close the door when I gesture that I’m tired or that I need to study. I still feel really bad about it, but at least they don’t really seem to use the living room much. It doesn’t have a TV in it or anything. Pffffff. TV. You Ameriklebi.

In thankful contrast to my current mental state, I woke up this morning terrified of pretty much everything. I am sure that I should have completely accepted the fact that I was not going to be able to understand much of anything for a while, even though we’re studying the language so much, but when it actually happens it makes you feel so helpless. I was frustrated at my inability to transfer ANYTHING from my language classes into a coherent sentence. So this morning I woke up dreading an entire day of the same. Deda walked me to my 9am language class through the streets of the town – I felt like a six year old on the first day of first grade – and we didn’t try to talk much. Language class was difficult (we have four hours of it a day, six days a week from now on), but I think today I pinpointed exactly what is difficult for me. I’ve been breezing through the matching-written-words sorts of exercises, and getting envious stares from my classmates, but it was almost more frustrating because it didn’t help at my host house, and I didn’t know why. But I realized today that, while I can easily understand everything when it’s written, it’s much harder for me when it’s spoken or when I have to speak spontaneously. I have no experience with spoken foreign language – I took Latin in high school. Hopefully I will adapt more quickly now that I’ve pinpointed what I need to work on.

Our language class is at the NGO office of a current volunteer named Mark, which is cool because it allows us to ask him questions and see what his life is like, and also because there is free internet access there. I got about three minutes of wireless access on my laptop during a break, and thankfully it wasn’t too late in the states and Chris was on AIM. It was awesome, and not a little bit weird, to actually get to converse with someone from home who isn’t my mom. It was the first time since I’d left. I wanted to ask him what I’ve missed since I’ve been gone, but I realized that most likely nothing interesting has happened. I’ve been gone less time than I might have been gone had I just gone on a vacation. It just seems like it’s been years. But I was really happy either way that I was able to talk to someone. After class, we headed to an internet café in town; there was available internet at the office, but probably not for everyone at once, and we also wanted an excuse to walk through the city. We found the internet café and spent two hours there. It was distinctly weird to be using the internet again. It felt foreign. It felt American. It felt like something I’d left behind. I realized that I was thinking about it that way, and it scared me a bit. When we went to a reception at the US Ambassador’s house in the capital during orientation, we met some volunteers who are nearly done with their two years of service (they’re “nearing COS” in Peace Corps-speak, with COS standing for “Close of Service”), and it was awfully frightening how far they’d left America behind. One of the girls I spoke to forgot how to say a Georgian word in English while we were speaking. “Sorry, I forget English sometimes,” she said. “WHAT?????” I said. But only in my mind. That’s what I was reminded of when I was in the internet café, realizing that I have lost a bit of my desire to spend hours surfing the web, and I’ve been gone mere days. I was bored in just over an hour, after checking my e-mail, Facebook,,, and, and posting something short on my blog. When I was working in LA, I’d spend basically the entire DAY on the internet. What’s happening to me?

After my friends and I wandered around Stalin Park for a while (Stalin was born in Gori and the citizens are very proud of it – there’s a Stalin Street, a Stalin Park, a huge Stalin statue, and a Stalin Museum built around his boyhood home), I successfully purchased a large bottle of water at a maghazia (shop) after whipping out “tsk’ali” (“water,” although I should have practiced my sentences and said, “sad aris tsk’ali,” “where is water,” or, “me minda tsk’ali,” “I want water”), “didi” (“big,” after I was initially shown a smaller bottle than I wanted), and “ra ghirs?” (“how much?”). I felt pretty proud of myself. Then I felt less proud of myself when I forgot what my house looked like and stumbled upon it by sheer luck. I’ve spent the evening studying, trying to learn words as deda points them out (and trying to convey that I’m not retarded when I invariably forget them instantly), and avoiding being fed with much more success than last night.

As I briefly alluded to at the end of the last entry, this is more difficult than it may seem. One way Georgians show their hospitality is by feeding their guests. Probably the most common thing said by a deda or a bebia (grandmother) to a guest is, “tchame, tchame,” which means, “eat more, eat more.” They say this over and over while they shove bucketfuls of food at you. The food is great, but there’s so much of it. Last night deda asked if I wanted any chai (tea) before bed, and I said sure. I’d eaten maybe an hour before this. She beckoned me out to the table a few minutes later, where I saw enough food for an entire new meal. And only one place setting. She then spent the fifteen minutes or so it took for my dzalian tskheli chai (very hot tea) to cool off by buttering a piece of bread for me, putting karTopili (potatoes) on my plate, and demanding that I eat it. I stammered that I didn’t want any more (“meti ar minda, meti ar minda”), but it took several attempts for this to work. She does, however, seem to be requiring less persuasion that I’m full with each passing meal, although she apparently told a semi-speaker of English who was over this evening that she is “very sad for him because he eats so little.” At this point, when I don’t want to eat any more, I just start saying, “daghlili var,” which means, “I’m tired,” because it causes deda to become much more concerned with getting me to bed than she is about getting me to eat. Such is life here on Ninoshvili Street in Gori.

Hopefully tomorrow I will remember the phrase for “cucumber and tomato” (kitri da pamadori), so when I am quizzed on it with people watching I won’t be made to feel like a retard.

Peace Corps Post #2: Orientation in Tabakhmela and Meeting Our Host Families. Or: Please, Please, Please, Please Don't Give Me Any More Food

First things first – I got the name of the village wrong in my last entry. It was called Tabakhmela, not Tamakhela. I say was instead of is (although its name remains Tabakhmela unless they’ve decided to change it within the last five hours) because I am writing the entry you are reading from a new location – from a town called Gori (one of the larger towns/cities in Georgia, but I believe it still has only 50 or 60,000 residents), in the bedroom of my new temporary host family’s house. I know I should have been writing down what happened during the week of Orientation as it was going on, but this whole week, when I’ve had free time, I’ve only wanted to sleep or socialize with my Trainee group. I really want to sleep now, too, but I know that I shouldn’t, so I am going to try to record some thoughts, even though to adequately describe today would be absolutely impossible (if you are perceptive you are sensing a pattern – thoughts on this later). I could sing, and I have sung, the same song about the entire week and a half of my Peace Corps experience, but I’m going to say it again and it holds just as true today as any other time I’ve said it up until now – this has, without a doubt, been the weirdest day of my life. The most difficult, too, in many ways, though the difficulty has been mental rather than physical or emotional.

We spent nearly a week in Tabakhmela getting to know each other and spending all our time in Peace Corps overview classes. Our hotel compound was in a small village and we were only allowed to leave twice the entire time – once to walk a short distance to a small shop to buy soap and shampoo, and once to take a bus into Tbilisi to attend a dinner reception at the US Ambassador’s house and meet current volunteers. We were going stir crazy pretty quickly. Many of us dealt with it by telling gossip about each other the entire time. We were having a lot of fun with each other, yes, but if you put 46 mostly young people in a hotel for a week without letting them leave, things are going to happen and everyone is going to find out about them. I was doing more gossiping than a twelve year old schoolgirl. I suppose I can only hope that, for karma reasons, just as much gossip was being spread about me. I can tell more stories about Tabakhmela later, hopefully, when I have the time. My apologies, also, for the abrupt ending of my last post; I left it unfinished intending to return to it, and it never happened.

Anyway, Tabakhmela seemed crucially important while it was happening, but, looking back on it, the difference between adjusting to and living in Tabakhmela and adjusting to my new situation seems like the difference between swatting at a crumpled piece of paper with a stick and playing for the New York Yankees. Everyone in Tabakhmela except the cooks – from, obviously, the other members of the group, to the instructors, to the Peace Corps staff – spoke English. My Georgian was being practiced in the laboratory of the classroom. I could control the things I needed to control. But that changed this afternoon. We drove out to Gori and met our host families, and from that moment until now I have been more frustrated than I’ve ever been in my life. It’s not necessarily a bad frustration – that is, it’s understandable and not the result of anyone doing anything wrong – but it’s a frustration. I am able to communicate with my host family in only the most rudimentary of ways. I understand, in a good sentence, one in ten words my host mother says to me. Most of my evening tonight was spent simply staring at her, trying to look understanding, when really I had absolutely no idea what she was saying. Needless to say, my classroom ability to conjugate the Georgian word “to be” has not been as helpful as I’d hoped it would be. I’ve never been in this situation before, and I’ve never been in any situation that I could possibly compare to this situation. I have no playbook. I’m just hoping it works out.

My host family consists of a host mom, Irma, who is a retired music teacher (if I latched properly onto a word I understood – ekvsi – she’s been retired for six years) and whose husband is deceased (um, I think). She has a son, Giorgi, who is in perhaps his late 20s and who is very nice. I was under the impression that he lived here, and he was here most of the evening, but I don’t know where he went off to. There is a 2 year old, also called Irma, and some other vaguely familial persons whose names I only sort of remember and whose connection to everyone else I have completely forgotten already, if I understood it in the first place. A major hurdle for the next couple of days is deciding whether to pretend I know who everyone is or to ask again and risk looking like an idiot who can’t remember anything.

I have to go to bed. I’ve fought it as long as I can. This time, I really hope to continue the tale as soon as I am able. I hope you are looking forward to reading about The Time Dan Thought His Host Mother Was Just Serving Him Tea Before Bed And It Turned Out To Be An Entire Meal Right After He’d Already Eaten One. Because I am looking forward to writing about it.

Peace Corps Post #1: Staging and Travel to Georgia. Or: Did You Know The Liquor Is Free on Lufthansa?

“Let me check that on my Blackberry. Check on your Blackberry!”

Click click click click click. These businessmen were sitting across from me at the gate in O’Hare as I waited for my flight to Washington, DC, for the two days of pre-country Peace Corps “staging.” Apparently it was both exciting AND vital that some piece of information be retrieved by whoever could click on their Blackberry the quickest. I was just watching them, realizing, “I don’t even have a fucking cell phone anymore.” This was important because I’d told my mother at the airport in Champaign that I’d call her in Chicago to discuss some forms I was still filling out. I didn’t realize until my family had left that I couldn’t actually do that. I’d left my cellphone at home, knowing that eventually the Peace Corps provides you with one in-country, with an extended-absence voicemail message asking people to e-mail me or risk waiting two and a half years for my response. After the initial I-am-no-longer-universally-connected-to-the-world shock, I figured out that of course I could find a payphone. But I decided I didn’t want to. I wanted to test what it would feel like to keep myself disconnected. I knew the feeling would recur.

Peace Corps “staging” is a two-day event – in our case, Tuesday the 12th to Thursday the 14th (I’d say “Tuesday and Thursday of this week, but I’m writing this without an internet connection on Saturday the 16th, and I likely won’t be able to post it for at least a week. More on that later) – that was held at a hotel in Washington. It’s basically college freshman orientation all over again. Somehow you’re expected to meet 45 people and get to know them in the personal way that is required when you’ll be sharing the next two years of your life with each other, while also learning things like “The Peace Corps’ Approach to Development,” and, “We Swear You Won’t Get Tapeworms: A Medical Discussion for the Whole Family.” And, somehow, it works unbelievably well. At first, people seem worried about making the right impression, since getting off on the right foot with this group is of exceeding importance (I had an argument the night before I left with my mother about wearing my suit on the flight; she thought I should wear it so it didn’t get wrecked in my luggage, and I thought that showing up to staging in a suit would be like sticking a “Look At THIS Dork!” sign on my face). You’re dumped into a convention room with a weird icebreaking exercise, and you just start walking up to people, introducing yourself, and then forgetting their names within four steps of walking away because you’re too stressed about learning 45 names to actually learn any of them. It takes a while to loosen up after realizing that, of course, everyone else is just as wary and unprepared for this as you.

My roommate at the hotel, who I met before we all headed into the convention room to meet each other, seemed like a good guy, so I at least felt good to be starting the experience on the right foot. And everyone I started meeting seemed to have a good sense of humor – both a general sense of fun about them and a healthy dose of self-deprecation about how silly they felt. We got sat at tables in groups of six to start the staff presentations. The five others at my table, interestingly enough, included one and a half of the four married couples in our group – the Peace Corps is apparently making a big effort to recruit “50-plussers,” and there are seven in our group of 46. One of the married couples actually retired last year. In the last few days I’ve really come to appreciate the mix of experience and maturity that these people have given the rest of us, who mostly fall between 21 and 25 and, of course, don’t know shit from shit about shit.

The staging director started speaking to us once we’d had a chance to introduce ourselves to as many people as possible. I’d been feeling great about the whole experience for a couple months leading up to leaving; I thought I was really in an excellent place, mentally, to understand that I needed to just let everything happen and that it was very likely to work out well. The last few days before I left, though, I started feeling pretty sketchy about the whole thing. Reassuringly, the voice in my head that said, “You shouldn’t be doing this” was very small and easily drowned out – not often the case in the past – and I felt like I knew that I was making the right decision, but it was becoming difficult. I wanted an extra few days, or an extra week, or whatever, and the fact that I had three days, then two, then one, then two hours, was sort of getting to me. Anyone who talked to me in person or on the phone in those last couple of days can attest to that. The cell-phone issue at the very start of the day I flew to DC made me feel even more out of my element. But nothing whatsoever compared to what it was like to sit at that table, surrounded by 45 other people heading to this random country in the Caucasus that even educated Americans often have never heard of, listening to a man welcome us into the Peace Corps. I don’t remember exactly, but I think my first thought was, “Whaaaaaaaat the fuck am I doing here? Seriously. Whose idea was this? What the fuck am I doing? Why did I think that this was what I wanted to do? And what the fuck is going to happen to me?” I felt pretty lost for most of the first day’s work. We were learning about the Peace Corps’ method for bringing development to the sites we were going to, drawing symbols of each others’ aspirations and anxieties on posters, doing that sort of thing. It felt ridiculous, and weird, and like a business seminar at a Mattoon Motel 6 for much of the afternoon. But, slowly, it just started to feel better, knowing that everyone else was feeling the same way. The activities weren’t giving me a ton of confidence, but they were reassuring me a bit.

After we finished our session for the first day, we started doing the awkward mating dance that is deciding whom, among the 45 people we barely knew, we liked the best based on purely happenstance and likely incorrect first impressions, and thus who we wanted to latch onto for a dinner foray into Washington. A bunch of us latched onto a girl named Kelly who proclaimed that she knew how to get around in Washington and where to take us to eat and withdraw the money we’d been given by Peace Corps. She led us off, and we started wandering all over the place. I’m pretty sure we changed directions several times – I don’t think she didn’t know where we were, only that she didn’t know where we wanted to go. It took forever to get to the ATMs, withdraw money, set off in a new direction, and get to a place where we were vaguely sure we could find a good meal. The group started very large but splintered very soon. I was exhausted – I hadn’t slept the night before because I’d had too much to do, and I hadn’t slept on the plane because I can never sleep on planes and because the two year-old behind me was throwing markers at my head. I was getting seriously pissed at this Kelly and at everyone else who couldn’t make up their damn minds about where we wanted to stop. Finally we stopped at a burger restaurant called Timberland’s, near Dupont Circly, that Kelly said was excellent. It seemed pretty normal to me. I just wanted to eat (interestingly, Kelly has become one of my best friends here and pretended to be hurt when I allowed her to read this paragraph).

We sat down and I wasn’t saying much. I was pretty sure I’d made a decent impression on everyone in the first six hours – I’m pretty good in large group settings, especially when everyone is feeling awkward, at hamming it up and playing the clown – and I was hoping it wouldn’t look bad if I just sat in my chair and ate quietly. People were talking, and it was slightly awkward but basically fine. Then we started ordering beers, and, of course, people came out of their shells. There should have been an open bar at the staging session from the first minute of that icebreaker. I woke up a bit, and we all started joking and chatting. Two of the ten of us there had been to Eastern Europe (one to the Ukraine and one to Russia) and both spoke Russian, so we discussed how that would affect their experience in a former Soviet republic where most people can still speak Russian (we decided they were assholes for likely being able to cheat their way into communicating with locals immediately while the rest of us still had to grope at notes to say “thank you”). One girl is an Air Force brat who spent her high school years in Israel. Kelly, actually, did graduate work in Bloomington (I think at ISU), and thought I was mocking her when I started talking excitedly about central Illinois until I proved to her that I was actually from there. We ended up spending a couple hours at this restaurant, ordering more beer and having a great time. After we walked back to our hotel, we discovered most of the group relaxing at the hotel bar, so we joined them for more drinks until I was finally unable to stand any more. I went back to my hotel room, decided I didn’t have the energy to write a blog entry (this happened more than once, as you can probably tell from the absurd length of this entry), and passed out feeling terrific that we’d actually made connections with each other.

The next day was a lot more of the same – more poster-making, more introductions to people we hadn’t spoken to the day before, some group skits to demonstrate different Peace Corps policies (ours was about how you’re not supposed to go on vacation without clearing it with your Country Director and telling her exactly where you’re going – a really powerful piece of theater, I thought), a speech from the international Director of the Peace Corps, and quite a lot of whispering, “Who’s THAT? What’s his name?” among people we did know. I don’t remember where I went for lunch and who I went with, but I do remember going to California Pizza Kitchen with many of the same people – and some terrific new ones – and having another excellent time as we ordered round after round while waiting for a thunderstorm outside to end. Our bill ended up being $270. I think I had $20 in beer by myself. It’s fun spending money someone else has given you. We again ended our night at the hotel bar, and I again passed out without writing anything down.

Thursday the sessions were over – we just had to wait around all morning because the first leg of our journey, a bus to Dulles, didn’t leave until 3pm. Most of us spent it repacking our bags because we’d found ourselves breaking the airline/Peace Corps weight limit with at least one bag and hitting up the local CVS to buy the peanut butter and Oreos and other small gifts we were supposed to be bringing our Volunteer counterparts who have been in Georgia for a year. We finally got on the bus, and I was tired, but it still felt like this grand adventure that was just beginning (this feeling definitely had a finite duration – more on that later). I was really excited, and having a lot of fun with everyone in the group. I spent most of the bus ride wondering whether every Peace Corps group bonds as well as we had so quickly, or whether I had gotten ridiculously lucky in being placed with 45 people I felt really comfortable with. It would make sense that most groups bond at least similarly well – if you can’t connect with a group of other people who are joining you in a completely unpredictable event that’s essentially impossible to properly prepare for no matter how hard you try because it’s equally impossible to have any sense of what you’re getting yourself into, then you probably don’t like ANY people – but I wanted to retain the lucky feeling, so I decided that our group must be special. We enjoyed ourselves at Dulles, and we tolerated the 8-hour flight to Munich together. I was fortunate enough to get seated next to a girl I had talked to occasionally in DC, but not in any depth, so I was able to add another person in the group to my list of people I felt extremely comfortable with. I also discovered that alcohol on international carriers is free, so I partook liberally of Lufthansa’s red wine.

Our flight had left Dulles at 9pm, so we landed in Munich mid-morning the next day. We had an 11-hour layover – flights to Tbilisi, the Georgian capital, don’t likely run every 30 minutes – so we had been assigned dayrooms at a hotel where we could rest and shower and such. We assumed that the “airport hotel” we’d been assigned to was the hotel AT the airport. Ha ha ha, said the travel gods. No. Exiting the airport was confusing in itself, and somehow the group of 46 was unraveling the closer we got to the exit. I ended up getting out of the airport and walking towards the adjacent hotel accompanied by only maybe ten others from the group. I had no idea where everyone else was. We got to that hotel, which looked much too nice for Peace Corps’ budget, and discovered that our ACTUAL hotel was six kilometers away (don’t even get me started on getting used to kilometers and Celsius and the 24 hour clock and all that business) and thus reachable only by shuttle bus. We still didn’t know where most of the group was. The next hour or so was spent frantically trying to find everyone and formulate a plan for getting everyone to the other hotel as quickly as possible. I tried to help one of the older members of the group, a man named John who was a teacher in the States and seems exactly out of the Teacher Everyone Likes Because He Acts Like a Crazy 17 Year Old Catalog, keep order and inform everyone of the evolving plans, but I’m not sure if I ended up helping at all. Really, I was just trying to look impressive and take-charge-y to the other members of the group. It’s possible I just looked retarded, walking in circles quickly with a frown of let-me-handle-this concern plastered on my face.

We finally made it to the hotel and got our rooms. I took a several hour nap and then met some people for a bit of food in the lobby before we were supposed to head back to the airport. Then it started raining. REALLY hard. A small group of us gathered in the alcove of the hotel, by the doors, to try to figure out if a bus parked outside was our bus or not. I put on my stupid take-charge-so-people-will-respect-me face again and sprinted out to it in the rain. It was locked. So much for that. As soon as I ducked back into the hotel, the water started coming down in sheets ten times stronger than before. The wind started gusting. My thoughts turned to, “Cool, we’re going to get stuck in Munich. This is fun.” I was having a terrific time. Others, not so much. The wind was gusting so hard into the hotel every time someone walked in front of the door sensors that one of the gusts blew a huge painting off the wall behind where I was sitting directly onto the back of my neck. I thought even THAT was fun. Everything was just sort of adding to my mental sense of the grand adventure of it all. But we were starting to get actually worried about whether we would get to the airport and whether our flight was going to get canceled.

We got to the airport in decent time after ducking through the rain onto what turned out to be a different bus – so much for my earlier heroics. The flight ended up being delayed by a mere half-hour or so, so we sat around with more beers and talked and joked some more. I’d had four wines on the flight from DC (I think), I had three more large beers at the airport (it IS Germany), and I was obviously becoming travel-fatigued even after my afternoon nap. So I was getting a bit punchy. But so was everyone else. We finally boarded the plane. I remember thinking, “Wow, NOW this feels real.” I’d thought the same thing on the bus to Dulles and on the flight to Munich. But, sitting on the plane that would eventually touch down in Tbilisi-fucking-Georgia, I decided that my selves-of-slightly-earlier were retards – THIS was the real thing, because THIS piece of metal would be landing in the Republic of Georgia. We were surrounded by a bunch of people who seemed to be Georgian. That seemed vaguely exciting. I only conversed with one of them, and I don’t remember what we talked about except to recall that she seemed really exuberant about Tbilisi and Georgia in general. Just like EVERYONE else who has anything to say about this place. I sat next to a girl I’ve been spending a lot of time with so far – the girl who spent high school in Israel – who doesn’t enjoy flying, and I spent my time on the flight dividing my attention between trying to figure out how to comfort her without seeming patronizing and trying to figure out just how many glasses of wine I was going to end up drinking (hint: it turned out to be four, making the total for the day eight glasses of wine and three very large beers).

We touched down in Tbilisi at around 4am, local time. We were met by an impressive number of people, all of whom seemed way too cheery and happy to be meeting us, considering it was four o’clock in the morning. I was running on pure adrenaline and likely making an ass of myself with incessant talking and joking. Two of the girls I was with seemed REALLY drunk. I decided it had been a terrible idea to drink so much during the course of the day. How could this fermented substance which had served us so well in Washington have betrayed us like this? There was no time to consider the question, because we were herded onto busses and out into the capital of Georgia. I was still going adrenaline-strong, so I didn’t reflect on it THAT much at the time, but I can’t imagine having had a more surreal experience in my entire life. There’s no way to prepare for such a moment, and there’s unfortunately not much way to adequately describe it to you. I don’t think I am good enough with words to describe it here. I’ll have to get some photos from those who were taking them (ashamedly, I wasn’t, because my camera was buried in one of my bags for the flight and I knew I’d soon be much too tired to be wanting to carry it around, even during one of the most seminal moments of my life so far) and post them for you. I can say that the city is beautiful, an intoxicating mix of modernity and ancient-looking buildings. There are lighted areas with well-paved roads and billboards and gas stations, but most of the buildings look like they’re older than the entire United States of America, and many of the streets somehow seem to have a cinematic quality to them, as if they’re too storybook to be real and they must have been built for a movie set. I have done some traveling in my life, but I’ve never seen anyplace like this. It’s not that it’s the most beautiful place in the entire world – I’ve been on top of the Acropolis and inside the Colosseum and sitting above the harbor in Singapore – but it seems to be one of the most indescribably beautiful. It will take much more time spent in the city, perhaps, to be able to put my finger on it.

That time, however, isn’t now. After taking group photos at some sulfur bath in Tbilisi (though I saw neither sulfur nor any baths – it seemed like a clay sort of half-spherical structure across a road from several of those movie-set-looking houses), our bus took us through the city, snaking up an interminably long switchback mountain road, and several minutes into the countryside to a small village called, if I recall, Tamakhela, which is where I am sitting right now. My adrenaline high, for whatever reason, abandoned me during the bus ride. They handed out Snickers for us, I ate some, and I felt sick and exhausted nearly immediately, which is really the OPPOSITE of how they advertise their product to function. I was only very recently in America, so I have an instinctive judgment that someone needs to be sued over this. Anyway, I was getting deliriously quasi-ill, and sitting next to a girl who was somehow still sort of drunk. I don’t understand how. She kept poking me to point out things that we were passing. I didn’t care anymore. I felt conscious enough to hate myself for not caring – this was still a seminal event, and I hated that all I wanted was to close my eyes. But I did anyway.

Friday, June 22, 2007

Wow -- Gori Edition

Greetings from Gori, a city of ~60,000 (or so I've been told) in North Central Georgia. We got here yesterday after six days of orientation in a small Georgian village called Tabakhmela, outside the capital city of Tbilisi. I am sitting in an internet cafe and I don't have the means right now to copy the writing I've done about my experience so far -- which is on my laptop -- so I'll keep this pretty brief. I just want to let whoever is reading this (still probably just Ruth, but perhaps others of you if you've gotten word that I am finally going to have semi-frequent internet access)(semi-frequent by Georgian standards, that is) know that I am fine but still a bit overwhelmed by this entire experience. I'm going to try to write as much as I can about everything, but I could write a book at this point and still only scratch the surface. This week has felt like six years. Anyway, journal entries to come, so stay tuned, but until then I miss all of you and I wish you could somehow experience the craziness that is this yourself.