Tuesday, June 26, 2007

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.

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