Monday, July 16, 2007

The Importance of Being Earnest About Whether You're Any Good at Basketball (Answer - no.)

Time is really beginning to accelerate. I think that, when faced with such a fact, it’s important to take the time to stop and smell the flowers. Or to stop and take a photo of a guy using a riverbank in the center of a resort town as his own personal squat toilet. I find smelling flowers to be silly, so I really didn’t have any option. I HAD to take the picture.

Anyhoo. Much has happened since I last updated. Many times I have said to myself, “This is a perfect cultural hilarity. It must go on my blog.” Almost as many times, I have forgotten the cultural hilarity before I actually sit down to transcribe it. I bet Oscar Wilde never had this problem. He probably had it easy, though. He didn’t have to devote brain cells to making sure he always knew where the closest decent toilet was, or to making mental plans of escape from every public transportation vehicle he found himself in because they all seem to either be powered by large and likely flammable canisters of natural gas or to store their extra petrol – also, incidentally, quite flammable – in piles of 2 liter bottles in the trunk. Georgians don’t seem to be particularly scared of fiery death explosions. Their gas lines run above ground, in small pipelines that can’t possibly stay out of every vehicle’s way all of the time. I saw a young man swinging on one of these pipelines yesterday. Also, you have not seen utility and efficiency until you’ve seen the sheer number of wires that people jam into electrical junction boxes. It’s like [culturally inappropriate joke that would hamper my mission as a representative of the United States of America]. Ha ha!

We’ve been working hard, as usual, and playing hard as well. Those of you to whom I have related the story of two Saturdays ago know what I mean when I say this. To those of you who have not heard this story, I am sorry – you will not read of it on this blog. It involves salacious material that shan’t be seen by websurfing teenagers in Sri Lanka or by Peace Corps officials in Washington. By way of a hint, I will say that some of this salacious content concerns vodka, a machine closet, a squat toilet, a Georgian who meant well but who got his semantics mixed up and ended up saying “[expletive] your friend!” enthusiastically and repeatedly, and the worst slash most tremendous slash most potentially blackmailatory photo of me ever taken. Don’t drink vodka, friends. It does not like you. It is a seductive temptress whose true aims are cruel and nefarious.

I feel very badly when things like last Saturday happen; they just feed into my constant anxiety complex about the fact that part of my job is to present a certain image of Americans – hardworking, helpful, freshly-scrubbed folks who enjoy a good cultural exchange as much as the next guy. I don’t like doing things that contradict this supposed image, and yet we all find ourselves doing them all the time. I mostly stay in my room, for instance, when I’m home because I’m always some combination of too tired, too busy, and/or too unable to communicate a particular thought for me to want to hang out with my host family. I feel bad about this. I feel bad when I walk down the street listening to my iPod, because I think it makes me look like a shuttered American who prefers drowning in a mental Gin Blossoms oasis to actually looking at Georgian people on the street, even though I know that making gregarious eye contact with people when I walk would be a culturally weird thing to do anyway. And I definitely feel bad when my trainee friends and I get drunk, which – and I don’t think this would come as a shock to anyone reading this blog in some sort of official capacity – happens. I want to be spending my time laughing and nattering with Georgians in their native tongue, telling them of America and listening to their stories such that I might understand their country better. But it’s so hard to do that when your language skills are so lacking. My language skills are getting better, but it would still be impossible to have any sort of actual conversation about things that don’t concern where I’m currently going, whether I’d currently like to eat, what sorts of things I like and don’t like, or how I’m feeling at the moment. I did break out a list of questions in Georgian that my language teacher gave me this week – I handed the list to a host sister who speaks a little English and asked her to read me the questions at normal conversational speed so I could try to answer them – and I answered almost all of the questions (mostly of the, “what is your address,” “do you like dogs or cats,” and, “what do you do every day” variety) in front of several people who were hanging out in front of my house. I got quite a few bonus points for that. Itsis kartuls kargad, they laughed (“He knows Georgian well”). But, nonetheless, communication remains difficult, so when trainees are tired we usually prefer to hang out with one another, and that usually means drinking. And I feel bad about it.

This is not to say that I have not been interacting with the locals at all. In fact, some of us have become downright entertaining for masses and masses of local children. This happened when we started playing basketball at a decent court near some apartment complexes in town. Originally, we were just fooling around on our own, trying to engage in an activity that combined the fun of pretending that we have any actual coordination or athletic talent with the aerobic rigors that become necessary when you eat your body weight in carbohydrates every day. The second time we played, however, some precocious Georgian youths – I’d guess most of them to be in their late teens – challenged us to a game. There were several problems with this. 1) None of us had played basketball in quite a while, and we weren’t any good to begin with. 2) These Georgian teens obviously spent some time on the court. 3) They were liberally substituting amongst ten or so available players. 4) Georgians do not apparently play pickup basketball like Americans do. Americans bump each other during pickup games, but you try not to foul each other, because nobody wants to be the guy committing or calling fouls in a pickup game. Here in Georgia, at least on this particular court with these particular players, you are going to get grabbed when you’re on offense and charged into when you’re on defense. Also they like to yell a lot. 1+2+3+4 = Americans getting spanked by Georgian teenagers at an ostensibly American game, which is embarrassing, because it’s not like we’d beat them at soccer or something. This became tremendous fun to the seemingly thousands of children who materialized out of nowhere to watch us play and cheer against us; this may have been, in fact, the literal definition of the concept “unwanted attention” that has been preached to us by Peace Corps staff, inasmuch as it seemed at the time like we were causing some sort of riot. However, it ended up being a riot-free, if humbling, experience, and I am happy to say that we played them again a couple of days ago and just worked them. We have found our basketball touch, and the rest of the world had best watch out, because we’re coming for you imperial-style.

Our classes have really begun to pick up steam – both language and technical training have started to give us a lot more work, and the pressure seems to be building. This is because we are getting our permanent placements this upcoming Friday – the town or city where we will be living and the organization for whom we’ll be working for our actual two years of service – and actually traveling to those sites this weekend to meet the host families we’ll be moving in with in several weeks and our counterparts at our organizations. It’s going to be a pretty nerve-wracking week; everyone is starting to get alternately excited and anxious to find out not only where we’ll each be for two years, but almost as importantly how far we’ll be from each other. Georgia is a pretty small country, but the transportation system is relatively rudimentary and it can take much longer than it would seem to get somewhere. You’re also not supposed to leave your post for recreational purposes very often, although I’m not sure how the policies about this actually translate into practice. So it’s likely that we’ll all be placed in a location that will make it difficult to see some, if not many or most, of our friends here. This upcoming weekend is going to shape much of the rest of our experience in this country, and Peace Corps has been so sensitive to the anxiety of being separated from our friends that they’ve…separated some trainees from their friends already by mixing our language clusters up according to how well we’ve been doing in language class so far. I’ve mentioned before how some people are doing well while others are having a lot of trouble; Peace Corps decided to randomly move everyone around and out of their month-long routines in order to match people of similar abilities. I don’t know enough about educational theory to know whether such a move will end up causing resentment or whether it will motivate everyone to learn better. But it’s really one of those moves that’s either going to work out swimmingly or fail disastrously. So we’ve got that going for us, which is nice.
At least we were able to get a weekend of great fun in before this upcoming week of stress. This weekend we were allowed to travel on a “cultural excursion” – basically going in groups of five to any place in Georgia we wanted to go, provided that it was close enough to get there and back between Saturday morning and Sunday at 7pm. My group decided to travel to a town called Bakuriani, which in the winter is a ski resort but in the summer is just a nice little town with gorgeous places for us to hike. Of course, it rained all weekend, so we didn’t go hiking so much as drink a lot of beer at our guest house.

I will have more details about the craziness of the current week, and the jollities of this past weekend, when I can -- as well as photos -- but I need to wrap this post up. Hope all is well over there. I have even less internet access currently than I've had to this point, so it's difficult for me to check how everyone is doing, so please drop me a line via email, Facebook, or blog comment with updates and such. I'll try to post one more time before I leave this weekend for the conference where we'll meet our counterparts for the next two years, but if it ends up not being possible, you'll DEFINITELY want to read the next installment in the Life of Dan, because things are about to get pretty interesting. Bitches ain't shit.

Thursday, July 5, 2007

Same Old, Same Old. Or: Seriously, Many Hilarious Hijinks Occur Here, They Just Probably Wouldn't Be Funny to Someone Who Has Cable Television

I really need to be writing journal entries more often. The problem, as I’m sure I’ve said many times in this space already, is that we’re just tired all the time. When I am home, I’m usually either fighting to keep from being given too much food or laying on my bed, staring into space and ruing myself for not studying enough. It sounds worse than it is, really; it’s true that the G7s are constantly bitching about life to each other and to the current volunteers we hang out with in the evenings (there are several G6s posted in Gori that we’ve gotten to know pretty well since we’ve been here, and they’re surprisingly and thankfully agreeable with being complained to), but our grievances aren’t so much of the “we don’t like it here” variety as they are of the “we don’t like such and such part of our classes and it’s difficult to be studying all the time” variety. For the most part, in a general sense, we’re really comfortable here already. And, looking back on the process, it’s surprising that it took so little time. But, of course, it hasn’t FELT like so little time.

This is all, really, just a long way of apologizing for not having posted a long entry in over a week. Not much has changed since my last post; this past week has mostly served to get everyone into a steady routine, and time is beginning to speed up. I’ve settled into a daily rhythm, and that more than anything helps a person to acclimate to his surroundings. I wake up most mornings rva saatze (at eight o’clock) to find Irma, maspindzel dedachemi (my host mother), already awake and cooking my breakfast (This morning, though, her clock had apparently stopped for an hour during the night – she was just starting her routine when I came into the kitchen, about to leave for school, and was very confused as to what exactly the hell I was doing awake at 7:30…explaining “no, it’s 8:30, your clock is broken” is very difficult when two people don’t quite speak the same language). I’m not a morning person, and, while I don’t take morning showers here, I have to spend extra time getting dressed because I have to dress professionally while doing Peace Corps activities, so I usually roll into the kitchen about ten minutes before I need to leave. This is a problem, because one of Irma’s main life desires is that I eat more than I am intending to eat at any particular moment. I am always the only person eating breakfast at 8:30, but there is usually about as much food on the table as my entire family would eat for dinner on a given night in America. It is Irma’s goal that I eat all of it. It is my goal to leave for school before causing myself major gastrointestinal damage. It is a game, and Irma usually wins. I have learned the basic phrases for “I don’t want any more food,” and she knows my broken Georgian slash gestures for “I need to leave for school now.” But Irma is a brilliant tactician. “Tchame, tchame. Puri kargia. Erti kidev.” (Eat more, eat more. The bread is good. One more.) If this does not work, she has perfected a glance that can only be described as conveying, “You are causing me extreme emotional pain and anguish. I am very sad for you that you would even consider leaving before having another three pounds of egg salad.” This usually guilts me into saying, “Fine, I’ll have just a little bit more.” Then, she grabs the serving dish before I can decide for myself how much more to consume, and she spoons enough food to maim a bison onto my plate. I, feeling a nagging sense of rudeness at simply saying “no” and refusing to eat more, defeatedly scoop as much food as I can into my mouth, and stagger out the door trying to avoid falling into a hyperglycemic coma. Irma will then shove cookies into my satchel as she unlocks the front door for me.

My walk to school takes about fifteen minutes, through the neighborhood where I live, past the magazia (shop) where men go in the mornings to look for a day’s work, past the Stalin Museum, Stalin’s first home, and Stalin Park, to the nonprofit office where we have four hours of language class a day. Four hours of language class is, to put it mildly, a lot. I am doing pretty well in language class, compared to some others in my small class, and even I am having a lot of difficulty sometimes. I can’t even imagine how hard it is for the people who aren’t picking it up as quickly as some of us are. I usually spend the half-hour break we get at 11am (that would be 2am in the Central Time Zone and midnight in California) online; if any of you need to converse with me in a hurried AIM chat before my language teacher makes me turn my computer off, that’s the time, Monday through Saturday. After language class, we go to a group member’s house, where his/her/their host mom has prepared us lunch. Lunch is usually delicious, and also usually at least 75% refined carbohydrates. This becomes an issue about half an hour into our afternoon technical NGO training, when we all lapse into our second food coma of the day.

After NGO training, we usually go to a bar to hang out, study, drink beer, and talk (the trainees who live in the villages around Gori hate us for this, since they’re not allowed to leave their villages during the week). I really enjoy doing this every day, but it concerns me. I don’t envy the people who are training in villages, because I’m having fun now, but I know that they’re being better prepared for our eventual site assignments in eight weeks. The 15 of us who are living in the city hang out with each other and with several of the volunteers who are stationed in Gori and a year into their service; once we leave for our posts, there won’t be more than one or two people stationed near us, and I expect that the evenings will become pretty lonely for a while. I’m not expecting to enjoy my first couple of weeks at post. But, for now, we’re enjoying ourselves, and being able to rewind during the evenings seems pretty crucial to our sanity at this point (“Bevri vstsavlob. Bevri vkitkhulob. Bevri sashinau davaleba maqvs,” as I might say in broken Georgian to Irma. “I learn very much. I read very much. I have a lot of homework.”). I play backgammon with a guy in my cluster, and we all whine about having to go home. It’s not that we dislike being with our host families (although I am beginning to sense that, for everyone in my host family besides Irma, interest in the American is fading to minor bemusement at the American); one is just always reticent to leave a cocoon of people who are talking about shared experience in a shared language for a group of people who will not understand your concerns about their seatless toilet and to whom you will be unable to explain said concerns. At home, I eat another gargantuan meal (as an added bonus, after I staggered out of the kitchen last night, Irma came into my room with a heaping bowl of fruit, explaining that I needed to eat it because her daughter had picked it that day in her hometown village, with the implication that it would thus be rude of me not to eat it), and I send text-messages while trying to focus on studying until I fall asleep.

On Saturday afternoons and Sundays, we wander around the city, see the sights we haven’t seen, go to the internet cafĂ©, spend more time at the bars, and visit our friends in the villages. This past Sunday, I visited people in the village of Bebnisi, about 20 minutes outside Gori. We took a bus early Sunday morning to get there; it was pouring and the bus was overcrowded in that special developing-world-way, so I found myself standing in the aisle, forced to lean over a seated woman while trying not to drip water all over her. We had no idea when we were supposed to get off; thankfully, we were on the bus long enough to send a text message to a trainee who lives in the village asking him to meet us at the bus stop so we would know when to disembark. Still, for a while, I was pretty sure we’d end up in Moscow. That would be a fun call to our supervisor. “Tengo? We’re in Moscow. We didn’t know when to get off the bus. We thought maybe the village was pretty far. Is it okay if we get back slightly after curfew?”

In the village, our first stop was at the house of a girl I’ve become close with. Her family’s cow and dog had given birth on the same day the week before, so there was a new calf and two new puppies in the yard. The dog attacked me (affectionately), because, yes, Irma had forced cookies into my pocket before I left that morning. The calf spent the morning charging from one end of the yard to the other and back again in a gangly newborn gait, the hilarity of which is completely and unfortunately indescribable without the aid of video footage. It was raining on and off, and I was standing in a yard in a small village in Georgia, watching a newborn calf charge around the yard like it was auditioning for the rodeo. My list of “things I never expected to be doing” is getting pretty long.

After that, we walked to another friend’s house, where his host dad regaled us with impressions in his broken English and songs on his broken guitar. This man is my new favorite person in this country, and again I cannot describe why without the aid of video footage. We drank coffee and beer (so it wasn’t even noon; what are you trying to say?) and chewed sunflower seeds. Then the girl and I took a bus back to Gori, where we joined many other friends at the apartment of a current Gori-stationed volunteer named Cutino, who we’ve been seeing most evenings. It was a fun evening, but it was back to four hours of language the next morning, made amusing only by the simple text message of a trainee who had gotten too drunk at a Georgian feast on Sunday (“Hurtin for certain” was the entirety of the message). So revolves the cycle.

The cycle is comforting; it’s good to know that I already have a routine, as I said earlier. But it can also be frustrating. It can be frustrating when it seems that we’ve been here for so little time and yet are already often just going through the motions, trying to get to the next day, the next language lesson, the next attempt at communication with a Georgian. It can be frustrating not learning as quickly as I wish I was learning. It can be frustrating not having the cultural tools to step away from the table before guiltily eating my body weight in food (It’s also frustrating that, somehow, even though I stagger from the table after every meal, I’m always starving two hours later. And I think I’m losing a little weight. What in god’s name is going on in my intestines?). But, in the end, I think it’s mostly a good thing that we are becoming more understanding of our eventual roles here every day. Our NGO training can sometimes be painfully long (especially after such a large lunch), but I come away from it every day with a slightly broader realization of what, exactly, I’m supposed to do when I’m eventually dumped into a nonprofit organization here. I think we’ve all internalized our missions here. None of us are blanching at the length of time we’ll be here, or the things we’ll be doing during those two years. Our task has become normal to us. And that is, of course, frightening and comforting at the same time. I doubt that dichotomy will go away for quite a long time, even once I return to the States. Life is like that, brothers and sisters. I have the moral authority to make a sweeping statement like that, because I am in the Peace Corps.

And with that, I leave you to go study Georgian. Did you know that, in Georgian, they count in a base 20 system? The number 50 is ormotsdaati -– two twenties and ten. The number 76 is samotsdatekvsmeti – three twenties and sixteen. Of course you didn’t know that. You’re in freaking America. I just wanted you to be impressed with how hard this is, dammit.