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.

1 comment:

ruth said...

Vodka is one of my favorite alcohols. Though perhaps in that part of the world it's a tad stronger.

I did a presentation on tracking. The research seems to say it's best when it's done based only on people's abilities (not race or income, as it is sometimes sneakily done) and if the groups change as people's abilities change. Don't know if you'll be there long enough for that to matter. Also, it's best if the lessons are tailored to the needs of the students -- if you group people based on their ability and then use the same lessons for each group, not surprisingly, it doesn't work out that well.

There's some educational theory for you. Good luck with your new posts.