Thursday, December 27, 2007

Tbilisi at Christmas, Part II. Or: Shiny things that are fun to look at.

Let's blow through these, shall we? I'm sitting at my brother's laptop, in London, at it's 1 o'clock in the morning, and we have to get up preposterously early to visit the Tower of London tomorrow, and Let's Just Get This Dose of Holiday Cheer Out of the G#ddamn Way Already. Cheers!

...Ok, ok, I didn't mean to be cross with you just then. It's just that I am tired. Seriously, though, Happy Holidays to everyone who reads this blog, whether it be due to interest in me, or interest in Georgia, or interest in the lyrics to "Misha Magaria" (megobaro, swori vebgverdze ar xar - "Google"Si naxe isev!). Merry Christmas slash other religious holiday, and a Happy New Year to you and yours. kargi axali weli yofiliyos. Sen da Sens ojaxma kargad iyaviT, da janmrtulad iyaviT, da bedniereba axal welSi gisurvebT. didxans sisowxeles sul Tqvens. gilocavT Soba-axal wels.

Interesting non-Christmasy note: there are two ways to type Georgian words on a Latin keyboard. One way is just to type how they sound. The other way is to type them the way you'd type them on a Latin keyboard in a Georgian font, with certain Georgian-only sounds being put on certain other letters in the keyboard, and upper-case and lower-case Latin letters being used for different Georgian characters. I tend to use the second method, because it's better practice for when I have to type in Georgian. So do not think that the above Christmas greeting is how those words SOUND. But any Georgian reading this should be able to understand it, unless I have totally screwed up my spelling or my grammar - most Georgians can read English characters, because they use these characters on the internet and in their cell phone text messages. My first week at work, I spent like three hours creating a phoenetic alphabet chart to help my coworkers learn the English alphabet. That didn't turn out to be necessary. They all send each other, and me, text messages that look like the one above, with capitalizations in funny places because of which Georgian character is assigned to, for instance, the lower case "t" vs the upper case "T" on a normal Latin keyboard. The possible knot, as far as understanding of my holiday message goes, is the strong likelihood that I've made spelling and grammar mistakes. I'm not very good at this language, yet. Shhhhh. Don't tell anyone.

Happy holidays.

Tbilisi at Christmas, Part I. Or: Photos of things that are not Christmas-y. Or: Tidings of Shakira be with you this night.

A day late, a dollar short, my friends, but my Tbilisi at Christmas gallery is finally at hand. And, if you think about it, which you haven't, the decorations are not actually in celebration of December the twenty-fifth; for one thing, Georgia is an Orthodox nation, and it celebrates Christmas on the 7th of January. And, secondly, Christmas there (I am not there, at the moment) is a subdued religious holiday. The large secular holiday, at which there is a large tree and pretty lights and presents, is actually New Year's. Thus, my Tbilisi at Almost New Year's Gallery is right on time, friends! See, it's all in how you look at things.

I took these photos over the course of quite an interesting weekend. It was interesting not in the sense of interesting things happening -- very few interesting things happened -- but in the sense that it was the first time I've been alone at all in the capital. I was waiting on a flight from Tbilisi to London on Monday, and there were a smattering of people there that weekend, but I really only spent some of one day with any of them. Sunday and Monday morning, I was totally free to wander around completely on my own, which is something I haven't really done in a large city since I was living in (ok, near, shut up) New York City last fall. It's both an enjoyable and a discomfiting experience, for me. I'm not entirely comfortable wandering around on my own without anyone to natter with, but it provides a certain calm that is enjoyable occasionally. So I spent Sunday wandering around the city, buying gifts and taking photographs. Here are the photographs that just show Tbilisi, without holiday lights and such. The next post, Part Two, will be of Christmas-y (or New Year's-y, or whatever) things. So keep your pants on, until then (I'm just pretending that you haven't seen that post yet, because as I write this, that post does not exist. Of course, when it does exist, it will exist above this one, meaning you will have already seen it when you read this. Whatever.).

This is the statue of St. George in the middle of Tavisuplebis Moedani, or Freedom Square. You can see that he is on his horse, stabbing the mythical dragon. Or perhaps not so mythical dragon. I make no judgments. The Georgians are quite fond of St. George; this is why the place is called "Georgia" in English, although Mr. St. George is not to be found in the Georgians' own name for their country ("Sakartvelo" -- which means, creatively, "Place where the Kartvelebi, or Georgians, live). I was around Freedom Square early in the afternoon, shopping for presents, and I saw the skeleton of lights beneath St. George, and I decided I would come back at night, to take a photo of what must be an awesomely illuminated display. It turns out, as you shall see soon, that these particular lights were not turned on. Perhaps they are only for the New Year's Celebration. I was mightily disappointed. There are no actual lights in this photograph, just the PROMISE of lights, and thus it is in Post Number One.

Here is one of many churches in Tbilisi, and yet another statue that is probably of King David the Builder, who unified the country from its several different parts, and is the most popular of the Georgian monarchs.

Oh my god! Another church! It's almost like this is sort of a religious country. This is a very nice looking church in Old Tbilisi, across a small park from the "Rodeo Drive"-style section of the city, which is a latticework of very small streets near the river where there are expensive restaurants and an art gallery or two. Not a very volunteer-friendly area, unless they start having Have Some Free Art Saturdays, or something. This church has a giant rock in its courtyard. I'm not sure why. Perhaps Jesus put it there.

This is a statue called "Our Mother," which stands on a hill overlooking the city, kind of like Christ the Redeemer in Rio, if Christ the Redeemer had stone, half-spherical breasts. It is said that the sword in one hand is for Georgia's enemies, and the bowl of wine in the other is for Georgia's friends. And the stone, half-spherical breasts are for Georgia's friends-with-benefits.

This is outside Sioni Cathedral, which I believe is the most important church in Tbilisi - perhaps the main church in Georgian Orthodoxy. This throng of people was waiting for this man:

This man is Ilia the Second, who is the Patriarch of the Georgian Orthodox Church. People really, really like touching Ilia the Second. I was in Ozurgeti, a town near my own, for a ceremony in which they opened a new church. The Patriarch came for this ceremony, which was a huge, huge deal. They built new fountains in the park outside this church, and shut off all the water in town for two days to feed these fountains on the morning of the Patriarch's arrival. The Patriarch arrived in a HELICOPTER, which seems dangerous for a man of his age, and said some words before circling the new church. I was almost stampeded multiple times during this ritual, as people rammed into each other to try to get closer to him.

People coming out of Sioni Cathedral.

Two more photos of Sioni Cathedral.

The lighted tower on the right side of this photo is a normal fixture of the Tbilisi skyline along the river; I have no earthly idea what it's for. The small, lit stage on the left is NOT a normal fixture. When I took this photograph, the pop star Shakira had just finished giving probably the biggest concert in the history of Tbilisi. At least, that's how people had been referring to it. Some hotel chain paid her, according to a news story I read, $1-2 million to come give this concert. I did not attend the concert, but I walked across the river towards it as it was apparently ending, and it seemed as if the entire population of the city had attended. They were probably quite excited. The second biggest concert in the history of Tbilisi was a Joe Cocker concert. And his hips just can't keep up with Shakira's.

Here you can see Our Mother on her hill, from across the river.

And here you can see the almost-as-lyrically-beautiful red and white television tower. Russian music channels for Georgia's enemies, Turkish pornography for Georgia's friends.

And here you can see some of the riverfront, with the strange lit tower on the left, and Our Mother on the hill to the right. Sioni Cathedral and Old Town are on the right riverbank near where this was taken.

This photo holds significance because it is a photo of the Turkish Sulfer Baths, also near Old Town. More specifically, this is the very sulfer bath outside of which our volunteer group took our group portrait mere minutes after touching down in Tbilisi for the first time at 4 o'clock in the morning on (I believe) June 16th. I barely remember the photo event happening at this site. We were a bit delirious. If there are staff members reading this, I would like a copy of that photograph, in large enough detail that I can see everyone's faces, so I can see who seems likely to still remember that moment, and who is like me in barely being able to remember how they got off the airplane. Just for kicks, let me quote myself, in all my sage wisdom, from the blog entry I wrote a day or two after this event:

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...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...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...

Eek. Friends, don't let your friends set-off-on-a-stressful-new-life-adventure-and-post. "An intoxicating mix"? Let's just move on.

A nice bit of patriotism to cleanse the palate. St. George is mauling the dragon in a manner similar to that in which I mauled the English language in that quoted passage.

Tbilisi at Christmas, Part Two, coming up.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

PART V - Guria Region, In Pictures (Episode II). Or: Please keep a sufficient perimeter around this post.

One of the tenets of project execution that you learn in Peace Corps Boot Camp is "overpromise, underdeliver." This is where you promise things endlessly and then don't deliver on them, and then everyone hates you, but your project is a success anyway because of Evolution or global warming or something. I'm not sure. I'll have to check my notes.

Anyway, because I follow the letter of what I have been taught, I have endlessly promised you the eagerly-anticipated follow-up post of Pictures of Places I Can Walk To In Chokhatauri That Are Within Like 200 Yards Of My Office, so that you might better know Georgia by better knowing the two blocks near where I work, while not actually posting them. But, huzzah! Now I am! And, I am giving you two bonus photo sections, to apologize profusely for holding this treasure trove of visual pleasure from you. Bonus Photo Section 1 is a very exciting photo section entitled, "Presidential Candidate Mikhail Saakashvili comes to Chokhatauri to Deliver What Ends Up Being About a Five Minute Speech." As you have surely forgotten by now, the Georgian Special Election season is heating up, with the election to be held on January 5th, and the campaign is in full swing. By, "in full swing," I mean that Mikhail Saakashvili's campaign is in full swing, and those of the other six candidates are, well, absent. The constitutional mandate that a current president must resign his office before seeking re-election has been pretty convenient for Saakashvili, since he suddenly has all this free time to fill by driving around the country in a huge bus, campaigning, and then airing commercials of these campaign stops on television pretty much every night. I have seen, conservatively, 4,657 Saakashvili ads on television in the last couple weeks, and exactly one (1) for any of the six other candidates. That was an ad two nights ago for Levan Gachechiladze, who is the opposition coalition candidate. But Misha's ads are everywhere, and in Tbilisi, his photo, campaign slogan, and the ballot number of his party ("5" - thanks to Cuttino Alexander's blog for explaining the significance of that number, which I'd been unaware of) are unmissable on billboards and busses. According to this story at Civil Georgia, Saakashvili is the only candidate paying for television advertising; the others are apparently only using the state-mandated free airtime alloted to them. This is interesting with regard to at least one other candidate, business tycoon Badri Patarkatsishvili, who is apparently worth billions and is pledging that, if he is elected, he will spend 1.5 billion lari of that personal worth on social services. Perhaps it is just my latent American assumptions leading me to wonder why he is not spending money for advertising. Perhaps the Georgian people are not swayed by all of this Misha advertising. I make no conclusions about this. But he has a campaign song, for God's sake. How can you not be swayed? This song was apparently written by a former Georgian boy band member and is entitled "Misha Magaria," which means, "Misha is cool." A sample of the lyrics:

A new day is starting, the sun is rising
Georgia is being built
We will not spare any effort for the homeland
We don't have a lot of oil, we don't have a lot of territory
But we have a great future ahead

Sometimes the sun shines, sometimes the wind blows
Sometimes we have problems, sometimes we are happy
No matter if the weather's good or bad
Misha is cool!

But I am getting away from my modest photo gallery. What with all the campaigning around the country, I suppose it should have been only modestly surprising that Saakashvili made plans to visit the little mountain town inhabited by yours truly. He was supposed to come on Sunday, but ended up moving his visit to yesterday. The town was......intrigued, is probably the best word I can use without getting in trouble, as was I, in my role as a completely politically neutral representative of the United States Government. Volunteers are not supposed to have anything to do with political rallies of this nature, but Saakashvili's speech ended up being given literally outside my office, which sits on the main "square," so I got some pictures of people gathering from my window, and then I went outside and stood at the very perimeter of the throng for just as long as it took to snap a couple action shots before hastily retreating the 50 feet back to safety. Thus, here, for your enjoyment and edification, a Georgian presidential political speech:

This is Misha's bus arriving, on which you can see all the elements I mentioned: big picture of Misha, the number 5, and (barely visible) his campaign slogan, which is, "Sakartvelo sigharebis gareshe!" meaning, "Georgia without poverty!" Amusing story about this campaign slogan: originally, when I heard it on television, I thought he had said, "Sakartvelo sigaretis gareshe!" which would mean, "Georgia without cigarettes!" I thought he was attempting some sort of healthy living reform. So I turned to my host sister-in-law, and said in a sarcastic tone, "Pretty big goal." She snickered. Then, later, I realized what the word actually was and looked it up, and felt like the biggest dick ever for making a sarcastic joke about poverty. I don't think my host sister-in-law took it poorly at all; she probably assumed I was just "dissing" Misha, which wasn't really doing. But I still feel bad for having THOUGHT it. Back to the photo gallery:

Lotta cops and black SUVs in the former president's entourage.

Two photos of the man himself. Note to Peace Corps staff: I refused to get any closer than this, despite entreaties from my coworkers. Then I scurried back to my office, but not before taking one last photo:

A lot of Mikhail's supporters at this rally seemed too young to vote. But, kids do a lot of things in this country that you wouldn't expect them to. If you're old enough to drive (maybe not legally), order alcohol in a restaurant (maybe not legally), and throw really dangerous firecrackers at each other (probably legally), you're old enough to vote! Who's with me?

Bonus set of photos number two: "Cooling Our Hot Political Tempers in the Snow." Yes, friends, yesterday evening witnessed the second snow dumpage of the season on Chokhatauri, but this time I had my camera with me, which I used when we tramped outside after work to throw snowballs at each other. Well, I didn't throw any snowballs. I hadn't known we were going to be doing this particular activity, so I'd brought my camera instead of my coat. And, I'm not sure I would have participated anyway. I love playing in the snow, but you think twice about it when you don't have central heating or a parka.

This photo was taken as I shrieked, "Not at the camera! NOT AT THE CAMERA!" It is possible everyone thinks I'm a pussy now.

The heavily bundled person on the left is my host sister-in-law, who does not seem to like the snow much.

Aww. How seasonally splendid.

So, then. With your bonus photos out of the way, let's blow through THE THRILLING CONCLUSION (for now, at least) of BETTER KNOW A GEORGIA PART V - PLACES I CAN WALK TO IN CHOKHATAURI FROM MY OFFICE IN LESS THAN TWO MINUTES:

A row of flags in front of the elementary school behind my office. It's a pretty nice looking school, actually. The aforementioned President Saakashvili, to his credit, has put a lot of money into school refurbishment the last few years. Apparently, there have also been some downsides to his education reforms, but I am not a TEFL volunteer so I do not understand them. Just wanted to mention both sides.

The main drag through town (one side of it, anyway; the park runs down the right side of the photo, and there's another row of shops on the road to the other side of it). The first building on the left contains the dentist sign and the hidden restaurant I've mentioned before, and the second, barely visible building contains my office.

The aforementioned park. Usually there are people sitting on those benches or just standing around, not doing anything.

Don't know what this building used to be. It's next to the "bazaar," which people point to and call the bazaar even though it's just a pink building in which, as far as I can tell, almost nothing is sold, and the bazaar in the actual sense of the word is on Saturdays, at the bus station.

Here is the sign for Cafe Harmony, which is the OTHER tiny restaurant-type establishment in Chokhatauri. I include this photo because it says the same thing in both English and Georgian, for your edification. The word on the top left is "Cape," or "cafe," the word on the top right is "bari," or, "bar," and the word in the middle is, "harmonia," or "harmony." I expect you to be able to read this now.

Finally, this is the building that contains your humble blogger's office. My window is the one on the top left. I'm looking out of that window RIGHT NOW. Literally. Isn't it impressive that I'm still typing? I cold go vor days.

Well, I hope this was an informative pictographic adventure. Tomorrow to Ozurgeti for a friend's birthday supra, then the dastardly night train yet again to Tbilisi, where I will be shopping for cheap souvenir trinkets for family Christmas presents (Hi, mom!). Then London on Monday. You might call it LONDAY. LOL.

I will try to get a Christmas-themed post in this weekend, perhaps another photoblog of the surprisingly ubiquitous and classy Tbilisi holiday decorations, but if I do not: Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to all of you out there in Blogdom. Be safe and warm out there. Until next time.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

We did it! Or: Or I did it, or you did it. Not really sure.

STUNNING SUPER TERRIFIC IMPORTANT DEVELOPING DEVELOPMENT: in the latest refreshed blog hits world map (which you can see if you click on its thumbnail in the sidebar, if you care, which you don't), there is a dot somewhere in central Brazil, meaning that someone in central Brazil found my blog, probably accidentally after searching for "fun things to do in Atlanta" or "non-invasive herpes medication" or something, meaning that I have now had blog visitors from all six continents on which people actually live (that would be North America, South America, Africa, Europe, Asia, and Australia, for those of you who skipped Geography 1). Hooray! This means that one or two people on a couple continents are actually interested in the content of this blog, and many other people on every continent have been tricked by Google into finding it when really they're looking for, you know, actual information! But that still counts, friends!

I am going to go celebrate by eating some meat in a tortilla covered in mayonnaise.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

I almost don't remember what it's like to be up at this hour. Or: It's a happy meal indeed.

Hello. I am typing this entry on a computer at the Tbilisi Peace Corps office, and it is 9 o'clock in the morning. I am not used to being up at this hour; generally, I wake up at about 9:30 so as to get into work at about 10:30. I only wake up earlier when I have to travel. Which, not coincidentally, is why I am awake today, as well. I am in Tbilisi for a series of meetings; a sufficient number of meetings, in fact, that it would have been impossible for me to get here in time had I left Chokhatauri this morning. So, instead, I took the night train with three friends from the west. And, since I have nothing else to do at this hour, I thought I might share some brief thoughts about said night train.

The night train is one of the available methods of transport when you are traveling from the far west to Tbilisi or from Tbilisi back whence you came. What happens is, you get on the train at about 9 or 10pm, and then you arrive in Tbilisi (or back in the west) at 6 or 7am. This sounds fine and convenient, in theory, until you realize that you're supposed to be trying to sleep on what amounts to a short, poorly padded couch, which is what is provided in your sleeping compartment. Compartments on the night train come in two varieties: there is the four person cabin, with two sets of bunk-ish couch-like uncomfortable elements, and the two person cabin, where there are merely two of the same couch-like uncomfortable elements. These couch-like elements sometimes come with a sheet and blanket, although often you have to ask the train attendant for a set. The first time I took the night train, I didn't know that you COULD ask for sheets, so I just writhed openly on the couch-like element for several hours. Sleep does not come easily, on the night train, not just because of the fact that you're on a half-bed, but because they crank up the heat and the windows don't open, so by 1 or 2am it is often stiflingly hot. The goal is to fall asleep before it gets too hot. This is very difficult. It usually requires alcoholic assistance, and even then is an iffy proposition.

So what ends up happening is, you chat with your friends for the first couple hours (you COULD go solo, and end up in a compartment with one or several strange Georgians, but this scenario is not preferable for oh so many reasons, and volunteers avoid doing it) and then attempt to "go to bed," which basically means taking your shoes off and writhing around on your couch-like element for a while. You will not fall asleep. You will also, especially if it is your first time on the night train, start to notice how slow the train is moving, and how often it is stopping. This is because the journey from west to east doesn't actually take THAT long if you are moving at a reasonable speed. But you would neither want to get on a train at midnight, nor arrive in Tbilisi at 3am. So you leave late in the evening, and saunter eastward at the pace of a three-legged arthritic dog, and you stop roughly 3,745 times. When the heat starts getting to you at 2am, this becomes annoying. "WHAT THE F#%@ ARE WE STOPPING AGAIN FOR?" you will exclaim. No one will heed your cries.

At about 5:30am, about an hour after you will have drifted into a completely unrecuperative and fitful state of almost-sleep, the train attendant will start coming around and banging on everyone's cabin door. "WE'RE HERE," he will shout, in Georgian. This is a lie. You will be about an hour from the final stop in Tbilisi. Apparently, Georgian people require an hour's notice to put their shoes on and retrieve their bags, which might be stowed upwards of five feet away. If you mutter something at the train attendant and slam the door to your compartment, intending to get as much sleep as possible in that next hour, he will start coming to your door every five minutes to bang on it and announce more things that are not true. "THE SOVIETS ARE BACK." "YOU LEFT YOUR WALLET IN CHOKHATAURI." "WE'RE HERE AGAIN." Finally, you will realize that you are ACTUALLY at your destination via impressive sleuthwork: the train will stop, and you'll hear people getting off. You will get off the train at the central Tbilisi train station. It will be between 6 and 7am. Nothing will be open in Tbilisi for at least two hours. Georgia is not a morning person. So you wander towards the subway - it is mildly surprising that the subway is even open before 10 - and come to the Peace Corps office, where you bide your time by writing a blog entry like this one, or sleeping on a couch, or thumbing through a romance novel from the volunteer library.

Sound like fun? Oh, it is. But it is a sometimes necessary evil. And I'd often rather endure it than not get into Tbilisi until 4 or 5pm. Also, this morning we made a breakthrough that will render future night train trips vastly more palatable: the Tbilisi McDonald's walk-up window is open 24 hours a day! We decided, this morning, in our foggy mental haze, to investigate whether the McDonald's might be open. Good money said that no, it would not be. And, in fact, the restaurant part does indeed not open until 8am. But there is a walk-up window! And it's open all the time! And you only have to wait like half an hour for your Big Mac and Shitty Coffee! Perhaps the walk-up window person has to go cook the Big Mac for you herself, at that hour. But it doesn't matter. It will be delicious at 7am on three mediocre hours of sleep. And gulping the Shitty Coffee will wake you right up. And the world will be a nicer place. And you will feel so terrific about this discovery that you will blog about it.

Then you'll think, "Hm. I could go get some work done before the people at the Nika wake up." So you'll go do that, and your kind-of-retarded second-person blog post will come to an end. Don't not sleep and post, friends. It's dangerous. Someone could get hurt.

Until next time.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Spoiler alert! Or: Turn off your cell phone before reading this post

I had a lot of time to let my mind wander yesterday. I was at a local play, you see. Local theater! Blech! Am I right? Actually, I have no idea whether this local play was of any quality whatsoever - although my theatergoing-mates informed me that the play was, in fact, not particularly enjoyable - because it was, of course, entirely in Georgian. Friends, if you've ever needed to do some mental brainstorming about something, but needed someplace where you wouldn't have much competing for your attention, I'd highly recommend attending a play in a language you don't understand. All I could tell was that the characters were in a prison of some sort, and many of them were very angry, but also they made fun of each other in humorous ways, and one of them lifted a nurse onto a chair for reasons I could not even begin to tell you, and then at the end everyone confronted one inmate for doing...something, and then he killed himself, and that was the end of two and a half u-intermission-o[1] hours of fun. It was apparently either a play by, or a play adaptation of a book by, a famous Georgian author named Nodar Dumbadze, who is from Chokhatauri. His bust is in the park[2], and the street I work on is named after him. So I'm sure that the nurse-lifting was, if you understood it, a powerful metaphor for...something.

Anyway, I was thinking during this play, and realized that, had I attended this play earlier in my service, my wandering mind might have been consumed by thoughts of whether I was fitting in, or how certain work goals weren't working out, or what the future was going to hold. Instead, I discovered, I was thinking about various projects, and work, and planning. Progress, friends! They tell you, at the beginning of your service, that the first three months are going to be very difficult, and that you'll have a lot of problems, and you'll often feel really down about what you're doing. All of those things are true; I felt that way a lot during my first few months here. They also tell you that, after your first three months, things get way easier. Now, I'm only a couple weeks past the three-month mark[3], but it seems at this point that this is also true. And the reason for it doesn't quite seem to be what I thought it would be.

I thought, at first, that the three-month-mark improvement would be due to improved communication between me and my coworkers, both linguistically and logistically; I thought I'd be able to speak the language better, and that we'd be able by this point to better communicate what we wanted to do for my organization and what my role would be. Both of these are marginally true; I can communicate better in Georgian, and I am more comfortable with my colleagues than I was at first, of course. But neither element is close to optimal. It will be a long time before I'm able to communicate work-related things in Georgian. That's just an unfortunate reality. It doesn't matter that I'm doing well with the language, which I think I am. There's just so much that's necessary. And this means that it is still difficult to have open work communication with them; just this past few weeks, for instance, a coworker wrote out an entire project to give trainings to local village kids on how to start ECO Clubs in their villages, when she really should have come to me about it first, because it's a project that by nature should be associated with Peace Corps Georgia's ECO Project. She didn't talk to me about it until she had finished writing it, and after all that work I had to tell her that we might have to hold the project for a while, because ECO Project is in flux at the moment, since nobody would come to the village ECO Clubs if there was no larger Peace Corps ECO Project with the national camps that the kids really love going to.

But, despite the continuing nature of these problems, life is getting easier, and this is for a reason that I didn't anticipate: I've got a lot of work to think about now, and only some of it is part of my work at my organization. I've hinted about this in my ragged, infrequent recent posts; I'm actually busy right now, if not literally working at every moment[4], then at least thinking about and planning work at most moments. This is a vast change from the first few weeks at site; many of my most frustrating moments had to do with having a task for a day, seeing it fail for some reason, and then having nothing more to do for the foreseeable future. It's incredibly frustrating when the one thing you can be doing at a particular moment doesn't work. But now I have five things I could be doing or thinking about at any given moment, and it's really helped to fill my days out, both physically and mentally. And when you have several things to be working on, finding a roadblock on one of them only means that you need to pick something else to work on for the time being. You don't get into your own head as much. And it's really been a help for me.

The reason for this extra work, as I've mentioned, is the annual All-Volunteer Safety and Security Conference, that we held two weeks ago at a lake resort near the capital.[5] This conference serves three functions[6]: a safety and security refresher, an introduction to Volunteer-run groups and committees from the previous group, after which the new group (ours) takes the reins, and a huge, volunteer-cooked Thanksgiving dinner with turkeys and stuffing and the works. All three definitely lived up to their billing this year. It was such an eventful weekend that it required a prelude to round it out. And here it is:

This is a photo of the first snowfall of my Peace Corps service, taken much less lyrically than I’d hoped by my computer’s PhotoBooth software. On Wednesday, 28 November, I looked out the window, and it was normal. Then I looked down at my computer. When I looked up again, God was dumping a Jumbo 30%-More-For-The-Same-Price! package of Soap Flakes on my little mountain village. Dumping. This is not an exaggeration. It was a freak out-of-nowhere blizzard.[7] I concerned myself with the strategic planning session that was just starting at my organization, until it became clear that this session, which I’d been anticipating for weeks because of how necessary I thought it was for the organization, was going to be several hours of my coworkers arguing with each other in Georgian, and that my presence was, to put it mildly, extraneous. So I watched the snow for a while, and then I went home to pack for All Vol, for which I was to leave the next day.

When I woke up the next morning, at the freak hour of 7am, there were two feet of snow. Two feet of snow is fun when your city has plows and you have central heating and a car to drive around in. Two feet of snow is less fun when you have to walk 20 minutes through it to get to the bus station before the sun is even up. The entire way to the bus station, which I was walking to at the ungodly hour of 7:30am to try to catch the first bus to the capital, I was having visions of sliding in an icy tumble off the side of a mountain in a bus trying to pass a horse-cart, and cursing my decision not to take the night train the night before, which I had been invited to do by the volunteer who told me about the impending blizzard. It turns out that, later, all the volunteers who took that night train got in a bunch of trouble. So. Sit in a bus for nine hours in a blizzard, get in major administrative trouble from Peace Corps. Six of one, half dozen of the other, really.

Yes, friends, nine hours. I arrived at the bus station just before 8am, when I was told the first marshutka to Kutaisi was to depart. My plan was to take a marshutka down the mountain to Kutaisi, since it would be faster than a bus, and then a bus from Kutaisi to Tbilisi. I approached a Kutaisi marshutka at the station and proceeded to play out the oh-so-frequent drama entitled, “Dan Is Told One Thing And Then A Different Thing Happens.”

“Are you the first marshutka to Kutaisi?” I asked the driver in Georgian.
“Yes,” he responded.
“What time do you leave?” I asked.
“Where are you going?”
“Get on the big bus over there.” He pointed to the big bus headed to Tbilisi.
“It’s leaving now.”

So I jumped on the big bus. Nobody was on it. But it started to move, and I thought to myself, “Excellent. Leaving right on time.” But it turns out that by “leaving now,” the marshutka driver had meant “in two and a half hours,” which is the length of time that I sat on the decidedly-not-moving bus after it drove maybe 100 meters to the main road and stopped again. In the marshutka’s defense, marshutkas didn’t seem to be going anywhere; it was still snowing heavily, and, looking back on it, it would have been a terrible idea to take one down the mountain. I got a text from a friend while I was sitting and stewing. It said, “I love life. My marsh driver just had all the people in the shrut sit in the back to shift the weight as he made a running charge at an icy hill to get over it.” Marshutkas are dangerous when it sunny. Marshutkas are dangerous when there is not a single other thing on the road. Marshutkas are, thus, via the transitive property[8], even more dangerous when there is a blizzard and overturned vehicles are everywhere. So it was probably good for my safety to be sitting on that bus. But I didn’t see it this way while I was sitting there lighting things on fire in my mind.

Once we got going, the bus went even slower than usual, which was probably a good idea but, once again, infuriating, and we stopped for quite a while at a rest stop. We also got stuck behind some sort of accident for just as long. I ended up sitting on the bus from 8am until 5pm, minus that half hour we spent at the rest stop.[9] I missed the group bus from Peace Corps headquarters and had to meet the group at a Tbilisi supermarket on the edge of town, where the group was stopping to buy Thanksgiving provisions.[10] The thing about supermarkets is, when you have been living with a family and eating what they provide you, which is basically the same thing every day, for six months, you cannot handle the choice you are suddenly presented with. Mentally. The closest comparison I can give is to a time in college when I was at the local supermarket with friends, at least one of whom was under the influence of some things that college students sometimes enjoy. One of my roommates, upon entering the store, nearly started sobbing, choking out the words, “look at all the food!” before sprinting towards the frozen food aisle.[11] This is what it is like to enter a supermarket for the first time in three months when you live in a village on a mountain. I was literally unable to decide what to purchase. I paced back and forth down one aisle for about 20 minutes before grabbing some things at random and leaving. It was just too much to handle.

When we arrived at the resort, after we braved the bitter chill and checked in, we found our rooms. The rooms were split between two buildings in the campus-style resort. One had rooms that resembled normal hotel rooms. The other, which by pure luck was where I ended up, consisted of huge suites. Like American-style suites. Our room had a dining nook and two bedrooms, one of which had a queen-size bed. As we gawked at this suite, one of my two roommates said, “How many bathrooms does this room have?” “How many seconds does it take to re-spoil you?” I exclaimed. “One freaking bathroom. Of course.” This was not true. The room had two full bathrooms. One of them had nice fluffy bathrobes and slippers. Now, in America, you might take getting a nicer-than-expected hotel room in stride, because the difference isn’t THAT great. When you live in a village on a mountain, you immediately don the fluffy bathrobe and start wearing it around.

Night one at the conference was spent catching up with volunteers we hadn’t seen in a while. Day one, the next day, we had a bunch of PST-or-Staging-esque sessions about safety and security. One of them involved flipcharts. Flipcharts are going to haunt my dreams forever. That evening, we discovered ping pong tables in one of the buildings, so a G6 and I played a bunch of games while trying not to injure ourselves catastrophically. I will spare you the physical-layout details of why major injury was likely, and will only mention that I slammed my head on a low part of the ceiling, the G6 slammed his heel against a table corner, and both of us nearly fell down a set of stairs. We were playing to hone our skills for matches against one of the Georgian PC staff, who is a crazy ping pong freak[12], and who I have vowed to beat before my service is over. So far I’m something like 0-8 against him. I played him better at a conference in July than at this conference. I blame the head injury.

Day two was the important part of the conference[13], when volunteers gave their own sessions on a variety of topics, and much of the day was spent selecting the various volunteer committees, groups, and activities we were interested in, and becoming involved in them. Some of them require applications, some of them you could just show up for. There are quite a lot of volunteer-led committees and groups, consisting of anything from a grant-giving committee to running summer sports camps for girls to running the volunteer newsletter. I was already a de-facto part of ECO Project, as I’ve mentioned several times in this space, so I attended all the ECO meetings, and I also signed up to be an editor for the newsletter, which fashions itself as basically a satirical writing showcase. I also met briefly with a fellow volunteer who has set up a volunteer resource web portal, to see how we could make it an ever-improving project going forward. So, with ECO Project, the Tamada (the name of the newsletter), the website, and a couple projects I was already heavily or nominally involved in, I ended up leaving the conference with four and a half non-primary projects.[14] So, as I said long, long ago at the beginning of this post, if I don’t have much to do for my organization on any given day, I can turn my attention to one of my many other projects. My documentary club and ECO Project, for instance, are going to take up a ton of my time. When I was discussing and signing up for these things, I wasn’t anticipating this being a benefit of doing them; I was just interested in them. But as the subsequent weeks have passed, I’ve realized how great it is to (almost) always have something I can be thinking about, even if nothing is happening at my office (or, at least, nothing to which I can contribute).

After these volunteer-led sessions and an afternoon of hanging out, it was finally time for the big Thanksgiving Dinner That Is A Week After Thanksgiving Shut Up. I was really impressed with how it turned out; the food was great, and the U.S. Ambassador showed up, too. He’s a great guy, and we talked about football and the political situation a little before dinner. After dinner, he spoke to the group about what has been happening and what might happen soon. It was fascinating, shockingly full of candor, and obviously not relay-able on a blog. I don’t think I can say enough good things about this guy. He either has a Pretense Level of zero or a Masters in Acting Without Pretense from Julliard. And he seemed to remember who I was even though I hadn’t spoken to him in three months.

So there was Thanksgiving dinner, and a night of poker with some G6s[15], and that was All Vol. Since it’s, as far as I know, the only time all year that every volunteer comes together, it was actually depressing, in a way, to leave, knowing that by the time we have another one of these, the G6 group will be gone, back in America shopping at supermarkets and driving in cars and going helicopter skiing WHENEVER THEY WANT TO.

Reinvigorated by a four-day conference break, I arrived back in Chokhatauri ready to do some work. Which was great, because after one (1) day of work at my actual site, I left for another conference, this time a short, day and a half language training in Batumi. It was pretty tough, mentally, to study language all day again, and it made me sort of wonder how we stayed sane during training, when we did that six days a week for two months. Until I remembered that we did not, in fact, stay sane during training. So we learned phrases like, “I’m calm!!!” (exclamation points included) and the slang for, “go away” which translates more closely to, “[expletive] off, [expletive].” I have a multiple-page handout full of slang phrases now, all of which I would of course be hesitant to ever use, in case a phrase translated on the handout to mean, “you’re annoying,” actually means, “your mother is a [expletive]” in real life usage. I gave it to a coworker to vett the important ones for me, which she did, but she could just as easily have been [expletive]ing with me, so really I should just put this handout in my pocket and never, ever look at it again. Cross-cultural adjustment, friends! It can be such a [expletive]!

Reinvigorated by a two-day language-learning break, I returned to work for one (1) day of work and mother of god I had another conference to go to, this time a Host Family Regional Meeting in Kutaisi that my host brother was supposed to attend. I did not do much at this meeting. But all this conferencing tuckered me out, and I stayed home all weekend, one (1) day of which I did not even get out of my pajamas. I am not sure whether this was a Major Cultural Faux Pas. Nobody seemed to mind, but you never know whether it’s all smiles as you sit at the table eating dinner in your slippers but everyone is secretly thinking the slang phrase for “go away.”

So, now, three days after the Day of Endless Pajamas, I am at work writing this blog entry because there isn’t much to do today. On Thursday, I must go to Ozurgeti to have a documentary club meeting, then Friday I am going to Batumi to talk about higher education to some group or other for a friend’s education fair, then this weekend I will be in Tbilisi having, at current count, three meetings, then two Mondays after that I leave for London. I’m a regular business jet-setter. If you replace “jet” with “marshutka.” I know it sounds glamourous, friends, but don’t be too jealous. Marshutkas are pretty uncomfortable, and wearing a nice fluffy bathrobe only mitigates it so much.

Until next time. Part Two of Places I Can Walk To In Chokhatauri is STILL on deck, but I have not forgotten about it, because I know how you clamor and wail and gnash your teeth, waiting.

[1]This is a funny joke that cleverly uses the Georgian language element in which "u-[word]-o" means "without [word]." By “funny joke,” I’m sure you know that I really mean “u-funny-o.”
[2]Although this is generous terminology to use for this particular grassy area.
[3]Our service started on August 24th, I believe, so that is technically the date from which our two years are measured. Thus, if you are reading this and are planning on scheduling an Important Life Event, you now have no I-didn’t-know excuse for scheduling it before August 24th, 2009.
[4]For instance, this is a rare instance when I'm writing a blog post at work.
[5]Usually it's held in Tbilisi, but the recent conflicts led them to change the location to an off-season resort hotel on a mountain near Tbilisi instead. They always pick off-location resorts, for cost reasons, so we end up having our July Supervisors’ Conference at a ski resort that is utterly u-snow-o, and our end-of-November AllVol at a summer lake resort that is as cold as the Devil’s heartstrings, but also sans snow.
[6]Four, if you count the fact that it is, as far as I can tell, the only time each year that every volunteer from both groups is together. This conference was the first time I’d ever seen one or two of the G6 volunteers. Kind of weird, when you think about it. That's why I don't.
[7]Out-of-nowhere in the sense that it had not been snowing to that point. I had, actually, been warned about this blizzard by a friend, but I’d been getting warned about huge snowfalls for two weeks and they hadn’t come yet. I believe my exact words to this other volunteer were, “I’ll believe it when I see it.” So.
[8]This is probably not true.
[9]One of the things I’m most looking forward to about my impending holiday travels is the plane ride, actually. I’m wondering how hardened I have become to sitting in one uncomfortable place and not moving for several hours, since that happens with some frequency here. I mean, I sat on a bus for literally 8.5 hours. And I used to complain bitterly about the four hour flight from LAX to O’Hare. And they give you PEANUTS on a plane! No matter how hardened I become, though, I will still always favor immediate death for anyone who puts his or her seat back without first asking for and receiving permission from the person behind him or her. You have my word. I wouldn't go all "Peace Corps" on you like that.
[10]Also beer. You come to this blog for the truth, I give you the truth.
[11]This anecdote is absolutely true, and happened directly after another just-as-funny but tangential and possibly incriminating anecdote. I told this second anecdote to a volunteer friend here a few weeks ago, and she paused before replying, “That was almost as amusing as the first time you told it.” Ouch. I think telling this story might be providing some sort of circumstantial evidence against me, so I’m going to slam the brakes on right here.
[12]I mean this as a compliment. Not sarcastically, either. He’s crazy freaky good at ping pong.
[13]In a relating-back-to-the-beginning-of-this-gargantuan-post way. I am not saying that safety and security is not important, Peace Corps staff! Please do not send me to America.
[14]One’s “primary project,” in Peace Corps parlance, is one’s school or organization. I’m counting my documentary club, which is sort of part of my organization’s mission, as half a secondary project.
[15]Unless we are not allowed to play tetri(penny)-stakes poker, in which case we discussed Proust while telling really, really filthy jokes to each other. Interestingly, I hung out a lot more with G6s at this conference than I had at all before that. Of course, our two groups hadn’t had a lot of prior chances to get to know one another, do being able to do so was another benefit of All Vol that I hadn’t anticipated. Usually, I have a cadre of volunteer friends I spend most of my time with when volunteers congregate, but either we all wanted to spread out a bit or we were getting sort of sick of one another, because we kept more separate than I expected us to. You care about absolutely none of this, unless you are a fellow volunteer reading this, in which case go do your job. There are taxpayers watching us.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

Too tired to write a post title. Or: Also too tired to write a funny joke here.

Hello, friends. It has been quite a while since I have stopped by. This is because I have been so ridiculously busy. After tomorrow, I will only have been in my actual office for four out of a possible ten work days this week and last week. Tomorrow I am making my third trip away from site in the last two weeks for Peace Corps official meetings; last Wednesday through Sunday I was at our annual All-Volunteer conference, this Tuesday and Wednesday I was at a Language Intra-Service-Training in Batumi, and tomorrow I will be at a Host Family Regional Meeting in Kutaisi. I should probably put a picture of myself in my office, so my coworkers remember what I look like. Incidentally, what I look like increasingly is Chewbacca. This is only a slight exaggeration. I have not touched my face or hair with scissors, other than a couple minor moustachal-trimmings, in at least two and a half months. It is epic. As I mentioned in my last post, I cannot tell whether everyone in Chokhatauri is simply ambivalent about this, or if they're suppressing a deep loathing. It seems sort of in between. But when I mention shaving it to other volunteers they all tell me not to. So I'm thinking of keeping it at least until Christmas, to see if it affects my status during the "random" passenger checks at airports.

So anyway, the first of those meetings was the most influential in terms of the Dan Stress Level Index, otherwise known as the YOU HAVE A LOT OF SH#T TO DO GO DO IT Index. AllVol is where volunteers, among other things, begin to become responsible for all the secondary projects and committees that we're involved in here alongside our primary missions, which since the last AllVol have been led by the volunteer group one year ahead of us. Now we're assuming the mantle for these projects, and I suddenly have a lot of things on my plate, because I signed up for a couple things and then realized I already had a bunch of other things. I kind of want to go into the last couple weeks for you in detail, because they were quite eventful, so hopefully I can get to that this weekend (perhaps promising such in print will force me to do it), at which point I'll describe AllVol and IST for you and tell you the number of things that AREN'T EVEN MY ACTUAL JOB that I have stupidly committed to (hint: the answer is a number between four and six). Until then, just know that I am veryvery busy all the way up to the holidays, when I am going to join my family in London for ten days unless I get arrested under suspicion of hiding a bomb in my beard before I can get to Heathrow, and if there is something you need that I don't get back to you on in this time frame, I am very sorry. But I will attempt valiantly to keep blogging, so keep checking back for fun updates like, "This hotel room has HOW MANY bathrooms?" and, "Why you think the first snowfall of your service will be all fun and games until it turns into a huge blizzard on the exact day you have a journey to the capital ahead of you and that journey turns into sitting on a bus for eight and a half hours next to a man with a suspicious scab."

Hope all is well. More this weekend. And, yes, I know I promised something like this last time. This time I am not blatantly lying to you. I would never do that. Again.