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.

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