Thursday, March 20, 2008

March Madness. Or: Mail time.

Happy NCAA Tournament Opening Day! I hope you're all taking the day off of school or work to properly appreciate the best four-day holiday our great nation has to offer. I, of course, will be missing (at best) nearly all of it, seeing as how I'm over here on a mountain, despite the fact that my alma mater, UCLA, is loaded and the pick of many experts to win it all. I hope that they do, even though it would be pretty funny for them to lose in the Final Four two years in a row, both times with me in attendance at great effort and expense, only to win Banner 12 when I am over here on this mountain. Pretty funny indeed.

This week has brought challenges anew to my little corner of the world. My organization seems to have been struck with a case of Creativity Paralysis; there is an upcoming grant competition I told them about, and I have been encouraging them to come up with a "program" of possible projects so we can have some meetings with donor organizations, but they cannot seem to think of a single new project idea. They ask me if *I* have any ideas, and I tell them that it's all well and good if I ply them with project ideas for two years, but then what happens when I leave? They consider this conundrum, then ignore it and ask me again for a project idea. I am also encouraging them (encouraging is the wrong word; it is more like demanding in an increasingly forceful manner) to conduct needs assessment in the community -- to go out into the community, somehow, to discuss problems, issues, and ideas with the community, so the community feels like more of an active participant in the work of the organization. They flatly deny this to be possible. From their perspective, asking anyone in the community what he/she needs or what he/she would want from our organization would elicit a one-word response: "Money." "A job." "New gas pipes" (that last one is threewordsshutup). They think that it would not be at all possible to engage community members further than this. And, if they're unwilling to do this, and unable or unwilling to come up with their own ideas (which are less likely to work anyway if they're not conceived and conducted with the help and enthusiasm of the community), then we're in a bit of a pickle. You are fascinated by this, I am sure, so I shall of course update you endlessly on the ins and outs of the Exciting Saga of Whether Dan Can Do Any Work Whatsoever Here.

Speaking of doing work, I am in receipt of an email from a soon-to-be G8, who will be in the verysameown Business and Social Entrepreneurship program that I am in! Her name is Theresa Marie, and she asked me enough questions to fill a book. Instead of filling a book (I think we were told at Orientation that, if we WERE to write a book during/about Peace Corps service, that it would be the property of the United States Government. Since we're volunteers, or something. I may have this wrong. But, just to be safe, I'm not writing ANYTHING while I'm here, government! No, sir! Not writing anything! This is just like screenwriters during the Writers' Strike. What? Me? Writing? No way! Ha ha! Hey, look over there!), I replied to her email, and I thought it would be pertinent to the other G8s who have found and will find this blog to repost my answers. Don't be shy, G8s! Ask away! But, seriously, if more than, like, two of you email me, eff that. I'm not MADE of time.

Hi Daniel,
I stumbled on your blog while looking for current information about Peace Corps Georgia. I am taking you at your word and emailing you with questions.

Hi Theresa Marie. Your group will actually be getting an "Alternative Handbook" (I mentioned it on my blog) that will answer any question you have much more thoroughly, from the perspective of lots of volunteers, than I could. I don't know when you'll be getting it; the staff here should be sending it to you soon. But I can answer your questions in brief, and then if you have further questions that perhaps the AH doesn't answer adequately, I and the other volunteers can do our best to answer them. But, let me warn you from the outset -- the experience is going to be different than what you think it will be no matter WHAT you think it will be, and no matter how much preparation you do. Just prepare the best you can and learn what you can about the country, and then be ready to go with the flow once you get here. No two volunteers' experiences are exactly the same, and none of us could have predicted last year at this time what we'd be like after almost a year here. It's just the kind of experience that can only be experienced, rather than explained. But don't let that fact scare you.

I recently accepted my invitation to do business development and social entrepreneurship (or whatever the title is) and basically wanted to know what the job is in real application.

There's no one answer to this, and I'm probably the person you LEAST want to ask. All of our organizations are different, and my organization is the smallest, newest, and the one in the smallest town. My experience and my job is vastly different than, say, the BSE volunteer who works at a business consulting organization in Batumi. The things we have in common are basically that our jobs, at the broadest level, are to get our organizations to work more efficiently, effectively, and to transfer knowledge, concepts, and best practices about things like long-term planning, project design, and fundraising. How well doing so goes for you depends on your patience, drive, and the luck of your site draw.

I also have questions about what to pack – beyond what is specified in the “welcome book”. Aka what did you bring and where really glad you brought, what do you wish you would have brought?

I'm going to save this question for the Alternative Handbook, since it will be more extensive than I could be simply from my own recollection, and since it will have a female-specific packing list, written by a female volunteer. I will say that I'm most glad that I brought my laptop and an external hard drive -- if you're the sort of person who uses a computer with any frequency (and you may not be), you will really want to bring a laptop, and I'd suggest bringing at LEAST one large external hard drive. We use them to store the illegally pirated movie files that we swap. We would feel bad about this, but there is no other way to see American movies here, unless you enjoy old movies dubbed into Russian, or bring a lot of legally-purchased DVDs, which is not an efficient use of packing space. I wish I'd bought more music before I left, and ripped more legally-purchased DVDs to my own external hard drive. You'll have a lot of downtime here.

Anything you wish you had known before going? Any general advice?

Georgian. How to cook. Georgian. How to unfreeze pipes with my bare hands. Seriously, the answer to that question could fill a book, and would probably be totally useless until you actually get here. Sorry. This is probably not what you're looking for, but, honestly, the thing I wish I'd known is that my preconceived ideas about living here were going to be wrong. Just be ready for anything.

How often are you able to communicate with people from home? Have you been able to go home and how often/complicated what that?

If you're a BSE volunteer, you're probably going to have internet at least almost every day. It will probably be slow, it may stop working frequently, and it will be subject to whether or not you have electricity at a particular moment, but you'll (probably) have it. So communicating with people online will probably be easy. And you can Skype, if you have Skype. If not, it's expensive to get phone calls (and way too expensive to make them yourself...practice your texting dexterity), but there are things you can use to make it cheaper. I'm just not 100% sure what they are. My parents deal with it, and they're the only ones who I talk to on the phone. I haven't gone home yet -- most people don't until at least their one year mark -- but a lot of
people do during the summer of their first year. I'm planning to go back in August. It can be complicated and very expensive, but a little less so if you plan way way way way way ahead.

Also, do you know any other volunteers who would not mind answering questions (especially women doing business development so I get their feel for things)?

I will ask the women who are in BSE if they mind me giving out their email addresses, and I'll let you know.

Looking forward to meeting you and everyone else in June. Thank you so much!!!

For sure. Not a problem. Good luck in your preparations, stay away from expectations, and spend your last few months eating a lot of different kinds of food, preferably ethnic cuisine, because once you get here you will eat the same thing every night for two years. Oh, and pack multiple pairs of really good long underwear, top and bottom. You won't take it off ever during the winter, and you'll want to be able to rotate one into the wash occasionally.

Theresa Wilson
Miami University

When I decided to write this post, I had a couple of other things I thought of that I wanted to have said in my email. Now I forget what they were. Maybe I should drink less wine.

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