Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Turning A New Leaf. Or: From Vlad (Putin) to Vlad (the Impaler). Or: 28 Days in Skeletor. Or: Moving into my new apartment in Rustavi! Excited!

Friends, if you are reading this note on Facebook, please click through to my actual blog -- I haven't posted on it for months (if you need catching up: I got too frustrated at my old site, moved to a new site, started a new job, prepared to move into a new apartment, got attacked by Russians, and have spent the last month in a hotel in Armenia. Also, I bought a cool new t-shirt!), preferring in the last couple of weeks to update everyone on my situation simply on Facebook, just because it seemed weird to use the blog. It already seemed like a relic. But life, eventually, moves on, and so I move back to the blog with a new title, a new graphic, and soon enough a new angry email from my new Peace Corps supervisors, who will not be amused at my political commentary.

Yes, friends, new Peace Corps supervisors. If you've been reading my Facebook-only notes recently -- and I really, really appreciate that a lot of people seem to have been doing so -- you read in my last note that I have decided against returning to Georgia, at least in the short-term. It was a wrenching decision -- imagine that you had been living there for 14 months, nearly three of them in Gori, which was hit hardest by the Russians, and then see this, this, and this -- but, in the end, I couldn't confidently assume that I would end up doing any good by going back, nor was I sure what I'd even do once I got there. Many of my friends are going back, and I hope they can help. I wish I was there with them. But the decision just wasn't sitting right, so I had to turn my attention elsewhere. Without job prospects in America, I looked at transferring to another Peace Corps country; there weren't many good options for volunteers who have already served a year, but I seem to have been lucky enough to find the perfect option for me. I'll be leaving for Bucharest sometime around the end of this week, and will be serving out the rest of my Peace Corps service in Romania.

I don't know much about Romania yet. The things that one can learn from the internet never end up being quite how things are once you actually get someplace, so I'm trying to hold off any judgment until I'm in Romania seeing it for myself, but everything I've heard about the country and the Peace Corps program there is good. It seems like what we were all hoping Georgia WOULD be in a few years -- a newly admitted member of the EU, with rapidly improving economic and infrastructure systems. It will even be adopting the Euro in 2012, after which I can't imagine Peace Corps remaining in the country (volunteers would become too depressed after realizing that we get paid the equivalent of 2.37 EUR per month). There are exciting things happening there, and hopefully I can be a part of some of them. I'll be living near (in? not sure yet) the Romanian city of Brașov (pronounced Brashov), working (I think) with an organization that disseminates information about social services. So I've spent the last few days researching the country (from their Peace Corps Welcome Book: "American and local fast food restaurants are available in many parts of the country." Yes!) and attempting to start learning Romanian, which seems to be sort of like Latin with a Slavic accent. I don't know what will come of my decision -- as I've said in this and other spaces before, I've been in Peace Corps long enough to know that it's usually a bad sign to be excited about something -- but I'm at least cautiously optimistic, and I'm ready to get started.

One would think that I'd be a bit reticent to jump right into Romania, with so much emotional energy still invested in Georgia, and I would have been last week or the week before. But today is Day 22 in Skeletor (our intentionally, but not particularly amusingly, mangled pronunciation of the Armenian town our hotel is located in), and we're ready to just Get The Hell Out of here. I am not sure I will ever be comfortable in a hotel again. The next time I go on vacation, I would not be surprised to find myself checking into a hotel, breaking out into a profuse sweat, and then checking out immediately just to make sure that I can. Each of the past 21 days has been nearly identical to the last – we eat the same foods at the same times and do the same things with the same people and eventually we descend into the same fits of madness. Some volunteers have escaped, and those of us who remain can see the end, but it is not yet here. Volunteers who were taking cash-in-lieu (of a Peace Corps-issued plane ticket home to America) began to leave on Friday, and departures continued until yesterday. Most of our friends have left -- everyone who remains here is waiting on a transfer. It's a profoundly unsettling feeling, saying goodbye to friends you didn't expect to say goodbye to for another year, and not even getting the chance to do it all at once. After fleeing Georgia unexpectedly, then receiving the news that we would not be going back, then enduring two weeks of uncertainty about our futures, then leaving each other one by one, we've finally come to the point of complete numbness. You could snap a kitten in half right in front of me at this point, and I wouldn't have the energy to feel anything about it. Perhaps at some point I'll get enough of it back to write something poignant about this experience, but right now I just want to get the f#$% out of here, and start the next phase of my journey in Romania. Check back in this space, and perhaps soon I'll have something better to say.

I'll save the most important thing for last: I've been telling some of you over the last couple of weeks that volunteers have been setting up mechanisms for donating to the rebuilding process in Georgia. As I mentioned above, Georgia was on course to join the rapidly reforming and improving economies of eastern Europe, to join NATO, and to stabilize as a western democracy. The Russian attack (NB: I've heard that public opinion in the west has begun to turn against Georgia and its role in its own demise. I'll be clear in saying that Mikhail Saakashvili, the Georgian president, was drawn into a trap and made a rash decision with devastating consequences. The fault for that decision lies with him. But the Russian response was not only clearly the result of months of planning, but was the equivalent of shooting a ballistic missile at a paraplegic. It was an indefensible overreaction, and destroyed the lives of hundreds of thousands of civilians who had nothing to do with the politics. Just to be clear.) set Georgia's progress back many years, ruining five years of growth and foreign investment, and shattering the lives of hundreds of thousands of now-displaced people, not to mention the hundreds of people who were casualties of the bombings and other military action. It is heartbreaking to see the goal that we were all working towards set so far backward so quickly, and the only thing that many of us can do is urge those we know to help the rehabilitation process begin. Thousands of refugees remain in IDP camps, unable to return to destroyed homes, and the necessary aid is just beginning to get to them. We've heard stories of people sleeping on the floor in schools, people without access to food in tent cities, and other inevitable consequences of such a large number of people being displaced so suddenly.

Several mechanisms are in the works for former volunteers in Georgia, their friends, their families, and their communities to donate to the beginning of the relief effort. A US-based organization is being founded that will be able to provide umbrella aid to many different local Georgian NGOs to purchase supplies for IDPs and to start projects that can help get communities back on their feet, but it is not finalized yet. For now, volunteers have identified four organizations, each of which has wire transfer capability, that can be trusted to use donated funds appropriately and to get the money to the right places. We're calling our effort the Megobari Project, after the Georgian word მეგობარი (megobari), which means "friend." Please visit The Megobari Project's website, and forward the information to anyone you know. I'll continue to use this blog to pass along fundraising information, but for now please visit the website and consider how you might be able to help. It would mean a lot not just to me, but to all of us who have worked so hard to help ordinary Georgian people improve their lives and their country.

More to come soon, friends.

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