Monthly Archives: June 2014

The Big Day(s) – installment #2

So, now for the second half of the stress marathon. Last post, I described the process of finding out where we will all be living for the next two years, and where we will be working, and who we will be working with. The next part was even crazier!

After spending an evening and the following morning with the Executive Director of CHCA in Bazaleti, after lunch we all went our separate ways via bus, martshuka and cars. Some had a very long drive in front of them, but for me, it was only about a 45-minute drive to Gori in the CHCA car. As we arrived in the city, it was a bit familiar since I had been there on our first field trip as IOD (that’s Individual and Organizational Development; I won’t type that out again) trainees – I visited the Georgian Young Lawyers Association that time around, and the CHCA office is quite close by. Up we went to the office, where several office staff, including my counterpart – the person I’ll be working directly with on a daily basis, Marta – were waiting with champagne, flowers and a large, extremely sweet cake. It was a lovely welcome.

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The hallway entrance to our office

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My desk is the teeny little one …

I feel at home here already.

I feel at home here already.

Inquiring minds may want to know – what does CHCA stand for? What do they do? Well, CHCA stands for “Charity Humanitarian Centre Abkhazeti.” Abkhazeti is one of the two occupied and/or semiautonomous regions in Georgia (the nomenclature really depends on who is talking), but in any event, CHCA serves not only IDP’s (internally displaced people from both Abkhazeti and South Ossetia, but other vulnerable populations as well. The focus of the organization is self-reliance, and therefore most of the programs relate to this goal in one way or another, including a robust micro-finance program that’s very interesting, along with a homeowners’ association initiative in IDP camps, a youth program in schools, and several other efforts. Those who are interested can find out more here: http://www.chca.org.ge/itst/. Don’t freak out when you see the elvish writing – there’s an “english” button in the upper right hand corner. And please ignore the extremely unflattering picture of me, yikes! Happily it only appears in the Georgian version, so just switch over quickly. You can also like CHCA’s Facebook page and keep up with organizational happenings … here: https://www.facebook.com/CHCAGeorgia/info. As to what I will be doing for the next two years … well, time will tell. It will take a while for me to learn my way around all of their programs, in the offices and the field, but I do believe I’ll be helping with planning and philanthropic long-term strategies, as well as the usual Peace Corps trainings and projects.

So then we all piled into the car again and drove to my new host family’s house. Here the situation became slightly less idyllic, but really just because it was so awkward. The family is very nice indeed – a mother and father, both of whom work as food inspectors, and two daughters, one 14 (Salome) and one about 10 (Nuca). The mom speaks some English, and Salome is eager to use her advanced language skills with me. However, perhaps due to nervousness, all of us were sort of struck mute on that first night. It was a very strange experience. I literally forgot every word of Georgian I knew. On the plus side, the house is very nice – hot water and everything! Posh Corps, indeed.

The next day things improved somewhat, as my very limited language skills, such as they are, began to return, and we started to get to know each other a little better. In the late afternoon, one of my co-workers (and a friend of the family, Ianze) came over, and we walked into town to meet a friend, see the Stalin Museum garden and then hike up to Gori Castle. I’ve read several accounts of when this castle was built, ranging from the 1st century A.D. to the 13th, but in any event, not much of it is left now. However, it does provide an amazing view of the city.

That's right - it's Stalin. The statute, not me!

That’s right – it’s Stalin. The statute, not me!

L-R - my host sister, Salome, me, Iantze, and my host sister Nuca.

L-R – my host sister, Salome, me, Iantze, and my host sister Nuca.

A view of Gori from the ruins of Gori Castle

A view of Gori from the ruins of Gori Castle

The next day was spent at the office. I walked to and from – it’s about 2 miles or so, so that will be good exercise! Tuesday morning was the most interesting day. With Russell Pereira, one of my fellow Gori-PCV coming along for the ride, we visited an IDP settlement, Berbuki, where CHCA has several programs. This IDP camp looked as decrepit as the other camps I’ve visited, but the spirit there was significantly higher – I believe in large part because of the micro-lending and homeowners programs that CHCA runs there, which allows many inhabitants to gain a higher level of financial independence. At this camp, people have built communal ovens to bake bread, they a nice small shop, and every house has a beautiful garden with beans, tomatoes and cherry trees. We visited 4 or 5 “beneficiaries” as they are called, and each was so proud of their business, and so grateful to CHCA – it was a very illuminating visit. Here are some pics:

OK, well this post is running way long, and frankly there’s still so much more I could say! It was an exhausting, stressful and exhilarating trip, all in one. I am really anticipating getting back to Gori and getting started with the real work – the reason why I joined the Peace Corps to begin with.

In line with my vow to tell stories (pretty much shredded that one in this post, sorry – but so much to tell!), here’s something that happened at the IDP camp. They say pictures never lie, but sometimes they don’t tell the whole story. When we were with the family drinking wine and toasting, the picture shows us looking so happy. And indeed, we were happy to be with them. But one man’s toast brought us all up short. He toasted to returning to his home. He said that the camp could never be his home, and he wanted to see his home again before he died. Whatever the politics of the situation, it was an unutterably sad moment, because it was so personal and real. We toasted, we drank to his home, and we moved on – but we, meaning both me and Russell, will not forget the look on that man’s face when he made the toast. This was the kind of instruction and knowledge one can only get in the field, and we are starting that process now with a valuable lesson.

The Big Day(s), aka “I am completely overwhelmed”

As the big day approached, my level of anxiety approached stratospheric levels. On one day I would receive (a) my mid-training language score, (b) my permanent work assignment, (c) my permanent host family assignment, and (d) figure out where I would be going, and with whom, to Tbilisi next week. The last one paled against the rest, particularly (b) and (c)! OK – as most of you dedicated blog followers (all 11 of you) know, having seen my FB posts, I received an excellent assignment, and did not utterly humiliate myself language-wise. I will write more about this in another post. For today, I’m just going to tell the story of how the Peace Corps Georgia made all these announcements.

Language test first. The test was about 20 minutes of conversation with a native Georgian, speaking at normal conversational speed. In other words, close to incomprehensible. Nonetheless, I tested at “beginner intermediate plus.” The highest anyone went on this test (that I heard about) was “beginner advanced plus,” with most people testing at my level or “beginner advanced.” So while I didn’t do as well as I would have wished, I did ok – considering my advanced age – I guess. They gave us our scores in envelopes with comments from our tester. Mine mainly said I need to speak in more complete sentences, and pointed out two occasions where I used the wrong verb, and I mean really, really wrong. When I read what I said I was dumbstruck. I mean, why would I use the word for “to live” instead of “to read?” They don’t even sound anything alike! Arghhhhhh!

OK, ok … onward. Next stressful experience. We all troop downstairs to the playground (read asphalt jungle), where PC staff has laid out a roped outline of Georgia, with all the assignment sites in their approximate place on slips of paper held down with rocks. We all stood in a circle around the map and were handed envelopes containing another volunteer’s information. One person volunteered to start and read … my name! I was the very first to be called. When the word Gori was called, I nearly wept with relief and happiness. Gori is a pretty cool city, about 50,000, close to dead center of the country – yes, birthplace of Stalin for those of you prone to google things, save yourself the time. I’ll be working with a great organization called “Charity Humanitarian Centre Abkahazeti” or CHCA. Their mission is as follows: “Charity Humanitarian Center Abkhazeti, established in 1995, is a Georgian, non-governmental, non-profit organization. Our mission is to increase the role of individuals and communities in building civil society and strengthening democracy and to improve the social and economic conditions of internally displaced and other vulnerable populations through building capacity and increasing self-reliance.”

Then I read my envelope, which was for my fellow clustermate Patrick, sadly he was in Tbilisi due to an illness (since fully recovered), so our Deputy Director stood in for him and he listened on someone’s cellphone. This process went on and on, and I ran around taking photos to send to everyone later until I was warned that I was leaving my site without permission, ha-ha. In the end, four people were selected to work in Gori – 1 teacher, and 3 nonprofit organizational volunteers. These are great people and I’m very happy to be serving in the same city with them.

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Holding my assignment envelope and grinning widely

The Mighty Gori 4 = l-r, Kate Schwenk, Rachel Blair, Russell Pereira and me

The Mighty Gori 4 = l-r, Kate Schwenk, Rachel Blair, Russell Pereira and me

So I felt like I lost 20 pounds when this was all finished, sadly that was purely metaphorical, but still ….

The very next day we all climbed into martshukas and drove about an hour to Bazaleti, the same place we were for orientation 7 weeks ago. This time, though, we were at a very nice hotel, where we all took hot showers at once as soon as we checked in. Then – stressful event #3 – we were “introduced” to our new supervisors. I put “introduce” in quotes because I wouldn’t really describe it exactly that way. What happened was that all the new supervisors were lined up along a long walkway, and we were lined up opposite them. Names were called by region. Each party came forward, and in front of all 300+ people, greeted each other and met for the first time. This is how we were introduced to our host families when we arrived in Khashuri. We were warned back then to “go right” to perform the traditional cheek kissing demanded of all Georgians at every single greeting (especially men – very interesting), but of course there were multiple collisions. This time I’d say we were all a lot more accomplished and no head stitches were needed.

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OK, you get the picture, literally. Lots of kissing and hugging between strangers with hundreds of people looking on. Oh, that’s not stressful at all!

I was one of the very last this time. My heart was beating so fast I was worried about passing out, but out steps this elegant, beautiful young woman, who speaks to me in impeccable English and gives me a heartfelt smile. Another 20 metaphorical pounds lost. Eka and I spent the entire evening talking. We were the very last to leave the dining room, hours after everyone else, as she went over the organization’s history, mission, programs, and challenges. I’ll write more about this later, suffice it to say I was completely captivated.

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At the end of the evening, I returned to my hotel room, head spinning with all the information I was assimilating, and was greeted by a scene of excited PC volunteers partying, playing pool, and generally having fun. I’ll end this overly long post with an image that I think says it all, in an odd way. Make of it what you will, just remember – it was a very stressful couple of days! Next post will be about my trip to Gori,meeting my new host family, working with my new co-workers, and visiting an IDP camp where CHCA runs some really innovative programs.

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Kutaisi, or a hot shower

Last weekend, as Facebook denizens know, I took a 2-day “cultural trip” (meaning non-Peace-Corps-supervised) trip to the city of Kutaisi, in Western Georgia. Friends, it was glorious, in several different ways. First, aforementioned non-supervision. I completely understand and acquiesce to the Peace Corps’ need to know our whereabouts at all times – one need only think back to the extraordinarily efficient and effective 2008 evacuation when the war started here – but the lifestyle of being told who to be with, and when, all the time, even though expected and unavoidable during an intensive training period, was wearing a bit thin. So the second glorious thing was the chance to spend some quality time with fellow trainees not of my “cluster” (that unfortunate word again). While my clustermates are great folks and I enjoy spending time with them, a break and some new personalities was a lot of fun.

Breakfast. My happy expression is directly related to the "milky coffee" I am drinking.

Breakfast. My happy expression is directly related to the “milky coffee” I am drinking.

Dinner. Copious amounts of Georgian wine and beer. Live music. Good company. Fun.

Dinner. Copious amounts of Georgian wine and beer. Live music. Good company. Fun.

Aforesaid good live music.

Aforesaid good live music.

So, as these pictures illustrate, there was a fair amount of eating and drinking. There was a concerted effort to get me drunk, not sure why, perhaps to garner photos to use for future blackmail, but in spite of best efforts, it failed. Maybe next time, guys.

We stayed at a very, very nice “hostel,” I hesitate to even call it that, it was so nice. The 3 girls (well, ok, two women, and one very attractive young girl) shared a room. Here they are after a late night well-remedied by a bathroom that surpassed all of our wildest dreams. Not only a western-style toilet that had enough water pressure to flush, but a shower. A real shower, with real water pressure, and real HOT WATER. Honestly, there is little on this earth as sweet.

My two fellow travelers

My two fellow travelers

Kutaisi skyline out of our hostel window.

So next we all embarked on a day of touring adventures, joined by some more cultural trip adventurers who arrived on a morning martshutka. The city itself was just beautiful. It reminded me a little of Prague – cobblestone streets, lots of ironwork, very old buildings, and very green streets. I loved it. Very hot, oh yes … very. But like New York, even during a heat wave, worth being there.

A trip out to some famous caves was a bust, due to enormous numbers of schoolchildren taking up all the tour spots. Resilient Peace Corps volunteers (ok trainees) that we are, we split up into groups and went off to other attractions. This rather complicated logistic exercise resulted in the most crowded back seat of a cab I have ever seen.

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5 people in the backseat of a small cab. They put me in the front seat, I just don’t know why, lol..

I visited a wonderful old Greek Orthodox church up in the hills above the city. There were two weddings and a baptism going on, along with singing, dancing, and ceremonial walks around the church. Inside there were beautiful icons, alters, burning candles and incense. We all covered our heads and wandered around – no seats or formal services. I had not been in a Greek Orthodox church since my time in Israel and the Old City over 35 years ago and had forgotten what a mysterious atmosphere is evoked there.

Inside the church

Inside the church

Bagrati Cathedral

Bagrati Cathedral

Wedding - curiously modern in such an ancient setting

Wedding – curiously modern in such an ancient setting.

Baptism

Baptism

One of many icons

One of many icons

After a very long walk and bus ride back to the McDonalds/martshuka station/PCV meeting place (fantastically nice bathrooms there, too, btw – my snobbism about Ronald has been completely obliterated by those bathrooms, and a McFlurry, locally known as a “MacPluri”), some very intense haggling, and a ipod-less ride to Khashuri, I am now back in the swing of training. A few short ending notes – took my mid-course language test this weekend. All I can say is that I don’t think I embarrassed myself – I was able to answer the questions, though some had to be repeated, and used some verbs, some nouns, several post-positions (in Georgian, most of our prepositions are tacked onto the end of words, changing their spelling and pronunciation in the process), some different cases (dative, nominative, possessive, vocative – don’t ask), and even, once, a verb and an infinitive verb in one sentence! Yes! However, I spoke only in present tense, made many errors, hesitated a lot, and corrected myself often. So who knows. I’ll get the results this Thursday, which, as if we haven’t got enough to be nervous about, will also be the day that we find out our permanent assignments. The very next day we depart to our new sites to meet our supervisors and our host families. So no blog posts for a week or two, but look to Facebook for a quick announcement of the what and where before I leave on what promises to be another very interesting trip.

Until then, goodbye to Kutaisi – I’ll always remember that shower, and a lot more.

IDP Settlement visit

This week all of the trainees participated in job shadowing, meaning we found our own way around the country to meet up with Peace Corps volunteers already working at NGO’s or at schools. As an IOD (individual and organizational development) trainee, naturally I went to an NGO. Most IOD volunteers went in teams of 2 or 3, since there are more IOD trainees than current volunteers, but I was selected to venture out alone … for whatever reason … to an IDP (internally displaced person) settlement … for whatever reason. Just lucky, or just cursed, depends on your point of view. 🙂

So, a little background on the IDP situation here in Georgia. There have been two waves of displacement due to conflict with the Russians, the first in the 1990’s, and more recently, in 2008. Most of these IDP’s come from either South Ossetia or Abkhazia. There are about 280,000 IDP’s in Georgia, or approximately 6% of the population,. About half of this group live in settlements, or camps – there are about 40 camps throughout the country. Some settlements are made up of cottages built by the government, built quickly and not very sturdy; others are abandoned government buildings, barracks, etc, which tend to be even worse – no running water, no electricity, that sort of thing. These people are Georgian, but with a few exceptions from South Ossetia, they can never return to their homes and communities due to the political situation. It’s not too surprising to learn that poverty and unemployment are extremely high, integration into Georgian culture is halting, and general malaise and lack of motivation sometimes overwhelming.

I visited two camps. The first, Tserovani, is one of the larger camps, with about 6,000 people, located just outside Tbilisi.There are several stores, a large school, and a small nonprofit consisting of one dedicated Georgian woman and an equally dedicated Peace Corps volunteer. The second camp, Prezeti, is smaller, and much more isolated – it’s about a 45-minute drive from Tserovani, up a windy mountain road with enough potholes and gravel to sink a large truck. There are only two martshutkas (small vans that transport people) a day to Tbilisi, and almost no industry or business of any kind, other than 3 very small stores.

 

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Prezeti – main dirt road, and settlement in the background

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Tserovani, looking toward the main highway after a huge rainstorm.

In Tserovani, the nonprofit I visited (For A Better Future) works to better the lot of IDP’s in general, and women in particular. They run a great social enterprise program for women who create really beautiful enamel jewelry, as well as offering training on employment skills. They also run the U.S. Embassy “Bookmobile,” an ancient schoolbus that’s been repurposed as a traveling library. The bookmobile goes to four different camps on a weekly basis to offer kids exposure to english books, language and programming. In Prezeti, I gave an impromptu presentation on California to a group of only mildly interested children, heavy focus on Micky Mouse (yes, they did know who that was!), Hollywood and surfing beaches.

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Hopes for the future include constructing a coffee shop in Tserovani to help with employment and community-building.

I enjoyed my time there, especially the supra (party) I went to on my second night, which included copious amounts of homemade white wine, many, many toasts, and definitely the best kingali (meat dumplings) I’ve had yet! I also enjoyed making my way to and from Tserovani, via Tbilisi, on the martshutkas by myself. It was good to get out of what’s become the usual routine here in Khashuri and do something independently. A little scary, I’ll admit! But all went well, and I have to say that as I was on the way back, I started getting a little bit of that “I’m an intrepid traveler” feeling that I like so much. Last, gotta say, it was really nice to get back “home” to Khashuri and my host family here, who do try and help me out by speaking very slowly and at least pretending to understand my broken Georgian!

Last picture. These poppies grow all along the road and in meadows this time of year, often in huge swaths right next to other purple and white flowers, very beautiful. I just cannot resist a beautiful flower.

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