So, I have been asked about a thousand times what the difference between my first tour in Micronesia and my current experience. I often deflect the question with the totally honest answer that the two experiences are so utterly different that they cannot really be compared. But the frequent questioning has definitely made me think about it; so, forthwith, my thoughts on the topic:
First, geography/lifestyle. Micronesia is in the middle of the Western Pacific. When I was invited back in 1979, I had to look it up on a map. Here’s an image to help orient you:
I was in Yap, on outer islands. These islands are so small they usually don’t even appear on maps. My first site was Lamotrek, which according to Wikipedia has the following dimensions:
“The atoll is 11.5 kilometres (7.1 mi) long northeast-southeast, and up to 6.5 kilometres (4.0 mi) wide. Its total land area is only 0.982 square kilometres (0.379 sq mi), but it encloses a lagoon of 32 square kilometres (12 sq mi).”
For those unfamiliar with the lexicon of islands, an atoll is a circular coral reef with some pieces sticking up above the waterline – those are the islands. The water within the circular reef is calm; the open sea lays outside. Therefore, atoll islands are always curved, with the lagoon inside, and ocean on the outside, or back of the island. So, note the land mass number – .0379 square miles. That’s for 3 islands: Falaite, Pugue and Lamotrek. Total population – 339. I think you get the idea. Here’s some info for those who are interested:
The second year, I was on Satawal. Satawal was a true island – no lagoon, no easy fishing, no water table. Satawal is famous for its outrigger canoes and the navigation skills of its sailors. It was a harder life, but the people there were remarkably generous and friendly, more so than on Lamotrek, which had much more in the way of natural resources. Which provides some food for though about human nature. Here’s a few images:
Both islands, though, had quite similar lifestyles. Small, thatch huts. We slept on the ground on mats, ate while sitting on the ground, cooked on the ground. No internet, no cell phones, no Facebook, no blogs. A ship every 3-4 months with handwritten letters from home. No electricity, no running water, no bathrooms. 3 foods eaten every day: taro, breadfruit, fish, all made with coconut, all grown, harvested and prepared by yours truly and family (read – women). Once in while, crab – treat for me, trash food to my family. And on very rare occasions, turtle – but meat was only for the men. We women ate the innards. I learned to dance. I went to church on Sundays, lovely singing of hymns – but talismans still tied over the door of every house from the old animistic religion. We made leis a lot. Once a week short wave radio net calls with fellow volunteers and our state director, Bernie (a Yapese woman). We used coconut for everything – to drink, to eat, to cook with, to make fires … On Lamotrek, I learned to weave; on Satawal, I practiced my craft. I became known as “the weaving Peace Corps.” I was the only foreigner on the the island. Here’s what life looked like for me from 1979-1981:
Ok, now let’s compare Georgia. Well, Georgia is a tiny country, it’s true – but not like Micronesia! Put it this way – Georgia is slightly smaller than South Carolina. Population-wise, Georgia has 4.4 million people; South Carolina has 4.8 million, so they are roughly comparable. Micronesia, on the other hand, has borders about the size of the entire U.S, but land mass about the size of Rhode Island. The population of the entire Federated States of Micronesia is 104,000; the population of Rhode Island (this seems more apropos than the population of the U.S!) is a little over 1 million. ‘Nuff said.
Lifestyle? Well, I’ve written lots about my lifestyle here in Georgia elsewhere in this blog, so I won’t go into a lot of detail here. Usually I describe it this way. In L.A, I lived a “10” lifestyle. I owned my own house, my own car, I had everything I needed – washing machine, dryer, dishwasher, air conditioning, heat, internet access, cable tv … it wasn’t opulent or ostentatious (after all, aforesaid house was 815 sq.ft, and I drove a Prius), but I lacked nothing, honestly. Here in Gori, I’d say I live an “8” lifestyle. I have a nice apartment with a fantastic view. Yeah, I have to climb 5 flights of stairs, and my water runs on a pump, so when the electricity goes out (fairly often), no water, and no air conditioning or good heat (picture me wearing multiple layers of clothing in the evenings), but I have a toilet that flushes, a shower, a sink, a refrigerator, a stovetop, all the furniture I need. I have internet access, and I watch whatever shows or movies I want on my laptop. I work in an air conditioned/heated office. There are cars, restaurants, bars, grocery stores – everything I need. Maybe not everything I want, but my basic needs are all met, without a problem. It’s different out in more rural/mountainous areas, in villages, but I live in Gori, a city of 50,000. In Micronesia, I’d say I lived a “2” lifestyle, as described above.
Georgian food, well, I did a whole post on that a few months ago. Just think carbohydrates, cheese, oil … the base of nearly every dish. Tomatos and cucumbers, potatoes and melon (in summer), some pretty good soup, delicious bread, oh, yes – beans, “lobia” (beans in bread, “lobiani”) – very popular! More varied than Micronesia, much less varied than the huge variety of food available in the U.S.
People – well, yeah, the people are different, though oddly enough, there are some interesting similarities, too. I’d say both groups are extremely family-oriented. Everyone knows everyone in their family, grew up with them, and they all live together. Women marry young, and having a lot of children is desirable. Women do most of the work in both cultures, though in Georgia many women suffer the same challenges as in the U.S. – they work fulltime and they have 100% responsibility for the house and children. Many men do not work at all, either inside or outside of the home. Some of that can be attributed to the high unemployment rate in Georgia, and some to a high level of discouragement that expresses itself in excessive drinking and lack of motivation. Some men leave to find employment in other countries, leaving their wives to cope as best they can. In Micronesia, men and women both work, just in entirely different spheres. Men make canoes, build tools, sail, and fish. Women do everything else – everything. They never stop working. I’d say this is a common experience to both places.
Micronesian people are very outgoing, friendly and unassuming. They have not been exposed to Western culture to any significant degree, and live very simple lives. They know nothing of politics, and couldn’t care less. Georgian people have a much broader exposure, and their lives are much more complicated. They are warm and welcoming once they know you, but it can take some time and work to get to that point. They care a lot about politics, though many have quite a cynical view. Scandals abound, and tension over the relationship with Russia, and Georgia’s western aspirations, runs very high.
Each culture has its own idiosyncrasies. Micronesians say “yes” by raising their eyebrows, a habit I’ve retained to this day. Georgian men ask one another (and any guy, really) to drink with them by scratching the side of their throat. Micronesians smile often, and broadly, at everyone they see; Georgians only smile at people they know, their family and neighbors. Strangers walk by each other without making eye contact, but people who know one another kiss, once, on the cheek – men and women alike. Micronesians do not engage in PDA at all, but Georgians hold hands, lean on each other, and fall asleep on each others’ shoulders in taxicabs. To be clear – this is not done between men and women; it’s nearly always between a man and a man, or a woman and a woman. Micronesians still dress completely traditionally, at least on outer islands – women wear a “tur,” which is long strip of cloth woven in specific patterns, wrapper around the hips and held on with a coconut fiber belt covered with turtle shell loops. Precarious, very precarious, for newcomers! Micronesian men wear a “thu,” essentially the same thing, but solid-colored and wrapped differently.
Georgian women are generally very fashion-forward and wear the latest Western styles. Traditional Georgian clothing is only worn for dance and other ceremonial occasions. I think it’s fair to say that Georgian women, especially older women, are inordinately fond of black. Men like jeans – a lot. Traditional Georgian dress is very beautiful and dramatic, lots of swords and swirling skirts, and I love seeing it.
Especially cool are the hats:
As for modern Georgian dress, for young women, look at any fashionable woman walking down the streets of New York or L.A. For older women, think long black skirts and sweaters. And for men – think jeans and polyester track pants. There you have it.
The last difference in experience has to do with the culture of the Peace Corps. In Micronesia, we were trained, sworn-in, put on a ship to outer islands, and that was it. Never heard from Peace Corps again, except when I went into the main island of Yap, which happened twice in two years. No formal reports, very relaxed environment, hardly any rules. Georgia – well, it’s different. We are trained, sworn-in, sent to our posts, and then we hear from Peace Corps on a regular basis. We have a lot of rules, a long, complicated volunteer manual, performance reviews, rigorous reporting requirements, committees … it’s just really different. One thing remains constant though, and that’s the core values of the Peace Corps. The idea of sharing cultures, imparting and receiving knowledge, the stress on sustainability, and on living on a equivalent level to the people of the country you are serving – that is the same. Exactly the same.
Well, I’ve barely scratched the surface, but you get the idea – apples and oranges. Not really comparable. Did Micronesia prepare me for Georgia? No, not really. Would I have come to Georgia if I hadn’t served in Micronesia? Probably not. Are there similarities? Some, interestingly enough. Which do I like better? Oh, that’s easy – orive (both)!
I’m signing off for a while here, traveling to Paris to meet some friends, then to Armenia, then doing some training for FLEX alumni, then a conference, then friends converging from the UK, Tokyo and Dakha – can’t wait! But probably no blogging for a while – look for me to emerge sometime at the end of September. In the meantime, pictures of my adventures on Facebook will have to suffice. 🙂