Category Archives: Year 1 in Gori

On Being a “50+” volunteer

It’s very unusual for me to post two days in a row, but there’s a first time for everything. I’ve been thinking about this topic a lot as my first official year (counting training, I’ve already been here 14 months) winds down, and I thought I’d memorialize my thoughts while they were fresh in my mind.

When I first applied to the PC, I was completely unworried about age. I passed the medical hurdles pretty easily, and I kind of figured that since I felt I was about 28 inside, everyone would just get to know me and forget about my chronological age, which at the time was 59 (I’m 61 now having had 2 birthdays in Georgia already!). I was so confident that, after over 20 years of dying my hair, I decided to cut out that nonsense and let it go natural … not that I knew what that was gonna be, exactly. As it turned out, it’s a shining, silvery, pure white, and I love it … but it’s also a big sign (along with some regrettable but inevitable wrinkles) that I’m no spring chicken. But I thought everyone would just see right past that.

Well, it didn’t turn out that way. Age was a much more significant barrier than I thought it would be, and even though after a year I feel things have settled out pretty well, it took so much more work and effort than I ever dreamed it would. And to be perfectly clear – I’m not talking about HCN’s, as we volunteers officially refer to locals (as in “host country nationals”). As far as I can tell, no one here could care less about my age. If anything, I’m accorded MORE respect because of it. As has often been written in other blogs and news stories, age is treated quite differently in many countries outside the U.S. Older people are not seen as antiquated or obsolete; on the contrary, wisdom and experience are valued. In my position at CHCA, I’ve made videos, designed websites, worked with designers on our annual report (a copy of which I swear one day I will be putting up on this blog!) and done all sorts of other tasks that probably would never even be contemplated as possible back home, because, you know, we geezers don’t even know how to attach a document to email. Hell, we hardly know what email is! 🙂

No. The barriers I encountered were with my fellow PCV’s. This was a big shock to me. Seriously. I honestly thought I would simply be accepted as a person, liked or disliked on the basis of my personality, not my years. In this I was wrong, and as my son pointed out to me when I whined to him about it, I really should have predicted that outcome. In fact I am older than many of these kids’ parents. And they don’t know how to deal with me, because apparently I’m not really sufficiently parent-like, but I’m also not sufficiently kid-like. I’m … sui generis.

When I arrived, one of only 3 or 4 “50+” trainees, I made it pretty clear early on that I was not interested in being anyone’s parent figure. A friend, yes. A mommy – no. Been there, done that. But I didn’t know what I was talking about. There are differences in how I approach things and socialize, and how many of my fellow volunteers do the same, though not as many as one might think. Here’s a little list of some of the differences, and some of the similarities:

1. Drinking. This is the biggest difference. Many volunteers socialize in a way I think I and my friends never did, even when we were young. For us, getting together was the point – seeing each other, talking with each other, sharing some common experience – a dinner, a concert, whatever. People often got drunk, sometimes very drunk, but it wasn’t the purpose of socializing – it was a by-product, I would say. For many volunteers here, it seems the main point is just to get inebriated. It’s like they feel they actually cannot have fun unless they are 3 sheets to the wind, although of course they often do. I have developed coping mechanisms for this. I like to socialize, and I like to drink – just not to excess. So I hang out in the earlier evening, drink a few gin & tonics, or some wine, and when it reaches critical mass, I bow out. When folks are in my home, I let them drink as much as they want, and I often join them, but again – if it gets to be too much, I slip away to my bedroom and just close the door. BTW these coping mechanisms are not effective when attending Georgian supras, where huge amounts of wine are consumed and “no” is not an option – but that’s another post!

2. Tech. Interestingly, this is NOT an area of big difference. I use my tech as much (and in many cases, more so) than lots of other volunteers. I use it in my job, with my blog, Facebook … a lot. As I recently posted, I’ve gotten more interested in video lately, and intend to be doing a lot more of that sort of thing in the future. I text a lot with other volunteers, too, as well as with HCN’s, especially my 15-year-old host sister. I’ve gotten really good at stickers and emoticons, how funny and expressive they can be. I don’t think anyone is really surprised that I’m pretty proficient, so that’s all good.

3. Teasing. This has been a hard one. Part of the problem is that the guys (it’s mostly guys) who are doing it are pretty funny, so it’s hard to be mad when I’m laughing. But it can be trying, and tiring, and sometimes, it can be a little mean. I think to some extent it’s like a rite of passage – they are trying to figure out who I am, how far they can go, how I differ from their parents, can I take it or not … Even though I am very sensitive, overly sensitive sometimes, I took it. I joked back. I traded insults. I made mock threats, and over time, it lessened, and now it’s more of a minor part of my conversations. What I hoped for seems to have happened – they know me as a person. Guess I passed the test, it was a tough one.

4. Socializing. I’m invited to some things, and to go along on some trips. Not all, and not always. I attribute this partly to age, and partly to a divergence in interests. For instance, I’m not a big camper/hiker, and everyone knows that about me. I like to go to museums and quirky restaurants. So, my time is spent with people who have similar interests – and happily, there are enough of them that it’s not really an issue, and happily some of them are HCN’s, too. I sometimes feel I’m missing out on things, but then when I force myself to do something that I really don’t enjoy, all I want is to be home. You can’t win sometimes!

5. Friendship. This has been surprising to me. All of the factors above have combined to make friendship be challenging, and all the more rewarding for it. One of my best friends here is the youngest volunteer in our group, but she is an old soul, and a smart, funny one, to boot. We share common interests and help each other out, and I can confide in her. Another good friend is a young guy with political views that are different from mine, and we enjoy debate a lot. There are others, quite a few actually, and I appreciate all of them. I especially appreciate those who see me as a person, and not a number. Some have felt that way from the start, and some have evolved.

So, in closing, I would say that I have learned and benefited more from this experience than I anticipated. I’ve learned a lot about differences, how to bridge them, when to acknowledge them, how to work around them. I expected I’d have to do that with HCN’s, but not with my own cohort. In that I was wrong, but now, after a year,I have to say that the adjustment and challenge have been positive and growth-enhancing for me. And I fervently hope that my younger friends feel the same, so when they go back home to the U.S., they are open to broader definitions of friendship, and less prone to ageism. If even a little of this happens, I’ll feel very good!

IDP Group 1-15

Music Soothes the Savage Beast

Apparently it’s actuallymusic hath charms to soothe a savage breast” but I like the beast image better. Lately I’ve been listening to a lot of music, especially Georgian traditional music. Not that I’ve been deliberately exploring the genre, but it’s just turned out that way. And it’s been very interesting.

First, I created a video for a grant application we wrote at CHCA. The funder “highly encouraged” it. 🙂 I’ve been getting more and more interested in video, just using my cellphone and then editing in MovieMaker. And they say you can’t teach an old dog new tricks. For this video, I wanted to illustrate the infrastructure conditions in Internally Displaced Persons (IDP) settlements in Gori District. This issue has been well-documented, but I aimed at not only demonstrating the lack of things we all take for granted, such as potable water, but also the feelings of the people who have to live in such conditions. I thought at first I wouldn’t use music, but it quickly became apparent that I really needed it for the video to be effective. I listened to a lot of Georgia folk music, generously provided by PC on a flash drive. I settled on a very restrained Megruli folk song called “Asho Chela.”  Below is a link to the video and the full song:

Next, I was again happily invited to attend a traditional Georgian dance performance by Erisioni, a national Georgian ballet company. This time I went with a big crowd of PCV’s, and I invited my counterpart, Marta, to come along. She had told me she particularly loved this troupe because of its long history. Erisioni attained global acclaim thanks to their work on the project Georgian Legend – a performance consisting of the dances and songs of Georgia, loosely bound around tales from the country’s history.

I really enjoyed this performance, as I did the last one, which was more influenced by modern styles (you can see my Facebook post on that topic here: For one, it was truly traditional. Marta knew all of the dances and told me as each started: this is Osettian, this is Ajameti, or Juta, or Adjaruli … It wasn’t quite as sophisticated as the other troupe, but deeply, deeply heartfelt.  For another, there was singing – a lot of it. All by men. And there was drumming, also a lot of it, by men and by some very exuberant young boys! At the finale, the men made a human pyramid with one guy on top waving a huge Georgian flag. The crowd went wild and I have to admit I kinda did, too.

I took some videos and I’m posting them here, but I apologize in advance for the heads at the bottom of the screen and the fuzzy quality – I did my best in a very crowded theater! But I do think these 3 videos give a good idea of the spirit and feeling of the evening.

Afterwards, Marta and I walked together across the Mtkvari river bridge, past the police station and the bazaar, through the shopping street down Chavchavadze, parting ways in front of City Hall with a hug and a feeling that I was at home.

One last video to share, just because I love it so much. This is four Georgian guys in an airport in the Ukraine. Maybe their plane is late and they’re bored, I don’t know, but they are singing with all their souls. Just some guys, no one famous as far as I know, though the bald guy is holding a panduri, a traditional Georgian instrument. One breaks out dancing. At the end two of them are sort of entwined, which one commenter on the YouTube page where I found this video is puzzled by, but anyone who has lived in Georgia knows is a common sight. This is Georgian spirit.




Kakheti Special Needs Field Day

Summertime has arrived in Georgia in full force. The last two or three weeks have been hot and humid (my least favorite weather), punctuated by violent thunderstorms. And when I say violent, I mean the full story – crackling lightening, thunder so loud it shakes the room, hail the size of golf balls, heavy rain … well, I’ll let this little video speak for itself!

Last weekend was no exception, so I had to fight off the characteristic lethargy that is my usual response to such weather, to travel into Tbilisi and then further east to the region of Kakheti for a special event put on by several G13 PCV’s. All the G13’s are about to leave the country this month and next – their two years are up – and they want to transition the project to some of us G14’s.

Here’s the official description: “The Kakheti Special Needs Field Day will bring together members of the special needs community and their Georgian student peers for a day of integrated fun and activities.” And indeed, that is how the day played out. We all met up at Village Gurjaani Public School in the morning, about 10 or 12 volunteers, and got to work setting up tables, signage, arranging different areas for games, distributing equipment, etc. My assignment (wisely, I have to say, given that I know nothing about any sport) was the food. And there was a lot of it! Here is just a small sampling … those are fresh-picked cherries we are holding, btw …


With fellow PCV Alex

We had arm wrestling (a favorite for some reason), tug-of-war, vollyball, soccer (ok, I do know something about soccer, but do not ask me to explain the offside rule), baseball, frisbee, and a few other activities. The special needs kids (and adults) were a varied bunch. There were about 100 people there – some were in wheelchairs, some had obvious physical or mental disabilities, and others had disabilities that were not immediately evident. There were lots of students there as well, mostly recruited from PCV’s schools or by regional organizations/NGO’s that work on behalf of the disabled. The program was supported by the McLain Association for Children, a Georgian NGO founded by an American psychologist and a Georgian educator, and several other organizations. It’s a good organization that does excellent work in Georgia – here’s a link to their website:

I had a lot of fun feeding everyone and watching the games. I also was deeply impressed by the buoyant good spirits of the participants, who were wildly enthusiastic and so happy to be there. We were told that such events are nearly unheard-of here in Georgia, and that everyone wanted to do it again. We made certificates for the kids (Georgians love certificates to a degree I really wouldn’t have believed had I not personally witnessed it). I often think that these things are a bit of a waste of good paper, but the joy I saw on people’s faces as they received their certificate showed me otherwise. Here’s some photos to give you a sense of the day (with special thanks to Tom Kerwin for sharing his photos, since my camera was inoperative due to the fact that the battery was back at my hostel and I was in Gurjaani … whoops).

I will definitely be working on this project in the future, and hope to have more good news to report as it moves forward.

In the meantime, I’m traveling a bit more now that the weather has improved – this weekend, I will be visiting the city of Sighnaghi, aka “the city of love” 🙂 It’s also in Kakheti, so I’m definitely seeing more of the east of Georgia these days. I’ve also been participating in some fun outdoor activities, like “American Days” held in different cities throughout Georgia by the US Embassy. American Days presents information about NGO’s and agencies operating in Georgia, and also features live music concerts. This year the group was Dangerflow, a hip-hop band from Florida. My gutsy host sister, Salome, snagged them for an interview for her ongoing series, “Salome’s Reports.” She has been doing these short video reports for a few years now – she reports on pretty much everything that happens here in Gori, and posts them up on Facebook and her blog. She’s pretty fearless, having interviewed politicians, activists, singers and plenty of “man on the street” reports. I really love her video of Dangerflow, most of which is in English – here is a link:

Here are a few picture of us Gori volunteers participating in the information fair in Stalin Park (yes, I see the irony):

On Sunday I say goodbye to a good friend, a volunteer in Batumi who has been accepted into the Foreign Service, no easy achievement, and so is leaving to start his training. I’ll miss him … nakhvamdis, James!

Another list – part 2

So it’s lazy Saturday afternoon here in Gori. The weather was glorious during the week, but today is cloudy and a bit on the cool side, though my window is open – something that didn’t happen from October through May. A fellow PCV who stayed over at my place last night recently departed after a nice visit, going to visit my host family later today … so right now seems like a good time to finish up my “list compilation,” started a week or two ago. After thinking about what I would miss, I now present – what I won’t.

My number one complaint in Georgia – trash. It’s everywhere. It’s all the places you would expect, and everywhere else, too. There is trash on virtually every street, littering medians, front yards, apartment building entrances (definitely including mine), and highways. There is trash in every stream, river and lake. Here is a little video I shot from my balcony of the river running next to my building. It’s a slightly blurry, having been taken by my cellphone from 5 stores up, but the sad truth can easily be seen. Just look at the area closest to the shore – bottle after bottle streaming by, washing downstream, seemingly forever.

Everywhere in Georgia, there are plastic bags hanging from nearly every tree, plastic bottles thrown out of marshutka windows every single day, and mountains – literally – of trash near virtually every village. Just in case you might think I am exaggerating:

Pan2           Typical Gori St.

The picture on top was taken at a village right outside of Gori, and similar scenes are extremely common. The boy is part of a youth environmental club started by my organization, CHCA, providing me with a little hope for the future (as does a recent change in the law imposing higher fines for littering, though it remains to be seen whether it will be enforced). The picture below was taken about 4 blocks from my apartment. 😦 Click on these photos to get the full impact … Georgians not only have an extraordinary love for plastic bags (I commonly come home with 2-3 bags per individual purchase, which I always re-use, but still …) and bottles, coupled with a culture that inexplicably displays both extreme pride in the beauty of their country and a shocking disregard for the consequences of littering, simultaneously, but also lacks the infrastructure to address this issue even if they wanted to. Here is an interesting short article on the potential for recycling in Georgia; note it was written in 2011. Sadly, nothing has changed since then, in spite of the clear economic advantages of cleaning up their act, not to mention the impact on tourism and the environment. It’s taking its toll, and no matter how many beautiful videos Georgia produces promoting its stunning countryside, at a certain point, given the reach of social media, tourists will just go somewhere else where they don’t have to see voluminous trash marring every single landscape, historical site, river and city.

Running a close second on things I won’t miss are the driving habits of Georgians. It really took me a while to grasp how bad it really is. I mean – I’m from L.A, and no stranger to aggressive driving habits. But wow, it really is at a whole different level here. At first, it just didn’t seem possible that drivers actually would not slow down when approaching pedestrians in the street, make left turns directly into people crossing the street, routinely pass on the left against oncoming traffic on hills and curves, drive at speeds exceeding 100 mph on the highway and nearly that on city streets, and park on sidewalks. Drunk driving is extremely common. There are no seat belts in the back seats of any cars. Child seats do not exist, and toddlers are routinely seen hanging out of the window while sitting in their parent’s lap, totally unsecured. The Facebook page below is in Georgian, but the photos speak for themselves. The name of the page, btw, is “Gaitsanit Samartskhvino Mdzgholebi (‘Introducing Shameless Drivers’).”

Peace Corps volunteers make a lot of jokes about taking our lives in our hands while driving in taxis and marshutkas, but we kind of stopped laughing as people we knew were killed or severely injured. My sitemate’s grandmother, killed by a marshutka. My neighbor in Khashuri’s two teenage sons, killed in a car accident. My co-worker’s friend’s husband, paralyzed after being hit by a car. It’s so common, people hardly raise an eyebrow.

I have no explanation for this. I do know that there is a youth movement working to raise awareness of the problem, but … it doesn’t seem to have any impact. Maybe over time … here are some reasons for a little optimism.

Another thing I know I won’t miss is “customer service” here in Georgia. This is a subject I hear Georgians complain about all the time, oddly enough. Assistance in most grocery stores is just not offered, or – and this is the thing I will NOT miss the most – it consists of someone simply following the customer around the store. So, let me be clear – when I say “following,” I mean standing about a foot away, staring, not saying a word. I learned to say “I don’t need any help” in Georgian just to deal with this situation. It’s so disconcerting … I’m not sure whether it’s an anti-shoplifting measure, or a misguided attempt to be available to help if needed, but … I don’t like it!

Here’s a funny one. I will not miss the enthusiastic use of mayonnaise here. I’ve seen certain people (Nutsa, I am talking to you) eat mayo directly from the jar (actually here it’s sold in bags, but you get the idea). The worst offense by far is mayonnaise on pizza. Blasphemy! I think the first phrase I learned to say in restaurants was ar minda mayonaysi … I don’t want mayonnaise.

Last, I won’t miss something that seems to either bother me more than either people, or somehow happens to me more than other people, I’m not sure. I often have the experience of going into a store and speaking competent enough, albeit heavily accented Georgian to the people there – “give me two of those,” “do you have milk?” that sort of thing – and being answered in English (usually extremely broken English, significantly worse than my Georgian), or met with blank stares. My favorite is when a whole conversation has taken place, in Georgian, and when it comes time to pay, instead of saying how much is due, the person holds up the calculator to show me the number, or their fingers. Often it’s a whole number, like 2 gel. When that happens I sometimes laugh, a little hysterically, and say oh, you mean 2 lari? in Georgian. I mean … I’ve been talking with them for several minutes in Georgian, why do they think I cannot understand a simple number?

Now, I have to say, this does not happen all the time. I’ve had some good experiences in certain stores, and I tend to frequent them as often as possible. Even if the people who work there treat me with the same sullen indifference offered to every customer, I’m grateful just to be treated like everyone else. And sometimes, I actually have a pleasant little conversation. The baker near my house offers me that pretty much every time. She doesn’t try to speak English or Russian to me – she accepts my Georgian requests for one loaf of bread, and when I say thank you, she says you are welcome. Sometimes we even exchange pleasantries about the weather. I’ve had similar experiences with some taxi drivers, who very rarely speak any English. A few weeks ago I had an exchange with a marshutka driver in Tbilisi who understood me as I asked if there were any seats, if he was going to my destination, and how much it costs. He just answered me in Georgian and seemed to regard me as a regular person even though from my accent and appearance, I’m sure he knew I was a foreigner. I really like when that happens.

I’ll end with a little story that continues with the language struggle theme. A few weeks ago I was heading home from a day in Tbilisi from Didube (the western marshutka/taxi station). I was crammed into the back seat of a car with a very attractive middle-aged woman in a beautiful lilac scarf. I said hello, and offered her some chocolate. On the highway, she got a cramp in her leg, and it obviously was hurting her a bit. I asked her if she was ok, and said it wasn’t far to Gori. So we had a few conversations, which is more than enough for any Georgian to know I am not from their country. In fact I would say that about 90%of the time, all it takes is looking at me (though if I don’t have my backpack on me, sometimes there is a bit of confusion since I have pretty typical Eastern European features – though usually just saying even one word clears that up immediately, haha). But when we got to Gori and I gave my address to the driver, she turned to me – inasmuch anyone can turn while stuffed into a taxi here – and said, in English, “oh, are you a foreigner?” I started to laugh, perhaps a bit more than was appropriate, and said, “yes, of course, I’m American, could you not tell?” We had a lovely conversation in English then, she was really quite nice and I wish I could get to know her better … but we went our separate ways. Maybe I will run into her around town sometime.

Well, that’s it for now. I’ll be interested to see whether I feel the same about my lists in a year or so. In the meantime, a lot of good stuff going on/coming up – training opportunities with the newly arrived volunteers, which I really enjoy (teaching, job shadowing, mentoring), activities (picnics!) and then their swearing-in; new volunteers being assigned here in Gori (maybe); some new projects and activities, including a “special olympics” program that seems promising, and our IDP discussion group; my upcoming trip to Paris, fast approaching (August); our mid-service conference (September), followed by a visit from Malcolm, Ric and Helena … possibly. Fingers crossed. 🙂 As I like to say, stay tuned!


GAnother list – part 1

Peace Corps bloggers are fond of making lists – stuff they love, stuff they hate, funny stuff, sad stuff, sometime some pretty provocative stuff – lots of different stuff. I’m not different. I started making a list even before I came to Georgia. That list was all about what I would miss about L.A, and what I wouldn’t. For the most part, I was pretty on the mark, especially the things I wouldn’t miss!

A recent anniversary got me thinking about making a similar list for Georgia. About 2 weeks ago, we all hit our 1-year mark. We’re not quite half-way there – that date will come sometime in mid-June, I haven’t calculated the exact date and probably won’t. I’m not really thinking that much about it, and don’t intend to until at least August, after I return from Paris. Maybe not even until the beginning of 2016, when I return from meeting up with my son in … wherever we decide. Then I’ll begin counting down, I think. But for now, I’m just living my life – work life, social life, Peace Corps life – it’s all pretty good. It’s just in a different place. Here’s a very short video (7 seconds, I think) of some of us marking the moment – Rachel had her eyes dilated that day for an exam, so she looks like Beelzebub, I hope she’ll forgive me for this.

So, here’s a list of Georgian things I think I will miss. I’ll talk about what I won’t miss in a separate blog, or this will be too long! I’ll look back on these in a year or so and see how they hold up.

What I’ll miss:

Of course, like everyone does, I’ll miss people. I’ll miss my host families, both from training and here in Gori. Both of these families have been so good to me, and well beyond the time when Peace Corps was paying them for keeping me at their homes. Eka and Tsira, in Khashuri, welcome me with open arms each time I visit, along with all the mezobeli (neighbors) on the street. I leave each time with food and wine. My host family here in Gori feeds me a sumptuous feast pretty much every week. They give me honey from their backyard hives, preserved fruit, bread and all other manner of food. They care about what is going on with me, and call me when I’m sick. They help me whenever I need a handyman of some sort. You know … like a family. Best of all, for me, the mother of one child – a son – their two daughters, aged 13 and 15, have finally given me a little taste of what it must feel like to have girls. It’s … different. In a good way.

The other person I will undoubtedly miss a lot is my counterpart, Marta. She has taken me under her fashionable wing from the moment I arrived in Gori. There’s really nothing she wouldn’t do to help me out. Sometimes I have to fight her off just to venture out to do some errand by myself. But I really couldn’t make her without her, not just at work, but personally, too. She’s found me an apartment, sat in it with me all day calling internet company representatives, taught me how to make my favorite sweet bread, kada, and countless other favors. Not least, she can be very tough with me when we are writing grants together. The words “No, Sara!” said in just the right combination of strong will and amusement will always resonate with me.

I will also miss my Director, Eka. A small, slim woman with a gigantic personality and what I can only call a lilting voice and laugh, she is the passionate heart of my organization. If I were younger, I would see her as a model mentor, but being on the other end of my career, I just stand back an gaze in awe. Eka is a IDP from Abkhazia who takes her mission very personally. Married with two little boys, she still somehow manages to do it all.

Then, of course, there are a lot of volunteers I’ll miss. Though the whole “age thing,” as I call it, has proven to be a little tougher nut to crack than I anticipated, I’ve grown close to a lot of them. That’s a topic for another post, though. In the meantime, here are a few pictures that I think kind of capture the gestalt of it:

Next, of course, I’ll miss the food! There’s not a huge variety, but what there is, is darn good. I did a post about food here, so I won’t reiterate all of it again. But a few things I may not have mentioned … homemade cherry cognac in a coke bottle, fresh bread straight out of a stone oven, fresh fruit in summer, especially watermelon, and carbonated pear “lemonade.” All so good. And, oh yeah, Turkish coffee. Last week I saw a new volunteer drain his little cup, sludge and all, apparently never having drunk it before. That guy won’t sleep for about a week.

I will miss Gori. I’ve grown quite fond of the place. I love my flat here – I love the view, the Caucasus mountains, the sound of the river rushing by, the night train wheels on the tracks just beyond, Gori Castle, the arches of Stalin Museum (even if I don’t like what’s inside of it!), the kids and young people thronging the park outside the Museum in summer, the traditional kiss at greeting, the blooming trees, the grapevines outside every house … I lucked out with this site. I don’t know that I would want to live out the rest of my life here, because I’m always restless for new places and experiences, but for now, it fits me very well.

I’ll miss my work here. I work hard, and I try to bring something of value to the table. Being a volunteer always involves an element of frustration, because there’s always so much more that could be done – in theory, anyway. But here I think my age and experience is a big plus, because I can manage that frustration a lot better. I’ve just been there before, a lot of times, and I know how to handle it. Not that I always succeed; cultural frustrations, in particular, are hard, but I do know it will pass if I am just patient, allow myself to feel bad for a while, and then pick myself up off the floor (or out of the bed, more likely) and move on. I’ll also miss my Peace Corps work. I really like the grants committee that I serve on, and I also am enjoying our IDP discussion group, helping with training of new volunteers, and writing articles or pieces for various PC publications. It’s all fun, really. Here’s a couple of work photos:

Well, that’s about it for now. It’s a lot to miss, but by the same token, it’s a lot to feel good about. Next post, I’ll talk a little about what some of the challenges are – what I won’t miss, in other words. But I’m glad I did this one first.

A Chilly Weekend in … Batumi?

Batumi is well known resort, thronged with Eastern European tourists. Located on the coast of the Black Sea, near the Turkish border, this beautiful old city is steamy beyond belief during the summer months of the year – I know, because I was there in August and swore never, ever to go back during hot season! So a few weeks ago, a fellow PCV, Karen, and I took a long-planned trip before the humid stink hit and headed out of town to visit our friend James, who teaches in Batumi, and one of the “other Sara(h)’s” – a fellow IOD volunteer who works in a small town about 20 minutes south-east of Batumi with the impressive name of Khelvach’Auri. Here’s a look to orient you:

From the middle of Georgia (Gori) to Batumi, about a 5 hour drive.

From the middle of Georgia (Gori) to Batumi, about a 5 hour drive.

So, in our efforts to avoid the heat, we headed straight into a chilly gloom, punctuated by cold rain. Apparently the week before it had been the most beautiful weather, but, of course, we missed that. 🙂 Karen came into to Gori the day before we left, and we had a very pleasant dinner at my site mate Russell’s new apartment with another visiting PCV from Orzugeti in the west, Colton. Colton nearly cried because there was an avocado in the salad I brought. It was a very moving movement.

The next morning up bright and early, off to the marshutka station. At first we were doing very well – in spite of the fact that I used the wrong pronoun in asking for tickets (a fact I realized about 2 hours later, but mitigated somewhat by the fact that Georgian is the most perplexing language I’ve ever encountered. Yesterday, while helping my 15-year old host sister Salome with some English, we figured out the the verb “to have” has 4 forms in English for simple present, past and future, for all pronouns – have, has, had, and will have. Georgian has 32 forms for the same verb in those 3 tenses, not counting certain modifiers and conjugations that I don’t even know. I rest my case.) – and we got tickets, found our marshutka (called “marshes” by us lazy foreigners), and got good seats toward the front. Off we went, only to break down about 10 miles out of town on the highway. According to the driver, the marsh’s “guli” (“heart”) was broken,which even though I knew very well also means “motor” still cracked me up. The police showed up and said we had to move to other side of the road where the shoulder was wider. They all pushed the marsh, with us in it, across the highway and nearly right into a ditch. I said to Karen, hmmmmm, maybe we ought to get out, just as the driver started shouting “get out! get out!” (in Georgian of course). Off we clambered into the rain, and a little very old lady dressed all in black with startling blue eyes said to me, “jandaba!” which means, honestly, “shit!” More cracking up, the marsh gets pushed back off the ledge, and we all stand on the edge of the highway waiting for other marshes to come along with room for us. Karen and I got one pretty quickly, but it was super full and our seats were separate and not as nice, but hey … that’s life in Georgia.

Things started looking up as soon as we arrived in Batumi. We had arranged for an apartment on Airbnb and the owner picked us up, which was very nice of her. The apartment was downright luxurious, really clean and nice, with a good shower and fully-equipped kitchen, including a washing machine, which Karen immediately started utilizing, as she does not have one where she lives in Ts’alka. We met up with James and some other volunteers and had Turkish food for dinner. In spite of an unbelievably complicated mix-up with the service of the food, wherein James and I unknowingly ate other peoples’ dishes and then somehow ended up with one extra plate of food, it was delicious and fun. Then we went to a bar ….

That is a White Russian in my hand. :-)

That is a White Russian in my hand. 🙂

After a heavenly night’s sleep in a bed with a mattress that was actually flat, rather than the trough I sleep in at home (it’s not that bad, just sayin’ …), we all decided to go to Batumi Botanical Gardens, just outside of town. The wisdom of our decision was confirmed when we got in at “Georgian price” (3 gel) rather than “foreigner price” (8 gel) by showing our residency cards. Hey, we’re on a stipend here, every lari counts!

The gardens were fantastic, really. Even though it was cold and cloudy, that made all the walking so much more tolerable, and since it’s spring, lots of stuff was in bloom. Well, you all know me, I was really thrilled at the opportunity to take some flower photos, which I present below. Unfortunately my little point-and-shoot is not always quite up to the task, but I got a few good ones – click on them for full-screen to really appreciate how gorgeous these blooms were.

Beyond the close-ups of the blooms, the gardens themselves were beautiful. After months in cities, the sounds of birdsong, wind rustling in leaves, insects chirping and water running were just so refreshing. Here’s a few photos of the general environment (and a few of us):

So, then that evening we ate Acharuli (also called Adjarui) khachapuri (puri being bread) – that’s the kind with egg and butter in it, which if you search for “khachapuri” on the internet is what always comes up, though actually there are many different kinds – here’s a picture, yes it’s really that good.


Then, on to more bars. No photos but suffice it to say there were more White Russians involved. By which I mean the drink, not guys, though there were plenty of Russian guys around! Batumi is extremely popular with Russians … James speaks fluent Russian, and he used it almost exclusively the whole time we were there, much more than Georgian. Interesting.

The next morning sun was shining through the windows, briefly, but since it was Orthodox Easter and everything was closed, we decided to head back home. After a fairly uneventful trip, marred only by a woman who screamed at me in Russian and shot me enough dirty looks to last me the rest of my life, apparently due to the fact that I had the nerve to talk with Karen behind her and I was keeping her from sleeping at 1:30 pm on public transportation. That was offset by the taxi driver who took us from the highway into Gori, who actually answered my “thank you very much” with not only a “you’re welcome,” but actually looked me in eye, smiled, and stroked my arm a little bit. It was so sweet, and so unusual.

So that’s it for Batumi. Of course, plenty else going on, but in line with my theme of trying to just tell one story at a time, I’ll stop here. It’s worth mentioning that next week I will be among a group of 25 volunteers who are going to the airport to greet the 58 new volunteers – the G15’s. It just seems unbelievable that we were greeted the same way (cheering, banners, and running a tunnel of volunteers, feeling completely overwhelmed and very welcome at the same time). Now I am a seasoned PCV … nooooo, that’s not possible! I just got here!

I’ll leave you with these two images – the first at the Botanical Garden, and the other on a wall in Batumi. I like these.

IMG_1497 IMG_1499

Uplistsikhe – the Lord’s Fortress

So a few weekends ago, two volunteers stopped by in Gori on their way home from Tbilisi back to their homes in the west of Georgia. They arrived dragging a huge, incredibly heavy, bright red duffel bag up my 5 flights – one of them, Helen, had picked up a care package from home at USA2Georgia in Tbilisi and was taking it back with her. Helen is a G14, in my group, and we know each other. She brought along a G13, Sarah (there are 5 of us!), who will be heading home in a few months. She had never been to Uplistsikhe, an ancient cave town, just about half an hour outside of Gori … so, off we went.

We walked up to Gori’s marshutka/bus/taxi/bazaar station, where Sarah deeply impressed me with her language abilities. Vastly superior to mine, but then, pretty much anyone’s are. She negotiated a fair price with a pretty friendly taxi driver, and we drove through villages by the river chatting with him. He said he had been a soldier in Iraq – did you know that Georgia sent military there? 2,000 between 2003-2008, according to Wikipedia.

The day was cool and cloudy, but a bit of blue sky peeking through, perfect for a little bit of a hike. Uplistsikhe is perched up on the top of a very steep hill, with a small church at the summit. There is a big sign at the entrance with some history, and a bit of interpretive signage identifying buildings, but not much beyond that. We all regretted not having read up on the history of the place before we came. Here’s the scoop:

“Located in Eastern Georgia, Uplistsikhe (literally “Lord’s Fortress“) is an abandoned rock-hewn town which once played an important role in Georgian history. The place was founded in the late Bronze Age, around 1000 BC, and continued to be inhabited until the 13th century AD. Between the 6th century BC and the 11th century AD, Uplistsikhe was one of the most important political and religious centers of pre-Christian Kartli – one of the predecessors of the Georgian state.

Archaeologists have unearthed numerous temples and findings relating to a sun goddess, worshipped prior to the arrival of Christianity. When Christianity arrived in Georgia, the city lost importance in favor of the new centers of Christian culture, most notably Mtskheta and Tbilisi. Nevertheless, life continued in Uplistsikhe. Christian structures have been built, and for a short time Christianity and the old faith coexisted in the city.

After the Arab conquest of the royal city of Tbilisi, Uplistsikhe’s second heyday began when the town became the residence of the kings of Kartli, during which the town grew to a size of around 20,000 people, evolving into an important caravan trading post. When Tbilisi was recaptured in 1122, Uplistsikhe faced an immediate and rapid decline, culminating in the destruction of large parts of the city during the Mongol conquest in the 13th century and the subsequent abandonment of the rest of the town.

The cave town, covering an area of almost 40,000 square meters, can be divided into a lower, a central and an upper area. The central area, which contains most of the rock-cut structures, is connected to the lower area by narrow tunnel. Most of the rock-cut structures are without any decorative elements, aside from some of the larger structures which contain some stone carvings.

At the top of the complex is a Christian stone basilica, dating from the 10th century. The rock-cut structures include a large hall, called Tamaris Darbazi, pagan places of sacrifice, dwellings, as well as functional buildings, like a pharmacy, a bakery, a prison, and even an amphitheater. The rock-cut structures are connected by tunnels, while other tunnels had the purpose of an emergency escape route.

Uplistsikhe is remarkable for the unique combination of styles from rock-cut cultures of the region, most notably from Cappadocia (in modern Turkey) and Northern Iran. Most of the unearthed artifacts can be seen at the National Museum in Tbilisi.”

From Atlas Obscura

There weren’t too many people around – apparently in summer, it’s swarmed, I shudder to think … the heat, the masses of people, the climbing … yeach! So glad we went in off-season. We climbed up, stopping to take photos of course, :-), here are a few:

Here are a few shots of the church, which was small and very beautiful. We had to tie aprons around our waists so that we were nominally wearing skirts (mine kept falling down), and wrap scarves around our heads.

The last photo – my favorite, perhaps.  We were all the way at the top, even a little bit above the church, and this is what we saw:

View from the top, to the west. I believe that's the Mtkvari River, which flows through Tbilisi.

We just stood in silence and appreciated it for a while.

Then we started hiking back down. We got a little turned around, went down a few wrong paths, it was kind of funny … we finally found a long flight of stairs, kind of hidden, back down to the main path.

The tunnel out!

When we started down, we weren’t sure where it led … but all’s well that ends well, we made it home in plenty of time for dinner at the Sports Cafe and a leisurely evening drinking my host grandmother’s cherry cognac at my place afterwards. All in all, a very satisfying day.

Next weekend I am going to Batumi, all the way to the southwest, with fellow PCV Karen. We are staying at an apartment I found through Airbnb, and meeting up with some of my favorite volunteers, whom I don’t see very often because they live too far away! Batumi has a very, very different look and feel from Eastern Georgia where I live, so I’ll try to take some good photos and post them. Until then …

Adventures in Photography

One of the projects I’ve been working on pretty steadily since last summer is coming to fruition, and has even produced a side project – I’m excited about it! The project is CHCA’s Annual Report. The organization has not had the resources to do an annual report since 2010-11. Annual Reports are so important for an organization’s credibility, outreach and accountability, and good ones can be used so many different ways – for fundraising, publicity, education, and even a little humble bragging, yeah! So I was really happy to take the lead on putting together an AR for 2013-14. I began work on this back in August, and after a lot of work and delays, and the addition of CHCA’s awesome Communications person, Sophiko, we’re about to put together a complete first draft in the next week or so, with the full AR slated for release in April.

This AR will focus on personal stories of CHCA’s beneficiaries, explaining programs through their experiences. For this purpose, compelling photos were key. However, as I began to gather what was available, I saw that some help was needed. At first, I thought of training our staff. Given that I’m hardly an accomplished photographer, I turned to a fellow PCV who IS an accomplished photographer, Alan Luan. Eventually that project morphed into a training for Gori NGO’s – I mentioned this in my last post. It was very successful – well-attended, loads of great information, and good participation. Folks went out in the afternoon and took photographs using the skills they had acquired. One cool thing is that Alan set up a Facebook page for attendees where they can post their photos and get feedback, as well as access resources.

In the process of putting together this training workshop, I sent one of Alan’s photographs to Eka with the comment that I wished we had this level of photography for our AR:







Lo and behold, thanks to Alan’s extremely generous donation of his time and talent, I have been spending the last few weekends traveling throughout Georgia visiting numerous beneficiaries of various CHCA programs. If I explained each one in detail, this post would be too long. However, it was an extraordinary set of experiences in many ways, and I’d like to share some of the most compelling stories with you. All photography by Alan Luan unless otherwise noted.

First was a visit to Berbuki, an IDP settlement about 15 or 20 minutes outside of Gori. I’ve written about Berbuki before, most recently in an article published in WorldView Magazine. You can see it on Peace Corps Georgia’s Facebook page ( in a post dated January 30, 2015. And btw, for an entirely unrelated but nonetheless really great short video featuring PCV Eric singing a traditional Georgian folksong so well it almost made me (and apparently all the men at the table) cry, look at the post dated January 7, 2015. Actually there’s a lot on this FB page that’s interesting … but I digress.

At Berbuki, we visited two IDP families: Lali and Dato. Both of these families have participated in CHCA’s micro-lending program. Lali’s son had been married the day before, meaning food was … abundant. Extremely abundant! After saying we would be happy to have some coffee and a snack, we all sat down to a meal that nearly caused the table to break under its own weight. And it was good, too. 🙂

All of us and remaining unmarried son, who made sure we knew he'd really like to marry an Amerikeli woman, enjoying a snack.

All of us and remaining unmarried son, who made sure we knew he’d really like to marry an Amerikeli girl, enjoying a snack. SF photo.








Alan’s photos of Lali and Dato were superb. We also took photos of a young boy in his village who is part of one of the clubs that Marta’s program supports – in this case, the Environmental Club. This kid won a photography contest with a very similar photograph. This was taken on a hill just below a village right outside of Gori. Such scenes are, sadly, extremely common. While we were shooting, a an older gentleman came up and started speaking with us. He expressed embarrassment about how the hill of garbage looked, saying he was trying to improve the area by digging a well and trying to get the villagers to stop dumping trash there. Usually littering and trash are met with shrugs and “what can you do?” type comments, so this was very impressive. I wish I knew a way to help, but just raising awareness is a start, I guess. That, and a new law raising littering fees!

Environmental Club Photo winner

Environmental Club Photo winner

Lali shows her wares

Lali shows her wares

Dato with his 4 sons

Dato with his 4 sons







In a separate trip on his own, Alan took photos in Kutaisi, and then last weekend we teamed up for an intense two days in Tbilisi and points well beyond – Lagodekhi, in the east, to visit a small group home, and then the village of Tsintskaro in the south, and then back to Gori. Each had a story to tell. In Tbilisi, among other beneficiaries, we visited a young goldsmith, Constantine, and explored the jewelry mart of Tbilisi:

At his station making jewelry

At his station making jewelry

Examples of work

Examples of work

Just ... because

Just … because







Lagodekhi was a long drive through a mountain pass, with an stop to buy some mixed nuts sold by a talkative and friendly old lady. Of course she asked Alan if he was from China, which he took in good grace and told her no, he’s American – she accepted that with some equanimity. Such encounters, which are very common, further Peace Corps’ 2nd goal, which is “to help promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served.” I don’t know how much comfort that brings after being asked that question for the 950th time, though.

Hanging above are churchkhela, a traditional goodie made of nuts and wine

Hanging above are churchkhela, a traditional goodie made of nuts and wine








When we arrived at our destination, a small group home that fosters children whose parents are unable to care for them, or who are orphaned, we set about taking photos of a particular beneficiary whose story is being featured in the AR. It was really challenging because we cannot show the faces of these underage beneficiaries. We spent a few hours there and got to interact with the house-mom, a truly warm and sweet woman, and the kids – the 15-year old carrying around a hand-carved, wooden semi-automatic rifle on his shoulder, a tiny 11-year-old girl who looked all of 7, fiercely guarding a tablet with her pictures and games from the other kids, and our beneficiary, a tall young woman, somewhat impaired but in some way that wasn’t entirely clear. She was extremely cooperative and Alan was successful, I think, in getting some good shots, but it was challenging. I can’t show any of the photos that reveal identities, unfortunately, because some of them are really evocative, but here are a few that give a flavor:

This place had shadows and sadness, but there was hope and love there, too. It was a clean and safe place for these kids, with a loving housemother. No such luck with the last place we came to, right here in my town, Gori. We came here to photograph a young girl, living with her mother, who has experienced more than her fair share of tragedy in her short 11 years. Lika is from South Ossetia; during the 2008 conflict, her house was bombed and her little brother and grandmother were killed. Lika herself sustained damage to her left eye and burns on her face. After fleeing to Georgia, her family settled here, but her father died a few years later. After this calamity, the family financial situation, already precarious, became completely unstable. The mom was not able to pay for Lika’s medical care and applied to one of our programs for medical assistance, which she received.

Lika and her mom live in a single room with no running water, no toilet, no shower, no refrigerator or stove, and, as far as I could tell, no heat. Two beds and a cabinet, and a small photographic shrine to the dead brother, father and grandmother. No lock on the door – it’s held shut by a string. The smell in the building is indescribable – most likely a sewage pipe is broken beneath the building, and has been for a long time. Appalachian might be one way to describe it. The mother did not speak one word the entire time – she just gazed blankly into the distance. Lika was friendly but reserved, and didn’t want to leave the room. The whole scene was just suffused with so much hopelessness … I’ve spent time now, in IDP settlements and poor villages, and I’ve seen terrible poverty in my travels, especially India. But something about this particular scene was just heart-rending. We have permission from the family to share this photo.

Lika and her mother

Lika and her mother








So, that’s it. From beauty and love to poverty and pathos, and back. That’s Georgia.

Two Days

I was just reflecting on the two polar opposite days I had. The best and worst of working at an NGO in Georgia. Here’s how it went down.

Day #1:

Got up early, wasn’t even too tired. Had a nice little breakfast of a hardboiled egg on bread and a tangerine, and good coffee with milk and sugar, just the way I like it. Called a shared taxi to go to Tbilisi, speaking Georgian of course, and did not struggle with the woman who answered the phone. I understood her, and she understood me, and the cab came in just the right amount of time. When I went outside, it was not too cold and the sky was a beautiful, pale blue. I climbed in the taxi and to what I can only characterize as my utter amazement and disbelief, Nina Simone was playing on the radio. Not throbbing Europop, not hoarse Russian rock, not Georgian folk songs – Nina. Singing “It’s a New Day.” So, well, that was nice. I listened to that until the song was over. Then a Russian rock band began to shriek and the world returned to its usual shape. I popped my iPod in to block the bellowing and arrived in Tbilisi on time, and the taxi driver didn’t even go over 140 km/hr.

When I arrived at the office, I had another conversation in Georgian about an upcoming training with a program manager, pretty halting on my part, but I was so amused when I turned to the Irish volunteer who works at the next desk and asked if he wanted to come too. He said “Come where? I couldn’t understand your conversation, it was in Georgian.” Oh, haha, I actually was perceived as speaking Georgian, though not by my Georgian colleague I am sure.

Off to a meeting with Jumpstart, a really interesting NGO – here’s their mission statement:

JumpStart Georgia is a registered non-governmental organization which applies open-source technologies to open up public data and shed light on issues of social importance.

JumpStart Georgia seeks to translate complex issues into a language a wider audience can understand and use to participate in fact-based discussions and ultimately make more informed decisions.

If anyone is interested, here’s their english website: So, Jumpstart did some work for CHCA, and we were there to discuss revisions, uses for the piece, fundraising logistics/planning, etc. Good stuff. Then on to lunch with Eka, the Executive Director of CHCA. As always, we had a good conversation – honest, incisive, and informative. After lunch, we went back to the office where we met with Sophiko, our communications person, to discuss the final production of the annual report. She will be coordinating the photography and logistics on the ground in Tbilisi, and I am so grateful to be working with her! We went over all the stories, the photos, what’s needed and what has been secured … excellent meeting.

I walked back down the long hill to the Metro stop, past bakeries, vegetable stands, small flower shops, toy shops, stationary shops, pharmacies … everything all on the one street, interspersed with large banks, offices and schools, all at street level with tall apartments above, balconies hung with laundry. I made my way back to Didube, the central marshutka/bus/taxi station for all points west. The metro was incredibly crowded, everyone pushed and elbowed, but somehow I’ve gotten used to it. I watched a deaf couple laughing and signing to each other, shoved so close that their forearms were perpendicular to their upper arms the whole time, yet somehow they managed to be pretty expressive. Found a taxi and snoozed all the way back home … and the taxi driver, who was very polite, drove me right to my door, and moreover, understood every word I said and did not even ask if anyone else in the car spoke English. Nor did he speak Russian to me. We just had a normal conversational exchange. Of course, I’ve gotten pretty good at speaking Georgian (a) in taxis, (b) at the store/buying food at the bazaar, and (c) talking about the weather. Everything else is a stretch, but still … I enjoy those small moments.

Day #2:

Woke up tired. Ran out of milk for my coffee. It was pretty cold outside, and cloudy. None of this was enough to really depress my mood as I strolled to work, but I was beginning to feel the pressure of having a lot of work and not too much time. I am working on a giant grant, potentially worth as much as a quarter of a million dollars, and because I found out about it quite late, I’m really under the gun. The grant is due on the same day as a day-long photography workshop for Gori NGO’s. I thought of this idea in response to the photos that were submitted to me for our annual report – I could see that some training would be very helpful. I called a fellow PCV, Alan Luan, who is a supremely talented photographer, and asked if he’d like to partner on the project. He immediately and enthusiastically agreed (and also agreed to help take some new photos for our annual report, thank you Alan!). At the time, I didn’t know that these two deadlines would collide on February 17th.

When I got to work, some of my worst fears were realized. Without going into any detail, suffice it to say that it may be that, even with a lot of weekend work, it’s possible I will not be able to finish this grant application in time due to circumstances completely outside of my control. Naturally, I find this situation extremely frustrating. It’s a really great project, it’s really a lot of money, and I really want to do a good job on it. But time is running out, and communication is challenging. Here’s where life in L.A. and Gori really diverge. In L.A, situations like this did occur sometimes. But when they did, I hired temps, I pulled help from our San Francisco office, I called in favors, I accessed relationships … I did what I had to do, and things got done, always. I had to work long hours and felt a lot of stress, yes, but I was almost never on my own. Here, it’s a whole different story. I don’t speak the language fluently, I don’t know the culture intimately, I don’t have relationships to call on, and I am the low woman on the totem pole. It’s an adjustment.

After work, still not knowing whether the situation would be resolved or not (note: since it’s now the day after the deadline, I can report that it did get resolved, the grant got submitted, and the photography workshop went well – more on this in another post), I walked home through a very cold rain, getting soaked in the process since I had forgotten to bring my umbrella. After climbing 5 flights up in the dark, I was so grateful to be home. I changed into dry clothes, set up my laptop, turned on some music … and the electricity went out. This is not that unusual, and it’s usually back on within 15 or 20 minutes, but this night … no. It was off the rest of the night. That meant no heat (the gas heater lights on a spark, and I had not turned it on yet), no water (runs on an electric pump), no internet, no music, no lights … sigh … I considered trying to knit by candlelight, abandoned that idea, and went to bed where I was reasonably warm and read my Kindle, until it ran out of power. Which was about an hour. So, at 8:30 pm, I went to sleep. Guess I needed it, because I slept straight through to the next morning, when I got up and did it all over again. At least the power was back on. 🙂

I feel a little guilty for not providing any photos in this post – so here’s the flyer, in Georgian, for the photography workshop we put on. Photo by Alan, of course – click on it to see better.









So this was just a description of how things can go, 2 days, 2 very different experiences, both very much part of life here. I savor the good moments and just get through the bad. In that way, not so different from home.


Spelling Bee!

I had an unexpectedly good time last weekend, volunteering at the NESC regional competition. I can’t remember what NESC stands for, but it is a spelling bee for Georgian students. In English. With really hard words!

OK, I’ll back up. NESC was started by a PCV back in 2010, I think. It has turned into an annual competition that, unlike some of the many, many competitions held here in Georgia for students, has a lot of prestige but not a giant prize at the end of it. For instance, some of the competitions that my host sister Salome enters boast trips to the U.S. or London for the winners. I think the winner of NESC gets an iPod or an iPad or an iSomething. The point is that the kids who enter really want to compete for the sake of the prestige of excelling at spelling, and pretty much that alone, not a big prize.

NESC starts at the local school level. PCV’s volunteer to be regional coordinators. I refrained, but my sitemate Russell and a phenomenal PC13 (my group is PC14 – the 14th group to serve here in Georgia) named Melissa who lives in Khashuri, where we trained, went for it, and with gusto. They reached out to schools in the region, and engaged the help of other PCV teachers. Meetings were held, teachers were recruited, and a record sign-up resulted.

Once a school signs up, students in the 8 through 12 grade receive word lists they can study. They take a written test at their school, and those above a certain level move on to the next stage. That was where I, and numerous other PCV’s, came into the picture. The competition was held at Gori University, and we helped with registration, test administration, hall monitoring, and pretty much anywhere else we were needed.

Registration went smoothly, though about 50% of the kids didn’t show up. That was surprising, but apparently was the case across-the-board in every region. It’s hard to say for sure why kids who had qualified at their schools didn’t chose to participate. Perhaps it was intimidating. Perhaps they didn’t study hard enough. Perhaps they weren’t motivated enough, or self-confident enough, or … we don’t really know. The team plans to send out a thorough and comprehensive survey to teachers, parents, kids, volunteers – everyone – to try and get a better grasp on this challenge. That was a little disappointing, but there were nearly 100 kids who did show up, and boy were they raring to go!

Maka, Russell’s counterpart/colleague at Society Biliki here in Gori, was my co-test-administrator for a group of 8th/9th graders, and we had some fun. I said the word in English, and then she would rap off 5 seconds on the edge of the desk – then she would say it in Georgian, 5 more raps, then me in English again, 5 more, English once again, and onward to the next word. There were 30 words, with 5 more “tie-breakers.” And wow, some of those words! “Foreigner” and “catalogue,” for instance.  When it was all over, the PCV’s graded the tests. There was a huge range of scores, ranging from 2 or 3 (out of 35)  all the way up to perfect. And there were enough perfects that even one mistake pushed a kid out of the finals, that’s how competitive it was.

On to part 2, which was what we more typically think of when we think of spelling bees – an oral competition, words of escalating difficulty. These kids were allowed to get 2 wrong before being eliminated. Given how good they were, it was a LONG afternoon. I was a hall monitor, which meant I stood outside the door letting kids in and out, stopped them from cheating (I had to take away all of their papers to remove the temptation of studying just for one more minute!), and witness some slightly heartbreaking crying when kids got eliminated. I tried to have a little conversation with them other than saying “modi” (come) and making the backward beckoning sign used here – instead of palm up and all four fingers curling and uncurling, just reverse it, palm down), but they didn’t understand me, sadly. The problem was, their English was no better than my Georgian. They would say, very formally, “please speak English,” and I would try, but they didn’t understand that either! It’s the typical problem of learning a language purely in class – they can read and write very well, but their ability to converse is very limited. On a somewhat tangential note, Georgia and the U.S. have a great program called FLEX which sends really accomplished English-speaking students overseas to stay with families in the U.S. for about a year to attend school. Many of the employees at Peace Corps in Georgia are alumni of this program, as are numerous young people working in government and NGO’s. Here’s a link for anyone who is interested:

So, it was a long day. Finally, some kids won and we all were able to go home at around 6:00 pm. In the 8th/9th grade group, a boy was one of the winners – Sandro – which is kind of unusual. Here they are:

Spelling Bee 12-14, winners, me






Exhausted but happy. I don’t spend much time with kids, so it was especially interesting for me. I hope to volunteer again at the national competition in Tbilisi in the spring.

Other goings on … well, we had Thanksgiving. That was really a lot of fun. Good company, good food, bunch of people stayed in my apartment, which was great fun, and overall a huge success. I know a lot of PCV’s are especially homesick this time of year, but for whatever reason, I was not. I was quite happy to be right where I was. That’s not always the case – I do get homesick sometimes – but it’s at the oddest moments, and for no apparent reason. Sometimes I kind of forget where I am, and I just live here. But anyway, due to an epic cellphone meltdown necessitating a factory reset, my collection of Thanksgiving photos is a bit limited, but here are a few:

And my favorite photo – here, as at home, it’s the after-Thanksgiving meal that is often the best. This one included avocados, purchased at Carrefour in Tbilisi in anticipation of this very event. Russell is almost crying with joy.

Thanksgiving in Gori 2014 5









In 9 days I am off to London, a trip I am very much looking forward to, and will be the first vacation I’ve taken in nearly a year and a half. Because life here is a lot of things, but it ain’t a vacation! It’s not an “adventure” either. It’s challenging, and hard, and fun, and sometimes exciting, and sometimes depressing … it’s just, well, life.