Tag Archives: 50+

ქართული

That means, Georgian language, and this is planned to be a short blog post about my ongoing struggles and today’s final surrender to the absurdity of it all.

So, as I’ve written here before, my Georgian is not very good. My (former) office mate Nodar has characterized it as babytalk. I can’t really argue with that. Nonetheless, I manage. I actually manage pretty well in day-to-day activities, if I am speaking with someone personally. Telephone conversations are definitely more challenging. As are handwritten menus, taxi drivers speaking Russian, marshutka drivers with heavy regional accents, fancy script and other monkey wrenches thrown in my way.

Today was a pretty good example. I negotiated my way along a new marshutka route (winding through very beautiful areas of Tbilsi btw), talking with a woman waiting with me on the corner (jer ara, not yet, accompanied by a resigned shrug from both of us, and then, finally, modis! it’s coming!), the marshutka driver, whose gravelly voice rivaled Leonard Cohen’s, the one guy left at the printing place I went to get a business card made who was telling they closed 15 minutes ago, and to call on Monday (ok, there was a little English in that conversation), then a conversation at the excellent Turkish restaurant where I went to console myself (in Georgian, not Turkish!), and the cleaning woman in my building who I told, madame, I have your money! To which she replied, your Georgian is getting very good. To which I replied, nah, it isn’t, accompanied by a rueful shake of the head.

And then, the final surrender. Off I go to the vegetable stand on the corner. I saw a woman on the marshutka eating the tiny winter tangerines we call mandarini (მანდარინი – the letter “ი” in Georgian is written as “i” in English characters, but pronounced as “ee”) and I thought, yeah, that looks really good, I’m going to buy some of those. So, in I went, and I asked the friendly guy, in Georgian, do you have mandarinis? Are they sweet? He kind of wagged his hand and said, not really. I chuckled and said – again, in Georgian – not yet, I think! I said, I want a few, and I took four, and a few other things. He rang me up and then said IN ENGLISH, 2 lari. Holding up 2 fingers. Usually this behavior, which is incredibly common, drives me into a rage. I complain about it all the time. I mean – we just had a whole little conversation in Georgian. I used non-tourist words and the future tense. Come on! But I dunno … for some reason it didn’t trigger the usual reaction. Instead, I laughed, I said, in Georgian, yeah, 2 lari, I understand, yeah! He laughed too.

I think it’s finally happened – I’ve finally surrendered to the absurdity of it all. Either people are insisting on speaking Russian to me, or they want to speak English, even when they clearly don’t know how, or – and this totally happens – I’m imploring them to speak English and they refuse, even when they know how. This mainly happens at government offices. I’m not gonna get mad about it anymore. I’m just going to accept it. If this means my Georgian doesn’t improve very much because I don’t get to practice, so be it. I’m tired of getting mad about it.

მე მიყვარს საქართველო. Look it up.

 

 

 

 

 

One of the best trips ever – Khevsureti

So, on the spur of the moment, last weekend I joined a large group of Georgians and Americans, including the original 4 PCVs who started off together here in Gori 2 years ago, on a trip to Khevsureti. I’d been in the general area before, when visiting friends and I went to Kazbegi. Mt. Kazbegi and the town below it, Stepantsminda, are about 3 hours or so due north of Tbilisi, almost up to the Russian border – Chechnya, actually. It’s stunningly beautiful, but to my amazement, Khevsureti, which is the mountainous area lying to the east of Kazbegi, is even more beautiful and mysterious.

We started out in our rented marshutka along the same route we took last September to Stepantsminda, but at the turn off to the Zhinvali Reservoir, we turned right and started a 5-hour climb up to the tiny village of Shatili. The road up to Kazbegi was smooth and paved; this road was dirt or decomposed asphalt, rocky and rough the whole way. We speculated that it was to stop hoards of tourists from ruining the ancient sites we were headed to see, but really, I think it’s just lack of funding to repave.

As we drove by Zhinvali, which I had so admired from the Ananuri Church on the north side of the reservoir last September, it was smooth as a mirror and reflected the surrounding landscape without even a ripple.

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We traveled up and up, through leafy, gladed forests with streams and rivers running through them, and eventually began to climb up to higher altitudes where snow still lay on the mountains in June.

 

Eventually we reached the summit, where we stopped for a lunch laid out on a snow bank consisting of fried chicken, lobiani (bean pie), sausages, bread and … some other things. It was delicious, that’s what I remember, and cold – especially when a few of us ladies snuck down the road to have a pee. Chilly! We snapped a few pics to document our presence there and on we went, down and down, to Shatili.

We reached Shatili in the late afternoon. The owner of the homestay/house where we were staying wasn’t there yet, so we wandered about the tiny village onto a large meadow, where I enthusiastically began my usual obsessive flower photography activities.

Luckily the owner finally arrived just as it began to pour. We piled into the house, where a very complicated discussion ensued about who was going to sleep where. The Georgian contingent was very concerned that someone would have to sleep alone on a bed located on the stair landing; the American contingent was fighting over who got the lonely bed. A cultural divide, for sure. It finally all worked out, we stowed our stuff and started drinking coffee, eating kada (a kind of hard, sugary role, one of my favorites) and playing nardi (backgammon) and spelling games, which resulted in humiliation for me as one of our Georgian friends bested me several times.

Eventually the rain let up, and we hiked off to the ancient ruins of Shatili. Here’s some background. With thanks to Wikipedia: “Located in the deep Arghuni gorge at approximate 1,400 meters, the village is actually a unique complex of medieval-to-early modern fortresses and fortified dwellings of stone and mortar which functioned both as a residential area and a fortress guarding the northeastern outskirts of the country. The fortress consists of the terraced structures dominated by flat-roofed dwellings and some 60 towers which cluster together to create a single chain of fortifications.”

This description, while entirely accurate, fails to convey the beauty and strangeness of this place. We climbed down into it, through narrow, stony passages, between stacked structures built without concrete, but standing since the 1100’s, to a river flowing right below the complex.

Back to the house, where a lavish supra ensued, complete with mtsvadi (shishlik/roasted meat), tomato/cucumber salad, bread, cheese, eggs, onions, mchadi (a type of cornbread, often eaten with cheese), all sorts of pickles, and copious amounts of wine.

And then the toasting ensued. I sometimes don’t enjoy the Georgian toasting tradition too much, because it’s harder for women. Traditionally, women do not join in toasting. They sit, while men stand. They sip, while men gulp. And they most definitely do not speak – they just sit and listen, and listen, and listen … but this night was a bit different. Everyone was young, or American, and tradition was honored but just a little more flexible. I recorded some of these toasts, and named the subject of the toast in the title. It’s pretty dark, sorry, the lighting was not good, but I think the feeling is palpable.

One of my few regrets here is that I never was able to master Georgian to the extent necessary to make toasts on occasions like this. I can shout “gilostav” (congratulations/best wishes – sort of like mazeltov) and “jost!” (as in gamarjost, the most common toast, meaning victory – when people are really enthusiastic, the tamada/toastmaster yells gamar! and the table yells jost! three times, it’s really a lot of fun) with the best of them, but my language skills never approached Russell and Rachel’s. Kudos to them.

Here’s a few more pictures capturing the spirit of the evening.

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The next morning, up early to drive further east, right up against the border, about an hour on a crazy bad road to an extraordinary place – Mutso. Again, from Wikipedia: “The village, almost completely abandoned more than a century ago, is a home to approximately 30 medieval fortified dwelling units arranged on vertical terraces above the Mutso-Ardoti gorge, four combat towers and ruins of several old structures and buildings. Difficult to access, the village retains original architecture, and is a popular destination for tourists and mountain trekkers. Listed, however, among the most endangered historic monuments of Georgia, a project of the rehabilitation of Mutso has been developed since 2004.  A legend has it that the villagers worshiped the Broliskalo Icon of Archangel. They were renowned as fighters and hunters, and considered themselves permanent members of the army of the sacred flags and guardians of fabulous treasury donated to the Icon over the centuries. The legends say the treasury that is still kept in the high mountains around Mutso waiting for the chosen one to come.”

The journey was as fantastic as Mutso once we arrived. We drove through the most dramatic gorges I’ve ever seen, with a rushing, cold river, high vertical stone cliffs, surrounded by high, snowy mountains and verdant, green meadows. On a few occasions, we had to disembark from the marshutka and clear rockfalls off the road. We snuck below a small waterfall. We saw a gate warning drivers not to enter because on the other side – Russia. And, most extraordinarily, we stopped at a “plague house.” This is a small stone structure, with a tiny window, overlooking the gorge. Inside are ancient skulls and skeletons of adults and children.  These are medieval communal tombs  wherein times of plague infected villagers would voluntarily enter these tombs and wait for death, looking down on the river. It was a haunting spot, all the more so for being so gorgeous.

Arrival at Mutso, I have to admit, filled me with a certain degree of dread. It was a very long, steep climb, and I’m no hiker! I was actually as worried about going down as up, since my arthritis really acts up under those circumstances. But I was really determined that, having come so far, I was not going to just bail and wait at the bottom. So off we went, straight up a trail that ultimately led … nowhere. We then all had to climb straight up the side of a nearly vertical hill covered in slippery, slate rocks to pick up the proper trail above. I did it, but man -that was kind of scary. At one point I just sat down, while Rachel patiently waited above, trying to decide which was worse – to continue up, or go back down. I went up, but when I finally reached a verandah viewing point, I decided that had to be enough for me on that day. I really enjoyed the view, rested a little, drank some water, and then very slowly and carefully made my way back down.  I’ve been paying a pretty high price in terms of hip and knee pain for the last week for that decision, but I don’t care – it was worth it.

We then all got back on the marshutka for the long ride home. It was as beautiful returning as it had been going, and we made a few stops along the way for lunch (best khinkali in Georgia was the word) and photos. Below are the final snaps from what was, really, pretty much a perfect weekend, and a fitting and wonderful way to approach COS. Special thanks to David Poppick, fellow Gori PCV, for sharing some of his photos with me.

Now, a week later, Russell and Rachel are already gone, and I’m due to leave in about a week. That will be another post …  but for now:

 

Heading home for 50+ PCVs

As COS (close of service) approaches, so does the reality of having to return to life-before-Peace-Corps. No more easy access to medical and dental care. No more staff to call if I’m having a problem. All my PCV friends, leaving town! And, the biggest reality bummer of all – gotta get a job! Of course, I’ve always been aware this day would come, and I’ve been researching and planning for it for a while now. None of which has gotten me a job yet, but I’ve still got just under three months to go, so send me your best wishes. In the meantime, prompted by an inquiry on the 50+ PCV Facebook page, I’m going to share my research with anyone who would like to take a look. So this post will be very short on stories and photos, but I’ll try to make up for it with useful links.

First of all (in response to the Facebook inquiry), I’m not aware of any Peace Corps special help or program for 50+ volunteers at all. There is a brand-new program called “Emerging Leaders” for “early to mid-career professional RPCVs with a degree in business, international studies, law, or sciences, and have 2-10 years of professional work experience.” You can find out more about it here:

Introducing the Emerging Leaders Project

All of their regular help is available to us, but if there’s anything beyond that, I’ve never been able to find it. Having said that, their regular help is pretty good. Before I start providing the links, I’ll offer some advice. While researching and working on resumes and such between MST and COS is a good idea, applying for positions more than 3 months in advance of your COS date is pretty much an exercise in futility. I speak from sad experience, having sent out a resume in February that resulted in a very fast response and an excellent interview the same week, only to have it all crash and burn because they understandably couldn’t wait until July for me to make my way to Washington DC! Federal jobs of course can take a lot longer, but it’s a gamble to apply too far out, for the same reason. I sought advice on this from staff and some contacts in DC, and the answer I got was – 3 months out.

So, first advice on the work you need to do between MST and COS. First, if you plan to apply for federal jobs, start learning how to write a federal resume, which is quite different from a normal, 2-page summary. It’s much more detailed and demands a lot of factual back-up for every assertion made. This may require you to write to your old job and ask some questions! Personally I certainly can’t remember every grant I wrote for the last 20 years, or every budget, or even my last salary level! Luckily my former employer was very helpful. So, here are some good places to look at examples of federal resumes and see instruction on how to write them:

http://files.peacecorps.gov/resources/returned/sample-resume.pdf

http://gogovernment.org/how_to_apply/write_your_federal_resume/create_your_resume.php

I also participated in a webinar led by someone from OPM who gave a very thorough presentation on this topic. He allowed us to download his presentation and you can find it here:

https://drive.google.com/file/d/0B4wEFalcuGE0eVgxOW5wMUVfZjA/view?usp=sharing

Now, aside from writing federal resumes, there’s drafting of normal resumes as well. It’s easy to research this – just google it, and thousands of articles and samples will pop up, so I won’t provide any here – you just have to peruse. But, there are some tips for 50+ job hunters that I found in a few helpful articles, here:

http://www.nextavenue.org/category/finding-a-job/

Much of the advice these articles address concern three myths about older people: older adults are too set in their ways; older adults aren’t tech-savvy and older people aren’t resilient, and offer advice about how to offset these stereotypes. This can be useful. For instance, I really spiffed up my LinkedIn profile and did all the things advised here:

http://www.aarp.org/work/job-hunting/info-2015/liven-linkedin-profile-for-job-search.html?intcmp-WORK-FEED

OK, so you’ve worked on your resume, you’ve fixed up your LinkedIn account (or opened one, :-)), you’re 3 months out from COS, where do you look?

First, start with Peace Corps resources. They have a “Peace Corps Virtual Career Center” page with a lot of resources, here:

http://www.peacecorps.gov/resources/returned/careercen/?utm_campaign=CareerArticles&utm_source=link&utm_medium=Passport

They post job openings of all sorts – domestic, international, public and private sector – here:

http://www.peacecorps.gov/resources/returned/careercen/careerlink/jobs/

You can sign-up for an email service that either daily or weekly sends you all the jobs, or just in the categories you select.

Next, there’s a good Facebook page for job-seekers, here:

https://www.facebook.com/groups/413308168851174/

Another good source is the National Peace Corps Association job page, here:

http://jobs.peacecorpsconnect.org/

Sometimes there is duplication between all these sites, of course, but that’s ok, it’s easy to catch.

Next, there’s the dreaded USAJOBS. This is only for federal jobs, and if you want to work for the government, this is the only portal of entry. You can create a variety of searches there, save resumes, etc. Does it work? I’ve heard it’s a black hole, but there isn’t really any choice. I’ll let you know whether it works for me or not! Here it is:

https://www.usajobs.gov/

Another really good source is the PND Job Bulletin, PND standing for Philanthropy News Digest, from the Foundation Center. They send out a weekly email bulletin that has really good nonprofit jobs that I don’t see elsewhere. You can find them here:

http://philanthropynewsdigest.org/jobs

There are other job-search sites that might be helpful. Please keep in mind that I am not a teacher – I am an IOD PCV, and worked in the non-profit field prior to that, so this list skews that way. I’m sure there are other education sites, but sorry, I don’t know them. I can’t personally vouch for any of these, but they seem worth exploring, anyway.

https://execsearches.com/nonprofit-jobs/

http://www.over50jobboard.com/

http://www.workforce50.com/content/job-search-for-over50.cfm?q=&l=06870

http://www.simplyhired.com/a/special-searches/fifty-plus

http://www.aidboard.com/international-development-job-websites/http://www.internationaljobs.org/contents.html

Last, I’ll give the advice that we all hear, but it bears repeating – network and reach out to your contacts as much as you can. In the course of our careers we 50+ PCVs have amassed a lot of experience and know a lot of people, and we can use that to our advantage.

Good luck to everyone.

This & that …

It’s been a while, and that’s due not to apathy or laziness, but rather being really, really busy. So now, a quick catch-up on a number of rather interesting things that happened in the last 6 weeks or so.

First, I have finally found the text I want for a tattoo that will represent my time in Georgia. I want text, because I love the way Georgian script looks. I want it to contain the letters უ and ლ (pronounced “oo” and “l” respectively) because I love writing them. I just like the way they look. And I want it to be personally meaningful. With thanks to Francisco Resto for bringing this quote to me, from Shota Rustaveli, perhaps the most famous of Georgian poets, from his epic medieval poem, The Knight in the Panther’s Skin, here you have it:

 რასაცა გასცემ შენია, რაც არა დაკარგულია

I’ve seen this translated a few different ways. My go-to translator, Marta Bibilashvili, says it means “whatever you will give to anyone, it is yours, what you do not, that is lost.” I really like this one. Cisco, whose Georgian skills far surpass mine, translated it as “That which we give makes us richer, that which we hoard is lost.” You get the idea, and I feel it represents my experience here quite accurately in many ways. So, sometime in April, my 35-year-old tattoo on my left leg will get a new sibling on the right. No photos will be forthcoming. 🙂

Second, speaking of my Georgian experience, it’s winding down to an end soon – at least the Peace Corps part of it. Just a week or so ago, therefore, we had our “COS Conference” in Tbilisi. “COS” stands for Close of Service. We got a lot of information and even more forms to fill out and appointments to make, all of which I’ll be working on for the next few months.

A highlight of the conference was a trip taken by me and two fellow PCV’s, Catherine and Karen, to see “Swan Lake” at the newly renovated Tbilisi Opera House. Not only was the performance incredible, especially the lead ballerina playing Odette, Ekaterine Surmava (who in spite of her rather Russian-sounding name is definitely Georgian – contrary to the common misunderstanding in the U.S. on this topic, these are TWO DIFFERENT NATIONALITIES), but the completely full to the rafters audience was on very good behavior. I regret that I didn’t take more photos of the Opera House, which was magnificent. Here are some grabbed off the internet, a shot of the actual performance, as well as a few of us girls enjoying ourselves.

Third. Well, the more alert of you may have noticed that above I alluded to the PC experience ending. And it will. But will my residency in Georgia end? It remains to be seen, but I am having some very intriguing discussions which may result in a major pivot. Stay tuned.

Fourth, we had our “Let’s Play Together” event here in Gori in late February. This is the same program that we originally called “Kakheti Special Needs Field Day” (see my post from June of last year). It’s now evolved to a full-on regular program that is held every few months throughout the country. We always planned to have a LPT day for Gori, and after I got back from Vietnam in January, I started working with fellow PCV David Poppick, who is assigned to the Workplace Development Center in Gori. WDC serves disabled children and adults and was a great partner for this project. We had 36 special needs kids attend, an equal number of “youth partners” (teenagers from Gori and around the region), and over 20 PCVs participating. Here is a link to the LPT Facebook page, which has all the photos and videos – it would be great if you would “like” it, because the more, the merrier!

https://www.facebook.com/LPTGeorgia/

We also were honored to have Keti Zazanashvili, professional dancer, who works with partners who are disabled. They put on a fantastic performance; it was truly inspiring to see the rapt attention of the audience, and think about how the disabled kids here in Gori perceived this presentation. Keti generously hosted dance workshops throughout the day. Here is a TED video where she explains the origins and philosophy of “inclusive dancing,” it’s really fascinating. Also, she speaks extremely good English, but with a classic Georgian accent, so if you want to know what that sounds like, here it is:

A video of the performance at LPT/Gori is available on the Facebook page.

We also had the perennial favorite, arm-wrestling, wherein Russell was soundly beaten multiple times, as well as arts & crafts, relay races, dodgeball, “fish,” ping-pong for the seeing-disabled, and much more, including a delicious lunch. Again, lots at the LPT Facebook page, but here are a few highlights:

Last, some other miscellaneous stuff, let’s see … well, ok, my host sister, Salome, was selected as a delegate to the European Youth Parliment. This is a very prestigious event here in Georgia, and very few kids from “the provinces” get the chance to participate. It was a big honor, and she learned a lot – including some lessons about what it’s like to spend time with snotty, rich kids from private schools.  Just yesterday, I was in Tbilisi waiting for a marshutka on a busy street when a pristine, white van, the likes of which I had never, ever seen in Georgia before, pulled up. A few expensively dressed teenagers daintily disembarked, as I openly stared at the white curtains and seats, the red accents, and the generally shockingly fancy vehicle – it was like seeing a Rolls-Royce in a used car lot. And then it made sense – it said “Buckwood School” on the side. Ahhhhhh … one of the schools Salome mentioned. Got it. These are lessons we all have to learn, but my heart still ached for her.  I am proud to report that after some struggles, she has emerged all the stronger for it, and wrote a fantastic essay on lessons learned and resilience gained for an exchange program application. Here she is at the EYP event:

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A great dinner at Marta Bibilashvili’s lovely apartment for all of us Gori PCV’s – no reason, just being nice. She had just returned from a 3-week trip to the U.S., sponsored by the U.S. Embassy and focused on learning about youth and volunteerism. It had been a dream of Marta’s to travel to the States, and I’m so glad she got that opportunity. She was nominated by the PC!

Well, that pretty much covers the last six weeks or so. Not counting extensive work on new CHCA website, writing an EU grant, job hunting adventures, and the last, the VERY LAST, language exam! I am proud to announce, that due to pity, the language teacher awarded me an “intermediate-mid” level, which means I advanced a step. I think I actually have advanced, but I assure you that no one could ever have discerned that from my performance during that test, which included forgetting the word for “picture,” several dead silences while I frantically searched my numb brain for vocabulary, verbs conjugated in the future instead of past tense, and other embarrassing gaffes. Never mind – onward!

Vietnam in 19 stories -Part 1

I have been home from one of the best trips of my life for several days now, and only now am I beginning to really emerge from the haze of jet-lag and the terrible head cold (with resulting hacking cough, of course) I have been languishing with since Sunday. 6 days under the weather – that’s enough. Time to write the blog post I’ve been thinking about, off-and-on. Should I divide it up into themes? No – too complicated. Should I just do a standard travelogue? No – boring. Finally I have settled on this. One story, and some accompanying photograph for each day. For those who want to see ALL the photographs, here’s the link: https://goo.gl/photos/ejxBVcGKEPVvxeUR8. It’s all there. It was a spectacularly beautiful and fascinating country, and there are a lot of good shots that I won’t be including here, so peruse to your heart’s content if you are interested.

So, given the time span being covered, I will do this in two posts. You could read it in parts, all at once, or just what catches your attention. However, a few short observations to start off. One – Eli and I traveled pretty well together. In fact, we really enjoyed each other’s company on a daily basis. We were generally interested in the same things, and figured out ways to accommodate divergences in those interests. We laughed a fair amount. He calmed me down a few times, and I did the same for him. We had some good talks, and a few heated discussions, and that’s us – that’s our relationship now, and I’m happy with it.

Two – Vietnam (a) was extraordinarily beautiful, as I said above. Also, it was very diverse. Not only did the countryside vary as we traveled from far north to far south, but the cities really had different characters, too. I hope my descriptions and photos do it justice. (b) had truly delicious food, much more varied than served in American restaurants, where pho seems to be the primary dish. There was plenty of pho, to be sure, but also – banh mi (like a hoagie sandwich, but better, for breakfast), all sorts of salads, noodles, grilled meats, fruits and vegetables of all sorts … and the best of all, Vietnamese coffee. I could drink it every day.

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My first morning in Vietnam – my first Vietnamese coffee, and my first Banh Mi. I am very content.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

(c) was clean. Amazingly, shockingly clean. The streets, the alleys, the highways, under the roads … not that we never saw trash, but it was rare, and well-contained. There were trash trucks in every town that played music and were staffed by guys wearing conical hats who collected from every house on a regular basis. Best of all, the bathrooms were all spotless. No matter where we went – at the beach, in the back of roadside restaurants, rest stops – even the trains were well within bearable tolerance levels. It was amazing. And, (d) had fantastically friendly people. Kids waved hello with real sincerity, old people (who surely experienced the war) smiled at us and seemed to mean it, which is kind of amazing when you think about where our respective nations were a mere 40 years ago, people said “Merry Xmas” and “Happy New Year” to us on the street, folks invariably tried to help us with directions or whatever help we needed … it was great. There were a few overly aggressive market stall owners, a pair of beach restaurant workers who had an argument over who deserved our business (based on where we sat – in front of her restaurant, or hers – it was partly our fault because we moved, but in our defense, the rules were really unclear), and one modern young woman who pushed Eli nearly to the breaking point by talking loudly on her cell phone during the Star Wars movie – not ok. She had to go to the lobby. 🙂

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At the Citadel, Hue

 

 

 

 

 

 

OK, now the first batch of my 19 stories, selected on a completely subjective basis, one for each day.

Day #1 – 12/14/15.

That first night, after a nice reunion with Eli followed promptly by a nap of 2 or 3 hours by both of us, we wandered the streets of the Old Quarter in Hanoi. We saw a tiny dog with a sweater that reminded me of the multitude of Chihuahuas wearing Dodger uniforms and god knows what-all I used to see all over Highland Park in L.A. We saw a lot of restaurants with balconies and vowed to eat in one of them. We had dinner at a noodle/pho place. A low-key, quiet intro to the decidedly unquiet craziness of Hanoi!

Day #2 – 12/15/15.

Chua Ba Da, translated as “stone lady pagoda,” is a small temple down a narrow alley that has stood in Hanoi for over 1,000 years. It was the first of many temples we visited, and one of the best. Stepping inside the courtyard, the noises of the street receded into the distance and the cool, dark interior of the temple beckoned. People working nearby motioned for us to go in, and after removing our shoes, we ventured inside to a rich red and gold set of altars and offerings of every type – fruit, soda cans, candy, cookies, flowers … it was all there, along with many statues of the Buddha. To the side (and I saw this in most temples) was another statue, and this differed from place to place. It could be  ship, a horse, or some other deity. I wish I knew more about this. Behind the main temple was a small open-sided veranda, lined with brightly-colored banners. It was a lovely respite.

Day #3  – 12/16/15

We leave Hanoi, a bit reluctantly, early in the morning to start our boat tour of Ha Long Bay. Boarding our boat in the busy harbor, we cruise Ha Long Bay and take in the sights. My story, though, is about the food. 🙂 Here we are, on a fairly rudimentary boat, with a kitchen in back of the cabin with two burners. The crew is about 4 guys and the taciturn captain. There are 10 of us tourists – an Australian family of 4 who speak German (the dad) and French (the kids), as well as English; a German couple who speak some English; a French couple who speak … French, and me and Eli. Eli surprises me by remembering way more French from high school than I ever would have expected. In the meantime, my Georgian is useless – of course. Our guide Van joins us, and we all sit down to a dinner that was so delicious it was almost shocking. There was soup, rice, green papaya salad, fried taro balls, a full-on roasted fish, and multiple other dishes. Sitting out in Ha Long Bay, snug inside the cabin, sharing good food with nice people speaking about 5 languages, usually at least 3 going simultaneously – yeah, it was fun.

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Day #4 – 12/17/15

I think I will tell the story of the kayaking and cave exploration we did. Sadly, that leaves out the fantastic bicycle trip to Đảo Trà Bản, making spring roles at the homestay that night, and the overnight sleeper to Lao Cai, but, I’m going to keep my word. One story. I’ll throw in a few extra photos below – it was a packed day.

So, for those of you who are still reeling with shock from the first sentence of the paragraph above – that’s right! I kayaked! And I have photos to prove it. While I have no doubt I provided a fair amount of amusement for the crew, who smiled tolerantly while watching me climb down a tiny ladder into a kayak waiting in water below, I was kind of proud of myself that I managed to do it at all. As for Eli’s feelings, I think they were an interesting mixture of embarrassment and glee at how silly I looked, but that’s ok – he hid it well, and I can’t really blame him. We kayaked to a nearby cave and explored it thoroughly, stalagmites and all, and learned about the local legends. Afterwards we all kayaked some more, but our paddling was cut a bit short by my discovery of a fair amount of blood smearing the bottom of my sandal. Apparently I had cut the bottom of my big toe pretty badly on a rock, so we headed back to the boat to clean it up. Good thing I brought all those band aids and antibiotic cream from the Peace Corps medical kit – this wouldn’t be the first time I would need them. Oh, no, it wouldn’t!

Day #5 – 12/18/15

This was mainly a travel day – from Đảo Trà Bản back to the mainland port, then a van back to Hanoi, then a short break, then a car to the railway station and an overnight train to Lao Cai for a visit to the far north, home of the Hmong people. Our first experience on a Vietnamese sleeper train.

My story for that day concerns that few hours we were in Hanoi in the evening. We wanted to find a street vendor to buy a second pair of jeans for Eli, as we left his only pair of pants with a local laundry to pick up when we returned on Monday, and shorts were NOT going to suffice – it was cold, and about to get a lot colder as we headed up into the mountains! We walked the streets, and I easily bought a sweater while he checked out one tiny storefront after another. At about the 4th or 5th one, we found an amiable owner who helped him search through piles of jeans for his size. He found it, and bought the pair for a reasonable price – without trying them on, since there was no fitting room. When we got back to the travel agency, he went in the bathroom to put them on and came out with a very chagrined expression on his face – they were way, way too small. He thought it was the cut, but a quick examination revealed that we had taken a pair that was about 4 sizes too small. Whoops.

We had paid cash. No receipt. But I said, let’s just go back there. Let’s see. So we made our way back, found the right store, showed the jeans to the proprietor and explained the mistake. You know, that guy could have easily sent us on our way. He really wasn’t under any obligation, but instead he made a surprised/amused face, laughed, and immediately started digging for the right pants in the right size. This time Eli tried them on, semi-hiding behind a pile of clothes, and they fit. We exchanged them, no problem at all, thanked the guy profusely and were on our way.

Reading about Vietnam on-line, I was apprehensive. It seemed like there was  a lot of cheating going on, a lot to be careful about. But my experience – not just this one, but many others – just didn’t play out that way. There was the waiter who warned me I was putting down a 5,000,000 dong note instead of a 5,000 dong one. There was the travel agency (Ethnic Travel, if anyone wants to know) that delivered exactly what it promised at a good price, and more. There was the hotel who let us take a room for the day – not the night, just the day, so we had a place to shower, rest and repack before taking a night train – for $20. And it was a really nice room, too! There was the small music store in Da Nang where I left my cellphone, which they kept for me until I frantically arrived there the next morning looking for it. Later, I discovered a PM on Facebook, purportedly from Eli, that said “Oh, I’m saleswoman in DVD shop Bach khoa, your mother forget her cell phone in our shop, we keep it for you, you can comeback to take it. I don’t know how to contact with her, so I use her FB, I’m sorry, hope to see you soon.”

That was my experience, overall. There were a few experiences that didn’t play out quite that way (see my Hue story), but for the most part, I found people to be honest and helpful in pretty much every way possible.

Day #6 – 12/19/15

We arrive in Lao Cai, about as far as you can go without hitting the Chinese border, on the early morning train, and immediately drive a few hours east to the Bắc Hà district, 1200 meters above sea level. Our goal is to explore the countryside, the Sunday market in the town, stay at the home of a local Hmong family, and learn more about minority cultures in Vietnam. Eli and I went our separate ways for several hours – he to hike to villages surrounding the town with our guide, a sweet Hmong girl named Pan, and I to explore Bắc Hà town. I think the most interesting part of the day, actually, was the 2-3 mile hike out to the homestay after we finished our explorations. I was carrying my large pack, as well as my smaller bag, it was very cold, and it was a long walk. But – the mountains, fields and rice paddies surrounding us were sublime. The air was fresh and clear. I was somewhere doing something I had never done before. That’s all – it’s not really a story, I guess, but it’s the dominant memory of the day, along with a keen recollection of how very cold it was that night. Multiple blankets and some calming words from Eli were helpful.

 

Day #7 – 12/20/15

OK, without a doubt, the story on this day was the Sunday Market at Bắc Hà. Though there were lots of tourists there (on Sundays only – the day before, as I wandered, I was the only Westerner to be seen), it was quite clear that this market was not created for them – at least not exclusively! There was food of every kind, tools, tobacco (of which Eli partook), textiles and clothing of every type imaginable, especially made by the surrounding Hmong. The three main Hmong groups in this area are the Black, Blue and Flower. They can be easily distinguished through differences in dress, but also have slightly different customs and foods. However, according to Pan, they frequently intermarry and there is no hostility between groups.

So the market was absolutely thronged with people from all the different villages and towns in the area. We walked in from our homestay pretty early in the morning (happily sans heavy luggage, which came by car later in the day) and got there before the tourist buses started pulling in. We spent about 4 or 5 hours just wandering. There was so much to see and take in. During all this wandering I managed to book train tickets to Hue for the following evening (that 250,000 dong [about $11)] I spent on a data plan and SIM card – money well, well spent), buy several gifts, buy some silver jewelry, eat some mysterious but delicious snacks, play with Pan’s adorable toddler son, who had more fun with a toy gun and tiny race car than I would have thought possible, and eat a pho at the communal restaurant area that nearly transported me to heaven. Eli did all of these things too, plus he smoked a traditional pipe and then bought one, along with tobacco, which he smoked every day of the rest of the trip, sometimes joined by Vietnamese men who saw the large pipe protruding out of his pack and enthusiastically begged him to smoke with them.

Day #8 – 12/21/15

This is our last day in Hanoi, and one of my very few regrets is that we didn’t stay longer. It was a truly lovely city, filled with narrow, congested streets crammed with thin, high vertical buildings. At street level, thousands of stores selling just one thing, restaurants with balconies, street vendors selling every kind of food you can imagine, hotels/guesthouses, and millions of motorcyles and mopeds everywhere you go, along with trees, clean parks, lakes and rivers. The name Hanoi means “on a bend in the river,” and it has that feeling. We couldn’t do all we wished in such a short time, since we were on an overnight train to Hue, but we managed to see a water puppet show and go to the Women’s Museum. The museum was really awesome, but didn’t allow any photographs inside, so for anyone interested, here’s the link (click the British flag in the upper right-hand corner for English version):

http://www.womenmuseum.org.vn/

But I digress. Here’s my story. We went to the train station and after buying some street food to eat on the train, Eli went outside to smoke, leaving all his luggage and mine with me. I spent time playing peek-a-boo with a small baby of a young family sitting next to me. They were so friendly – smiling and angling the baby toward me and waving his hands. I amused myself by this crossing of cultural lines for a while – because after all, a cute baby is pretty much irresistible everywhere – until I started to wonder where Eli was. Sitting on the other side of me was a man of indeterminate age, a guy who clearly had worked at hard, physical labor all of his life. He looked a little gruff. When I got up and went to the station entrance to look for Eli, though, he came up behind me and smiled broadly, displaying a total of about 3 blackened teeth, and pointed him out – he was sitting way over on the stairs smoking with some guys. The man laughed and mimed tilting a bottle back to his mouth, and I laughed back, shaking my head and miming smoking. We went back and forth; no one prevailed. When Eli came back in, I mimed to the baby’s mom that the child was hers, and here was mine. I think she understood. And off we went.

Day #9 – 12/22/15

Hue.  The minute we got off the train I knew we were out of the north. It was cloudy, muggy, drizzly and hot. We decided to walk to our hostel. We spent the day bicycling around and visiting the Citadel, which was impressive and beautiful – I’ll put up some pictures below. But my story is from the morning. It was interesting. We were trekking on down a main road with our packs, when a much older man enthusiastically approached us and greeted us in good English. He was wearing a snappy suit. We chatted amiably for a while; he said he fought for the American side in the war, which was certainly plausible, as we were just north of Da Nang. Then he said he was now a volunteer for disabled children out in villages. As a matter of fact, he was on his way there right now. Could we give him some money to buy them chocolate?

Well, this was a bit of a dilemma. Should be trust this guy? Was he legit? Eli decided he was, and gave him 5,000 dong (about 25 cents, but enough to buy a little chocolate at Vietnamese prices). The man sort of laughed disbelievingly, and said that wasn’t enough to get chocolate for everyone. He wasn’t rude or anything – he just was asking for more. Eli started to give it to him – and I stopped him. I said to him, Eli, you haven’t got much money, please think about what you are doing. And so he decided not to give him more. And the man was ok, no high pressure tactics or anything.

Was I right to do that? Was this man hustling us? I think he probably was, but if so, it was the most genteel hustle I’ve ever encountered. Should I not have cared that he was hustling us, he was old and if he needed the money, we should just give it to him. After all, it can be assumed that we have more than him, since we can afford to travel. But – is that an accurate assumption? I don’t really know that, actually. Should I be offended by the fact that he was essentially pulling a con? If he had just asked for the money, would we have even stopped? This was the only experience like this we had in Vietnam, and I’m still not sure I perceived the situation correctly. Maybe Eli’s instinct to give more was the right one. Maybe not … I’ll never know, but it’s an interesting conundrum.

That’s it for this post. The final installment will come sometime next week, hope you enjoy this one! In the meantime, tomorrow is Monday and back to work at CHCA, here in Georgia, as Vietnam recedes into sweet memory.

I Return!

Well, I knew it was going to be a crazy 6 weeks or so, but … whew! I am SO GLAD to be back home in Gori! I’ve really been debating what to do with this blog … I’ve been so many places and done so many things in the last month and a half, I don’t think I can fit it all in one post, especially considering my vow to not write excessively long posts or put up hundreds of photos at once. Though I may have crossed that line a few times, trying to fit two excursions, Paris, Armenia, a FLEX workshop, a conference, and then a week traveling in Georgia with friends might be just a bit … excessive.

So, I’m going to start with the two excursions. The word “excursion” in Georgia seem to have a particular meaning. It’s not so different than in the West, but there’s a little more implied. For one, there’s going to be a lot of food. And a lot of wine. And we definitely will be out in the countryside somewhere. With family.

So, ok, back in early August, I get a text from my host sister, Salome – we’re going on an excursion! We’ll pick you up in an hour! 17 winkie faces! Well, it was well over 100 outside, and I didn’t want to go, really. But, you know, 17 winkie faces … I pulled it together and ran downstairs at the appropriate time and jumped in the car with Salome and her dad, Beso, and her grandfather (known to me as Babua, Georgian for “grandfather”). Off we went to Ateni. Ateni is a village about half an hour south of Gori. But, not just a village! There is a gorge, with a river surging through it. There are steep mountainsides covered with trees. And not all the same kind of trees like in California, where clear-cutting has resulted in mono-diversity forests. No, all different trees of varying shapes, sizes and colors.

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And an ancient church called Sioni. Built in the early 7th century, it’s small and quite extraordinary, filled with hand painted frescos and glowing from all the thin, yellow candles burning inside. We stopped along the road and went inside, I lit a candle that was handed to me and said a little prayer. It’s private.

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Then I went outside to snap a few photos with my host sisters.

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Then we piled back into the cars, having met up with several other family members at the church, and head on up the road to an unknown destination. Another 10 or 15 minutes on windy roads takes us to a picnic destination of delight. Several shelters next to a rushing river, a kitchen with a cook, a picnic table set with real plates and silverware … lots of toasting, laughing, photos, hanging of legs into the river (given the level of tossed food and refuse in the river, I didn’t dare go all the way in – I said it was delightful, not somewhere other than Georgia, land of trash!). In spite of the heat, I have to say I really had a good time. I felt part of the family. It was good. Plus, the very best tchakhrakina (khatchapuri with beet greens and other vegetables, plus cheese RATKMA UNDA/OF COURSE) I have ever tasted. Ever.

And, to finish off the excursion, here is the tamada (toastmaster) of the day – Beso! He was really enjoying himself. More pictures in a subsequent post of a heavy boozing session with my English friends involving twined arms, khantsi (traditional Georgian drinking horns) and an even happier Beso, who spoke Russian all evening with Malcolm – finally able to communicate with a foreigner! Since I’m a bit of a lost cause, at least when it comes to political discussion. But that’s a post for a different day. At our excursion …

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Now, on to excursion #2. This one took place the following day. Our entire office boarded a marshutka and set off for parts unknown, at least to me. I thought we were just going for a picnic, but no … it was an EXCURSION, after all. First we went to a church, of course. This one was in the town of Ertatsminda, about an hour southeast of Gori. It doesn’t look like anything remarkable from the outside – just another village church. But for some reason, this turned out to be my favorite church in Georgia so far. It was so hot outside, and so cool inside. The icons were unusually beautiful, and there was a feeling of peace and comfort inside. There was some sort of large cabinet which, if you crawled under it three times (which several of my colleagues did), your prayers would be granted.  There were broken clay wine jars outside, and a cool stone wall, and a tree. I bought an icon for 10 GEL, and now it hangs on the wall in my living room, and every time I look at it, I am back in Ertatsminda.

Onward. We continue south, over roads so bad that a few times we had to get out of the marshutka and walk because it couldn’t get through with weight inside. I was really starting to wonder what was happening when, finally, finally, we pulled up next to a bridge in what I later learned was the border of Trialeti Planned National Park. I’m happy, yes, now we’re going to sit in the shade and eat some food. HA! No, no, no … we’re going to take “a walk.” Uh, huh, a 4-mile hike up and down hills, rocks and precipitous slopes while wearing a pair of slippery sandals and carrying a heavy backpack (my laptop was in it, I didn’t want to leave it in the hot marshutka, little did I know it would be plastered to my sweaty back for hours). We were on our way to Rkoni Monastary Complex, built between the 6th and 9th centuries. Other than I honestly thought I might die, it was worth the trek. I’ll let these photos speak for themselves:

I thought that was it, but … no. We went on, in spite of the fact that I felt somewhat tearful, to Tamar’s Bridge. Named after Queen Tamar (often called King Tamar, in recognition of her great power … sigh), built over the Tedzami Gorge and constructed in the 12th century, this bridge is Georgia’s most spectacular example of stone arch construction. Again – I’ll let the photos speak:

Then we finally started back, which for some bizarre reason was nowhere near as bad as the hike there, and then on to, yes, at last, it’s almost sunset, lunch! And, as always … wine. Salad (tomato/cucumber/basil). Khatchapuri. Mtsvadi (barbecued pork, prepared by our drivers over an open fire), toni puri (bread cooked in a stone oven). More, but I can’t remember … just … a lot. Singing contests between the women and the men. Many, many toasts.  Dancing. Suffice it to say I got home way after dark, with aching muscles, a sunburn, a very full stomach and a similarly full heart.

Those are my two expeditions. Next post … Paris. A very different experience. Stay tuned!

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