Khertvisi Castle, Khertvisi, Georgia

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Tis the season...

Around town, it's looked like a combination of Christmas and New Years and Sunnyside sometime around the end of the football season. People are going crazy getting ready for the big New Year celebration. We'll post some stories and thoughts on the holiday itself after we live through it (if we survive; given all the powerful fireworks being set off every minute by our third-graders, that's a mighty big if). For now, though, here are some pictures of what has been going on in town as various Festivus activities approached, passed and continue to be celebrated.

The town "square" all decked out in lights

The light display from a different angle

One more look at the town's lights

In our host house, Shaen was in charge of decorating the New Year's Tree

Lilit wanted to do her part to "help" but this often involved undecorating and attempting to smash ornaments

Shaen thwarted most of Lilit's attempts

And he deemed Sam as trustworthy enough to be allowed near the tree

Luckily, Lilit found some other ways to amuse herself

The mountains retained some of the snow that we got in December, but most of the rest has melted away

My school devoted much of the end of the semester to decorating the hallways and classrooms

If only as much effort was put in to homework!

Or as much attention given to listening in class!

Sam's school decorated as well

I proved that I earned my kindergarden diploma with my creative gift wrapping

Then I discovered the gift bags in a store in town

Lilit has continued to be adorable. Here she is appropriately decked out in both a "Father Frost" hat and bunny shirt (commemorating the Year of the Rabbit which 2011 apparently is. Who knew?)

A group of PCVs celebrated Christmas in style with khachapuri and beer in Tbilisi.

And Sam got the greatest Christmas miracle of all. Turns out you can buy hobbits for only 4.75GEL at the Populi grocery store in Tbilisi.

Hope you all had a very Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays! Enjoy what's left of 2010!

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Runnin Down a Dream

If you're reading this blog, then you probably already know that I have a fairly serious running addiction. I was insane enough to make one of my last activities in the States before heading out for the Peace Corps a marathon (and a pretty spectacular and fun marathon at that!). Washington/Northern Virginia was the perfect place for me, with its crazy running population, miles and miles of nice running trails and series of races held throughout the year. It was one of my worries that I might have to give up running during PC. We packed our running things to bring with us, uncertain as to whether we'd actually be able to get any use out of them. Running tends to be a fairly odd thing in some places in the world (some parts of the U.S. included), and weather and other variables can be big hindrances to getting in a run.

On the weather front, Sam and I have been extremely fortunate so far to have had pretty much spectacular weather for outside exercising. Sure, we've had some cold, cold mornings and there's been some snow and ice, but we haven't had hardly any rain or anything that's been insurmountable. So weather hasn't been a huge factor.

Places to run haven't been too much of a problem either, thanks to all the street paving projects around town (which make it so that even when it does rain we've got blacktop to run on). When we've gotten snow and ice, we can go to the "soccer stadium" in town and run on the single-track path that loops lopsidedly around it for roughly a quarter of a mile. There's also a park not far from our house that is 1/5 of a mile around. So we have places to run.

Our biggest hassle is the stray dog (and often owned dog) problem. Dogs just roam around, alone or in packs, unhindered by fences or chains or dogcatchers. They make for some unpleasant moments when we come upon one or several of them unexpectedly, whether we're out running or just walking around town. We usually spot them in time to slow to a walk and grab a rock, and so far (knock on wood), we've been able to avoid any serious run-ins. We aren't too worried about the dogs, in any case, since there are always plenty of rocks to threaten them with and since we've already had to get the first three shots in the rabies shots series. So dogs are a problem, but (at least for now) not too much of a problem.

We do get some odd looks and remarks from locals as we run. Mostly these have been easy to shrug off, though, and we don't really see it as a discouragement.

That means that we don't really have too many legitimate excuses against running in the morning. We've been decently good about getting in about 5 morning runs a week, usually for about 3 miles or so. It's always a little fun and rewarding to see people's eyes pop out of their heads when we tell them we've run 5 kilometers and that it's something we do regularly. Today we had a man shout at us "Go sportsmen!" as we looped around the park.

I may not be in my peak marathon performance shape, but I sure am glad to have been able to continue running. Nothing I know helps me better beat stress than a nice run (or even a difficult, terrible run for that matter). And given the extremely large quantities of food we eat every day, running has at least helped keep the weight gain down (although not entirely eliminated it...). So as we approach the end of 2010 and the beginning of 2011, I'm looking forward to another great year full of running. I hope you all can keep running and have fun, too!

Saturday, December 18, 2010

We wish you a happy...

It’s been a while since we’ve posted, and that’s mainly because life has settled into a pretty normal routine lately. We’ve had six uninterrupted weeks of school, with one more to go before the holiday. Students are busy getting their classrooms decorated for New Year – pretty much everything we do for Christmas, Georgians and Armenians do for New Year. We’ll have more to say about the holiday once we’ve actually experienced it. For now our host brother has been eager to get the New Year’s tree up, lights have been appearing in stores and downtown, and Melissa’s been busy teaching Christmas carols to her English clubs. I haven’t managed to teach any songs yet, but one of my classes, under their homeroom teacher’s direction, has learned “We Wish You a Happy New Year” (Lyrics: “We wish you a happy New Year/ We wish you a happy New Year/ We wish you a happy New Year/ …and a happy New Year!”)

A few things worth mentioning have happened – we had a visit from fellow PCV Christopher (tweets here and blogs here), during which we traipsed around Akhalkalaki, had some more Rose Dolma, and decided not to walk over the following bridge on a chilly winter’s day (thanks, safety and security training!):

Rose Dolma (kind of like a cross between lasagna and meat dumplings)

We finally started Georgian lessons again two weeks ago. It’s awfully difficult getting back to it, but we’re glad to have the chance to rescue what we still remember and start brushing up.

We had our first real snow last week; it’s mostly gone from the town now (though now the snow’s falling hard as I type), but it’s left its mark on the mountains all around us, and, treeless and scrubby as they are in summer, they really benefit from the snow. We’ll have some pictures up soon, hopefully from one of our morning runs, where we’re treated to the sun rising over the now snow-draped Mount Abul (Apollo). Even my references to Coors Light commercials can’t quite ruin the grandeur.

And here’s just a little slice of life here in town. I’ve sent some letters from my students to students in Oklahoma participating in a program called World Wise Schools that matches Peace Corps volunteers with American primary and secondary school teachers to share experiences and information. I thought I’d jot down my impressions of a visit to the local post office a few weeks ago:

The ladies sit in a little room in the corner of the old Soviet post office. The main office is deserted, the long counters and queuing space gathering dust. You can see the rack where envelopes once where, and space on the walls for signs or posters. Now there are just a few cheap Xeroxes offering optimistic claims of working hours and urging faith in the unseen presence of “electronic mail.” One of the heavy metal doors behind the counter is open – it is a small office or storage room currently filled with shoes and boots, apparently holding stock for one of the vendors at the bazaar outside. The other door is closed, and behind this door is the little cloister of the Akhalkalaki postal service. The room is warm and cluttered with stacks of papers, some of which seem not to have been moved for years. A little cast iron stove cracks from time and its heat fills the room like a grandmother’s corner by the home stove. Pumpkins take up a good bit of the free space, arranged on the floor or perched on sills below dim windows. No one seems to send much – an international letter is an all-hands project, and you sit by the fire and chat while they examine the chart for the rate (5 lari) and laboriously fill out the little receipt and its carbon copy. They are friendly and the whole experience feels like a social call; the absence of a line of customers doesn’t mean you get out of the Akhalkalaki post office sooner than you’d escape one in downtown Washington, though the wait is of a different sort. But finally the receipt is in your pocket and the letter vanishes into the stacks of paper and the same realm of faith where, perhaps, the electronic mail resides, and you’re out again through the big echoing concrete room and into the market street with is dull December air and warm December sun.

We’ll be in Tbilisi next weekend for Christmas. December 25th isn’t a holiday here – like I mentioned, New Year is the big holiday, and while Christmas itself is celebrated, it’s on the Orthodox date of Jan. 6/7. It’s the toughest time to be away from family and friends at home, so we’ll be seeking Christmas cheer in the company of our fellow Peace Corps volunteers. So, if we don’t get to the blog again before the 25th, here’s wishing anyone who might be reading a Merry Christmas! The snow's falling fast here, and a Charlie Brown Christmas might just be in order.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

World AIDS Day

December 1st is World AIDS Day. Many PC volunteers tried to think of ways to incorporate an HIV/AIDS lesson or activity into their work today, since the holiday would provide a good segue into a fairly difficult subject.

Here in Georgia, the HIV/AIDS rate is fairly low. There are only about 4,000 cases in the country (with a population of about 4 million). But there is still a lot of concern about the possibility of an explosion in the HIV/AIDS rate here due to a number of risk factors. First, the region as a whole (made up of the former Soviet Union and eastern Europe) has the world's fastest growing rate of infection. Second, there is a lot of exchange between the Georgian population and some higher risk countries, like Ukraine and Russia (lots of men work abroad in these two countries for part of the year and then come back to their families in Georgia for a few months). Many in Georgia catch the disease from IV drug use. Also, commercial sex workers are also among the most affected population here (and at least according to anecdotal evidence, there seems to be a fairly high acceptance of men frequenting prostitutes and brothels here in Georgia). On top of this, there is very little (to no) education for most of the population about risk factors, how the disease is spread and how to protect oneself. It all adds up to a potential for a disastrously quick spread of HIV/AIDS.

One of the big hurdles to teaching people about HIV/AIDS is that sex is a taboo subject here. The society is conservative and so discussing a disease that, in most of the world, is spread primarily through unprotected sex is not easy. To try to be culturally sensitive and discuss this kind of topic poses a pretty big conundrum.

I decided to give it a try, though, and to see if I could do something at my school, either as part of one of my after-school English clubs or with the older students during class. I found an ally in one of the deputy directors, a woman who also doubles as an English teacher (most of our assistant principals also work as teachers). She immediately jumped on board and encouraged me to teach a lesson to as many of the students as possible from grades 7-12. Then she surprised me today by preparing a bulletin board in the school's main hallway with some information and pictures related to World AIDS Day.

My school's hallway bulletin board display

One of the other volunteers found a great video resource (available for free at about HIV/AIDS. The language is accessible enough that I thought, with some translation, the students at my school might be able to handle it. The video is also done in a very culturally sensitive way, giving lots of useful, accurate information without being too graphic or explicit. I pulled together some other materials and made a whole bunch of red ribbons to distribute to the kids (Sam joked that, with all the ribbon and pins and making of hundreds of bows, it felt like we were getting ready for a wedding).

All Ready to Present

Then today for five 40-minute class periods, I met with all the English classes that were scheduled for today, from 7th through 12th grades. In all there were 187 students and 6 teachers that participated. Surprisingly to me, I was able to translate all the difficult words and ideas with only a few grammatical stumbles (who knew I had so much active vocabulary in Russian on the immune system and ways of transmission and prevention being the best defense? If only I didn't always get tongue-tied on the word for "needle"). And the kids understood a lot from the video. I had some really great questions from some of the kids (like "Can you get HIV from a mosquito?" and "Are HIV and AIDS the same disease?") and had only a minimal amount of snickering and giggling when the discussion was about sex.

I kept the discussion off sex for the most part. At least for a first attempt at starting to educate the kids about HIV/AIDS, I wanted to make sure they had some basic facts and had a good grasp of what the disease is. Also, since a lot of transmission in Georgia is due to IV drug use, I focused a lot on that, since I figure that is both culturally sensitive and culturally appropriate. It's a start, at least, and might open the way for the more taboo subjects to be covered in the future.

Giving the Presentation

All in all, despite being nervous about how the students would take the information and what kind of reaction my presentation/lesson would get from the school's director and other teachers, I think everything went really well. I think it is a bit risky to try to talk about HIV/AIDS in schools here because as PCVs we don't want to alienate ourselves in our communities or gain reputations as being troublemakers. But I also think that it's a risk worth taking, and I'm definitely excited that my attempt seemed to pay off. Hopefully, I'll be able to work in some more HIV/AIDS and general health related education projects throughout my time here.