Khertvisi Castle, Khertvisi, Georgia

Sunday, May 29, 2011

Celebrating Healthy Women

For much of this past week, I was in Ozurgeti, a city in the west of Georgia, working with my fellow, awesome PCVs to host a women's health fair called Celebrating Healthy Women. The first such fair was hosted by volunteers in 2007, and a great group of G9 volunteers hosted a second fair in June 2010 in Rustavi, a city just outside of Tbilisi. These ladies hosted a great event and we in the G10 group wanted to keep CHW going. The G9s gave us lots of tips and advice, shared their contact list of health organizations in Georgia and all came to lend a hand on the day of the fair. We tried our best this Saturday to follow in their footsteps and host our own successful 2011 CHW fair.

Opening of the health fair!

Our main organizer was one of our BSE (Business and Social Entrepreneurship Program, which primarily works with different NGOs in Georgia) volunteers. Lacey, who lives in Ozurgeti (Oz, as she likes to call it) works with an organization that was the main sponsor and cooperating partner for the fair. Lacey (with some help from some other volunteers and me) wrote a grant and received funding through VAST (Volunteer Activities Support and Training, a grant program funded by PEPFAR, the U.S. President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief), to put on the fair. We held the fair at Lacey's organization's offices, where we had informational booths set up in the courtyard, presentations going on in the main presentation room and the theater and doctors appointments and consultations being carried out. Lacey's organization also gave us additional funding so that we could purchase give-away items (a no-no, non-reimbursable item under the VAST grant).

While we worked on the Health Fair pretty consistently from January on, the final big push for confirming the participation of organizations, purchasing materials, coordinating doctors to donate their time and services, advertising and pulling everything together took place all May. I went to Oz on Wednesday, lugging lots of stuff and ready to help get even more together. Lacey and I spent one whole day scouring the bazaar to buy soap, toothbrushes and combs to put in giveaway bags (which we planned to use to make sure attending women would fill out our short monitoring forms so we could get a head count and have some basic statistics for the event's final report). We spent another day making our gift bags, folding programs, ordering food and flowers and other necessaries and writing out our opening and closing speeches.

We bought 200 bottles of nail polish...

...and 200 combs

...and 200 toothbrushes and 200 bars of soap

Then we cleaned everything up and packed them into little gift bags

On Saturday the weather was beautiful (a big relief, given the plan to have the informational booths in the courtyard!) and we had 9 great health organizations show up to distribute information and pamphlets and talk to women about their specific health focuses. Six doctors donated their time and expertise to provide free consultations to women about prenatal care, raising healthy children and gynecological issues and to check eyesight and hearing. The presentation topics ranged from HIV/AIDS awareness and statistics, age-related health issues for women, giving self breast-exams, and reproductive health.

Final set up moments

The doctors' appointment signup table was pretty hopping as soon as we opened the doors

One of the informational booths

Doctors' consultations took place in several rooms in the offices

Women checking out the informational booths

We got a huge crowd of other PCVs to help keep order and run the event, and also had a crew of 30 schoolchildren from Ozurgeti who volunteered to help out as well (these kids were great; they are all participants in a youth leadership school that Lacey's organization runs and she held trainings with them ahead of time to teach the kids about the importance of community involvement and volunteering). The student volunteers were really helpful and enthusiastic and seemed to really enjoy getting all of the health information, which was a nice side benefit of their participation.

I staffed the "check your BMI" station for a little while

One of the presentations in the theater

Another presentation in the large presentation room

We were extremely happy about how everything worked out on the organizational front and were prepared for a completely successful event. We didn't get quite the turnout we were hoping for--I think our final count was somewhere around 90 attendees--but those who did come got a lot of useful information and seemed to really enjoy the fair. The concept of a fair is pretty foreign here, so that was clearly a challenge to overcome. Additionally, a lot of people here tend to be pretty afraid of doctors and of receiving bad health news. Lastly, a lot of the topics we covered are pretty difficult to talk about in this conservative culture, so that could have discouraged some from attending. We'll be regrouping and reevaluating the direction the Celebrating Healthy Women fairs should take in the future. For now, though, we're all happy to have finished up and pulled everything off. We'll do our final evaluations and reports after taking a short break to relax.

Me and Lacey, both making ridiculous faces, but the only picture I have on my camera of the two of us at the event. Hooray for a completed project!

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

PST Mentoring, Job Shadowing and Technical Sessions

May has been busy, busy, busy for us! A big part of what we have been doing has been helping out with PST for the G11s. (For those of you not yet thoroughly indoctrinated into PC lingo, that's Pre-Service Training for the new group of volunteers in Georgia, the country's 11 such group of volunteers. Sam and I are G10s, because we came with the 10th group of volunteers to Georgia. We just happen to be lucky enough in Georgia to have our arrival years and group numbers match.)

The G11s arrived in Georgia about 12 hours before Sam and I made it back after my sister's wedding. They arrived on the nice, civilized 4pm flight, whereas we got in at 2am. As we were a year before, the new volunteers were greeted at the airport by the Georgian press and the U.S. Ambassador to Georgia, as well as a crew of Peace Corps staff members to help shepherd them through and collect their bags. They had 3 days of orientation and vaccinations in Tbilisi before departing for PST, which is being held in the same region this year as our training was held last year. Now the PCTs (they don't get to be officially called PCVs until they have their swearing-in ceremony in the middle of July; until then, they're still Trainees) are in their "clusters," having daily language classes, technical training, practicum, some additional vaccines, safety and security training, health training and more other types of training than you'd ever like to read about (or go through, most likely).

Last year, during our training, we were pretty much busy and occupied and crazy every second of every day. We didn't have too much time to think about how the wizard made things work, but were amazed at how smoothly everything ran when we did pause to look up. This year, we get to see inside the machine a bit more, and have an even greater appreciation for how much work the PC Georgia staff put in to making PST possible.

G9 and G10 volunteers have been helping out with PST, attending technical sessions or sessions on safety and security or health or one of the other many topics I promised not to list in full detail. We try to give first-hand input that goes beyond what staff can tell trainees, and try to answer questions based on the experiences we have had. I thought it was indescribably valuable to have G9s help us out during our training, so I definitely wanted to help with whatever I could. Sam and I sent in various application forms to Tengo, our PC Training Manager, offering to help in various ways. We were both chosen to present at "technical sessions," me to talk to Trainees about lesson planning and Sam to talk about summer camps and non-formal education opportunities, to supplement the information the Technical Trainers present. I went to Borjomi to hold my lesson planning sessions at the start of May, and Sam's will be at the end of this month and beginning of the next.

Then last week, I got the opportunity to "mentor" Trainees in the village of Tezeri. I watched them all lesson plan and teach a lesson with their counterpart, then gave feedback and talked with them about classroom and planning experiences I've had in Georgia. I stayed with them for about a day and a half and had a great time talking with them, getting to know some of them a bit and sharing my two cents.

This week, Sam and I took part in PST "Job Shadowing," wherein two PCTs came to Akhalkalaki from their training village to live a few days in our shoes. They stayed with us at our host family's house, followed along as we lesson planned with our counterparts, sat in on our lessons and came to our after-school clubs. I loved job shadowing during PST because it gave me such a good picture of what to expect and really encouraged me try to do as many projects as possible and make the most of my time in Peace Corps. (We had an incredible couple to shadow; if you're interested in seeing some of what they've done, you can check out their blog here.) I can't say for certain what our PCTs thought, but hopefully their shadowing experience was as helpful as ours was last year!

It is interesting to be on this year-plus, veteran side of things in our PC service. We try to balance out the positives and the negatives when talking with the new trainees. Sometimes we all worry that we're being too negative and that maybe that just has to do with the long-term culture shock downswing we all hit just around and after the one-year mark (something we learned all about during our training!). I really do appreciate having the new trainees around, though, because it really has helped pick up my mood to hear them talk about how much they love khachapuri or how beautiful the scenery is starting to get or how wonderfully helpful and patient a host parent has been. I can also have a nice weathered-veteran laugh at their problems dealing with squat toilets or infrequent showers or not being able to communicate enough to refuse food. I remember how much the G9s helped us when we first came, but now I'm starting to feel like (hopefully), our arrival helped them out as well. I know the G11s have already helped me take a fresh look around myself with new eyes.

Now we're winding down May and looking forward to the summer. We'll still have some projects and keep ourselves occupied this summer, but it'll be nice to have a little more downtime (and hopefully, more sunshine and warmer temperatures) soon!

Thursday, May 19, 2011

Hiking in Borjomi

Last weekend, Sam and I were invited on a hiking trip in the Borjomi-Kharagauli National Park, near to where we had our Pre-Service Training and currently about a 2 hour mini-bus ride away. Our friend, Gizo, had been trying to plan this hiking trip for the better part of the year and weather or work kept intervening to cancel his plans. Even though the forecast called for rain and cold, he decided that the trip had been put off too long. He and his friend were going, rain or shine, and we were welcome to join if we wanted. Sam and I had been wanting to hike in the park and even though the weather gave us doubts, we decided to go for it.

Happy hikers

We met up in the city of Borjomi and bought our last provisions before going to the park's administration office, where we got maps, rented some sleeping bags (the ones we have from Peace Corps are gigantic and weigh at least like 15 pounds, so we decided not to take those) and hoped that the rain would slacken or cease before we actually started out on the trail. Our plan was to hike along trail number one for 15 kilometers, climbing from 800 meters of elevation to 1800 meters, where we would find a cottage to stay the night. On day two (Sunday), we would take trail one back to the intersection with trail 6, climb back down the mountain, and then depart our separate ways after the 13km hike.

This little guy marked the start of Trail 1

The intersection of trails 1 and 6

It was drizzling when we got to the ranger station and walked along the service road to the trailhead. After an unplanned river crossing right at the start, though, where we all got a little wet (Sam especially), the weather started to brighten and the rain stopped. We ended up with a pretty nice day for a hike.

Sam had to change socks after stepping into the road-turned-river right at the start

But then things cleared up for the hike

We had lots of pretty views as we climbed

The mountain meadows that opened up here and there were sprouting flowers

We came across this remnant of some past industrial pursuit in the middle of the forest after lunch

Getting closer to the top

More pretty flowers

Once we started climbing higher, we could tell that we might be in for a cold night and were glad to remember that the nice park administration lady told us that there was a load of firewood waiting for us at the cottage at the top. We saw some remnants of snow as we got higher up and as evening approached, we started getting some really eerie fog rolling in.

There was dream-like fog as the evening came on

We made it to the top of the mountain in about 6 hours or so, stopping for lunch and some breaks along the way. A small group of fellow park enthusiasts passed us on horses and were pretty confused as to why we would climb the mountain on foot when we could have rented horses to do the work for us. Just before reaching the cottage, we passed a group of 4 men, 3 sheets to the wind, riding 2 horses and managing only 1 near-fall from their mounts. We didn't really think too much of it until we reached the shelter, when we discovered that our promised firewood had been mostly used or scattered by the apparently raucous party that we could still smell throughout the cottage and its surrounding areas.

Reaching our shelter/cottage after a long slog to the top

Trying not to be too discouraged, feeling pretty awed at the amazing views and nicely worn out and tired from our slog to the top, we set about gathering up what wood was left behind by the just-departed drunken partiers and what other downed wood and kindling we could find that was dry enough to use. The cottage had a small pechi (a small, metal, wood-burning stove) and there was something of a fire pit near the picnic shelter where we could have a good ol' mtsvadi (fatty pork, skewered and cooked) roast. After eating our well deserved feast, we all collapsed in our sleeping bags on the not-really-beds-but-just-planks-of-wood bunk beds and slept contentedly.

Not too shabby a view from our shelter, eh?

Men making a fire for the mtsvadi

I think we all were awoken by pounding rain a few times during the night, which was a slightly worrying sign, but we were all exhausted, so we just rolled over and hugged our sleeping bags closer and went back to sleep. When we woke, it was still pouring. We went about stretching our stiff necks and sore legs, eating breakfast and packing our bags, hoping that the rain would let up so we could make it off the mountain. We coaxed the fire back up and the room slowly warmed and eventually the pounding rain stopped, but that was just because the rain had switched to big, fat snowflakes. After a while we decided we couldn't wait any more and that we'd just have to test out our rain gear. The rain/snow only held up for the first 40 minutes or so, and we did manage to stay mostly dry. We made good time getting back to the point where our trail number 1 connected with trail number 6, the way we'd decided to descend.

Snow in mid-May. Lovely.

Thank god the rain stopped by the time we made it to trail 6. It was a pretty steady downhill, but we had been warned by our park administrator friend that there was at least one kilometer of very difficult, very steep downhill that we'd have to face. She neglected to tell us that this was putting things far too mildly and that this downhill was in fact like loose gravel and dirt on a nearly vertical cliff face. We slid, slipped, grabbed at branches and trees and roots and anything we could to keep upright, but mostly found that sliding along almost on our butts was about the best approach to some parts.

Is Sam the only hiker to hike with an umbrella? Maybe, but it was a good idea considering Sunday's weather

Even though Sunday was a downhill day, we still had some slight uphills to work through

This picture doesn't do nearly a good enough job showing how steep this hill was. When we finished this steep part, we thought we had finished the "very difficult, very steep" descent, but the worst was still to come.

Right before posing for this shot, Sam told me that if any of us lost our balance and fell, we needed to maintain enough composure to remember to shout "As you wish!" while falling

We were rewarded for our work and the absurdity of it, though, by some gorgeous views (not on the steep slopes, though. There, we were only trying not to look around too much to avoid seeing just how far we could fall). The valley down below was filled with beautiful meadows and riverbanks and views of the cliffs we had just climbed down from. We finally reached the park exit and learned that we weren't too far off from an old church. Since the weather had fully cleared and we were feeling exhilirated by not falling and rolling down the side of the mountain, we decided to climb up and look at the church.

Almost to the end of our hiking trip, but the gorgeous views continued

We made it down, safe and sound and still smiling

We made it out! This is also an entrance to the park, but I wouldn't recommend taking trail 6 back up the mountain

If I had to name the thing Georgians know how to do best, I think I'd probably have to go with siting churches and monasteries. They always find the most beautiful, most difficult to reach, most incredibly awe-inspiring locales for their holy places. You'd probably have to be pretty motivated to go to church at some of these places (scaling a mountain every Sunday for service would get old quickly), but once you were there it would be hard not to be inspired.

Headed up to the church, we passed this tree. People tie pieces of cloth or plastic around tree branches for a prayer or wish when they visit

Our extra little hike up to the church had some uphills, too

Even leading up to the church, we knew it was worth it to hike up the extra hill

There were a bunch of goats near the church
The view from just outside the church was spectacular
We reached the church after scaling a not inconsiderable hill

The inside of the church, filled with icons
The main door of the church

Everyone was good and worn out after our 2-day adventure

Although we were all really tired after our 2-day, 28km hike, we were all a little sad to be parting ways. We all hope to do another hike together soon! (And if any of you readers are hikers, you should definitely think about a trip to Georgia sometime for possibly the best hiking and most beautiful nature scenes you can find.)

Almost back home, we were tired but happy with the weekend (doesn't Sam look happy?)

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

One year, more or less

We hit the one-year-in-Georgia mark on April 28th, and though I wanted (and planned) to write a great summarizing account of that first year, I missed the mark by a few weeks. As most of you reading this blog know, Sam and I went home from April 17-April 26 for my sister's wedding. We had a great time, though too short a visit. Somehow, even though we were only gone 10 days, when we got back to Georgia we were up to our eyeballs in jet lag and work. So my big, exciting PC-Georgia-by-the-numbers recollection of our first year got shelved. It may be a little late and not quite as grand as I hoped, but here's a recapitulation of what we've done, what we've seen and what we've learned (in numbers) in year one.

-10,000 residents in Akhalkalaki (give or take)
-6066 frequent flier miles gained on a flight from DC to Tbilisi
-5178 new acronyms introduced to us by Peace Corps (or thereabouts)
-4500 calories consumed (at least) every day during the New Year's celebrations
-770 students at the Russian school where Melissa teaches
-705 pictures taken by Melissa so far this year
-530 miles run and recorded on my Garmin running watch
-414 days left in our Peace Corps Service (from today)
-400 students at the Armenian school where Sam teaches
-378 days of Peace Corps Training and Service completed (up to today)
-365 days between our first passport stamp for Georgia and the most recent one (4/28/10 we arrived in Tbilisi and 4/28/11 we returned after Emily's wedding)
-100 total volunteers in Georgia currently (G9, G10 and G11 groups)
-100 tetris in every Georgian lari
-73 days spent in Pre-Service Training before departing for our permanent site
-62 blog posts about our experiences written and shared with you brave readers
-50 years of Peace Corps worldwide
-41 attendees for my largest Women's Fitness Club meeting thus far
-39 letters in the Armenian alphabet
-37 days (on average) that packages have taken to get to us
-33 letters in the Georgian alphabet
-31 volunteers who arrived with us in Georgia
-15 khachapuris and lobianis baked (and consumed) for my birthday
-15 cities and villages visited in Georgia (for overnight trips)
-10 years of Peace Corps in Georgia
-10 pumpkins purchased and carried around Tbilisi in preparation for our big Thanksgiving bash
-8 language clubs Sam and I host each week (combined)
-6 cups of tea (on average) we consume every day
-5 hours for us to get from Akhalkalaki to Tbilisi on the old road
-4 hours of language classes, Monday through Saturday, during Pre-Service Training
-4 Peace Corps trainings attended (Pre-service training, In-Service Training, Project and Design Management Training and Health Lifestyles Training of Trainers)
-4 McDonalds in Georgia (and more are apparently in the works)
-3 hours for us to get from Akhalkalaki to Tbilisi on the new road (yay new road!)
-3 alphabets and languages learned and studied and used
-3 host families lived with (2 in Akhalkalki and 1 in Kortaneti)
-3 main goals of Peace Corps
-2 attendees for the Women's Fitness Club when it got started (and for the first several weeks of existence)
-1.68 Georgian Lari in every dollar at today's exchange rate
-0 Starbucks in Georgia :(
-0 days we could have lasted as volunteers without all of your support and the support of all the great people we've met here!

That's the short summary, by the numbers, of our year. We'll try to keep up the blog posts and the stories (and the picture-taking) into year two!

Monday, May 9, 2011

Singing in the Rain, Pts. 1 & 2

Attending events of cultural importance in the pouring rain sounds like Calvin's dad trying to build character, but I had a lot of fun this weekend (a long one, thanks to WWII Victory Day), in spite of the rain.

On Friday my 12th grade class invited me to celebrate Tsaraton with them. It's a folk holiday whose origins are vague but seem to be connected with 7 martyrs killed on a mountaintop. On this day, pregnant women aren't allowed to do work (especially not work with knives or running water), and others climb to the top of the hill called Tavshanka outside of town, where stand 7 stone shrines (and a cellphone tower). They light candles and fires at the shrines, gather a kind of yellow primrose that is always just blooming around that time, and share a picnic lunch around a fire.

I forgot to bring my camera with me, but that's just as well, as we were soaked clear through by the time we made it to the top. We'll have pictures for you all next year. (And, I presume the 7,000 photos taken of me by the 12th graders will pop up on Facebook or its Russian counterpart).

I did bring my guitar, at the students' request, and played a little after we'd taken shelter under the pine trees that grow on half the hill. The kids lit a fire (in a fashion that would have rather displeased Smokey Bear), and we dried off a bit by it and had some cheese and sausage sandwiches, chicken, cucumber and tomato salad, and cookies. The kids then sang some patriotic songs, and, the rain again starting to soak us through, we headed home.

Bad weather can never really spoil good company. And the holiday itself was really interesting, feeling, like some of the other folk holidays and traditions I've seen, really very old, somehow existing outside the history of established saints' days or Federal Holidays or the kinds of things you go to Hallmark for.

A glutton for punishment, I took the rainy Sunday to meet up with fellow volunteer Christopher in Ninotsminda and hopped a taxi to the village of Gorelovka a few miles away, to see what we could see of the Doukhobors, a Russian sect of spiritualist Christians with very particular beliefs, traditions, and ways of life - they are pacifists, anarchists, and vegetarians. There's a large and well-known Doukhobor community in Canada, which is why I had only heard of them in a song by the Band.

Others, exiled to Georgia in the 19th century, made their home in Gorelovka, and we went to visit what we had been told was a sort of house-church-museum open to the public, the home of the former leaders of the Gorelovka Doukhobors, the Kalmykovs.

We got to the house in the rain, directed by some local kids who gave us conflicting information about how "open" it was, and met two old women in traditional dress - bright pink and purple skirts, embroidered vests, and white headscarves. They greeted us and invited us in to a big concrete common room with benches along the walls, saying the others would be coming soon. Not sure what to make of all this, we asked to take a quick look around the grounds.

Church/worship space

Meeting house

Probably the most distinctive aspect of Doukhobor architecture in Georgia is their sod roofs. A man told us that the tradition comes from the early days of their exile, when they had to survive their first winter with almost no building materials or resources. He said that they lived almost in tunnels the first winter, and afterward built houses and roofed them with the available mud and grass. He vouched for their efficacy in keeping the building warm in winter and cool in summer.

All the other doors in the complex were locked, and we retreated to the common room and waited. After a little while we heard a kind of singing chant, and a group of 9 women in traditional dress and 2 men arrived. They sang, bowed to the house, prayed, and recited from the Bible, then invited us inside.

Turns out, we had come on a holiday - the second Sunday after Easter, when the community finishes eating the eggs and cake made for the Easter feast and gives anything remaining to the poor. We walked into the dining hall through the left of two doors (the women went through the right), and they sang and prayed before sitting down to dyed Easter eggs, dry cake, and juice. We talked a little about their history, culture, and traditions, but we were feeling a little bit like intruders, there being no "museum" section in sight. Eventually we finished the meal, more song and prayer, a little conversation with one of the guys, and then the crowd dispersed, and we with them.

Awkwardness of the visit notwithstanding, it was probably a more valuable experience than shuffling around a museum, since we got to meet the people, hear the songs and prayers, and break bread together. I hope we didn't put too much of a damper on their holiday, but maybe crashing the "eat up the 2-week old leftovers before we give them away" holiday isn't quite the imposition that showing up at a family Thanksgiving might be.

And, though the house (and rumored museum) might remain, there might not be a long time left to meet Doukhobors in Georgia. The community is small and shrinking, many of the young people emigrating to Russia after the fall of the Soviet Union, and, for the most part, only the older generation remaining. So it was good to see the ones who have stayed coming and singing on a rainy Sunday, watching the old women crack their Easter eggs against each others', and talking (if only a little) with people kind enough to invite a couple of foreign strangers into their home for a holiday meal.