Khertvisi Castle, Khertvisi, Georgia

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

'Tis the Season!

Another Peace Corps Christmas has come and gone, filled with a fun combination of old traditions and new, odd substitutions from here and wonderfully appreciated authentic elements sent from home.

Sam fulfilled his Goal Two by baking tons of Christmas cookies. He made gingerbread boys, sugar cookies and peanut butter cookies, and sent our host grandmother off to spread the word of this mythical male who not only bakes, but bakes delicious, gorgeous cookies! Even though the cookies were gobbled up within a few days, her tales of Sam's superhero abilities continue to be related to any new guest who hasn't yet heard. Sam plans on tackling a few more batches before New Year's as well.

Here goes another batch...
Some of the yummy results of Sam's labors
That crazed look that only dozens of batches of Christmas cookies can inspire

Shortly before the winter break from school, our host brother's class had their Winter Program. This wasn't quite the same routine I'm used to seeing from countless holiday concerts in America. First, the dress code was a little confusing. In his class of about 18 kids, 6 dressed in costumes (including 3 Spidermen, 1 teddy bear, 1 musketeer and 1 kid in a cape with a cat mask), 4 girls wore fluffy white dresses and everyone else wore jeans and sweaters. Our host sister in the audience dressed in her fancy dress, complete with princess crown and jewels. Santa Claus and the Snow Queen (two kids from my 11th grade class) made an appearance, and the children sang songs, recited poems and played classic holiday games (like bowl over the party hat to win the candy inside, race around the tree and grab the bells first, and dance with a partner keeping the balloon between your backs without letting it fall).

Singing and dancing, in costume or not
Some of the varied outfits of the class
Lilit, with Shaen-Spiderman (right) and a rather festive Spiderman classmate

My parents and Sam's mom helped make our actual Christmas day super awesome by putting us up at the Courtyard Marriott in Tbilisi for three nights. We swam, we watched English-language TV channels, we hot-tubbed, we showered daily, we slept in a ridiculously comfortable bed with real pillows... basically, we lived in amazing luxury for three nights and four days, forgetting for a few moments here and there that we were Peace Corps volunteers.

Tbilisi is a great place for the holidays for a lot of reasons. They go all out in their lights displays, putting up enough bulbs to make Clark Griswold blush. We were able to go to a Christmas mass in English, which was a nice treat as well. And, of course, there's all the food joys of Tbilisi. Per the Kuhlman family tradition, we ate pizza on Christmas eve. Then we ate donuts for breakfast and then had pasta and salad and ice cream on Christmas, and had supremely delicious Indian food for the day after.

The St. George's Column, transformed into a New Year's Tree, in Freedom Square, Tbilisi (the Courtyard Marriott is just to the right)
Now we're back in Akhalkalaki, gearing up for New Year's (the holiday that's celebrated big time in Georgia). This week will include a lot of food preparation, last-minute cleaning and many, many repetitions of "Jingle Bells" and "We Wish You a Merry Christmas" by our host siblings.

Lilit shows off the New Year's tree

With only 3 more days until 2012 and 4 more days of the Holiday Running Streak, we wish you and yours a very happy holiday season!

Friday, December 23, 2011

Donation Instructions

One more time, for easy access to the instructions. Collect your magazines, CDs, DVDs, computer programs on discs, books or magazines and put them in a box for shipping. Please make a list of what you include in the box, and enclose that list in the box. Fill out this short, one page form (just the yellow-highlighted sections and sign at the bottom). Then scan the form and email it to me. I'll email you back with instructions for shipping.
I'll email you when I receive your package. We'll start putting all your materials to great use as soon as we get them. Thanks!

Another Grant, and How YOU Can Help!

Sam and I have successfully wrapped up our summer/fall grant projects, and I've been chomping at the bit to get started on something else. I had been in discussions with Akhalkalaki's public library to work with them on creating something of a language resource room, where the town's residents could go to brush up their language skills. We talked about what kind of shape the project would take, what we'd need to do and what resources we'd need to make it all work out. I wrote a grant proposal, working closely with the library's director, and submitted it at the beginning of November. Happily, the grant was approved and we'll be able to get started on the project just after the New Year!

The library is an odd combination of a pretty sad excuse for a library and a really well stocked, wonderful town resource that is underutilized. Most people in town, when I mentioned that I was working on a project with the public library, gave me blank stares and said "We have a public library in Akhalkalaki? Where is it?" The library is made up of one large room of stacks, with books in Russian, Georgian and Armenian, another room of children's books (with a similar smattering of languages), a reading room with a few desks and chairs and the main office where the director sits and the nicest books are kept. There are some really great books, and really a lot of books. Sam and I, with the help of another great PCV here in Georgia, were able to coordinate the donation of some English books and magazines, which have been highly appreciated and used a lot already. So there are some great resources available at the library.

The library did not have a computer or printer or any kind of multimedia technologies, however. That's a large part of what the grant money is going to purchase. We'll also buy some new, comfortable chairs. Also, we've got funds to purchase some grammar texts (English and Georgian grammars) and a set of the English textbooks used at the schools. All of these resources should (hopefully) go a long way towards helping people in town have free access to helpful, needed materials.

More importantly than the materials this grant will purchase, though, will be the series of trainings I've planned as one of the main components of this grant. The library already had a lot of great resources. No one knew about them, though. In talking with the library staff about how libraries in America differ from this one, I talked a lot about the interactive programming that most U.S. libraries employ to make them public spaces that go beyond just checking out books. The library's director was intrigued by the idea of holding weekly read-aloud sessions for kids or hosting movie nights for teenagers. She told me that she wanted to transform the library into a place where people meet and talk and volunteer. It's an exciting thing as a Peace Corps Volunteer to find someone who has big goals and dreams and is willing to work to make them come to fruition, so I'm really, really looking forward to implementing this project!

I'll be sure to take lots of pictures as we work and post about our progress, but in the title of this blog post, I promised a way for you to help. I'm going to take a wild guess and say that most of you probably have large collections of used CDs or DVDs or books or magazines that are just collecting dust in your houses. If you find that you have any you'd be willing or able to part with, send them to me! Donate your lightly used reading, listening or viewing materials to the Akhalkalaki Public Library--they could really stand to have some more English-language materials, and especially of the media variety. I'm not expecting folks to go out and buy tons of brand new DVDs and empty their wallets to make this possible, but I know that I had lots of underused or unnecessary books and movies before I left and I had a tough time finding a good place to donate them. If you find yourselves in similar positions, now you can easily unload your extra clutter! Send it all to me!

This request is really a two-parter, I guess. It's one thing to collect all your old DVDs and learn-to-type computer games. Shipping a box full of those things is a totally different issue, though. I realize that it's not cheap to send stuff overseas. The breakdown on shipping is thus: I've got a mailbox with a Georgian company that allows me to ship things to an address in the U.S. (in Delaware), and then couriers the stuff to me in Tbilisi. The pricing on this works out that when you ship a package to me, you pay postage as if it is shipping in the U.S. (and you should definitely just use the cheapest shipping option in the U.S., since it'll still take about a week or two to get to Georgia after being received in Delaware). Then, I have to pay for the remainder of the shipping once the package arrives in Tbilisi. The cost on that is $8 per 1 kilogram (2.2 pounds). If you are able to help cover the cost of the shipping, you can figure out the amount your package will be and send a check to my mom, who can deposit it in my account.

Still with me? Good! Here's the step-by-step of what you'll need to do if you're interested in donating. First, collect your magazines, CDs, DVDs, computer programs on discs (like typing programs or kids learning games) and books and put them in a box for shipping. Please make a list of what you include in the box, and enclose that list in the box. Then, before you ship the box, I need you to do a little paperwork. Peace Corps requires that all donations be documented, so I need you to fill out this short, one page form. You just need to fill out the yellow-highlighted sections and sign at the bottom. Then scan the form and email it to me at. After you send me this form, I'll send you shipping instructions.

I'll email you when I receive your package. We'll start putting all your materials to great use as soon as we get them. (Also, as far as I have been told by PC, if you donate this way and fill out the form above, you can use this as a tax deduction for charitable donations. Win-Win!)

If you have any questions, let me know! Thank you all in advance!

Monday, December 12, 2011

Running Streak

And speaking of projects that are the kick in the pants of motivation, since Thanksgiving, I've been following the Runner's World Inaugural Running Streak. The idea is to run at least one mile each day between Thanksgiving and New Year's, as a way to stave off the usual slump in exercise that takes place during this period of busy schedules, bad weather, dark days and crazy hectic holidays.

So for the past 19 days (actually longer, since the start of the streak overlapped with our usual rest day), Sam and I have been running every morning. (Sam, god bless him, has said every day "I'll run today with you, but I'm not actually doing the whole streak. I'll take a day off tomorrow." For 19 days now he's said that. Makes me think of the Dread Pirate Roberts.)

The streak has been a big enough motivation for me that we kept to it, even when the second day of the streak looked like this:

It's a great thing, finding your motivation. I definitely would have let running slip a bit during these past 19 days (and the next 20 that we're slated to run), had I not publicly said I wanted to do it. Having this goal has me going. I hope it will get you moving, too. But if running isn't your thing, don't despair! Go for a walk or jump rope or ride a bike or dance or just spin around in circles for 30 minutes. Watch this video if you need further inspiration.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Thinking Healthy Thoughts

I think one of the reasons I like to sign up for as much as possible, to join as many committees or clubs or activities or groups as I can, to commit to everything thrown at me, is that I know that once I give my word, there’s no going back. I need the possibility for public shaming to motivate me to do things sometimes. If not doing a task will be seen as a failure then I’ll do it so I won’t fail. (When I return to the States and someday get a smart phone, I’ll probably become one of those terrible oversharers of things like how many calories I’ve burned or what books I’ve read. Apologies in advance!)

In any case, it’s a system that works for me, and thanks to my fear of looking a fool I do a lot more than I would otherwise be inspired to do. Exhibit A of this personal trait is my involvement in the Peace Corps’ Life Skills Committee here in Georgia. I consider myself a person with a strong interest in health, although it’s not a field I’d ever want to go into professionally. But if I hadn’t joined this committee, I’m sure I would never have done so many health-related projects during my Peace Corps tenure. Being part of this committee has made me feel obligated to be involved in health-related projects, and I’m sure glad it has.

Don’t get me wrong; I love to exercise, I try to eat my fruits and veggies and I really get a kick out of reading the health section in online newspapers (the Washington Post’s Medical Mysteries series being among my favorites). I’m just not sure I’d be able to get out there and convince others to take a similar interest in health were it not for the committee. But here, in this place where no one receives any kind of basic health information, where old wives’ tales rule as medical advice and where the average person doesn’t have the tools to take care of himself, I’ve been sparked. With the rest of the committee’s members, I've worked to try to share what I’ve been fortunate enough to take for granted. I’ve been lucky in health. I’ve had the combination of good health and good education (you can debate the American education system all you want, but compared to other systems I’ve seen in other parts of the world, ours is light years ahead and American kids have huge advantages in terms of availability of information and training, options and equipment, and dedicated teachers). If I can share just the information I’ve had hurled at me my whole life, it could make a world of difference.

And as I said above, the great thing about being part of a committee that is dedicated to arming citizens with the skills they need to be healthier and lead healthy, happy lives is that I feel obligated to do something. It’s the kick in the pants I need to get out the door. But realizing this, I also get a chance to really try to figure out how one can transfer those skills and knowledge and how to make it possible for other PCVs to do the same. I’ve already written here about the fantastic DVD series that the LS Committee created. We’re looking forward to making some other resources in the near future to continue to make things easier for PCVs. We will hold our annual Healthy Lifestyles Training of Trainers for PCVs and their counterparts in early February.

And it’s rewarding to know that these projects are having an impact. On December 1, we marked World AIDS Day. This is a tough topic here in conservative Georgia. HIV/AIDS is a difficult topic to begin with, and then there are all the culturally taboo subjects to deal with. The Life Skills Committee has done an awesome job making this possible, though, by providing resources and support to make it possible. For a second year, I was able to teach an HIV/AIDS lesson in my school (I had over 200 participants for my full day of sessions!). I showed a lecture from the DVD series (I’ve never seen my 10th graders so quite and engaged) and held a discussion with the kids. It was such an overwhelmingly positive experience and felt like one of those big PC victories, where things go right. Yet I don’t know if I’d have even made the attempt if I weren’t part of the committee.

Knowing this about myself is helpful, but it also encourages me to work harder to make resources for other PCVs, and to share information and best practices. And hearing about the successes other PCVs have had also makes it really worthwhile.

The Deputy Director at my school made a display about World AIDS Day

The 8th graders listened better than I expected

My tenth graders were absolutely silent during the film, giving it their full attention

Saturday, December 10, 2011

Blog Post Backlog

We could blame the end-of-the-semester drag, busy schedules, bad weather, dark days or any number of things for our infrequent blog posts of late. Instead of excuses, though, I'll just apologize for our delay. We have developed a bit of a backlog of stories, though, so I’ll try to bring everything up to speed soon, rather than just skip over the missed things.

In the meantime, as I work on typing it all up, here are a few videos as appeasement for our updating negligence. A huge thanks to Brad, Holly, Matt and Rachel for the hours of entertainment that the Christmas Chicken Dance Chicken has provided in our household! (And if the poor chicken's batteries go missing before long or it ends up with its musical component ripped out, we’ll just blame it on the neighborhood stray dogs, not the slowly-going-crazy-from-hearing-the-chicken-dance-every-5-minutes Melissa).

So enjoy the diversion while we rustle up some more blog posts! (Lilit sure doesn't seem to mind the wait, as long as she can keep stomping around the chicken.)