Khertvisi Castle, Khertvisi, Georgia

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

What we expected

Sam and I have spent the last several days and even weeks slowly paring down our stuff, washing our sweaters one last time so we can donate them, shifting books into piles of "definitely take," "probably take," "maybe take," and "are you sure these won't fit into our bags?"  The process of unloading and trying to decide what we will keep and what we'll leave behind comes when it should, near the end of our 27 months of Peace Corps service.  Sam leaves in 16 days; I'll be another month behind him in taking off. Having the piles to make and shift, the clothes to wash, the work with physical things, helps us keep our hands and minds busy, which is good because it's tough to think about leaving here and tough to think about readjusting to paying bills and following baseball again.  But the work doesn't always stay the mind, and our thoughts have been all over the place lately.

A lot of our conversations have focused on what we expected and how far we missed the mark on our expectations.  I've heard a lot of my fellow PCVs talk (and blog) about regrets and and failures in their service.  I think we're all about at that point, thinking "I shoulda..." and that makes sense.

When I was applying for Peace Corps, going through orientation and even making my way through our intensive training, I had my expectations.  I was going to learn a new language.  Really well.  I was going to finally make myself learn how to knit.  I was going to have Sam teach me to play the guitar, and to speak some Arabic (because one or two new languages is never enough).  I was going to write on this blog religiously.  I was going to take lots of photographs.  I was going to really integrate into my community and forge lots of lifelong friendships.  I was going to travel to many new countries and all around the country I was placed in.  I was going to stay positive at all times and really Make a Difference (in capital letters, of course, because it was Serious, How Dedicated I Would Be).  I was going to write grants and receive money to implement amazing community development projects.  I was going to make my mark.  I was going to better myself in the process of bettering the world.

I'm sure that if I polled PCVs worldwide, I'd find that the ones who actually responded to the poll (we're pretty notoriously bad on responding to polls and surveys at this point, after 26 months of way too many evaluation forms and surveys) would have a list like mine of things they expected to do or to get out of their Peace Corps service.  And, I'd be willing to further bet, that most PCVs on the cusp of heading home have been letting themselves get down about the things they failed to do, about the things they expected that never came to be, about their regrets.

On this front, I should add that a few months ago, a lot of PCVs here in Georgia were sharing this article about what one returned PCV learned about failure during her service.  In a lot of ways, the article really rubbed me the wrong way.  I think it jumps all over the place, on different kinds of topics that are all labeled in the end as failure (she talks of challenges, setbacks, celebrating small successes, not having unrealistic expectations, realizing that we are not perfect, and failure).  As I begin the Serious Reflection Time myself, I think the article really does highlight some of the many feelings we all go through during Peace Corps. It's certainly true that we feel like failures in Peace Corps a lot.  We have lots of time to ourselves with our thoughts and we go down the rabbit hole of regret more often than we should.  I think this article, that was shared and exclaimed about by lots of us, emphasizes this, but it doesn't really emphasize how much of this is just us playing mind games with ourselves.  I still don't think it's accurate to name these times when our expectations didn't align with our outcomes as "failure;" that's just life, whether in Peace Corps or elsewhere.  Maybe it would be fairer to say that something about the nature of Peace Corps (as a major life-changing event) causes us to forget this.

Of the PCVs I've been privileged enough to get to know and work with here in Georgia, I can say with certainty that none has been a failure in any sense.  Many may have regrets, but they shouldn't, not about the work they've done nor about the good they've accomplished.  Some have excelled as teachers, getting students to care about learning English or start doing their homework.  Others have helped their organizations gain computer skills or new equipment, or just how to hold office meetings that start on time and don't allow yelling.  Some PCVs have written grants or started clubs or created resources that will continue to benefit their communities for years to come.  Others have made friends with locals and been really able to share in cultural exchange.  Still other PCVs have provided the support of their fellow volunteers that we all needed to get through the rough days, giving us shoulders to cry on, patiently listening as we complain about eating fried potatoes for yet another dinner.

We all came into this with our expectations, as any person does as they enter any new phase in life. The failure to meet these expectations doesn't equal failure overall, though.  Maybe the most important things we can learn from our service are not to deal easily with our failure, but to recognize and celebrate our successes, no matter how small; to set reasonable expectations for ourselves and others; and to learn what it is that we are truly capable of.  

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Last Last Bell

Last Bell Ceremony, Akhalkalaki School #2

The symbolic last bell, being run by a 12th grader and a 1st grader.  Too bad it was all a tease--school doesn't actually get out for another month.

May 18 was marked the end of the school year for the 1st and 12th graders at schools in Georgia.  It was the day of the much anticipated, much beloved "Last Bell" ceremony.  (You may remember that the school year began with the "First Bell" ceremony.)  Sam and I headed to our schools a little later than usual to watch the festivities.

My school's kids, all ready to celebrate!  White tops and black bottoms were the designated attire for students, as per usual in important school events here

Sam's school's director gives a speech for their Last Bell, congratulating the 12 grade

A group of teachers from my school

As with any good school celebration in Akhalkalaki, there were the obligatory speeches by the director, teachers, students and parents, along with songs, dances, and readings of poems.  This ceremony is an interesting one, akin to our graduation celebrations, but involving everyone from all grades.  It's also different from American graduation in that it comes before final exams, before students actually learn if they've graduated.  Other students (whom Sam and I hadn't ever seen before in any classes) return to school to join their class for the festivities, even though they dropped out of school 2-3 years earlier to start to work or to get married and start families (yes, that happens with unpleasant frequency here--in my school alone, I think I've had about 10 girls a year leave from the 9th-12th grades to get married).  I've talked with lots of teachers and students alike about the Last Bell ceremony and everyone that I've talked with agrees that it makes no sense to hold the ceremony before the end of school (the rest of the grades, 2-11, continue with classes until June 15) and for all students in the 12th grade, even those who will not graduate or receive diplomas.  On the other hand, nearly all of my interlocutors said that it is something nice for all students to be able to celebrate, regardless of their academic success.  And it's a nice way for the students to officially say goodbye to their childhoods (even if, in some cases, they've already said goodbye).

Balloons were a nice idea, but not a second ticked by without at least two popping (or being popped) by some of the (I'm sure) very attentive and well behaved younger students

The 12th graders didn't have caps and gowns, but they did have nifty sashes

In any case, Last Bell represents another way in which Georgia and America have something in common while still having something different.  We both want to celebrate the accomplishment of making it through school, to mark the end of school as a rite of passage.  I do wish that American celebrations included more children dancing around with lit roman candles or setting off paper hot air balloons or releasing doves.  Maybe Sam and I can bring some Georgian traditions back home with us.

My favorite performance included a group of 3rd grade girls, apparently dressed as wizards, dancing around with star-shaped wands to a song about stars raining down on us.

The symbolic releasing of doves was unexpected (at least by me).  Luckily, no birds pooped on me.

Another dance number by one of my 6th grade classes featured some extremely unhappy-to-be-dancing-while-wearing-white-capes boys.  I did not manage to contain my giggles during some of their dance moves. 

Sam's school had some signs and decorations up for the day

His school also featured a traditional Armenian dance by one of the students

Towards the end of my school's celebration, the wizard girls came back out again and were each handed a gigantic, lit roman candle to dance around with.  I thought that was a lawsuit waiting to happen until the 12th graders brought out the paper lantern/hot air balloons and lit them up

Sam's school had a hot air balloon, too.  Fly free, paper hot air balloon!  Don't crash and catch the school on fire, but otherwise, fly free!

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Where do we go from here?

Today is May 16.  Hard as it is to believe sometimes, Sam and I have been living here in Georgia for 25 months.  The end of our Peace Corps service is now galloping towards us, and as hard as it is going to be to leave here, we're starting to also get that rush of excitement about heading back home.  Leaving will mean wrapping up all the projects that we've put our time and effort into over the past 2+ years, and saying lots of goodbyes that I'm not actually prepared to think about yet.  These approaching sad moments, combined with the sheer fear of the unknown that is the next step in the life after Peace Corps have made me put off thinking about the future in a lot of ways.  But many of you have been asking us what we'll be doing and where we'll be going, so here's our breakdown, as far as we know.

Sam's got more concrete plans than I do.  Here's what he'll be doing over the next 3 months:
June 15: Officially close his Peace Corps service and depart for a 3-week archaeological field school.

What an archaeological field school may or may not entail

July 6-8: Spend 3 days in Kiev on a layover.  I'm guessing he'll try the chicken.
July 8-August 3: Spend 4 weeks studying German intensively in Vienna.  Sacher torte will be eaten, and socks will most likely be worn with sandals.

Last year's Sacher torte

August 4-August 8: Travel to Copenhagen, Denmark.  Hopefully there won't be anything rotten about it.
August 8-August 17: Head to Iceland to see puffins (and baby puffins, which are apparently called "pufflings") and pretend to be a viking.


August 17: Arrive in Washington Dulles airport at 7pm.  Drink some root beer.
August 17-September 15-ish: Visit friends and family!
September 15-ish: Move to Chicago.
October 1: Start a PhD at the University of Chicago in their Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, focusing on Bronze Age Mesopotamian Archaeology.  He'll study cuneiform, Sumerian, Babylonian and maybe dabble in Akkadian.  There may be some digging in the dirt involved.  I'm not sure exactly where fighting Nazis and learning to wield a whip fall in the curriculum.  
2022: Dear God, hopefully he'll be done with this PhD by now.

Soon, Sam will be reading these things

My plans aren't quite as focused, but here's what I've got so far:
July 16: Finish my Peace Corps service and head out on a 2-week solo trip to Helsinki, Finland; Tallinn and Parnu, Estonia; Riga, Latvia; Vilnius, Lithuania; and Warsaw, Poland.

I'm hoping Tallinn is warmer this time around (all though, to be fair, February wasn't the best time to visit.  On the other hand, Tallinn was a whole heck of a lot warmer in February than St. Petersburg was, so it made sense to go then)

July 27-ish: Meet up with Sam in Vienna.  Eat some (ok, lots of) Sacher torte.

This year, I won't just order one piece

August 4-8: Copenhagen
August 8-17: Iceland.  Try to resist the urge to smuggle home any pufflings.
August 17: Arrive in Washington at 7pm.  Drink some beer and eat some Chipotle.
August 17-September 15-ish: Visit family and friends and eat.  And eat.  And eat.
September 15-ish: Move to Chicago.  Hopefully find some employment.
November 3: Run a marathon in Indianapolis.  'Cause, why not?

Will they make t-shirts for this one?  Is the pope Catholic?

So that's what we've got right now.  If anyone has any other suggestions, give us a shout.  And if anyone has any meaningful, productive employment in the Chicago area that they might want to offer to a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer, let me know. 

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Go West

Wednesday, May 9 was a holiday here in Georgia, so we got the day off from school.  (It's Victory Day for Soviets, but I learned it as being Victory in Europe Day in my high school history class.)  Sam and I wanted to make one more trip together out to the west of Georgia before he heads off (our next post will be all about next steps), and we each only have a few classes on Mondays and Tuesdays, so we made a loooooong weekend out, leaving for Kutaisi (our third trip to the city) on Friday after school.  We spent Friday evening and Saturday tooling around the city, loving the warm weather and green everywhere.  We stayed with another PCV, Tami.  She's only been in Kutaisi for a year, and Kutaisi is the second largest city in Georgia, but it seemed like every 2 minutes she ran into another person that she knows.  She's obviously been a winner at integrating into her community and doing all the great things that PCVs are expected (and hoped) to do!

There's an impressive new fountain in Kutaisi that was opened for Kutaisoba

An old Kutaisi movie theater, apparently celebrated as the birthplace of Georgian cinema

Me, a new Kutaisi statue, Tami and Caitlin

On Saturday morning the weather was so beautiful that we decided to go out to the Motsameta Monastery just outside of Kutaisi and walk around and soak up some more greenery.  When we visited a neighboring monastery last year (Gelati), there were hiking trails that purported to lead between the two monasteries.  We were hoping to find the trail pick up from the Motsameta side, but had no luck.  Regardless, we walked in the woods some, saw a wedding party entering Motsameta and had a really nice time overall.

Me and Sam enjoying the beautiful weather and green scenery at Motsameta Monastery near Kutaisi


The view from the Monastery

On Saturday night we hopped a marshrutka for a village, Dimi, about 30 minutes from Kutaisi to stay with another PCV, Caitlin (she's up in the picture above).  Caitlin came to visit Sam and me in March because she'd been itching to start a fitness club for girls at her site since arriving, but faced some challenges and wasn't quite sure how to attack the project.  While she was in Akhalkalaki, she came to my fitness club and picked my brain about how we worked things out here, which helped her to get back to Dimi and start her own club.  On Sunday, I got to go with her to her club's meeting, where 8 girls from her 8th and 9th grade classes showed up to jump, run, do sit ups and push ups, and just have a good time while exercising.  Caitlin has done a fantastic job and walking around her village it was clear that she's had a huge impact there already, too.

A beautiful spot just near Caitlin's host family's house in Dimi


Dimi's summer hot spot, the river (Caitlin is a former college swimmer and lifeguard, so her community definitely benefits from having her there in the summer!)

On Monday, our hooky day, we left the Kutaisi region behind to head to the coast.  We arrived in Batumi on a foggy, drizzly mid-morning, found our hotel and did the only sensible thing one can do when arriving into Adjara.

First things first in Batumi: eating an Adjaruli khachapuri

After surviving the cholesterol bomb that is an Adjaruli khachapuri (but seriously, these things are delicious--just don't eat more than one a year), we went walking around to burn off a fraction of the butter-cheese-egg-dough goodness.  A lot has changed in Batumi since we've been in Georgia, and a lot is still under construction, so we saw a lot of new things or things previously obscured by torn up roads or scaffolding.  Sam said (and I think he's right) that it'll be interesting to come back to Batumi in another 2-3 years and see what the city looks like then.  

We wandered through the "zoo" and past the biting zebras

Then we spent too much time with Sam being freaked out by the pelican...

...which is understandable, because look at those soul-stealing eyes!  Gaaaaaghhh!

In the museum of Adjara we wished they had a gift shop with the old town flags 

Every time Sam sees or thinks of something that would have made our wedding better he says we need to have a second wedding.  So far, our second wedding will include an accordian, Elvis Costello, Chipotle catering and these outfits.

Cool, weird new building in Batumi.  Looks like it's either plotting world takeover, or belongs on the MIT campus

Beautiful Batumi

On Tuesday, we had plans to continue our travels into mountainous Adjara, but we managed to sneak in a visit to Gonio, a town just a few kilometers from Batumi that boasts an old fortress.  I'm so glad we made it, because it was definitely worth the trip.  (Mom, Dad and MaryBeth--I'm sorry we didn't take you here when you came to visit!  When you come back to Georgia, you can be sure to go.)

Gonio fortress, outside of Batumi

Sam, looking at archaeology

Fortress ruins


Fortress walls

What's a Georgian ruin without some old wine vats?

I'm hoping Sam can one day find a little clay cross-eyed dude, too!

Little castle crawl space

After a quick turn-around in Batumi, we loaded back onto a marshrutka and headed up away from the sea and into the mountains.  Our first stop along the road was a village called Makhuntseti, where a PCV from our group, Jen, lives.  Jen has set the bar high on community integration--she recently got married to a Georgian man she met from her village!  They're a wonderful couple and have a fantastic plan--they'll be heading to America when Jen wraps up her service (his immigrant visa paperwork just came through yesterday, on Jen's birthday--that'd be a tough present to top!), and have said they want to spend 2 years in America so they're on equal footing, then they'll make a decision about where they want to live, in Georgia or America.  

In Makhuntseti, in addition to seeing Jen again, we wanted to see the big attractions, which understandably draw tour buses.  First, there's the waterfall.  Now we've heard some stories here and there in Georgia about places having incredible waterfalls and then shown up to find a little trickle.  This waterfall was impressive, though, and Jen says it's a godsend in the hot, humid summers, since it's always cool and nice sitting by the bottom of the falls.  The other big site is a reconstructed stone arch bridge, that's really beautiful.  Jen says it scares her in the summers because kids jump off the bridge into the river and the men like to have some evening wine drinking on the far side of the bridge, walking home across it after imbibing.  

Makhuntseti waterfall

This was a serious waterfall, and none of my pictures seem to do it justice!

Makhuntseti bridge--guardrails are for wimps

After too-short a time catching up with Jen, Sam and I piled back onto a marshrutka to head a little further up the mountain to the next town of Keda.  Tom, another PCV from our group, has just finished one of the biggest-scale projects our group has attempted.  He raised funds and built a fitness facility at the local sports school for folks in his community to use.  Cooler still, he's convinced the facility's manager to dedicate two nights a week for use for women only.  Tom, being a male volunteer, asked me to come to run a training for the women on the benefits and importance of exercise.  I held the training on Tuesday evening for 13 women and girls, discussing exercise and health and showing the group 10 exercises they can do at home with no equipment on days when they can't make it to the fitness center.  I think it went really well, and I loved the community.  Tom's hard work and dedication have really paid off and energized people in Keda, which was really great to see.

Keda was another really pretty Adjaran town

Wednesday morning came too quickly, and we had a long road ahead of us--a 1 hour marshrutka ride from Keda back to Batumi and a quick change to another bus for a 6-hour marshrutka ride to Akhaltsikhe, followed by one more quick change to a third and final marshrutka for our last hour-and-a-half ride back to Akhalkalaki.  It was a tiring way to finish up our journey, and we'd had a busy couple of days, but it was a trip well worth the efforts.  I have been, and continue to be, absolutely impressed and amazed by my fellow Peace Corps Volunteers, and was excited and proud to be able to see their sites and projects and help out a little.