This blog does not represent the position of the United States government or the Peace Corps as to any matter. All expressions of fact or opinion contained herein are solely those of Mark and Lisa Lebowitz and of no one else.

Monday, June 25, 2007

Saqartvelo at last

Georgians are known for their hospitality, and on the plane from Munich to Tblisi we met a Georgian who was traveling home to visit his parents in Tblisi. He couldn’t have been nicer and insisted that we give him our email addresses and also our cell phone numbers (once we got cell phones) so his parents could have us over for a supra ( a big dinner party with LOTS of drinking). We’ve been warned about the supras, since they go on for hours and hours and carry a strong potential for alcoholic disaster. Apparently, Georgians are always looking for a reason to hold a supra and generally any reason will do!
We landed in Tblisi at about 4:30 am and the whole Peace Corps country staff from Georgia (about 28 people) was there to greet us. It was very nice, because they had obviously been up all night. We took a couple of buses from the airport into town (traveling in part along George W. Bush street!), stopped for a picture somewhere and then on to our training site up on top of a high ridge outside of town. The training site appeared to be an abandoned Russian camp or resort of some sort within an enclosed compound. It was literally falling apart, with large chucks of concrete having fallen down at various spots in the multiple buildings (mostly abandoned) on the site. The rooms were okay though , with western style toilets and small concrete balconies, overlooking the unmown lawn. This was to be our home for the next 6 days. We started language classes immediately, in groups of 5 or 6 and had class every day. Since it was immediately apparent that Georgian is no ordinary language, we also started extra tutoring sessions with our teacher every day as well. Our days were also filled with various classes intended to prepare us for our soon to be complete immersion into Georgian culture, including classes on how not to get forced into drinking too much at a supra (it seems that Georgians generally drink very little other than at a supra, so they are having them all the time). We also had sessions with the medical staff and lots of shots! The electricity kept going off, which seems to be a routine part of Georgian life (while at Tabakemela, we watched the movie “Power Trip” which is an English language documentary about the problems with the electrical system in Georgia). After spending that much time together, we became quite close to the rest of our group, known as the G-7's since we are the 7th group of Peace Corps volunteers to come to Georgia. One night, a group of Georgian dancers came and performed for us and they were really quite good. On the last day of our in-country orientation, we were given the identities of our respective host families, with whom we were to live for the next 3 months. Of course, their names meant nothing to us, but we were told how many family members there were and whether they had ever hosted a PCV before. Lisa and I were lucky in that we were designated to live in Gori, a city of about 50K people, rather than in one of the surrounding villages, where life is more difficult and the available amenities are fewer in number.
After packing up all of our stuff, which had increased in size by virtue of all the training materials, medical kits, dog zappers and other paraphernalia that Peace Corps had armed us with, we lugged everything to two waiting busses and began the 1 Ѕ hour trip to Gori, where our host families awaited us. It felt a lot like being a fresh air kid traveling from NYC to GF for the summer and having the host families all waiting in a group and then trying to match each kid up with his/her family. It was a big press event and the Gori TV station was there doing interviews with wide eyed PCV’s who had no idea what questions the reporter was asking them.
Unfortunately, we were among the three volunteers whose host families did not respond when their names were called, but our problems were cured shortly thereafter when our new host mom and sister showed up in a cab to get us. The cab (an old soviet era Lada) was barely able to accommodate the four of us and all of our luggage, some of which had to be wired on the back of the vehicle (we stopped once on the way when the driver thought something had fallen off). We traveled the pot-hole filled streets of the city eventually winding our way along a dirt/rock street to a spot opposite a four story apartment building which is quite tenement like in appearance. Fortunately, our house is located opposite the apartment building and not in it. We were pleasantly surprised to find out that our host sister Natia, who accompanied us in the cab, actually speaks quite good English. We lugged our luggage through a metal gate and into a open courtyard, over which a grape arbor hangs. We walked up a few steps and then into a concrete building which is our house. Inside, the place is magnificent, certainly by Georgian standards. There is a large 4 feet wide curved wooden staircase leading to the upstairs from the entryway. All the rooms on the two floors which comprise the living area are accessed off large hallways (15-20 feet wide), running from the front to the b ack of the house. Our room is in the front. It is very large and bright with lots of storage. All the ceilings are 12' high so the rooms feel palatial. Across the hall we have another huge room ( 20x20) with parquet floors , 4 huge windows, an area rug, table and chairs, a stereo and 2 comfortable chairs. This is where we study. The bathroom is down the hall. It is very large with a flush toilet that needs a bucket of water half the time to make it flush, a tub w/shower, pedestal sink and washing machine. Sometimes there is no water and when there is water the pressure is always low and “hot” is only “luke warm”, but we have no complaints. In fact, we feel as if we died and went to heaven. Many of our fellow volunteers have only cold water (when there is water) and outdoor squat toilets. Next to the bath on the second floor is a computer room with a DSL connection!! The Dad is a physicist and the Mom is a former university Physics instructor so there are bookcases full of science texts. Peace Corps pays us to pay our host family for providing room and board for us. The families get 208 Lari per month per for each volunteer. That is the equivalent of $125 per month and includes three meals a day.
Our family consists of the 87 year old Grandmother, affectionately known as “Bebia”, the Mother, DoDo, who is 47, two sweet girls; Miriam 16 and Natia 14 (both of whom have studied English for years and speak better English than we do) and Ilia, the 11 year old son. The Dad has been working in Trenton, N.J. as some type of engineer. He could not find employment here. The rest of the family has not seen him in 6 years. He calls every Sunday, and sends money and gifts. You can tell the rest of the family misses him dearly.
The girls have hovered around us. They are sweet but their use of English is not conducive to the development of our Georgian. They check our homework and help us out when we’re stuck (which unfortunately is often). Everyone is trying to help us with everyday words and if we mispronounce a word, Bebia enunciates it at the top of her lungs repeatedly until we get it right, and then she gives us the thumbs up. She speaks no English and it’s a hoot trying to communicate with her. She was a teacher for 54 years! Now she can barely shuffle with her cane from the chair in front of the TV to the kitchen where we eat. She had a stroke a couple of years ago and lacks the use of her right arm. As far as I can tell she watches TV from the time she gets up until the time she goes to bed.
We walk to our language class every morning where we meet up with the teacher and the other 4 volunteers who are in our class. The teacher is very nice but is very strict. Lisa and I got reprimanded for being three minutes late on the very first day of class, after we miscalculated how long it would take us to walk there (it takes 25 minutes). We are the dunces in the class, but we are trying hard to make sense of everything, which is difficult.
Today (Sunday) was our day off and we went with our family to Gori fortress, a stone fortress built in the eleventh century, situated high on a hill in the middle of the town. It was pretty interesting. If something like that were located in the US it would undoubtedly have been made into a tourist attraction. Here you can walk into the fortress and climb over all the walls or do anything you want to something that is very old. It’s surprising that it remains as intact as it is. While we were at the fortress, we met up with a number of the other Peace Corps volunteers from our group. Word had already spread regarding our living conditions compared to everyone else, and they didn’t hesitate to take the opportunity to accuse us of having joined the “Posh Corps” rather than the Peace Corps.
After visiting the fortress, we went with our family to the Bazaar, which is a large open air market where you can buy anything. We wandered around for awhile and Dodo bought a bunch of groceries for the house. It is open every day and will undoubtedly be a place we will visit regularly.
Loaded down with stuff, we squeezed into a marshutka, which is a 17 passenger van that runs a regular route like a bus, and rode it back to a stop near our house. We spent the rest of the day hanging around the house, doing homework and chatting with the girls while Dodo worked on the preparations for the evening meal, which Lisa tried to assist with.
Right now it is almost 11 pm and it is time to go to bed , so I will stop this blog entry here. It’s hard to believe that we left GF only two weeks ago tomorrow, since we have had lots of experiences since then (almost all positive ones!).
To be continued later...........

Going to Peace Corps "Camp"

Staging in Washington D.C. was quite an event. We checked into the hotel with our four 50 lb. Bags, 2 backpacks and one carry on. We handed in our numerous forms and were awarded our official Peace Corps passport. Our staging directors (our counselors)
were three former volunteers.
Peter had worked in Costa Rica in the 80's. Pam had been in India in the 60's and Igor was in Slovakia in the 90's. They had wonderful stories to share to illustrate the points they were trying to make with regard to safety, cross-cultural adjustment, unwanted attention and Peace Corps policies.
Our fellow “campers”, with whom we will serve for 27 months, are a large group of 46. There are four couples, and a total of six people (including us) are over 50. One of the other couples may even be older than we are! There are four or five thirtysomethings, and the rest of the group are either just out of college or have been out for a couple of years.
We met for twelve hours of training over two days. Peace Corps uses a very experiential learning approach which involves lots of interaction so we quickly began to bond with the rest of our “pledge class” as we did skits, made murals to illustrate points and dialogued on lots of different topics.
In the evenings we went out with one another and shared info, rumors, fears and alcohol.
On Friday, our travel to Georgia began with a night flight to Munich. We arrived at 10 in the mornng after an 8 Ѕ hour flight. PC had reserved day hotel rooms for us at the airport, since our connecting flight did not leave for another 11 hours. It was like herding cats to get our group of 46 pointed in the right direction, but eventually we all arrived at the hotel (there were no PC leaders on the trip itself, just us PCV’s, and there was some confusion after we arrived in Munich as to which hotel we were supposed to be going to). Everyone slept, showered and refreshed in our modern German hotel. Then it was back to the airport. As I write this we are again at the airport waiting for our delayed flight to Tbilisi . We were due to arrive there at 3:30 am on Sat., but now it looks like we won’t be getting in until 4:30 am or so. I will update this blog after we arrive. We will not have internet access for at least a week and maybe longer, but we will get this entry and those which follow posted as soon as we can.