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.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Random thoughts......................

There are street dogs everywhere, barking all day and all night. No one allows a dog into their house and most of the dogs don't have owners at all. Because of a fear of rabies, the Peace Corps has given us "dog zappers" which emit a high pitched sound when a button is pressed. The sound hurts a dog's ears, but humans can't hear it. We carry ours with us, but neither of us has had to use ours yet.

There used to be a law against regular kidnapping, but kidnapping a girl for purposes of marriage was not considered a crime. The theory is that the boy would kidnap the girl and that after spending a couple of days together the families would say "what's left to protect" and allow a marriage to take place between them. Sometimes the kidnapping was with the girl's consent (though not with her parents), but many times not. A couple of years ago the law was changed to make kidnapping for purposes of marriage illegal also. However, it still happens. Our host sisters were waiting for a marshutka earlier this year and were witnesses to a bridenapping in which the girl was screaming as she was stuffed into a car. The kidnapper and his friends brandished a gun and told the girls that they knew who they were and they were to keep their mouths shut. They reported the incident to the police none the less, but they don't know what came of it.

The electricity is forever going off or we are having brown outs. Any electronic stuff always has an uninterruptable power source attached to prevent damage during the frequent power outages.

We are not allowed to drink the water. The Peace Corps has issued us bulky water filters that we must use to get water that we can drink (or we can boil the tap water for ten minutes or buy water).

Teachers are very low paid. It depends on how many classes they teach, but their pay is in the vicinity of 50 Lari a month (that equates to approximately $33). All teachers also tutor to supplement their income. All kids (or at least all that I have come in contact with) have tutors (English, Russian, Math, Music, Dance etc), so they are very busy everyday after school. In fact, alot of kids, particularly in the higher grades, skip school itself. Surprisingly, university teachers are paid less!

The country has been working hard to reform the educational system. This year, they are transitioning from 11 grades to 12. That means that our two host sisters, both of whom are just entering "eleventh form", must go to another year of school the following year. There will be no graduating high school classes in Georgia this year.

There is lots of smoking (everywhere), drinking and eating (mostly good, but very starchy foods).

There are switches to pump water from the cistern when no water comes out of the tap. And there is also a switch to turn on the water heater to produce hot water (after the appropriate lag time).....but don't turn on the heater when there is no water in the system!! We still have not figured out the timing on all of this.

Almost every family grows grapes and makes its own wine which they serve year 'round (even in the cities). Lots of families also make cha-cha, which is an alcoholic drink of high potency, which if misproduced can kill you. Families take great pride in the quality of their wine and cha-cha. Vodka is a very popular and cheap drink. Depending on the quality, you can buy a bottle for somewhere between $1.75 and $8.00. compare that to a bottle of Jack Daniels, which I recently saw for sale for 60 Lari ($40). Pretty expensive, especially when compared to a teacher's monthly salary.

There is no tipping. If you want to be a sport, you round up the bill to the next full Lari (each Lari = approx. 66 cents).

You pay cash for everything. There may be places in the country that accept credit cards, but I haven't seen one yet.

If you go out to dinner (which doesn't happen often), you bring your own wine.

Women do everything around the house, and often are the wage earners as well.

There is no air conditioning or central heat. You get and split your wood in the summer, because the price increases the closer to winter it gets.

Everyone seems to have a cell phone. You buy cards at the local store in various denominations. You then punch in the code on the card and you are credited with some amount of money against which you place calls and make text messages. For every call that is made there are approximately 20 (or more) text messages made (it's much cheaper than calling).

Men give up their seats to women on crowded marshutkas and buses.

Georgians are very loosey-goosey about being punctual.

Georgians view guests as gifts from God and they are always ready to host more people than they planned for at any dinner or other occasion. It is not at all unusual for guests to drop by unannounced to visit, have dinner and stay until one o'clock in the morning (Georgians stay up late!).

There is no such thing as a doggy bag. Georgians typically over-order in restaurants and there is always much more food than can be eaten. All of the extra food is just left on the table. A Georgian would never think of taking any extra food home with him.

Almost all drinking (other than drinking by the drunks is done at meal time and is done in conjunction with a toast. Toasts are long and and emotional and touch upon everything you can think of (and one usually quickly follows another). All toasting is done with either wine or liquor. You only toast your enemies with beer!!

There are a million other things which make life here interesting and different from what we know in the US. These are but a few. I will post more as they occur to me.

Wednesday, July 25, 2007

It's Zugdidi..............

This was a big week for us here in Georgia. On Friday (7/20), we packed up all of the stuff that we won't be needing until cold weather arrives in a few months, as well as all the clothes etc. we would need for a 5 day trip. We were picked up at our home by a Peace Corps marshutka and were transported to our usual training site in Gori. Shortly after our arrival we went outside, where a large map of Georgia was painted on the pavement and various cities were labelled by sheets of paper taped to the ground. One by one our names were called and we were given an envelope which contained information as to where in the country we were to be permanently assigned for the next two years, where we would be working and information about the family we would be living with. As each name was called the volunteer stood on the appropriate spot on the map. As you can imagine, the level of excitement was quite high. Lisa and I will be going to Zugdidi, which is a city in the western part of the country, about 20 km from the Black Sea. Until now, Zugdidi has been an area of the country which has been off-limits to Peace Corps volunteers because it is located immediately adjacent to Abkazia, a conflict zone where many of the people want independence from Georgia. Russia supports the secessionist movement and there has been armed conflict in the region off and on for the past 10 years. Zugdidi is a city of about 70,000 people, with an additional 50,000 or so IDP's (internally displaced persons from Abkazia). Lisa and I will be the first Peace Corps volunteers ever to serve in Zugdidi (the Peace Corps has been operating in Georgia for 7 years now). Lisa will be teaching English with a Georgian counterpart teacher in a school that has 1200 students. There are 22 English teachers in the school !! I will be working for a Chamber of Commerce/ Business Service Organization which supports businesses with permitting issues, financing, tax issues, public relations, import/export matters and the like. Shortly after learning our destiny, everyone loaded all their luggage onto several Peace Corps marshutkas and we were of to Gudauri, a small village high in the Caucaucus mountains, for a 2 day conference where we would meet and interact with our workplace supervisors, who were also traveling to Gudauri from all over the country. The conference was interesting and productive (I think). Neither my supervisor or Lisa's spoke any English, so there were some language issues, but our language teachers were also in attendance at the conference to assist in translating. After the conference broke up on Sunday morning, we then left with our supervisors (most of whom had arrived by marshutka or bus) to go for a three day visit to our permanent site. It was a tough day for us, since we had to travel by marshutka to Tbilisi (about 2 hours) and then we boarded a non-airconditioned bus for another 6 hour trip to Zugdidi. The temperature was hovering around 100 F and the bus was absolutely full of very sweaty people. If you count the time that we sat in the bus waiting for it to leave and the time it took to fix the flat tire we had along the way, the 6 hour leg of the trip turned into a 9 hour ordeal. When we arrived in Zugdidi our new host family was there to greet us, along with the son and husband of Lisa's supervisor (the Director of the school). We loaded our stuff (contained in a mere 5 suitcases) into the two vehicles and proceeded to our new home. Our new host family had prepared a Supra (an elaborate dinner which symbolizes Georgian hospitality) in honor of our arrival. Fortunately, our host family was able to convince Lisa's director and her son to stay and participate in the festivities. I say fortunately because no one in our host family speaks any English (good for us learning Georgian), and Irakli, the Director's son, had just returned from a year as a foreign exchange student in the US. He was able to act as translator, and we successfully communicated with our new "host parents" throughout an enjoyable evening. Our new house is very clean, but simple. It does have a western style toilet (as well as an outhouse). Lisa and I will have a large room on the first floor, which by the looks of it previously served as the living/dining room. Our new host mom works part time in a government office and the host father is unemployed (as is over 50% of the workforce in Georgia). The family is clearly not well off, but they are very kind and I think we will do just fine there. We stayed in Zugdidi for three days and visited our workplaces and toured the city. The town has a nice feel to it and we are happy to have landed in a more urban environment than in one of the many small villages where lots of the other Peace Corps volunteers have been assigned. On our last night in Zugdidi, we were invited to another Supra, this one hosted by my new boss, the President of the BSO where I will be working. It was quite a production (think of a dinner that starts at 7 and ends at 1 in the morning, attended by 20 or so people). There was lot of toasting, dancing and singing. They even lugged the piano out of the house in the middle of the Supra to facilitate the merriment. My supervisor's house is magnificent, located high on a hill overlooking the entire city. We had lots of fun and, as always, Georgian hospitality was in abundant display. Lisa and I just got back to Gori, having taken a marshutka whose driver took delight in tempting fate by passing cars on every turn in the road. Georgian drivers are reputed to be the worst in the world and this fellow has to be right up there with the worst in Georgia. It took us just 3 hours and 45 minutes to get back, and we fortunate to have made it in one piece. Well, tomorrow is back to the grind with language class in the morning and technical training in the afternoon. In one more month we will be done with our training, and after the swearing in ceremony in Tbilisi at the end of August, it will be off to Zugdidi to begin our two year stint. Enough for now...more later.

Saturday, July 7, 2007

Our first days...............

This is our first blog entry since we arrived in Gori, our PST (pre-service training) site. Of course we've been here for more than a month now, but we have been so busy that there has hardly been a free moment to try and update the blog. We have taken a bunch of pictures, some of which are posted in this blog entry, just to give you a feel for what it's like here. Of the 44 remaining members of our group (we've lost 2 already), I think that we are acknowledged to have the nicest living situation. We have indoor western toilets in a big house with lots of bright airy rooms with 12 foot ceilings!! Our host family is the best too! Here are the pictures:

This is a picture of Lisa standing with our suitcases at Dulles airport in DC. We were each allowed to check two pieces of luggage of not more than 50 pounds each. There was also a limitation on the dimensions of the bags. We were a total of 3 pounds under for our four bags (197 pounds total)! Once we arrived in Tbilisi, we were taken by bus (at 4:30 am) to an old Russian compound of some sort for 6 days of orientation before going to our PST site in Gori.

Here is a picture of a Georgian dance troop that the Peace Corps brought in to entertain us one evening. They were really quite good (and very limber too!).

While we staying at the Russian compound, we were invited one evening to a reception at the house of the US Ambassador to Georgia. Here's a picture at the reception. The Ambassador is the gentleman in the white shirt standing in the middle of the picture. He was very personable and enthusiastic about the Peace Corps being in Georgia.

This is a picture of our cluster. These are the people that we spend the majority of each day with. The woman to the left of Lisa (with her eyes closed) is our language instructor. Diane (pronounced Dee-anna in Georgian) is 28 years old and is an English teacher by profession. Work is very scarce here and the PC holds a competition each year among the many teachers who apply to teach PC volunteers the Georgian language. She is an excellent teacher (its not her fault that Lisa and I are lousy students), and she is all business during our four hour language session each day. The picture was taken at the Ambassador's reception, when we really didn't know her or our cluster mates at all. After spending everyday with them since then, we now know them all intimately!

Everyday after language class is done, we walk to the house of one member of our cluster, and the host mother of that member feeds us all lunch. This is us at Amy's house.

Here's Lisa with our host mother Dodo and host sister Miriam. They are really nice and Miriam and her sister Natia speak perfect English (not good for learning Georgian).

Natia, Miriam and Dodo at the kitchen table, with a bowl of cherries picked from the trees outside.

Bebia checking the lottery results which are broadcast on TV at 11 am each Sunday. Last week the electricity went out just before 11, and I thought she was going to have a coronary. She's 87 and has not been out of the house for 7 years.

Here's the family walking with Lisa on the street in front of our house. The house is where the iron gate is, just to the left of Ilia's ballcap in the picture.

This is a picture taken from the fortress, looking out over the town (and the river that runs through it).

The fortress from below.

Here's the whole family (less Bebia) on top of Gori fortress. The fortress was built in the 10th century and stands high atop a hill in the center of Gori.

A picture of the Bazaar. The Bazaar is where most everything in Gori is bought and sold. It consists of a haphazard array of vendors spread over a wide area selling everything you can
imagine. You are expected to bargain, but the Georgian numbering system is so difficult to understand that sometimes it is hard to understand what you are negotiating over.

A picture of the apartment building across the street, taken from our bedroom window. I'm glad we live in our house, rather than in the apartments!

A picture of one of the trolleybuses rounding the corner at Stalin Square. You can see the statue of Joe in the background.

Here is "Bear in a Cage", as he is known by the Peace Corps volunteers. Definitely a case for PETA. The bear is located in the middle of a park in Gori. You can walk right up and stick your arm in if you want.

Another picture of the Joseph Stalin statue and square.

That's it for now. Back to studying for our language class tomorrow. This blog post was actually made at the beginning of July and now it is July 15th. It took that long for me to figure out how to get the pictures loaded and into position adjacent to the corresponding text. Hopefully, I will do better next time, but at least this should give you some flavor of what life here is like. Nakvamdis (Goodbye) for now.