Monday, February 24, 2014

A Surprise Visit(ation)

Thursday, February 20th

I’m at school with the male co-teacher and everything is going well. We are with the first graders, who are adorable. The bell rings before we have finished the lesson, and my co-teacher tells me that class has been cut short so that we can see the school accountant. Will I come? Sure, I’ll come.

I’m thinking maybe the school accountant is one who we give account to, or check in with, rather than one who keeps account of the money, especially after I realize that EVERY TEACHER in the school is going. Seriously, I have no idea who we are leaving with the building full of kids. We walk down a muddy road near the school. My male co is up ahead with the couple of other men who work at the school and I must walk with the other women at a pace of about 0.00000000001 miles per hour. I actually have to make a continuous conscious effort to go slow enough and stay with the pack. The female co isn’t there today, so I have no one to ask for more details as to what exactly we are doing.

We stop to wait for a missing teacher. I hear wailing in a house nearby and can’t tell if someone is angry or crying or what. Oh well, Georgians are very loud and unreserved about expressing their emotions, so it could just be someone angry about lunch being burnt.

But when the missing teacher arrives and the turtle walk continues, I realize that we are going into the house with the wailing. For a minute I’m seriously wondering if in Georgian culture, the school accountants are shaman-like personas and if we will be given a big speech completely in hysterical yelling. What kind of ritual could this possibly be?

As we file into the upstairs room, I see that the source of the wailing is a middle aged woman, seated with a row of other women, all in tears. In front of them is a coffin. It’s empty. The body is laying outside of it, covered in a white sheet.

Yeah. I walk in the room and there is a DEAD FREAKING BODY. Furthermore, I can’t in any graceful way remove myself from the procession of teachers as it passes the mourning family, but I don’t know any of them or what to do so I just pass by in silence as the women around me comfort them. We then stand around for a while, many of the teachers tearing up, and listen to the woman lamenting her sorrow over the loss of her loved one. It really is a solemn sight, and even I have to fight tears when the woman goes to the body and pulls back the blanket to kiss the deceased on the cheek. One of the teachers goes to her to calm her down and pull her back to her seat.

Afterward we make our way back to the school and teach the rest of the day’s lessons.

So yeah….what an interesting experience. That evening at dinner, I entertain my family by using a combination of charades and broken Georgian to tell them about my day. They get a kick out of it. So at least the situation provides for some host-family bonding. This is going to be a crazy adventure, but I really think I’m already starting to feel ok.

Holy catchapuri, what have I gotten myself into?

Wednesday February 19th

It’s my second full day and I am already exhausted.
I like school. One co-teacher is a young man who is motivated and ready to take advantage of having a native English speaker in his lessons. The other co-teacher is an older woman who is very kind to me and lets me speak or do activities when I ask, though she doesn’t plan her use of me beforehand. I absolutely love the students and want to be at school from start to finish instead of just my required classes with the 1st-6th grades, but I know that settling into two different co-teaching strategies will be challenging.

And being at home is always challenging. Don’t get me wrong, my host family is great. They are very friendly, the food is delicious, and I have the whole upstairs part of the house to myself. But not having anyone around who speaks the same language is absolutely exhausting.

I try not to stay in my room all day, as Georgian society is traditionally a collective society, and families tend to spend all day together in the common room or kitchen. However, sitting there for hours not saying much or being able to express myself is frustrating. Listening to everyone around me and still not having any clue what is going on is boring. And although my host sister-in-law is fairly good at finding a way to communicate things to me when need be, the process is very tiring. And I don’t have internet so that venue of escape or even communication with my family back home is out of the picture for now.

The only way I can rest or relax is to withdraw to my room and study Georgian or call the friends I made during orientation.
But this worries the family. This evening we are playing cards. Well, I’m not really playing cards, because even though it is a game I know, a Georgian friend of the family is “helping” me, aka playing for me. I think people have a tendency to associate language ability with mental ability. I don’t mean that in a snide way. Back at my university in Arkansas, it was something myself and some other students who volunteered with internationals were specifically warned to be conscious of. But anyway, I get bored, and eventually excuse myself and head up to my room. It isn’t long before the sister who lives in Tbilisi and speaks a little English is texting to ask how I am, which she is obviously relaying to the family. Eventually the sister-in-law comes up as well, brining catchapuri and tea and sympathizing with how much work I have.

Despite all the concerns, I stay in my room as long as I can. I’m not mad at anyone. But already, in my second full day in my village, this experience is kicking my ass. I guess I’m starting to realize what I’ve gotten myself into. There is no escape from work except for solitude. Solitude is rude, however. No freedom to come and go from the house as I please. Nowhere to go, anyway. And there is no way to change the situation. Until I learn more Georgian, at least.

But I also realize that the adventurer in me and the masochist in me are interconnected. In the past, when I heard stories like this from others, these parts, the hard parts, made my adrenaline pump as much as any others. I would always wonder if I could handle it. And how much more badass I would be for it afterward. And after all, there is no great adventure without conflict or hardship. So yes, right now it sucks, but I can handle it, and I’ll get through it. Maybe it won’t get to an easy place, maybe there will be continual struggles this semester. But this is what I was asking for-this is what I wanted. And I can do this.

Welcome to your new life....

Monday, February 17th

After our last breakfast at Hotel Sakartvelo, myself and the other teachers say our goodbyes and board our region-specific marshutkas (buses). I'll be in the village of Zovreti in the Imereti Region.

There are about half a dozen of us in the Imereti Region marshutka. About halfway, we stop at a restaurant with a separate building for toilets.  Unlike those in our hotel in Tbilisi, these are Turkish style toilets. We have to pay thirty tetri for toilet paper, the smell is rancid, and there are no doors or even curtains to close off the three stalls. Call me strange, but I get a kick out of it, and even a little bit of excitement about the adventure ahead.
Back on the road, we joke about not wanting to be the first off the bus. Of course, I am the first off the bus.

I can tell from our very first introductions that the host family doesn't speak English. This will be a challenge. Just what I like.
As I am waiting for the supra, or special dinner feast, I am sitting at the table with the three year old. He randomly punches me right in the nose. The grandpa says “ooh!” loud enough to get the attention of the others in the next room, but I can’t just sit there and recover. I have to show them that it really isn’t ok. I go up to my room and shut the door, and try to use the opportunity to cry. I don’t cry that much, because I don’t feel negative emotions that much. I don’t know if they are suppressed or really just not there or what, but the fear and anxiety of all the coming challenges that I know about in my head just haven’t shown up in my chest. But I know crying is healthy sometimes, so I do it until my host sister-in-law comes in with the boy and makes him apologize.
The supra is fun, even though I don't always know what is going on. We toast to a number of things, and establish that I can smoke here and my host family won't assume I'm a "tsudi gogo," or bad girl, as is the typical attitude in villages towards women who smoke.  Actually the word they used in orientation was "whore," but I don't know how to say that in Georgian. I'm not a regular smoker or anything, but I feel like it will play a role in my navigating and challenging Georgian gender stereotypes.

Teach and Learn Orientation, Spring 2014

As I write about my experiences here in Georgia, I must confess, I’ll be giving you a censored version. Yes, this is my story, but the other characters involved are real people who do not want their names or lives plastered all over the internet. At the same time, I’m not going to fabricate an experience which isn’t the one I’m having, and I’m not going to leave out many (if any) situations which I find integral to it. So those who read my blogs from afar will have to excuse my being vague at times; and those featured in it (should they even know English or someone who does), will have to excuse my honesty.

Orientation Training Week:

By just a couple days in, it feels like this my life. It feels like I know these 20 people, but not like I just met them. It feels like I’m subject to this schedule, but not like it’s something different. This just….is.

We are learning way too much Georgian in our language classes to remember, but I know that only those of us who make the effort to study consistently on our own will get past the basic tourist-guide-book phrases.

Our intercultural training and methodology lectures have some interesting info but can be very boring. It’s funny how sitting in a chair all day can drain you.

The hotel feeds us three times a day, and it’s all REAL food. Bread, cheese, and meat seem to make an appearance at every meal. Which is great, but does get monotonous. But oh well. We are told that there won’t be a huge variety of menu options in the villages either, so I suppose we might as well get used to it now.

We also explore Tbilisi in the evenings. We ride a tram up a mountain to a small amusement park. It’s covered in snow and abandoned for the winter, and in the dimming light it’s wonderfully eerie.

Another day, we explore a park. It’s modern and artistic, with the brick path coming up in swirling mounds every here and there. But at the back we find a very post-soviet feeling block of concrete. Like, seriously, it’s a huge concrete cube with many openings, including two huge circles on opposite sides, and slits on the floor through which we can see that the ground is far enough away to make for a deadly fall.

Another time I’m able to meet up with a skype friend I met online. Yes, he turned out to be a real 19-year-old Georgian university student, just like he was on skype. We walk a ways down the road and stop in front of a monument erected for those who died in the 1989 protests. His parents were there. They took part…saw the tanks, heard the chaos. It blows my mind to think about. The biggest protest I have been a part of was a counter protest when Westboro Baptist came to my uni. We stood across the road and sang happy songs at them.

On Valentine's Day, a bunch of us head to a bar/restaurant on the same block as the hotel for a traditional Georgian dance. When we get there, it’s almost empty, and although there are some young men with instruments, there is no dancing. We end up asking the waitress if someone can show us….and to our delight, a young man and young woman who work at the restaurant come dance for us. And then to our further delight, a guy dressed in a weird woman-suite (I have no other way to describe. Look for the video and you will see!) comes and joins the dance, and even dances with myself and another tlger. They give us a bottle of wine after 10 because we “won a game,” aka are the only people still there; and they light two heart-shaped lantern candle things. Already jolly from wine, all but the Irishman head to a club for some dancing. Its great fun, but we end up leaving when we’ve had enough of this local guy who seems to know English with the exception of the phrase “she doesn’t want to dance with you.”

The last note-worthy excursion is a trip to a local bar…the artsy bat where the stoners hang out. A VERY unique look at a VERY small part of Georgian society. I’m there with a few guy friends, and although I’m ready to go back at midnight so I can get up for class in the morning, they are in the mood to party all night. I can’t go into details for their sake, but I want to give you a taste of the real-life intercultural training we received that night by giving some quotes from people we met:

“I do NOT need a Georgian man. I know Georgian men. When I was seventeen, I was married to a Georgian man. He is in jail now. My father is a Georgian man. My brothers are Georgian men. I do NOT need a Georgain man.”

Here I will also note that in a culture where women are expected to be virgins until they are married, shooting for a one night stand may get you into an uncomfortable situation with a drunk girl who thinks she is your girlfriend.
“That was my mom calling me. She wanted to check on me.”

“At 2:30am? How old are you?”

“I’m 21. It’s just the way Georgian moms are. If I am with a friend of a friend of a friend, she will call HIM. And I am like, how the f*ck did you find me???”
”Weed grows wild here. You’ll find it everywhere. It’s really easy to get. But if you get caught, you can go to prison for 8 to 9 years.”
”I am traveling from Turkey. I translate for Greenpeace. But I just wanted to go out for a while. There are protests there now because the government shut off the internet. They claim it was because the people were using it to watch porn!”

So yeah. That’s over  a week of TLG and Tbilisi smushed into one post . I hope the pieces I’ve given you are poignant enough for you to get a good taste!

Saturday, February 8, 2014

My first day in Georgia

February 7th (6th in Hawaii)


I’m finally settling in for bed after three plane rides, a bus ride to the hotel, and some time getting to know a few of my fellow volunteers.

After being in airports or on planes for a day and a half, I guess I’m ready to go to bed. My body obviously hasn’t adjusted, but I don’t know that it’s on Hawaii time either. In truth, I lost track of my sleep schedule at least a day ago. Time just isn’t as useful of a concept when you’re practically traversing across it. 


We are helping ourselves to the buffet of fresh Georgian food the hotel is providing for us. Bread, cheese, chicken, soup, vegetables…it’s all real food, and it’s all good. I’m practically salivating when I sit down at the table, chattering on about how excited I am to dig in. As I take a spoonful of soup, I look up and catch a grin on the face of the young woman tending the buffet. I remember what I’ve read about the importance of being a good host in Georgian culture, and the pride or shame that comes with a guest’s level of contentedness. I take note of the fact that I need to be aware of my reactions, as they will be closely watched.

Another volunteer and I want some Turkish tea, but it’s sitting on a shelf to the side and no tea cups are out. I decide to use a bowl. She tries to use a glass cup, but the hot water breaks it in half. A few minutes later and an older woman is reprimanding the younger woman as they get out the tea cups and sugar and place it all on the table. Oops? We certainly didn’t mean to get her in trouble.

So when we pass her as we head up the stairs, I smile and say “didi madloba! Thank you!” to which she responds with a genuine smile, “Arapris!” and something else which I can’t make out.


After walking around for a taste of the city, enjoying a healthy dinner, and loosening up with card games and laughter, we are all tired. We talk for a while as people one by one say goodnight and retire to their rooms. Myself and another first timer, Matt, stay up a bit longer listening to an older volunteer named Phil recount memories from previous semesters volunteering with Teach and Learn.

We are warned and understand that we are not about to change the Georgian education system, or even our assigned school, in one semester. And in truth our job is not solely concerned with the education system. In our lessons and interactions, both inside and outside the classroom, we offer the people exposure to a new way of thinking. Soviet Russia is out of office, but she is still in this country. We have the opportunity to demonstrate-not to push, but simply to show- a new way of thinking about education and how it can actually be enjoyable. We can also present, however subtly, new ideas about society, gender roles, etc. For every adult who is stuck in the old ways despite their inefficiency, there are a dozen children and youths who have the opportunity and the desire to try new ways as they grow up and inherit their villages.


As I fall asleep, I day dream about meeting my host family, adjusting to my role in the classroom, and learning the language. Pictures of smiling Georgian children and tall, snowy mountains drift through my head. I hope I get along well with my host family and have a good working relationship with the local English teachers. Until orientation is over, so much of 2014 is still a mystery to me. I know I’m not guaranteed anything even close to easy, but I can’t help but feel all warm and fuzzy inside. I think I might just fall in love with Georgia. I hope she proves me right.

Friday, February 7, 2014

(Dark) and Early

February 5th, 2014, Hawaii.
3:20 am
My alarm finds me and my cousin practically spooning. Even half awake, I it find amusing and fitting, considering that for the past month I’ve been poking fun at her for taking up so much space in the bed. Sometimes she would cuddle in her sleep, other times I barely escaped an elbow or hand to the face. I allow myself to hit snooze once, knowing at 3:30 it’ll be time for a quick shower…my last chance to feel fresh before my 32 hour trip.

Taking care of me until the very end, my aunt fixes me breakfast while I pack up my computer and gather up all the layers that I know will suffocate me when I walk out into the warm Hawaiian night, but that I’ll be glad for when I’m freezing in Tbilisi.

There is a man assigned to weigh bags before passengers head to the desk to check them. Good thing, too, because one of mine is 57 pounds. Thankfully my smaller bag has room to shove in a few things, though I have to sacrifice a water bottle. I hope some hobo picks it up.

I see a rucksack sitting in front of a seat and a head of long dirty blonde hair sticking up over its back. I wonder if they belong to the adventurous type who might be headed to teach in Georgia. Then I notice two fedoras in the seats next to it, which lead me to think I am simply looking at a group of adventurers who came to enjoy Hawaii. When I come back from the bathroom I sit where I can see them from the front and feel that my second assumption is valid.

Rucksack guy has a tattoo sleeve down his left arm and a very distinct “I don’t give a %$#@” expression. The two fedoras are smiling about something. One has black hair to his shoulders and looks like he could be in a band with rucksack guy, and the other kind of reminds me the people I met at college who were known for playing Magic the Gathering for hours on end in the student center.  I notice that the fedoras both have red passports. I can’t help but wonder where they are from, but I don’t feel like making an excuse to strike up a conversation. After all, when you’ve been up since an ungodly hour of the morning and will be traveling until another ungodly hour of a different morning, you don’t feel like making much of an effort for anything.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

4 Things You Didn't Know Were "A Thing" in Hawaii

Surfers? Check. Pineapples? Check. Ukuleles? Check. But here are a few things I didn't expect to find while visiting family on the Hawaiian island of Oahu.

1) Asians. Lots. And lots. Of Asians.

The most prominent people group in Hawaii consists not of Native Islanders, nor of white mainlanders. Rather, nearly 40% of the total population is Asian! 

Only 9% of current Hawaii residents are Native Hawaiian Pacific Islanders. And yet native words and motifs are used everywhere. You'll very rarely see "thank you;" it's always "mahalo." And everyone seems to enjoy making jokes at the expense of us "haoles." I can't help but wonder if those of native descent are honored by the fact that their culture is staying in style as they fade away. Or, rather, are they insulted that all these people who contribute to its disappearance are so desperate to identify with it?

Sorry, that was a little deep. Either way, where back in Arkansas I would expect to see many signs and instructions written in both English and Spanish, here they are written in English and Japanese. And there are plenty of options for sushi!


For the stats listed above and more go here:

2) Spam Musubi.

As further evidence of the Asian influence, this interesting snack has shown up everywhere. It's a regular at my little cousins' basketball games...on the snack shack menu right along with burgers and hotdogs. I've also seen it in actual restaurants.

I guess you just take a slab of spam, place it on a well shaped chunk of sticky rice, and wrap it in seaweed. Yes, I tried it. A few days ago I even had a hankering for it. Yum!


3) Kendamas

This traditional Japanese toy has apparently spread like wildfire through Hawaiian schools in the past couple of months. The kids take them everywhere. Some schools have even banned them!

I made a short vlog showing how they are used, but Blogger and my computer don't want to agree and upload it directly to this page. So here is a link to it on the Unsettled Voyage vlog page:

4) Slitted Windows

I'm not sure if there is an official name for these, but they are pretty standard in Hawaiian homes. Not surprisingly, air conditioning is NOT a thing. It really hasn't been so bad, though. I prefer being hot to being cold and I rather like the outdoor air circulating through the house!