My photo
Charleston, SC, United States
"Fear is a stranger to the ways of love. Identify with fear, and you will be a stranger to yourself." -ACIM

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

I Hate Crying

I wish I could give all of you a happy and everything is ok blog post, but that isn’t how this one is going to go.

I got a call on Tuesday afternoon from my mom and the second I picked up the phone, I knew it wasn’t good. My grandfather died on Monday night.

The man lived for 98 long years and I will never forget him as long as I have breath. I can still remember when I was a kid and every afternoon when I got out of kindergarten, 1st and 2nd grade him being there to pick me up. The man taught me how to write my first sentence, how to spell my own name and how to care for others. I can remember Christmases, church services, summer afternoons and weekends home from college. When I needed him, he was there. That’s about as much as you can say about anybody. He was always there.

I don’t think I ever had a real conversation with my grandfather after I reached my adult years. I didn’t have to; I knew what his answers would be. He lived his life as an open book. There were only a few simple principles to it: God, Family, and anyone in need of a helping hand. I truly think that he was and will continue to be one of the guiding lights in my life. At least I already realize that I’ll never be half the man he was; I don’t have that kind of strength in me. Nobody does. Others may disagree, but to me that’s truth. I’m trying to dedicate my life to service, and in some small way I’m doing this because I know it’s the right thing and all he ever wanted was for my family to be good people, and to try and do the right thing.

He grew up poor, served his country in WWII, worked hard, went to church every Sunday, raised four children and served his community at every opportunity. He read his Bible and was undefeated at Scrabble. I’ve never met in all my travels a man whose principles were held as tightly or who had a mind as sharp as my grandfather’s.

Now I have only tears to shed and a life to remember and look up to. I feel helpless here on the other side of the world. I can’t help my mother mourn or pick up the pieces; I can’t give my grandmother a hug and cry with her. I don’t cry (especially in front of people) but today has been spent in pain and nothing but tears. I went on a long walk by myself this afternoon just to be away from everyone. I looked out over the mountains and cried till it hurt.

I didn’t know what to do so I just picked a red rose and wrote my Granddaddy a letter. I think since here they keep the dead for a week before they stop mourning, I’ll keep the rose and letter hanging for that long before I take them down. It may sound strange, but I seriously don’t know what to do right now other than that.

I wrote you this letter and put it outside my door… I’ll always remember and love you.

Friday, August 14, 2009

The Walled City and Loose Cannons

So this past weekend was awesome. Me and three other volunteers went on a mini vacation for Saturday night and Sunday afternoon to Sighnaghi. It’s a town from ancient history that I won’t insult by guessing the century. (13th I think). Let me tell you that this is one of the more beautiful places I’ve ever been with some of the best views and some great food.
We arrived late in the afternoon on Saturday and I had to take a shower at the hotel/home that we were staying in since my family here in Tokhliauri had been without water for 5 days and hence I had not had a shower. Shower out of the way, we walked around to get our bearings in the city and then headed for one of the only Mexican restaurants in the whole country. Its authentic Mexican too since apparently one of the women who cooks there spent several years in Mexico, fell in love with their food and came home to cook it. I had a beef and bean burrito and some red rice that was very good. We also had some very strong sangria made from local red wine and fruit. The whole place was decorated like you would imagine any Mexican place to be; sombreros and Mexican blankets on the wall, strings of peppers, and portraits of Mexicans in black and white all over the place. This may seem normal to you, but in Georgia, this is the last thing you expect to see.
After dinner we walked around a bit more and took photos like the tourists we were, had a few beers in the central park and then headed back to the hotel. The hotel was really just a house that this family rented out to people passing through and was sort of like a hostel style. When we got there we found all the other tourists hanging out in the common room and eager to meet and chat with us. There was a Polish couple, a Russian guy, a Frenchman, an Australian woman, and a Turkish woman all there along with our two Georgian hosts. It was awesome! We had a great time hanging out and sharing stories of our travels and life experiences. When we couldn’t use English we just resorted to Russian. Only one of the other Americans with me spoke Russian, but it was easy to translate using both languages.
The next morning we got up, ate breakfast there and then went out exploring the city by day. The wall around it is amazing for the time that it was built. There are 12 towers that were used for the 12 villages that surrounded the central city of this kingdom. Whenever it came under attack, each village would come into the city and each would be responsible for defending their tower. The city itself is on the side of a mountain and there is a steep drop-off to the massive valley below. On the other side of the valley are the Caucus Mountains and on the other side of them is… well… Russia/Chechnya. Anyway, it’s easy to see why the city never really fell to anyone since you could see an attacker coming from days away in any direction and you’d really have to want it to make the trip over either set of mountains. We also checkout the local museum which was actually pretty cool and loaded with all kinds of artifacts and history of the region in both Georgian and English. The day in Sighnaghi ended with us at a cafĂ© where I had some fried cabbage with ham (sub bacon and you got good ol’ Southern fried cabbage) and some pork medallions in an awesome sauce. Yum! But all good things must come to an end and we got on a long marshutka ride back to Tokhliauri where me and one of the other volunteers got off and went home.
And, this is where the weekend went wrong. After unpacking and sharing stories with my host family I sat down to dinner. I thought the soup tasted a little funny and so did the corn that was served later in the meal, but I didn’t really pay that much attention since I was hungry after my trip. I then sat down and did some homework and prepared some other stuff that Peace Corps wanted me to do. Stayed up talking on the phone to my parents and other volunteers for a while and then went to bed around 11.
2 a.m. I wake up with stomach pains. What’s this I wonder? Hmmm… Oh well, I’ll just try to go back to sleep. No deal. I barely made it out the door before I stared throwing up all over the place. This went on for about FOUR HOURS! Not to mention the back-road evacuation (if you catch my drift) that started around 3 a.m. I think I must have passed out around 6:30 or so but I woke up with my alarm a little after 7. I called my doctor to tell her what had happened and that I would not be attending classes on Monday. She agreed and told me what steps to take to re-hydrate and rest. I pretty much didn’t get out of bed on Monday and wasn’t even able to eat anything until 7:30 or 8 on Monday night. My host-family was freaking out! They were so worried about me to the point that I thought they were going to be sick. But, they were relieved that on Tuesday I woke up with no major problems and was able to go to classes. I wasn’t 100%, but I felt well enough to make the effort and at least attend.
I was just drained as hell on Tuesday and barely able to mentally keep up. Georgian class wasn’t that bad, but Azeri class was hell. And, our Azeri teacher didn’t make matters any better. She gave us an activity to do using the material “we” learned on Monday. When I made more than a few mistakes she said in about the snottiest voice I’ve ever heard, “Well if you want, you can just stay after class and I’ll explain it to you.” My response was none too polite when I said, “No I don’t want. In fact I don’t even want to be here right now because I’m ill.” She of course took offense to this which to tell you the truth I could care less. She wanted to speak to me after class about it but I told her I was in no mood and no thanks. I’m sure I’ll hear about it from PC since our training director was there not for the first exchange but for the after class conversation refusal. Whatever. I’ll stick to my guns that her rudeness and my poor mood after my illness was the root of the issue and she should have realized not to push the matter.
After lunch I went to our summer camp that we are running this week which was about all I had left in me for the day. Luckily it’s only four days and I missed the first one on Monday. It’s fun playing games and stuff with the kids, but I don’t think we need to dedicate a whole week to it in PST. It just seems to me like there is a whole lot of information left to cover in the week and a half that we have left before we go to our sites.
Anyway, other than the trip and my brush with food poisoning, there isn’t much to report. The weather is unseasonable cool right now which is weird. It’s really cool and rainy and even the locals think it’s strange for this time of year. I had to break out a sweatshirt on Tuesday it was so chilly. I know those of you in the South would pray for a day like that about now, but I’m not exactly ready for Summer to be over in August.
Only 10 (or less by the time I post this; we swear in on the 21st) more days of training left to go and then I’m off to Muganlo. (Also only a few more days of this damn itchy mustache and then it’s out of here. Don’t worry, I’ll take a final picture with me and the stache before I shave it off)) I will have almost zero access to Internet there, but I’m looking into purchasing a card for my computer that is wireless so I can get it. We’ll see how that goes and whether it even works there. Oh, and don’t even bother trying to find a better address for mail. Just keep sending it to the Peace Corps and I’ll have to go pick it up once a month, if at all possible, since the office is only open M-F and I also have to work those days. I need to ask about that.
All is well otherwise. I hope this blog doesn’t turn into my one and only outlet for venting and such. I know these last two posts have been on the negative side, but… “A great man once said, sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, sometimes it rains. Think about that for a minute.” Ahhhh… Thank you Bull Durham.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Muganlo; The Pit of Despair???

Well in case you were thinking that I’d get a break on my site placement or get a “hookup” since this is my second time doing this, think again. Muganlo is the name and hard times are the game. Wow! I’ve just returned from a three and a half day site visit and let me tell you these are going to be two tough years.

But, let’s start with the good news. The good news is, my host family for the most part is super cool. My host father, Akhib is Azeri and speaks Russian well and even knows some broken English. He also drives the only Chevy pickup truck I’ve seen in this whole country, so bonus points there. My host mom was not there during my visit since she was in Azerbaijan visiting some relatives. There is also a host brother who is 12, a brother who is 25 and his 23-year-old wife and their 7-year-old son. So if you’re counting along, with my arrival that makes 7 people that will be living in this two story home. The place is nice and has a great shower, but the toilet is in the back of the garden and is true outhouse style. Oh well. My room is super small and as of now does not meet Peace Corps’ living standards due to a lack of a dresser or anywhere to store my clothes. My host-father has promised this would be different when I returned, so we’ll have to wait and see. Water is an issue since even they don’t drink it, but my PC issued filter should do the trick.

The whole family speaks Azeri and some of them speak Russian. A few of them speak Georgian when they have to, but Azeri is the home language. Russian is the common language of the village but Azeri is preferred followed by Georgian. Muganlo is made up of 4,500 people and I’d say 80% of them are Azeri.
The town itself is just one road that leads off the main highway about 35 miles outside of Tbilisi. The closest town is at the main highway 2.5 kilometers away. There are no cafes or anything and if you need the police or a hospital, you’re going to the town at the highway, cause Muganlo doesn’t have either.

Ok, negativity aside for a second, this is a huge challenge and if anybody can get up for it it’s me. Right now I’d be surprised myself if I make it; I’m not going to lie or kid myself. But, I’m going to give it my best shot.

I’m just kind of surprised that Peace Corps would place me here since it seems to me that as hard on us as they are about safety and security that I’m in a town with bad water, no police, no hospital, no phones, no transportation options and a school that should be shutdown for repairs (We’ll get to that in a second). I’m serious when I say this school is bad. I’ve seen some bad ones and this one is bad. And it’s not like I don’t have experience. I can do a good job if given an environment willing and motivated to learn and improve. But Muganlo looks like a place where hope is, like my host family, sending your kid to the next town to go to school, not working to improve your own. I was also disappointed after all the education volunteers had our “site debrief” session. Everyone has a better situation than mine. People with air-conditioned schools, swimming pools, cafes and pizza places, tourists visiting their cities, public transportation and Internet. Wow. People that live here don’t even know where Muganlo is. I asked my program director about why Muganlo was chosen as a site simply because after listening to everyone else’s stories I was wondering how I got there. She said that it has a huge need and that a motivated volunteer could make a huge impact there. True. And like I said, if anyone is up for a challenge, it’s me. I wasn’t too impressed though when I asked her if she had even been inside the school and she said no. Yeah, sure it looks ok from the outside, but when you step in it’s a different story. I’m just in a little state of shock right now that’s all. And, Peace Corps is all about stretching yourself. I should be able to integrate into this community and make some kind of difference; I just hope I don’t get stretched too thin.

Here is what I mean: My school is a major downer, but again, let’s start with the positive. My school’s director (Georgi) is also pretty cool. He speaks Russian well and I had no problems communicating with him. Ok, so now that we’ve covered the positive aspects, let’s move on. My Counterpart, the person whom I’m supposed to be working with speaks only Georgian, and some Russian and French. French? Seriously? Yeah. Like that’s going to be helpful in the middle of nowhere. You know which two languages she doesn’t speak? Azeri and English. Ok, I take that back she does speak some English, but I taught students in KZ that would blow her out of the water. Her first statement to me after we exchanged hellos was, “If Director asks, tell I speak English good.” Yeah, I’ll get right on relaying that message hun. She, along with my director doesn’t even live in Munganlo but the next town over. Because it’s like the representative from the Education Ministry said when I met her this weekend, “Why would you want to live in Muganlo?” Nice.

The school itself is like a prison without a budget. It was built in 1976 and hasn’t been remodeled or maintained since. Half the first floor is unusable (seriously, it’s closed off) and I’d say a little less than half of the windows are boarded up due to broken glass. Every floor and every class has water damage and there is a definite mold issue. The “sports hall” is just indescribable and has old dusty mattresses on the floor for gymnastics exercises. I could go on with the description of this place, but I’d rather not. The only thing that concerns me apart from the ceiling falling on my head one day is the toilet situation. There is no running water at the school because they are afraid that the children will drink it. So when they get done using the outdoor toilet where do they wash their hands? They don’t! I asked my director about this and he didn’t seem to have any real solution and came up with about the same answer I got to a lot of questions. “Hey, this is Muganlo.”

The problem is that this community is pretty much self sustaining and has been left to sink or swim. But, they’re just treading water. The first day I met my director and asked him what some major issues were that he wanted me to work on he came up with two. One, the students and the community as a whole don’t care about education as a whole and he wants me to work on motivating the whole community to change this. Two, girls don’t go to school past 8th grade because their families are concerned they’ll get “bride-napped” or they’ll go ahead and marry them off to avoid the whole kidnapping situation. And what married woman needs to go to school when she can be at home looking after her family right? So those are the two major issues I need to work on aside from improving my Counterpart’s English skills so she can leave ol’ Muganlo behind and get a higher paying job working for some company in Tbilisi and move in with her sister’s family.

Oh and did I mention that neither my school director nor my counterpart live in Muganlo? Yeah they live in the next town where all the resources and nice houses are. So do most of the other teachers at my school. Oh well. It’s time to put all this venting behind me and move on. It has felt good just to type it all out and I’m sure I’ve even missed some points.

The only other drawback, aside from the above mentioned, is NO PORK! Azeri equals Muslim in this case. And whether practicing or not, they don’t dig on the pig. Y’all know how much I love me some pork now! They do grill up a lot of lamb, but it’s just not the same.

I’ll have another post below this one if you want to read about my other experience in Muganlo. It’s not as informative but much more of a cultural introduction that I was thrown into. I hope this post hasn’t worried any of you, but I just thought you’d like to know my first impressions of my new home away from home… Muganlo!

The Loss of a Brother

When you live in a small community isolated from your native people and left to live or die on your own, every member of that community is an asset. So when Muganlo lost a brother this past week, then whole community suffered.

I came down from writing some reports and having a rest in the afternoon heat on Friday to a small dinner and an unusually quiet family. After we ate in an awkward silence, my host brother motioned me to follow him to the place where the night before all of the men in the community had sat, drank tea, smoked and discussed the business of the day. I thought we would have a repeat of the activity and was looking forward to learning some new Azeri phrases and meeting some more of the community.

However, we rounded the corner just as a large white van arrived and was quickly surrounded by all of the men in the men in the village. The scene that followed blew my mind and broke my heart. The casket was lifted out of the back of the van by as many hands as could be used and taken to a communal table surrounded my women dressed in black. It was laid down and the top lifted off. This is when it began…

The sound is indescribable. If you can imagine 500 voices beginning to cry at a single moment, then you may have an idea. Those immediate family members were the ones closest to the casket table and the ones who began to tear away the sheet covering the body of their husband, father, brother, uncle, and cousin. They are the ones who had to be restrained and assisted by all the others who were also in tears. Grape vines were torn from over head and waved to try and awaken those who had fainted away and fallen to the floor. Chairs were brought from out of nowhere and limp bodies were lifted onto them. The death sheet was moved away and the body lay as if asleep. The whole of the body was being touched and prayed over. The widow moved around it slowly stopping only to wail, pray and kiss the feet of her dearly departed.

The tears flowed like rivers for what seemed like hours. Women standing by the wall to the side needed it for support and to hide their faces. When they moved away the wall was so wet it looked to have been weeping as well. When handkerchiefs were so full they were of no use, they were hung like flags of sorrow on a line off to the side. The men, usually stoic and hard were all off in the back together so as not to be seen but their tears flowed together in silence with no less force than those of the women.

As the sun went down the ceremony began. And here is where death affects the living. Those who were not immediately related to the deceased moved on and back to their homes. But the widow sat at the head of the casket surrounded by her mother, sisters and daughters. As soon as the natural light began to fade she untied her long naturally black hair streaked with grey and let it fall over her shoulders. She pulled it into her hand and brushed it across her husbands face for the last time then tied it on top of her head. Her mother then brought the black headscarf. The widow bent her head and prayed as her mother tied the scarf into her hair where it will be tied everyday for the rest of her life. She will wear only black, she will eat alone, she will sleep and wake alone, not because she has been left alone, but because of her love for her husband and her respect for his memory.

Now that she was in black and the whole earth had turned black, and electric light was produced and hung above the body. The sudden brightness shocked me awake from my amazement and I became aware that I had not moved in over an hour. I watched as the widow and her family were brought a pitcher of water to drink for the night for they would sit there watching and morning the dead until the sun rose at their backs.

Until the third day they would watch over him and pray for his soul as it made its way to the afterlife. And on that Sunday morning as I prepared to leave I heard the widow speak for the first time since the scarf had been tied to her head. It was a prayer that I did not understand but knew its meaning. She must have prayed for her dead husband and told him how she would respect his memory in this world while he awaited her in the next. And then the casket was closed and the tears of the community flowed once again. As I walked away I heard the tears fall and the voices cry out, but my heart could not break again and my eyes could no longer witness the pain of a lost brother.