Life Update (a.k.a Word Vomit)

Wow. It’s been a crazy month!

To start, my fellow teachers (newbies like me and veterans too!), and Georgian co-teachers were all herded to Tbilisi to take part in four days of training to learn how to teach effectively. Besides the odd timing (is the middle of the semester the best time to learn how to teach?) and the wonderful bout of food poisoning I was blessed with, it was a good time to enjoy free Wi-Fi and text to my hearts content and see all my glorious friends and drink too much a reasonable amount with dinner. There was also something in there about learning and seminars, but that was not nearly as fun.

After training, a bunch of us spent the weekend in Tbilisi, and then on Sunday went in search of our various adventures for…Spring Break! I went with Matthieu, Canada Matt, and Lincoln to Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh.

Y’all. I went on an 8 day adventure, with no set plans, and I had to actually use a backpack because of the walking and not staying in hotels and moving every two days. To put it mildly, I was out of my element. To be truthful, I (and many of my friends) were convinced I was going to kill my traveling companions and end up in Armenia prison. Much to everyones relief, that didn’t happen. It was surprisingly one of the best Spring Break trips I’ve ever taken!

We took marshrutkas/buses from Tbilisi to Yerevan, and then first thing the next morning from Yerevan to Stepanakert, in Nagorno-Karabakh. Firstly, let me explain why no one has heard of this country. Nagorno-Karabakh isn’t a real country. It is a self-declared republic that is, for all intents and purposes part of Azerbaijan. However, they don’t want to be part of Azerbaijan, because the population is ethnically Armenia, so they have declared themselves a republic and are technically at war with Azerbaijan. Upon entering the ‘country’ you get a visa, and that visa means you can’t ever actually enter Azerbaijan, since you technically entered illegally when you entered Nagorno-Karabakh. Was that confusing enough for you?

The views were gorgeous on the eight hour bus ride to Stepanakert, and that city is amazing. Clean and neat and Wi-Fi in the public parks and the best Italian food east of Italy. Really. Also, it’s insanely cheap. More than Tbilisi, I am smitten with Stepanakert. However, there is another city, Agdam, that is bombed out and technically illegal to go to. Of course, our first stop after registering with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was Agdam. We took a taxi tour through, and then stopped to explore some on foot. We ran into some soldiers, but they were nice and never told us to leave. Snapped some cool pictures of the bombed out city and the blue mosque, and then we were on our way! Initially, I was nervous because it was illegal and I wasn’t too keen on breaking rules. But after talking with the soldiers, I was feeling fine! …and then we were stopped in the next town by the State Police, taken to the station, and questioned for two hours about our intents and purposes in Agdam. And then I was not so keen on the going-to-the-illegal-city. Because I did not care for the “are you Muslim?” “are you Azeri?” “are you in the military?” “why were you there?” “did you take pictures?” line of questioning. Also, we had to delete our pictures, and lets be honest. Going to an illegal city in an unheard of republic is a thousand times cooler when you have the pictures to prove it.

We left the next day, spent some time in Yerevan (Mexican food!!!, Cascade Steps, Republic Square) and then headed back to Tbilisi! I still have the remnants of blisters on my feet *when walking most places for a week straight, pack good shoes!* but it was fun! And if you ever go to Agdam and make it out with your pictures, send me a few. I need to replace mine.

Am I a Teacher Yet?

First things first: check out Lyndsay (kittycat) Ballew’s blog for a glimpse at village life in Georgia. *hint–she went on a picnic and her food was still alive during the walk.


You can tell where you are in life by the thoughts you have, or what’s in your purse/murse, or how grateful you currently are for varying technologies.

Example: If you’ve recently thought ‘oh, good! I can get three hours of sleep tonight and still finish this paper!’ then you’re in college.

My life now is wrapped around thoughts like:

  • “Oh my gosh, getting these children to stay on the same page is harder than herding cats.”
  • “If I let this one sneeze on me, maybe I’ll get sick and can sleep in tomorrow.”
  • “Do not curse at the little munchkins. Do not curse.”
  • “Please stop talking.”
  • “She should get in trouble. She’s disobeying. But her persistence is admirable.”
  • “Oh good grief, child. The sentence is ‘He is running.’ Why is that hard?!?”
  • **about a teacher’s pet** “Was I this annoying in elementary school? Mrs. Aiken I am SO sorry.”
  • “Seriously, shut up.”
  • “Literally just said that word out loud four times. If you would listen you would pronounce it correctly.”
  • “You’re cute, but you’re not very good at being sneaky. Now I have to be the bad person and take your phone.”
  • **follow up thought** “Why do you have a smart phone at 9 years old?”
  • “You’re my favorite…Wait, can I have favorites?”
  • “Are you really gonna make me sit next to you before you pay attention?”
  • “I wonder what would happen if I just screamed at them all. Could I surprise them into silence?”
  • “Why are they screaming so much?!?”
  • “Thank you Jesus–I just saw the light bulb turn on.”
  • “Breakthrough! We just had a breakthrough!”
  • “Okay, maybe we are making progress.”

Those last three thoughts are what make this worth it, most of the time.

And my purse? It now has a ‘healthy’ (pun intended) supply of hard candies and a myriad of stickers.

….am I a teacher yet? Even a little bit? I hope so–because otherwise I’m exhausted for nothing.

Also, props to Brooks Stevens. Wikipedia says I have you to thank for the wonder that is the clothes dryer. (developing country problems)

Be ready for adventure.

I have yet to spend a weekend at home with my host family. Instead, I find myself jetting off to Tbilisi, or Bakuriani, or, most recently, Batumi. These trips are always fun and filled with surprises, and the Georgian twist is that things never go as planned. With the Bakuriani trip, we couldn’t find the train station so ended up crammed on a marshrutka. (I was sitting on a stool in the aisle of the bus. I mean crammed.) I thought I had learned to expect the unexpected–that was until we decided to visit Batumi.

Batumi is a port city on the coast of the Black Sea, about 20 minutes from the Turkish border. It’s gorgeous and I’ve fallen in love and I will be going back very soon. But hopefully my journey this time will be a bit smoother.

It started out innocently enough. Brittany, Hannah and I decided to meet in Tbilisi and grab the sleeper train to Batumi. It’s about a 7 hour ride, and we could arrive well-rested and ready to conquer the city! Then, we could grab the sleeper train back and still have Sunday to explore Tbilisi and be home early and ready for the week. Naturally, as Americans we decide to meet at Wendy’s. (American food and wifi? It has become our Mecca.) All is going well–Brittany and Hannah arrive with no problems, and one of my Georgian friends shows up as well. We have a good time talking and laughing and then he offers to drive us to the train station. Not ones to decline free transport, we graciously accept–although the fact that we almost had a head-on collision may have made us regret that just a small bit.

Now we’re at the train station and we’ve bought our tickets and we have two hours to kill. I cannot lie–we are feeling pretty accomplished. Oh, how the mighty do fall. Hot Ryan (a fellow TLG-er who is, you may have guessed, pretty attractive) texts to say he is at the train station, and we meet up to chat before the train leaves. It’s quickly decided that he should join us on our trip! Now we have an hour to grab some snacks and run to his hostel so he can grab his bag. Two metro stops isn’t that far, we reason. We have plenty of time.

…We do not have plenty of time. Somehow, the time moves at warp speed. Where it was 10:15 five minutes ago, now it’s 10:38 and the train leaves at 10:45. As we hustle back onto the metro, we joke about Georgian time versus real time and how the train won’t leave until 11:00, at the earliest. (hint: We are lying to ourselves.) As you might assume, we dash back up the escalators in time to SEE THE TRAIN LEAVE. We were exactly one minute late.

Ever persistent, we brainstormed alternatives. Taxi to the next station and grab the train there? No, we don’t know where that is and it’s a long shot anyway. Marshrutka to Batumi? No, the last one left hours ago. Train to Kutaisi and then taxi? Nope–that was the last train of the night. Finally we admit defeat and decide to grab a taxi. To Batumi. Six hours away. At midnight. Sanity had clearly left us. So after paying more than twice what our train tickets cost, we are jammed in a taxi ready for the night. We’ve got makeshift pillows and snacks and we are trying hard to make this an adventure! I think we all manage to grab a little sleep, but it was most definitely worth it the next day!

A lemon-filled croissant on the sea wall, lunch in Turkey, and the sunset over the Black Sea most certainly tops my list of best days while traveling. And that night, we slept soundly on the sleeper train back to Tbilisi. Lessons learned: Roll with the punches, don’t ever leave the station with only an hour before departure, and always be ready for an adventure.

 

Why? Because…

Society seems to be addicted with wanting to know the reasons we do things. “Why do you choose to be vegan?” or “Why do you want to get married so young?” or the one applicable to me “Why do you want to travel so much?”. For a long time, I stuttered through an answer that sounded a lot like “Oh, uhm…passport stamps?” which is definitely not the reason but it’s a good deflector. For now, though, this is why I travel:

1.I love the sense of wonder and the curiosity and also the nerves (masochistic as that may be) that lead up to travel. I love those moments in transit where you are a blinking red dot on a map, constantly moving. I love the sense of anonymity that starts in the airport, and doesn’t fully leave you until you come back home.

2. I love what traveling does for me. The experiences I have had abroad make me a stronger person. Flying by myself at the age of 12 was a good start, and working through the hell that is homesickness (a real sickness, you guys. REAL.) and then finding the courage to move away again are evidence of the little bits of strength that I have gained. I like understanding now that there is no weakness in missing people, only in letting that feeling control your actions.

3.The person I am when traveling is the best version of myself, and the one I love the most. I am better at making decisions, I am more confident, and I am certainly more happy. …I’m also more sassy, which I love, but I’m sure others could maybe do without.

4. Being away makes me more appreciative of being at home. There is a sliding scale for this. If I leave for 10 days, I am happy with home for 4 days before I’m planning another escape. When I was gone for almost 6 months, I think I had a 2 month honeymoon period before it seemed like the walls were closing in. I love my family and friends always, but I appreciate them more when I cannot take them for granted. Occasional emails, Facebook messages, and Skype dates make me love who I surround myself with.

5. Mostly, I love the people I meet and the things we do while in a country. Feeding elephants with my team in Malaysia; Working with children in Peru; The weekend trips skiing or shopping in Tbilisi. These are fun moments that differentiate my trip to a country from others who travel to the same place.

Gray Skies.

It’s week 3 of teaching, and I’ve been in Georgia for almost a month. I have learned more of this language than I ever though possible and I love my fellow volunteers and love that I am doing this–I am really teaching and working and living with the locals! But my Heavens this is exhausting. I am one of the lucky ones–my sisters speak a small bit of English, but still it is exhausting trying to communicate. I was woken up at midnight last night because my family wanted me to “chame, Mariam, chame!” (eat, Mariam, eat!). Uhhh, no thanks. I’m sleeping. **Also, I go by Mariam here. It is easier to pronounce and gets everyone excited because of how popular it is. Whenever I say to someone new “Me var Mariam” they get very excited and tell me I am already a true Georgian! 

 

I came here expecting to fall in love with the people, and the culture, and my family and community. While everyone is very nice, that is not happening. Being in a city, I’ve lost some of the culture that I wanted to see. I traded it for running water and a Western toilet–fair trade? Maybe. My family is very nice and hospitable and helpful, but that is it. Being in a city, they lost some of their cultural closeness, and so of course it isn’t translated. They traded it for modern conveniences and a chance for their children to go to university–Fair trade? Yes.

It is still a letdown, however.But it doesn’t have to be. As Georgia changes to try and fit in to modern Europe, the culture has to change. I had imagined being in a village behind in time; instead I am in a city where I can see the clash of old Soviet and Georgian cultures and the new influences of modernity. If I look at this positively, I can see how useful and interesting this is, especially given my planned career path. But at the end of the day, when I’m woken from sleep to eat, my mood tends to match the gray clouds that constantly cover Rustavi’s skies. 

 

Reading Rainbow.

It’s been a week since I moved to Rustavi and started teaching. I use the word teaching loosely because I have been…frustrated, to say the least. I know that I don’t have a degree in teaching, and that I am not the most qualified (besides my exceptional grasp of the English language) but I had been hoping for a bit more of a hands-on approach. So far, my teachers seem content to have me sit and read in my American accent, or correct the students as they read through memorized scripts they don’t actually understand.

Today, though—Today I had a breakthrough! On Friday I had promised 5th form that if any of them wanted help with reading, I would stay after on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays to teach. Only few raised their hands to say they would come, so I wasn’t too optimistic. But today after school, I had 9 little girls waiting anxiously to learn how to read/strengthen their reading skills. We started with the Alphabet, then vowel sounds, then consonant combinations. For every consonant combination, I had them come up to the board and write a word they knew that had that combo in it. They know a lot of words! From there we wrote sentences, and practiced a bit with telling time at the end.

It was only thirty minutes, and I know it was only nine children, but it was the highlight thus far! I loved being able to teach and let them think, instead of having them just memorize. (I gave them candy for each answer, so maybe they will share that tidbit and I will have more students on Wednesday!).

I’m so glad the after-school lesson was successful; I needed that pick-me-up after the worst day of classes ever. Eleventh grade likes to make lewd comments/ ask lewd questions, and ninth grade was simply rowdy and uncooperative. Tenth grade is extremely unmotivated and it is going to prove a challenge to get those students involved and active. Today started out extremely rough, but those thirty minutes are why I came to Georgia to teach, and if those sessions are the only times I have to actually be hands-on, it will be completely worth it.

My New(est) Place and Space

Spending 10 days in a warm hotel in Tbilisi did absolutely nothing to prepare me for moving to Rustavi. Looking at the statistics, this is the third largest city in Georgia, so I was not prepared for as many changes as those moving to villages. I was wrong. I live in an apartment with my host family, but they do not speak English. There is a line between knowing some English words and understanding even the most basic of statements. My family, sweet as they are, has not crossed that line. It is so frustrating and so lonely when you can’t talk to anyone face to face! And it has only been 2 days! We also lost power four times yesterday and water twice, so that is something new. I am lucky enough to have Internet on the family computer, but I’m hoping to get wifi soon for Skyping, my schoolwork, and to take to school with me. (There is none there, and I can buy a portable hotspot.)

Today was my first day as a teacher, and I am excited to continue! I read aloud too fast (NO surprise there) and I was exhausted after only four classes, but I know that will get better. Some teachers seem excited to work with me, others ignore me a bit, but i’m sure we will all find a rhythm. (I am trying incredibly hard to be positive because the alternative is complete despair.) Compared to most, I am spoiled–my school has heat, windows, printers and copiers. Please be praying for all of us, and especially my friends in the remote villages, as we try to acclimate.

**To put it in perspective, one of my friends walked 40 minutes today to the closest city for internet. And Hannah has an outdoor toilet that is guarded by a vicious dog–she has to have an escort every time!

As Andrew would say, I’m learning Georgian through complete submersion. It’s an adventure!!

just an old, sweet song keeps Georgia on my mind