Sunday, June 16, 2013

კარგად იყაკი!

კარგად იყავი – pronounced kargad ikavi – roughly translated means, "be well" or as Americans might say, "take care." Tomorrow morning I will get on an airplane and say goodbye to the place I have called home for the last 26 months. I can't believe this day has finally come.

The past few weeks have been very difficult, full of farewells and tears. But now that my bags are packed and it's time to go, I'm feeling just like I did when I left the U.S.…kind of blah. I'm not sad, excited, nervous or anxious. It just doesn't feel real yet. Georgia has become my home and to think I'm leaving for good… well, I just can't wrap my mind around it. However, I'm sure tomorrow morning will be a different story. :-(

The last 26 months have truly been surreal. There really is no way to sum up my Peace Corps service, other than to say it's been a life changing experience. I've had the best and worst days of my life here. I've seen some of the most beautiful places in the world. I've made great friends, both Georgian and American. I've met the love of my life. And hopefully I've made a difference to the people around me. 

What's next, you ask? Well for starters, I'm flying to Hilton Head, SC to see my mom, relax, and start the reintegration process. I'm planning trips to Greenville, SC to see my dad, Wilmington, NC to see my brother and his family, Indiana to see my grandmothers and family members, Colorado for a high school reunion, and DC to catch up with friends. After that, who knows! I haven't quite figured out where I want to live or what I want to do; I'm hoping it all just clicks one day. Until then, I'll be enjoying my new American life!

As I close this chapter of my life and get ready for whatever's next, I thought I would share some of my favorite memories from the past 2 years…

Meeting my training group for the first time

Spending time with my sweet host sisters, Ana and Mari

My daily walk to school in Rveli

Our community project to renovate a classroom in the Kvibisi school


 Moving in with Rachael

Meeting Alex, my Kvareli counterpart, for the first time

Signing paperwork before our official swearing-in ceremony

A foggy morning in Tusheti, one of the mountainous regions in Georgia

Making churchkhela, a Georgian dessert, with my Kvareli family

Istanbul, Turkey

Lunch with the then-U.S. Ambassador, John Bass

My first Georgian winter... brrr! (this was inside my bedroom)

The first time I successfully made a fire in our pechi, a wood burning stove

Tapas in Spain

The birth of my nephew, Grant

An adventurous outing to Uplistsikhe, an ancient rock cut city

My mom comes to Georgia!

Our trip to Turkey

A breathtaking weekend in Svaneti, Georgia

My amazing host family in Kvareli

The view of the Caucasus Mountains from my house in Telavi

Meeting Gus's parents in Tbilisi


Our amazing trip to INDIA!!

Skiing in Gudauri

The National English Spelling Competition

The Telavi bazaar

Rock hunting in Batumi

Completing two years of Peace Corps service!

And of course, meeting Gus!

For those in the U.S., thank you for your constant support and encouragement over the last few years. I can't wait to see you all again! For those in Georgia, thank you for everything! You have made my life better just by being a part of it! Please know you will always have a place to stay in America. For those I served with, I congratulate each of you and wish you all the best. კარგად იყაკით!

Saturday, June 8, 2013

What I regret

For the past few weeks I've spent a lot of time reflecting on my time in Georgia… wondering if I made the most of it; if I took advantage of all the opportunities I was presented with; if I soaked it up enough… something I'm sure every Volunteer around the world questions. Could I have done more? Sure. But I don't want to look back at my life and have any regrets or wish for any do-overs, and this experience is no exception.

I'd like to believe I experienced every minute of this journey – moments of incredible happiness, extreme sadness, and sheer boredom – for a reason, just as the saying goes. Yes, I might do things differently if I were to join Peace Corps again (and yes, the thought has crossed my mind!), but regardless of what I did or did not accomplish here, this was my experience and I'm proud of committing myself to the full 2 years. So this blog isn't a list of my regrets; it's a list of things I would do differently next time.

Be in the moment. There were days when I wanted nothing more than to pack my bags and get the heck out of dodge. There were days when I made up excuses why I couldn't go to a supra or on another excursion. And, believe it or not, there were days when I craved the rat race and 12-hour workdays. I assume most Volunteers have had the same feelings at one point or another, and I'm not sure there's anything anyone could do to avoid it. Living in another culture and out of your comfort zone is just plain hard. But next time, I would say yes to the supras, yes to the excursions, and yes to all things Georgia. I was here to experience the culture after all!

Georgian supra
Tusheti excursion

Do without. Thanks to my wonderful friends and family back home (and fine, my own online shopping addiction), I really haven't had to do without since I got here. I've had brownies, peanut butter, mac & cheese, new clothes, luxurious lotions, and so much more. I also bought a modem that allowed me to access the Internet every day, even during power outages. Don't get me wrong, I was grateful for the care packages, and very much enjoyed and cherished every bit of it. But next time, I would like to *try* to do without some of those items – if for no other reason than to be a little less American and know what it's like to want things you can't have.

Awesome care package!

Learn something new. Volunteers have a lot of free time on their hands – and I mean A LOT of free time. Before coming to Georgia, I had a long list of things I wanted to accomplish: learn Spanish, read the classics and train for a marathon, just to name a few. Of course, I didn't do any of those things. I also didn't learn any Georgian dances, which is a huge part of their culture. Next time, I would “just say no!” to the countless TV episodes and movies that are passed around, and do something a little more productive with my free time.

Georgian dancing

Stay offline. With free Wi-Fi popping up in all the bigger cities, and portable modems that allow access wherever you go, it was easy to stay connected. As a business Volunteer, I needed Internet access to research and submit grant proposals, connect with other NGOs, and develop trainings. And of course it was nice to keep up on the news, Skype with friends and family and, most importantly, stream football games. But on the flip side, being online kept me from enjoying other parts of my service, and often left me feeling extremely irritated and frustrated by all the complaints and pointless updates. Next time, I would greatly limit my Internet usage and instead, take advantage of the countless opportunities around me.

Gearing up for some Gamecock football!

Love thy neighbors. Too many nights, I walked home from work too tired to care what the neighbors were up to and definitely too tired to try to talk to them. But relationships are what have sustained me here, and sometimes I kick myself for not getting to know more people. So next time, I would spend more time with my host families, friends and neighbors, and a little less time in my room.

Georgian friends

Run Forest, run! Back home I used to think how nice it would be to have my mornings free to work out or go for a long run. Here, I had plenty of time to do just that, but something always kept me from doing it… the incessant staring, the massive potholes in the roads and crazy drivers who tried to kill me, the water outages (who wants to run if you can't shower afterwards?!), rain and snow, and my only legitimate excuse, a bum knee. Next time, I would just run – not only for health reasons, but also to keep me from losing my mind.

My running path in Kvareli

Talk the talk. Most of my frustrations stemmed from the fact I couldn't really communicate. I know enough to get around and have basic conversations, but having a strategic business meeting or in-depth conversation was never an option. Georgian is an extremely difficult language, but it's not impossible to learn. And, truth be told, I rocked this language during training! It's my own fault I stopped going to my tutor and never touched my language books after PST. Next time, I would make learning the local language my #1 priority. I mean, how effective can you be if you can't really talk about anything significant?

A beautiful but difficult language!

All of that aside, when I leave in nine days, I will leave knowing I tried my best and definitely enjoyed my time in Georgia. And maybe in five or ten years, I'll even be able to see what impact this experience had on me and more importantly, on Georgia and its citizens. Being a Peace Corps Volunteer will be with me forever, and that is something I will never regret!

Thursday, May 23, 2013

What I learned

I have 25 days left in Georgia. I've written my description of service, updated my resume, finalized my projects, completed my medical exams (I'm happy to report I have a clean bill of health… no parasites, no worms, no TB!), and started packing. It's really coming to an end. I'm excited to go home, but I'm also very sad to be leaving. So I've decided to put off my goodbyes until June and simply enjoy the time I have left. The weather has been amazing, I've started running again, and I'm very much enjoying the fruit that has started to appear in the bazaar… strawberries, cherries, and these little mysterious black berries that are so sweet and delicious. Life is good in Georgia. 

Sadly though, this part of my life must end. It's been an incredible journey full of surprises. I've had some of the best days of my life here. I've worked on exciting projects, and have seen a million new places. I've made new friends and new memories. And I've learned a lot. Not only about myself, but also about my friends and family members, Georgians and Americans, and life in general. 

Over the past two years, I learned that… 

… I actually can learn a foreign language! After 4 long and discouraging years of French, I was pretty sure English was going to be it for me. But alas, I have successfully learned a language that is rumored to be more difficult than Mandarin, and I'm fully capable of carrying on decent conversations every day! Who would have ever guessed?! Not Mrs. Allen, that's for sure.

Georgian language class

… It really doesn't matter that I think pedestrians should have the right of way. Georgians don't. And if I don't get out the way, they will (and have) run me over.

… Americans truly are germaphobes. We wash our hands multiple times a day, shower at least once a day, only wear our clothes one time before washing, obsessively use hand sanitizers and wipes, sterilize anything that has fallen on the ground, and wash everything before we eat it. Not me. I've spread honey on my bread that was full of caramelized ants (and ate it). I've had countless drinks with dead fruit flies floating on top. I rarely use hand sanitizer except after riding public transportation. I shower 2-3 times a week. I wear my clothes until they are visibly dirty. I eat fruit that hasn't been washed. I fully believe in the 5-second rule (except it's kind of turned into a 5-minute rule). And I'm fine. 

… The Soviet Union wasn't the horrible, scary place we learned about in school. I'm not condoning communism, but, turns out people in the Soviet Union were happy. They had jobs, homes, money and a good quality of life. Some people actually yearn for those days.

… I love being an American. Before I left the U.S., I wasn't completely sold on America's greatness. Oh, was I wrong! I'm fairly certain now that it's the greatest country in the world. Yes, we have our problems and we seem to have a lot of them lately – but still, I love that we show up on time, form lines, give people their privacy at the ATM, and plan ahead. I love how we treat each other (mostly)… "thank you," "you're welcome," and "please" really do go a long way. Not to mention we open doors for each other, let others go in front of us when we're not in a hurry, and smile at strangers. I love that we have options. I love our freedoms. 

... I actually like being called a "good girl" by Georgians. It was a little irritating at first, but now I find it endearing.

… Less really is more. I don't have a closet full of clothes, the latest iPhone, or a fancy car – and I'm quite content. Living a simple life is easier in a lot of regards: there's no "keeping up with the Joneses," no rat race, no living outside your means.  

… Fitted sheets are ridiculously important to a good night's sleep.

No fitted sheets here!

… Americans complain. A LOT. Some of my favorite complaints on Facebook have been about traffic jams, lines at Starbucks, spin classes that were full, delayed flights, dropped calls, snowplows blocking the roads, hour-long power outages, and of course, your basic road rage. Those are what people call "first world problems." You should consider yourself lucky; not cursed. (And maybe curtail the "FML" statements, too. I'm pretty sure your life doesn't suck that bad.)

… It's really hard being the odd man out. I now have so much respect and empathy for immigrants trying to set up a new life in the U.S. It's not easy living and working in another country with a different culture and language. Maybe we could all cut them a little slack, just as Georgians did for me?

… I am resilient, flexible, unassuming and grateful for the days when most things work in my favor. 

… Most Americans think of luxuries as Bentleys, Pradas, and vacations in Tahiti. In every other country around the world, these things are true luxuries: air conditioning, central heating, insulation, indoor plumbing, running water, electricity, microwaves, ovens, dishwashers, refrigerators, cars, options and variety, school buses, the Internet.

My basic, but functional, kitchen

… Our public schools are pretty nice. Don't get me wrong, I think the educational system is extremely flawed, and don't even get me started on pay for performance, but overall, we have clean schools with trained teachers and specialists, countless resources (meaning chalk, markers, paper, glue), functional gymnasiums and playgrounds with equipment, libraries, indoor bathrooms, and running water. That's more than most countries can say.

Typical Georgian school

… Our government – while also flawed – provides a lot of great services for its citizens: public libraries, parks, paved roads, snow plows and salt trucks (and employees to do the work), garbage collection, street lights, and utilities. Yes, I know we pay for these services, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't be grateful.

… My mom is the strongest, most loving, thoughtful, funny and amazing person I know. I'm so grateful that she was able to visit me in Georgia and experience a little of my life here. And I'm grateful that she has taken care of my cats for 2+ years. Thank you, Mom!


… The mysterious black berries that I mentioned before are mulberries! I don't think I've ever had a mulberry before. I highly recommend them. 

… I'm proud to be part Georgian. Despite my struggles here, it has truly been an honor to immerse myself in their culture, to live among them and to be accepted by them.

My beloved Georgian family

But most of all, I've learned that I'm lucky. I live in the United States of America. I speak the world's preferred language. I received a free quality education (save your SC jokes, please). I have amazing friends and a supportive family. I've always had a warm (or cold, depending on the season) house to go home to and food on the table. I'm healthy. And I've had incredible opportunities in my life that most people only dream about. Thanks to this experience, I now know just how lucky I really am. 

The start of it all... orientation in Tbilisi, April 2011

P.S. No part of this blog was intended to offend my fellow Americans. As I stated above, I am very proud to be an American. I've just learned to laugh at all of our ridiculousness. :-)

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Georgia spells opportunity

So much of my blog (if not all of it) has focused on my experiences here… the people I've met, the places I've visited, the challenges I've faced, and the life I've built. While all of that has been important and fun, I wish now that I had taken the time to write more about my projects and work. That is why I joined the Peace Corps, after all. So now I'm going to brag about one project in particular that I've been working on for the past year: The National English Spelling Competition.

Shortly after arriving in Georgia more than two years ago, one of my friends and fellow Volunteers, Adam, came up with the idea for a country-wide English spelling competition — one that would reward students and teachers for their hard work and celebrate their achievements in a public forum. He started working on the event in the fall of 2011, along with four other PCVs. For several months, they met with Georgia's Ministry of Education, the U.S. Embassy, Peace Corps Georgia, and several other organizations whose support was needed to make the project feasible. I joined the project the following summer, when they realized they were going to need help with the marketing. 

This project turned out to be bigger than anyone expected and required a lot of work. Everyone had their roles to play: we needed a database, website, registration forms, rules, word lists, volunteers, venues, dates, funding, etc. I served as the marketing & PR specialist. I created promotional and sponsorship flyers, designed certificates for the participants, wrote website copy and press releases, managed the production of the program guide, and provided sponsorship support... you know, exactly what I was doing before I joined the Peace Corps. And no, I didn't miss the irony there.

Gus was able to secure sponsorships from the top university in Georgia, a credit union, and World Vision, along with support from countless organizations and businesses. Our Georgian friend and counterpart, Ilia, was able to secure a venue, transportation, food & lodging, entertainment, and design & printing services for the national event. Even my dear friends at Fixation Marketing chipped in to help by generously donating their time to create the event's logo.

Finally, after a year of planning, the competition was announced in September 2012. Within a few days, more than 50 schools had registered! By the end of the local level competitions that took place in late October, more than 170 schools and 2,460 students had participated, which far exceeded our expectations. Several weeks later, more than 1,000 students from nine regions across Georgia participated in the regional level competitions. It was obvious how excited the students were at these events. There were shouts of excitement and tears of disappointment as they were tested on their knowledge of the English language. At the end of the regional competitions, 34 students had fought hard and earned the right to compete at the National Competition. 

On March 30, the finalists gathered in Tbilisi to compete for the title of National English Spelling Competition Champion. They competed in two groups: 8th & 9th grade, and 10th, 11th & 12th grade. I really wasn't sure what to expect since this was the first year of the competition, and the first time these students have ever participated in an event like this, but they absolutely blew me away! I have to admit… they were spelling words a lot of us — native English speakers and college graduates — didn't know how to spell. Words like verisimilitude, asphyxiate, kaleidoscope, and xenophobia were not challenging to them whatsoever. It was truly impressive to watch and several times, I was literally on the edge of my seat! Following the competition, the U.S. Ambassador hosted a special reception at his residence to recognize and celebrate everyone's accomplishments. It was a memorable evening and the perfect ending to an incredible day!

This project required a commitment from thousands of students, teachers, volunteers and organizations and I'm proud to say, it was a huge success. That's not to say we didn't hit a few speed bumps here and there, but in the end, it was a great event. The students had an amazing time hanging out in Tbilisi; the teachers were beaming with pride; the judges were honored to be a part of it; and the sponsors were thrilled. A new group of volunteers has already started working on next year's competition with the goal of making this an annual, sustainable, Georgian-led event. 

As for me, I'm very proud of what we accomplished. I was able to use my marketing skills and even managed to get published in the Peace Corps' magazine World View! I had a lot of fun working on this project and watching the kids celebrate their successes at the final competition. Unfortunately, due to the nature of the organizations I've worked with over the past two years, I have not been able to see very many of my projects come to fruition. I'm happy to say though, the NESC changed that and now, with less than 6 weeks left in Georgia, I know I can leave with a smile on my face knowing I did make a difference.

Studying at regionals
Regional competition, Imereti

Regional winners, heading to Tbilisi!
Shannon, Gus, Ilia and Adam

Finalists at McDonald's

U.S. Embassy's Public Affairs Officer
PC Country Director, Rick Record

The judges
8th-9th grade competition

Top three 8th-9th graders 
10th-12th grade competition

First prize: iPads, courtesy of the U.S. Embassy!
Finalists and Volunteers!