Saturday, November 26, 2011

My new reality

I know I've written several posts about how great my town is, how much I love my job, and how happy I am here in Georgia. Don't get me wrong... everything I've written has been true. But what I haven't written is that this is, by far, the hardest thing I've ever done in my life. I miss my family in a way that I can't even describe. I miss little things like being able to read labels (umm, is this shampoo, conditioner or lotion?!?). There are days when I feel more alive than I ever have – and days when I just want to go home. I think it's safe to say I have experienced every single emotion possible over the last 7 months – happiness, sadness, joy, regret, contentedness, uncertainty and gratification – just to name a few. To help you understand, try to imagine that this is your new reality...

My bedroom, before it got cold
You wake up in the morning and your bedroom is a cool 34 degrees; you can literally see your breath as you lie in bed. You stay there for a good 30-45 minutes, debating whether or not you have it in you to leave the comfort of your fluffy, subzero-degree, Peace Corps-issued sleeping bag. You roll over to plug in your tiny 10" heater and feel slightly satisfied that you have some heat in your room (even if you have to stand 6 inches away from it to feel anything). You decide a shower is exactly what you need to wake up, so you walk down the cold hallway to the bathroom. You turn on the hot water and wait... but it never gets hot. This can only mean one thing: the gas is off (which usually means someone in the neighborhood didn't pay their bill). Without gas, a hot shower is out of the question, so instead you wash your face in ice-cold water and just hope that you'll be able to take a hot shower sometime that week. Your hands are now red from the freezing cold water and your nose is running (although you haven't even gone outside yet). You are starting to hate winter, and it's only November. 

Now it's time to get dressed. It's another cold, overcast day (you don't even remember the last time you saw the sun) so you know you need to put on several layers to stay somewhat warm. Your typical outfit includes: tights, long underwear (pants) and jeans; two pairs of socks and winter boots; long underwear (top), a long sleeve t-shirt, a wool sweater and either a down or wool coat, scarf, hat and gloves. You're lucky if any of your clothes are clean and/or fit properly. Because there are no dryers, all of your clothes have been line-dried which means they are faded and stretched out. And now that it's so cold outside, it takes a week for anything to dry so doing laundry has basically become a thing of the past. 

First snow in Kvareli
Snow covered trees

After you bundle up like the little kid from A Christmas Story, you go downstairs to eat some breakfast. Because there is no gas, you have to eat leftovers that have been reheated on the wood-burning stove. This normally includes cheese, tomatoes, fried potatoes or pasta, fish, chicken and bread. As winter rolls in, most of the fruits and vegetables start to disappear. You see the last of your tomatoes sitting on the windowsill, and you know once those are gone, you won't eat another one until summer. Your diet is getting heavier and heavier on the carb side, and you promise yourself you'll start working out once it gets warm again. 

Persimmons (one of the only fruits available in the winter)

You eat in silence most of the time. Your host grandmother is usually busy cooking, canning, cleaning, working in the garden or repairing something. And let's face it... there's this little thing called a "language barrier" that is ever-present. Yes, you did study Georgian for 3 months before moving to site, but unfortunately your skills haven't progressed that much. Word is Georgian is a harder language to learn than Mandarin! 

Speaking of the language, imagine this: More often than not, you're the only English speaker in a room, whether it's at home, at work, on a marshutka or in a store. You can order in a restaurant, ask for directions and talk to the marshutka drivers – but you can't express your feelings, or talk about anything that has happened in the past or might happen in the future. You can really only talk about yourself, in the present (trust me, this doesn't make for the best conversations). For the most part, nobody really knows who you are, gets your sense of humor or understands why you're sad on Thanksgiving Day (nor can you explain what Thanksgiving is). 

My street at sunset
After washing your breakfast dishes in cold water, it's time to go to work. You gather your belongings and head out in the snow. Your street is extremely muddy and full of cow and horse poop, so you have to watch where you walk at all times (and those cute boots you're wearing… they're already ruined and definitely won't survive the 2 years you're going to be here). The wind is relentless and your face is red and tingling by the time you get to work. Your office is a small concrete room that doesn't get any sunlight, has a window that doesn't close all the way, and is always freezing. When you get there, you turn on your light and realize the power is out. No power = no heat. You turn on your laptop anyway and try to get some work done. You decide to research some training topics online, but since it's a snowy, overcast day your Internet is dreadfully slow (who knew the weather could affect your connection?!). After a few hours of sitting in your office alone, your nose and cheeks are red, your fingers are numb and your laptop battery is running low. The meeting you had at 2:00 never happened (and you don't really know why) and it's starting to snow again. At this point, you pack it up and hope that grams has the wood stove going by the time you walk back home.

As you walk home (down the same street you've walked down for the last 4 months), you notice several people literally stop dead in their tracks to watch you. Their jaws drop and they turn their heads as you walk by. No matter where you go, what you say or what you do, people stare at you. They know what you buy at the store, when you leave town, and whether or not you went to work yesterday. At first, you didn't mind it; you were the shiny, new American in town. But after several months, you feel like you don't have any privacy and you just want to scream, "Stop watching me! I'm NOT that interesting!"

You finally get home and can barely feel your fingers. You sit by the fire, try to warm up, and maybe read for an hour or so. You join your host family for dinner (which is the same food you had for breakfast and most likely have had for the last 2-3 days), and engage in limited conversation, usually the exact same conversation you had the night before. After dinner, you either watch a movie, talk to a friend on the phone, or Skype with loved ones back home (assuming you can get online inside your concrete house). It's now midnight and you're ready to call it a day. You wash your face in ice-cold water again, crawl inside your freezing cold sleeping bag and hope you can fall asleep, despite the numbness you feel all over your body.

The next day, you decide to visit a friend in a nearby village. You're excited to get out of your site for a night, but you're not excited about the upcoming marshutka ride. Traveling in Georgia is fairly easy, but rarely enjoyable. First you have to know when the marshutka leaves (which can change at any given moment for a number of reasons). Then you have to stand by the side of the road, flag it down and hope that there are seats available. If there aren't any, it will drive right past you and you'll have to wait an hour for the next one. If there are seats, you'll most likely have to crawl over a few grandmas, drunk men, children and bags to get to the very back, where you're guaranteed the bumpiest and most uncomfortable ride of your life. Most drivers are aggressive, to put it lightly, so forget reading or drinking anything. At least half of your trip will be spent driving on the wrong side of the road with oncoming traffic headed straight towards you. You'll swerve on the shoulder several times to avoid hitting the slow-moving car in front of you; you'll get whiplash from all of the braking (usually from the stray cow that has meandered in the middle of the road); and you'll probably get pulled over by the police at some point (no worries, the driver's friend in the front seat usually knows the policeman, so they will exchange pleasantries and everyone will go about their business). Oh and P.S., car accidents are a leading cause of death in Georgia.

Believe it or not, this is the easy part: the physical challenges, dealing with illnesses, the elements, the lack of modern amenities and comforts. Then you have to take into account the psychological challenges: isolation, homesickness, living in a post-Soviet country with people who still have a Communist mentality, gender issues, loneliness, differences in work ethics, etc.  

But despite all of the hardships and challenges, there's an equal amount of brilliant moments, when you can't imagine being anywhere else: When your host grandmother has tears in her eyes after you give her a small birthday present. When your neighbor truly doesn't believe you don't know Penelope Cruz. When a 4-year-old tells you she knows English better than you do. When a baby reaches out for you to hold her and cries when you leave. When you walk into a store and the owner says, "What do you want?" and then smiles and adds, "I learn English, for you!" When everyone goes around the table, toasting you and the work you're doing for their country. When you read grant proposals written by Volunteers and you understand exactly why Peace Corps is here. 

As a Volunteer, I have definitely had my fair share of hard days (and will have many more in the future), but thankfully, I have had some incredible days as well. Peace Corps' tagline clearly states, it is the toughest job you'll ever love, and I can certainly vouch for that. But at the end of the day, I'm proud to call myself a Volunteer (even if I am counting down the days until I return home!).


  1. Think of it this are earning summer and fall! :) One piece of advice, though, that has really helped us this year (because I too think morning is tough and hate getting ready with the freezing water - and showers aren't an option for us) is an electric kettle. We heat up water to wash up in the morning. It's nice to be able to make a cup of tea or hot chocolate in your room. And we learned this weekend that you can fill up a two-liter bottle and put it by your feet when you get into bed at night. Makes a huge difference! Good luck. :)


  2. Susan, you express yourself so well and I can only begin to imagine some of the daily hurdles you face. I understand why you were sad on Thanksgiving Day because I was too. I miss you so much and look forward to our times when we can Skype.
    I love you!

  3. Without having had those experiences myself, I can't think of anything I could say that would put a silver lining on this comment. I commend you for sticking it out and for at least being able to draw out some positives. Ooh, I know! - Free place to visit in California when you get back!

  4. And this is why...I miss Georgia a lot and sometimes I don't miss it at all! Hang in there! Spring is around the corner.