Thursday, October 4, 2012

So maybe blogging isn't my thing...

It's been 4 months since my last post, and before that, a month. Clearly, blogging isn't for me. Although I have enjoyed posting updates, it's been hard to keep up with it in addition to writing in my journal every day, replying to emails, and working on projects. But with only 8 months of service left, I'm going to do my best to keep writing. So here's a quick rundown of my life over the past 4 months...

June was fairly uneventful. I spent my weekdays working on projects like creating English menus for local restaurants and designing certificates. On the weekends my boyfriend Gus and I spent time relaxing at Ilia's Lake in Kvareli, and exploring new places in Georgia including Uplistsikhe, a cave city near Gori. 

Uplistsikhe, an ancient rock-cut city
I also enjoyed a much-needed girls' weekend on Black Sea, where I managed to leave with yet another mullet (my second in 18 months). This one is actually worse than the one I got back in the States… it's a combination of the Jennifer Aniston '94 cut and a full-on mullet. It's awesome. Then on June 20, I received exciting news from home… my brother and his wife had welcomed their third child into the world! I have yet to meet the little man, but he has already stolen my heart!

2 days old!
3 months!

In July, my mom came to visit for 3 whole weeks!! There are really no words to describe how I felt when I saw her walk through customs at the Tbilisi airport, so let's just say there were tears. I hadn't realized until that moment how very alone I have felt since leaving 17 months ago. Yes, I have my Georgian friends and family, as well as my boyfriend and Volunteer friends but for the most part, nobody really knows you here, and hugs are pretty much non-existent. To say I was deprived of love and affection would be an understatement. Having my mom wrap her arms around me and hug me was exactly what I needed. A mom's love. Nothing beats it. 

After my tears dried, we spent 11 days roaming around Georgia. We stayed in Tbilisi the first night where she was finally able to meet Gus. They hit it off instantly, which didn't surprise me at all. Gus traveled with us to Borjomi (our pre-serving training site), and Vardzia, an ancient cave city near the Turkish border. After that, my mom and I headed to Kvareli to meet my host family and see where I had been living for the past year. She definitely got a taste of the Georgian life… she attended supras, made khinkali and churchkhela, visited several churches, sipped on Turkish coffee, rode in marshutkas and drank lots of Georgian wine! She was a good sport and enjoyed being a part of my life for a few days. We then met up with Gus again and headed to Kazbegi, a beautiful town high in the Caucasus Mountains, followed by a day of site seeing in Tbilisi. 

Making churchkhela!

My mom with my host family

That wrapped up our Georgia trip, and then we headed to Turkey for 9 amazing days! We spent 4 days in Istanbul seeing all of the sites and eating delicious food, and then another 4 days along the Aegean Sea in a small town called Cesme. After so much traveling, it was nice to relax on the beach and soak up the sun. We also went to Ephesus, an ancient Greek city, before heading back to the airport. The tears quickly returned as I had to say goodbye to her for a second time, knowing it would be another year before I saw her. But I am so incredibly grateful for the time I had with her and thankful that she took time out of her summer to come here. Thank you, Mom. You're the best mother anyone could ever ask for and I had an amazing time with you!!

Blue Mosque, Istanbul

August was another month of tears and traveling. After giving it a lot of thought, I decided to change sites. I don't want to get into the reasons why, but suffice it to say, I needed to feel like I had accomplished something during my time here and I wasn't sure I would get that chance if I stayed. Breaking the news to my counterpart and my family was extremely emotional and heartbreaking. I was in tears for several days, questioning my decision and wondering if I would regret it. Moving day quickly approached however, so I packed my bags, said my goodbyes and left for my new town.

I'm now living in Telavi and working with an organization called Georgian Society for Nature Friends (GSNF). Telavi is the capital of the Kakheti region (same region I was in before) and is a bigger city (20k) with a lot of resources. I have cafes, markets, stores, festivals and site-mates… none of which I had before. I'm also partially living on my own. I live in a house with a family, but I have separate living quarters, which has worked out well. It's nice to be able to cook for myself, while also having a family close by in case anything goes wrong. As for my job, GSNF is a great organization that focuses on conservation and preservation of nature, as well as eco-tourism. My counterpart is extremely passionate about his work and is thrilled to have me on board. He's keeping me busy too! I've already written projects to develop tourism in a nearby area, open a geo-tourism center in Telavi, create a tourism club for university students and conduct environmental seminars for the public. I've been here 2 months now and so far, so good. So do I regret my decision? Sadly, I do. I love and miss my Georgian family SO MUCH, as well as my counterpart. But I also believe that everything happens for a reason, so I'm trying to stay focused on that and enjoy this new experience. And really, Telavi is only 20 miles from my previous site, so I'm able to go back and visit my family whenever I want. 

Towards the end of the month, Gus and I traveled with another couple to Svaneti, which boasts the highest inhabited village in all of Europe. Hands down, Svaneti is one of the most beautiful places I have ever been. The mountains, the glaciers, the views… it was absolutely breathtaking! The hikes were challenging but well worth it, and it was nice to get away of the oppressive summer heat for a few days too.

Hiking in Svaneti

That brings us to September, which was busy with new and old projects, exploring Telavi, and getting up at 3am to stream college football games online. Speaking of… how 'bout them Gamecocks!?! Gus's parents also came to visit for a week, which was great. I was so happy to finally meet them and be able to spend time getting to know them, not to mention hear stories about Gus as a child! 

Now it's October. It's so hard to believe another summer has come and gone, another winter is quickly approaching, another group of Volunteers has arrived, and I only have 8 months left in Georgia. I'm excited that it's coming to an end, but with each day that passes, I realize more and more how much I have grown to love my host country and the people here. While I certainly won't miss the water outages or slow Internet, I will miss a lot of things about Georgia. So over the next 8 months, I plan to take advantage of the time I have left here and enjoy it while I still can. Before I know it, I'll be back in the rat race, wondering where the last 27 months went...

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

The times they are a-changin'!

Life in Georgia is curious and interesting. Life in Kvareli is even more so. From an outsider's perspective, it probably looks like nothing has changed in this town for several decades. But as an insider, I know nothing could be further from the truth. In less than a year that I've lived in Kvareli, I've seen an ordinary lake turn into a fully-developed recreational site with cafes, tennis courts and rental boats. I've seen what appeared to be pile of dirt and metal turn into a sophisticated medical center (never mind the doctors standing outside smoking all day). I've seen gravel roads being paved, hotels being constructed and several businesses opening their doors. And believe it or not, I've even seen Starbucks! (Okay, so it's not fresh-brewed coffee; it's the refrigerated lattes and cappuccinos, but still… it's Starbucks!) 

Back in the day, Georgia was the most affluent region in the USSR. Everyone had jobs, money and big homes. Life was good. Then, with the collapse of the Soviet Union, it all fell apart. Countless people lost their jobs, nobody had money to maintain their homes and many people were hungry. But Georgians are strong and determined, and over the years, they have picked themselves up and worked to rebuild their lives. They learned new trades, opened new businesses and started learning English. My organization alone has been awarded countless grants for projects that improved the lives of citizens: installing wells to access potable water, building bridges, roads and schools, training police officers, and even providing Christmas presents for low-income and orphaned children. In addition to the hard work of the local people, the government has also targeted Kvareli as the next big tourist destination in Georgia, which means they are dumping tons of money (and jobs!) into this town with the dream that Kvareli will someday be a booming tourist center.

Knowing how far they have come and how hard they are working just makes me love these people even more. Sure, they still have their issues and many people still struggle day to day – but a lot of them are trying, and that's all that matters to me.

Here are a few photos of the latest developments in Kvareli:

Brand new medical facility

Fancy new gas station with an even fancier convenience store (where I spotted Starbucks!)

Gravel roads waiting to be paved!

 Kvareli Lake Resort with its amazing views (also known as President Saakashvili's home away from home)

Ilia's Lake, a new recreation area with a mountaintop restaurant, lakeside cafes and amazing views (I was actually taking a picture of Kvareli, not the lake, but you can see the new developed area in the bottom left corner)

Newly opened Khareba winery, located inside a 2km-long tunnel (the second longest in the world!)

Khareba's mountainside restaurant (you can even take an ELEVATOR from the winery to the restaurant… talk about fancy!)

Oh, and that… yes, that's the new Holiday Inn, which is being built for the influx of tourists coming to Kvareli!

This just goes to prove how hard Georgians are working to make their world a better place. And while my role here may be small, it's still an incredible feeling to be a part of it. With all of the changes I've seen in just the last 10 months, I can't wait to see how this town looks in 10 years!

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Year one: done.

It's so hard to believe that exactly one year ago today, I left my family and friends to move overseas and start a whole new life in a whole new world. It's also hard to believe how normal this new world feels to me now. Things that used to freak me out a year ago don't even faze me anymore (which is both good and bad!). Holes in the ground (aka, toilets) don't bother me, showering once a week is no big deal and food left in the cupboard… totally fine. 

In the past 12 months, I've learned a new language, made new friends and discovered new foods. I've attended birthday parties, funerals, engagement parties and even had lunch with the U.S. Ambassador. I've had ants in my food, flies in my drinks and ticks on my back.

I've also come to realize that time has lost all meaning. Some days I feel like I've been here for years; other days I feel like I've only been here a few months. Some days drag on forever; other days are over in a snap. Some days I just want to pack my bags and leave; other days I'm happier than I've ever been in my life. 

For the most part, I would say I have adjusted well to my new life and at the same time, have developed a new appreciation for my old life. So in honor of my one year mark, I've made a list of the things I love most about Georgia and miss most about the States. 

What I love about Georgia:
  • My incredibly generous and kindhearted host grandmother; her son and his family, who have now become my close friends; and my counterpart and his family, who will always have a special place in my heart
  • The never-ending hospitality (ex: you can walk into anyone's house – unannounced – and they will feed you like royalty.) Guests are considered gifts from God.
  • Khinkali
  • Piso, my sweet kitten who meows outside the door all day long
  • The delicious fruit! Peaches, strawberries, kiwi, watermelon, figs and these little purple berries that stain your fingers the minute you touch them… mmm!
  • The simplicity of life, despite the hardships
  • Their beautiful alphabet and the fact I can read it!
  • The breathtaking nature
  • Their rich, dramatic and colorful history
  • Georgian dancing and music
  • The affection men show each other
  • How much family means to everyone
  • Our hardworking PC staff; I'm pretty sure I couldn't have made it this long without them!
Beautiful Georgian writing
Morning fog in Tusheti

My PST village, Kvibisi
New friends, Gus and Rachael

Things I might not ever adjust to:
  • Watching the sad, skinny, hungry dogs look for food and occasionally passing a dead one in the road
  • Their immense love of mayonnaise, salt and oil (um, sorry, but mayo does NOT belong on pizza!)
  • The copious amounts of cilantro used in every single dish (to say I detest cilantro would be a huge understatement)
  • Animal parts on the dinner table: heads, feet, tails, eyes…
  • The Tbilisi airport and its 5am departures and 3am arrivals
  • Getting stared at by the same people every single day
  • The incessant noises: cars honking, dogs barking, turkeys gobbling, chickens squawking, brakes squeaking, mufflers roaring
  • Incredible amounts of trash scattered across the entire country and the amount of water that is wasted
  • The daily torture to my lungs: car exhaust, burning trash, second-hand smoke (maybe this explains why I've had bronchitis 5 times…?)
  • Riding in a car or marshutka on a beautiful, 80-degree day and having all of the windows closed. Why, Georgia – WHY!? 

What I miss most:
  • My family, friends and sweet furry boys
  • Food! Specifically sushi, cheese, sandwiches, Mexican, Thai, seafood (oh, Maryland blue crabs, how I do miss you!)
  • Pedestrians having the right-of-way!!
  • Personal space – 18 inches should be an international law, in my opinion
  • Being understood and having a clue what's going on around me
  • American sports, especially college football and basketball
  • Common courtesies like thank you, please, you're welcome
  • Random acts of kindness and friendly smiles from strangers
  • Drip coffee and free refills

Sydney & Pierce
Mmm... crabs!

What I don't miss: (hmm… these all seem to be work-related!)
  • DC traffic 
  • The rat race
  • Having to be at work by 9am, 5 days a week

Living in Georgia has been interesting and fun, to say the least. Over the past year, I've had incredible days, good days, regular days, bad days and downright miserable days. I've had both the scariest and the most joyful moments of my life. Being a Volunteer in the Peace Corps is truly an experience I will never forget and I'm excited to see where the next year takes me! So here's to year 1… done! 

Monday, March 26, 2012

Farm dreams

Back in the States, I led a pretty healthy, organic life. Whole Foods was my peaceful sanctuary during my lunch break and farmers' markets made me incredibly happy. I loved chatting with the farm owners and finding out when kale or asparagus would be in season again. I knew which fruits and vegetables needed to be organic, and which ones you could get by with buying regular. If I bought meat, I knew where it came from and made sure he was a happy cow before… well, you know. I was strict about buying organic, fair trade, shade grown coffee. I enjoyed this lifestyle.

My sister-in-law, who has similar thoughts and beliefs, suggested that I read Barbara Kingsolver's "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle". It is a true story about the author and her family living off their land for one year. Everything they ate had to be grown either on their land or purchased from another farmer within 50 miles. Each chapter covered one month and she went into detail about what they planted that month, what was in season and even included a few recipes for creative dishes they made. I was shocked to find out how much of the food we eat is entirely out of season or worse, shipped in from South America  not to mention how many animals have been genetically altered.

That's when I decided... I want a farm! I want to grow organic food and gather fresh eggs from my backyard! I want to pick my own fruit! I want to make my own cheese! I want to browse gardening magazines and seed catalogs! I want a donkey! Yes, this is the life I want. I had even gone as far as looking at real estate online. I found some great farms for sale (and by farm, I mean a house with 2-3 acres) in Kentucky, Upstate New York and even Costa Rica. This was my plan post-Peace Corps. I had no idea how I was going to pay for this or maintain a job while simultaneously milking my cows, but I was going to figure it out. 

And then I moved here.

At first it was cute… the cows, pigs and chickens meandering down the dirt road, the roosters crowing outside my bedroom in the morning. I remember one day during training, we saw a few pigs rooting around the school. My boyfriend, who happened to live next door, looked over at them and casually said, "Yep, those are my pigs." Another morning there was a donkey in the schoolyard, just hanging out, minding his own business. Like I said, it was cute. We were doing the Peace Corps thing! But after a year of being woken up by these crazy animals, I'm kind of over it. 


I was in Tbilisi all weekend and when I got home yesterday afternoon, I opened the gate and noticed we had some new members of the family: four white chickens, happily clucking around the yard, along with Steve and Henry, our roosters. I smiled and went inside, not thinking about what this meant to my peace of mind.

It was 5:38 this morning. Something must have riled up the chickens because all four of them were right under my bedroom window, clucking like they had just heard the craziest gossip. I guess the roosters wanted in on the action, so they started crowing. And, little did I know before coming here, when one rooster crows, they all crow. First it was Steve, then Henry, then the rooster next door, then another rooster slightly farther away… so on and so on, until at least 7 or 8 of them were in competition with each other. Then the turkey got all twitterpated, so he started gobbling. And to top it off, the neighbor's giant dog started barking, I think telling them all to shut up. It was pure chaos. Crowing, clucking, gobbling, barking… and it lasted for 45 minutes. I tried to cover my head and go back to sleep but it didn't work. At one point, I wondered if there was such a thing as an animal hit man. Or maybe just a kidnapper. Either way, I knew right then that my farm dreams were officially over. 

I still want a small organic garden, but never again will I have chickens, turkeys, cows, pigs or roosters anywhere within a 5-mile radius of my home. I like my sleep entirely too much, and will happily let someone else gather my eggs, pick my fruit and milk the cows. But maybe I'll still get that donkey...

Thursday, March 8, 2012

4 weeks without water

From what I've heard, this has been an unusually cold winter for Georgia – one of the coldest in years. Awesome! This is, of course, following one of the hottest summers in Georgia. Hmmm... the hottest summer and the coldest winter? But global warming doesn't exist, right?!  

Winter in Kvareli
Sorry, back to winter... this year's first snowfall came in November, which was unseasonably early. It snowed again in December, then dumped on us in January and the flakes kept falling well into February. As a February baby, I love wintertime. I love the cold, crisp air. I love bundling up. I love watching the fat flakes fall from the sky, whether I'm out walking in it or curled up by the fire with a cup of hot tea. I love snow-covered trees. I love skiing and sledding. I love snowmen and snow forts. I truly love winter.

But I've had enough.

One day in January, I woke up to find we didn't have any water. It wasn't a big deal though; we typically lose water every month for a day or two. So I did what I could using the water from my filter and headed into work. My office didn't have a water issue, which was nice, so I figured once I got home the water would be on again. Well, it wasn't. And it didn't come back on for 4 weeks. FOUR. WEEKS.

Turns out, our water pipes had frozen and burst – and to top if off, we couldn't have it fixed because the ground was frozen and the pipes were buried under 3 feet of snow. Great, we'll just wait until it gets warmer… no problem! But it never got warm... it just kept snowing and then freezing overnight. I remember thinking that we might not ever have water again. It was depressing.

A lot of my friends and family have asked me how I managed without water for so long. At the time, you just do what you can and get on with your day. What other choice do you have really? But it certainly wasn't fun or easy, that's for sure. So here's how we did it...

We have wonderful neighbors who have a well, so every other day the mother would come over to get these 3-gallon plastic jugs from my host grandmother. She would take them home, fill them up and haul them back over. And she did this in her slippers no less! We had 6 of these jugs which we kept in the kitchen and used for cooking. 

Our wood-burning stove
We also had an 8-quart pot on the stove that always had hot water in it, in case you needed to wash your hands or do the dishes. To do that, you would scoop out some hot water with a mug, mix it with cold water and then wash your hands or the dishes in a shallow metal basin. That was easy enough.

But cleaning the house? Forget about it. Laundry? Nope. Toilets? Well, we had a big galvanized bucket that we filled with snow and melted on the stove. Once it was melted, I would carry the bucket upstairs and leave it in the bathroom. There was a ladle that you could use to scoop out water and "flush" the toilet. For me, this was the hardest part of not having water. It was so not awesome.

Showers? Um, I just didn't shower. I happened to be in Tbilisi twice over this four-week period, so I made a point to stop by the Peace Corps office to shower. We have a lounge in the office that is just for Volunteers, and the shower in there is incredible. Nice pressure, hot water… it's divine. We also had a Peace Corps conference during this time, so I was able to shower in a hotel – what a treat that was! The rest of the time I just went without bathing. Oh, except for the one bucket bath I took. I had the 8-quart pot of hot water, another pot of cold water and a plastic bucket. I would mix the hot and cold together until I got the perfect temperature, and then use a scoop to dump the water over me. Normally I don't mind bucket baths… they get the job done and use a lot less water than a shower. But the problem in the winter is... you get SO cold when you're not pouring water over yourself! A freezing cold concrete bathroom does not make for a pleasant spa-like experience. 

But somehow, we managed to get through it. A few weeks ago, we had a group of men come over to replace the pipes. Previously we had old metal pipes (mmm, I love drinking lead!) and thankfully, they were replaced with nice, new plastic ones. Since then, my water has been clear, cold and fresh. And most importantly, consistent! 

Like I said, being without water for an entire month wasn't fun or easy, but that's what the Peace Corps is all about... learning how to adapt to situations that are completely out of your control, learning how to be patient and most importantly, having a sense of humor. I mean come on… not showering for 8 days is kind of funny, no?!?

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Laugh, smile, love

My New Year's resolution was to update my blog more often. You can see how well that has worked out for me. The past two months have been a bit of a blur though… two Christmases, two New Year's, an amazing trip to Spain, two grant proposals, a few small projects, a Peace Corps conference and sadly, a heartbreaking loss in my family. Let me back up a bit… 

Christmas came and went in a flash. Gus and I were lucky enough to spend the holiday together in Tbilisi. We opened presents by the fire, Skyped with our families, and enjoyed a few comforts from home like hot chocolate, homemade cookies and candy canes. A few days later, we flew to Barcelona for 7 glorious days where we soaked up the sun, took hot showers every day (!!!), ate incredible food, saw some beautiful sites and just enjoyed our time together. 

Unfortunately, while we were there, I received news from home that my aunt was in the hospital after having stroke-like symptoms. It turned out to be metastatic melanoma and within a month, she was gone. I had booked a flight home in February to spend some time with her, but I was too late. She passed away January 29, 2012. 

My beautiful Aunt Kathy
My Aunt Kathy was one in a million. Not only was she my aunt; she was also my godmother, my confidante and my friend. She always took time out of her busy life to let me know she was thinking about me... thoughtful cards in the mail, a book that she knew I would love, a pair of earrings so I would always remember to honor myself. She celebrated my victories and encouraged me when I was down, and she was the only person allowed to call me Suzie-Q. I loved her so incredibly much and I was truly loved by her. I miss her more than words can even begin to describe and not a minute goes by that I don't think about her. 

While I was trying to wrap my mind around all of this, a part of me wanted to pack my bags and go home. I started questioning my priorities and wondering if I was selfish to stay here when I should be home with my family. But then I realized my aunt would want me to stay. She has been one of my biggest supporters through this entire process, from applying to waiting to packing to actually being here. She would never want me to give up my dream. So, with her beautiful spirit in my heart and the sound of her laughter in my soul, I'm continuing on with this journey.

The last few weeks have been the hardest weeks of my entire life, but at the same time, I feel like I'm exactly where I'm supposed to be, doing exactly what I'm supposed to be doing. And I know without a doubt that my loving aunt is close by, making sure I remember to appreciate life, love those around me and enjoy every minute of this experience. Because that is what she would want... for me to laugh, smile and love.