Wednesday, March 27, 2013

From here to there

When you need to get somewhere in Georgia, you don't really have that many options for transportation. If you have a little extra lari in your pocket, you can arrange for a shared taxi, or, depending on where you're heading, you can take an air-conditioned bus. But most of the time, you're going to be traveling on a marsh, which is short for marshrutka.

Marshrutka is a Russian word that means "minibus". It is a form of shared public transportation with a set fee, but no set stops – you can literally get on and off wherever you want. Most marshes hold between 16-20 passengers; although in the cities where seats are not required for every passenger, there's more likely to be 30-35.

Georgia has all kinds of marshrutkas. If you're lucky, you'll find yourself on a newer, cleaner one that has comfortable seats, lots of legroom, and windows that open. But most of the time, you're going to end up on a rickety, old, rusted one where the seats are barely bolted down, springs are jabbing you in the back, funky smells are coming from the curtains, and the windows don't open. Never mind the awful Russian pop music blaring from the speakers.

Old Tbilisi marsh
New Tbilisi marsh

Marshrutka station
Inside a typical marsh

When you get on a marshrutka, you might not know when it's leaving or when it will arrive at your destination, but you will know you're in for a real treat. 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 (or cow) in front of you and you'll get a headache from the number of times your heads bangs against the window. At some point, you'll either get pulled over by the police or your marsh will simply break down.

Obviously, marshes can be a little rough at times, but on the plus side, they're inexpensive and convenient. To give you an idea of how much fun a marsh can be (!), here are a few things that have happened in my two years in Georgia (and yes, all of these are true and have happened, albeit mostly to my friends):
  • It's obvious you're not Georgian, so everyone will stare at you, lean over you to see what you're reading, and try to talk to you; on the flip side, they'll also give you fruit and candy!
  • A mother will give you her baby to hold for the duration of the trip since her lap is full of packages.
  • An unhappy rooster will be crammed in a cage in the aisle and will crow for several straight hours.
  • The driver will pull over to deliver a package (or wads of cash) to a random stranger waiting on the side of the road; it's like free FedEx in Georgia! He might even pull over just to chat with someone for a few minutes.
  • Cows, sheep and goats will wander down the middle of the road with absolutely no regard to traffic, causing your driver to slam on the brakes and subsequently, causing you to slam into the seat in front of you.
  • The marshutka will break down, requiring everyone to get off and find another way to get to his or her destination. This one is especially fun to deal with when you don't speak the language very well…
  • An incredibly drunk or hung-over man will pass out on your shoulder – or a very tired and usually very large grandma will pass out on your shoulder.
  • You will be traveling with roughly 20 people who are all afraid of fresh air (didn't you know it will make you sick?!), which means all of the windows will be closed, leaving you gasping for air.
  • Your legs will suddenly be wet and you realize the old lady standing next to you just couldn’t hold it anymore.
  • The little girl behind you, who just finished eating a snack, will throw up all over the back of your head – and!! you won’t be home for another 5 hours, which means you're not washing it out anytime soon.
  • The no smoking signs are obeyed by all passengers, except the driver, who will not only smoke the entire trip but will also manage to ash all over you.
  • The driver will tell you the marsh will be leaving "soon… in 5 minutes" for 3 straight hours (and sadly, you believe him every time he says "soon!").
  • The driver will take a turn a little too fast and you will find yourself, with your seat, flying across the marshrutka because it wasn't properly bolted down.

All of those "interesting" events aside, I've found that marshutkas can be pleasurable. Sometimes, believe it or not, I even look forward to a few quiet hours on a marsh. I can put in my headphones and zone out for several hours. I can catch up on my reading. Or I can simply stare out of the window at the incredible views I'm guaranteed to see, no matter where in Georgia I'm traveling. That being said, I'm more than ready to have my own car again. To be able to go where I want, when I want, with the people, temperature and music I want… that's my idea of pure luxury.

Monday, March 18, 2013

The beginning of the end

Last week I attended our close-of-service conference, otherwise known as COS. For the last 2 years, I've been thinking about this conference… how exciting it would be to hear about all the final paperwork, medical exams and language tests; booking our flights home and returning our water filters; reflecting on our service and all that we've accomplished; and dreaming of our long-awaited return to America.

G11s - COS Conference
COS Conference

Country Director, Rick Record
G11 Business Volunteers

Little did I know, this conference would end up giving me the worst case of anxiety I've felt since my days in corporate world. Don't get me wrong, it was an incredible conference that far exceeded my expectations. We had fun dinners, lot of laughs, and a few unexpected tears of both pride and sadness. We had guest speakers from various government agencies talking about job options and previous volunteers talking about their lives post-Peace Corps; even the U.S. Ambassador joined us for a reception. We shared stories of what we'll miss and laughed about all the things we won't miss. And to top it all off, we got to stay at the Marriott for 3 glorious nights. Hot showers, soft beds, central heating. Not too shabby for ol' Susan!

So why the anxiety? Well, I guess I hadn't really thought this whole "leaving Georgia and returning to America" thing through. All I've thought about is how wonderful it will be to see my family and friends, hold my sweet nephew for the first time, eat sushi and cheddar cheese, and pull a hot, fluffy towel out of the dryer. All I've focused on is this magical place called America.

What I haven't really thought about is that this magical place might not actually be so magical. From what I hear, life continued in America, even after I left! My family and friends have gotten married, had babies, moved to new cities – and (gasp!) turns out, they might not be that interested in hearing about my time in Georgia. Taxes have increased. Jobs are scarce. Food is more expensive. Stores are huge and have too many selections. And apparently, people in the U.S. speak really fast. Is it possible my images of this perfect country are just that… images?

I also haven't thought about what it really means to say goodbye to my life here. Obviously, goodbyes are part of the package, but it's really starting to sink in that I will most likely never see most of these people again. Not only do I have to say goodbye to my host families and counterparts, but also my marshutka drivers, bazaar friends, store and restaurant owners, Peace Corps staff, and my fellow volunteers. All of these people have made my experience what it is and have forever changed me. How do you even begin to let them know how much they affected your life or how grateful you are to have met them? How do you say goodbye, especially when it's forever?

I haven't thought about what it means to find a job in today's economy. Then again, I haven't even really thought about what I want to do when I get home, or where I want to live. I joined the Peace Corps, hoping it would be a stepping-stone to a career in third world development, but turns out, that's not exactly where my interests lie. I don't really want to go back to what I was doing, but where does that leave me? Jobless. Clueless. Terrified.

I haven't thought about how I might have changed since coming to Georgia. Maybe my friends won't like the new me. Maybe my cats won't want anything to do with me. Maybe I won't be as employable as I think I am. Maybe I won't adjust as quickly as I'm imagining. Maybe I won't be in love with America. Maybe I won't even recognize myself once I get home.  

Jobs, friends, resumes, housing, cars, cell phones, work clothes, interviews… there's so much to consider when you're preparing to return home after two+ years abroad. But, higher taxes and looming unemployment aside, I think I'm ready. Scared, but ready.

Certificate of Completion!
We did it!