Saturday, January 27, 2007


With the weather in Georgia turning everything into mud and slush it seemed like a good time to high tail it out of there. Also, school was out for a few weeks so there wasn’t much going on besides power outages, pig slaughters, idle kids with firecrackers and occasional dog fights and car crashes.

So six fellow volunteers and I headed to Turkey My crew entailed Paige and the five volunteers from my training village: Nicholas, Heidi, Jen and Van. A snowstorm nearly kept us from reaching the border, but the bus pushed on through. Our cab driver wasn’t quite a skilled and it didn’t take him long to lose control of the car, turn 180 degrees and cross the median, nearly plowing into oncoming traffic, before parking the thing in a snow bank on the other side of the road. Thanks ass*$&%. You’re a champ!

Funny thing is after seven months in Georgia this didn’t even increase our heart rate and we merrily hopped out of the cab and helped push it back on the road. We eventually crossed the border and took various transport to Trabzon, a city in eastern Turkey on the Black Sea. Entering Turkey after 7 months in Georgia is kind of like stepping out of the tool shed and into the manor. Head scarves suddenly appear, the building get more modern, and he number of drunk men decreases dramatically. The peril of Turkish roads that I recall from visiting seven years ago has given way to something modern and amazing. The ride was incredible, especially after our near death experience.

Trabzon proved to be a fairly pretty city, with it’s numerous minarets rising above the snow covered roofs of the city. We slept in a college dormitory for a low price thanks to a kindly student who saw us standing on a corner looking stupid.

The next morning we flew to Izmir in western Turkey and stayed at a hostel in Selcuk, walking distance from the ancient Greek ruins of Ephesus. See below.

We experienced the full court press of Turkish “hospitality” as the hostel staff fell over themselves in an effort to accompany us every time we left the building, intent on leading us to cafes and shops they had some sort of connection to. Clearly they got some kind of commission for this and it took all our strength to keep them at bay. But their added pressure (and surcharge for heat) didn’t spoil what is really an amazing place. My dad and I visited Ephesus seven years ago and I consider myself extremely lucky to have seen it once let alone twice.

After two days here we headed for Istanbul. We did not purchase our bus tickets from the man who followed me around as I compared prices, calling me stupid for not buying a ticket from him and threatening to kill me if I liked President Bush.

We entered Istanbul from the east, crossing the bridge that spans from Asia to Europe, which is sort of cool. Since I was in Istanbul last all the street cats have grown fat and friendly and the carpet shop owners have toned down their overzealous sales pitch. Seriously, the street cat thing was striking. They were so fat! Last I was here they were scrawny and scab covered. This time the shop owners had stopped kicking them and instead fed them the entrails of the sheep they slaughtered (it was a Muslim holiday celebrating Abrahams near sacrifice of his son).

But the rug shop owners weren’t totally silent and they had some new tricks to entice customers into their shops. The worst attempt to attract a customer was directed to Heidi: “Excuse me miss, you dropped something... your smile.” For some reason that was hilarious to me and I turned and laughed at him like a total jerk. I couldn’t help it.

Part of the wonder of Istanbul was the shear contrast with Georgia. For instance, while Georgians waiters ignore you and often look pained at the smallest inconvenience, such as entering the restaurant, Turkish waiters in Istanbul are completely opposite. Instead of glaring at you for ordering they race out of their restaurant to read you everything on the menu in an attempt to draw you in. Well, pick your poison I guess. However, after seven months of eating Georgian food almost exclusively we were ready for a change of cuisine and the Turkish waiters could have been unwashed hippies for all we cared so long as they served us something different.

The first night in Istanbul we passed on Turkish food though since we stumbled upon the Mexican food chain El Torrito. We shelled out the cash to taste guacamole, something we’ve been talking about endlessly almost since the moment our plane touched down in Georgia.

For New Years, most everyone opted to go to a crowded public square where a few Georgian Peace Corps volunteers were groped by a perverted mob last year. Paige and I chickened out and retreated to our hotel’s roof and attempted to drink the most vile and overpriced champagne ever made. I talked the store clerk down to half the price but still spent $15 on something that wasn’t fit for pig slop. Okay, I guess that’s not really that expensive but it was worth no more than 15 cents. I’m not much of a haggler. We left the unfinished bottle in front of the crappiest hostel in hopes that some derelict backpacker would think it was some kind of prize. No such luck.

Much of our time in Istanbul was spent trying to arrange transport to Greece and confirm a hotel reservation, but we still got to see much of the city and I was able to take some photos from the roof of the hotel my dad and I stayed in when we were here before. The view didn’t quite compare to when we stayed there as it was a dreary winter day instead of a beautiful summer evening, but the panoramic view of the water and the mosques rising up on the hill was still impressive.

In addition the mosques and the view of the water, the other highlight of Istanbul was Starbucks. I openly admit to being a typical Seattle coffee snob and I would never go to Starbucks back home unless there was simply no alternative. However, having been without filtered coffee for seven months and having recently had a double tall latte at Starbucks I now take back everything bad I ever said about the evil corporation. If I had the power I would put them on every street corner in the entire world. I want to commend Howard Schulz for bringing his brand of coffee to the rest of the world, but don’t give up now Mr. Shulz! Georgia awaits your glory! And right now I frankly don’t care if he sold my beloved Seattle Supersonics to some jerk who’s going to move them to Oklahoma. He knows how to brew coffee and steam milk. That man deserves a hug and an apology from me.


On January 2nd Paige and split from the pack and took off for Greece, catching the night train to Thessalonica. We arrived in time to catch a bus to Athens where we had dinner in view of a lit up and ancient Greek temple. I had expected Athens to be a dreary and polluted city (as I’d been told), but was actually really impressed by it. Our hotel turned out to be in a bad neighborhood (our cab driver tried to sell us a 44 magnum for protection—a joke?) but I still felt far safer then I do in Tbilisi during the day.

The next morning we caught a ferry to the island of Santorini, one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen in my life. Santorini is a volcano that erupted 2,500 years ago and the town is essentially built on the edge of the crater looking out at the Mediterranean. Most nights we would sit in a café on the edge of the cliff and watch the sun set into the sea. It was absolutely spectacular. I can’t describe it.

Winter is not the tourist high season for Santorini so most of the hotels and restaurants are closed, but on the upside we practically had the whole island to ourselves. Our main company was a herd of stray dogs that escorted us everywhere. The locals seemed kind of frightened by them but not us. We had to get rabies vaccinations for Georgia so we were protected. But even without that, I’m now an expert in warding off aggressive stray dogs. I sought to prove this to Paige at one point when we came upon one stray that began barking at us aggressively from a distance. I bent down to pick up a rock and once I’d found one I turned to face the dog only to discover he was already upon us, eagerly trying to lick my hand.

We spent a week there, doing little more then sleep in late, drink filtered coffee, wander about the narrow alleyways, explore the island on foot and eat kebabs and baklava. We were particularly impressed with the warmth of the people, who worked long hours but were incredibly laid back and generous. Also, they kept giving us free stuff. “Here, have a bottle of wine. My husband makes it... Here are some scones for your coffee tomorrow... I’ll throw in a few more baklava... Desert, on the house.... Have some chocolate cake?”

I recommend Santorini.

Unfortunately all good things must end and we had to head back to Athens for our return flight. We spent the day there touring various ancient sites, including The Acropolis, which is the site of the Parthenon. A big deal I guess.

And it was really impressive, but it was overshadowed by a site much less ancient—the American restaurant chain T.G.I. Fridays. If you’ve eaten there in the states then you know it serves average burgers and steaks, absurdly named cocktails, and all in an atmosphere so fake and repugnant it borders on nauseating. The wait staff wears goofy suspenders littered with buttons, ridiculous hats, and if you’re unfortunate enough to be there on your birthday the whole staff gathers around your table and sings a peppy version of “Happy Birthday.” It’s despicable and appalling, a foul and disgusting tribute to the excessive and degenerate aspects of American culture... that is unless you’re a homesick American Peace Corps volunteer. If that’s the case then you will LOVE EACH AND EVERY ASPECT OF IT, right down to the Ghostbusters movie poster and license plates littering the wall. You will be more excited then when you went to Chucky Cheese the first time as a seven-year-old. To you, this will be like Disney Land on acid on Mars. This will be the home of all of your hopes and dreams. This will be your Never Never Land, a magical land of everything that Georgia isn’t and everything that Georgia doesn’t have.

I now know how Charlie felt when he first entered the Chocolate Factory with that golden ticket. TGIFridays is heaven on earth.

You want Buffalo wings? They serve them hot and fiery with blue cheese sauce.

Mozzarella sticks? They come seasoned and breaded with a side of marinara sauce, just like back home.

Potato skins with bacon and cheddar? Check.

Chicken quesadilla with salsa and guacamole? Check.

Steaks cooked to medium rare? Yep.

You want a gigantic goblet filled with a deluxe blended margarita? They can do that.

You want four of them, one right after another? Coming right up--although they do give you a dirty look. Does that judgmental glare deter you? No. No it does not. You relish each and every frosty sip. You sip long and lovingly until you give yourself a brain-freeze and IT WARMS YOUR VERY SOUL.

Nothing can spoil this. Not the stupid decorations on the wall. Not the snooty waiter who looks like a vampire. Not even Paige insisting on singing every single word to an entire Counting Crows song at the table—Why did she do that?

But regardless, nothing can top this. This is the pinnacle. This is the mountaintop. This is Shangri-La.

But then the next day you have to give it all up. You have to go to the airport and suffer through layovers and travel’s inevitable hiccups. You have to take the bus ride from hell and get stranded at the border aboard a bus full of very friendly Azeri’s who are probably lacking the correct travel documents. You have to abandon the bus and cross on foot. You end up getting back to site a day late, costing you a valuable future travel day. And then you have to wait for an hour and a half for no reason at the horrid bus station in Kutaisi before your mini bus driver will muster the energy to take you to your village. And once there you have to trudge up that long muddy street in the rain to your home.

For dinner you get a dish made from scraps off the head/face of a pig and suspended in a cube of gelatin. Cheek and brain and gristle and snout. This could be really bad. This could be soul destroying. After the culinary wonders you’ve just experienced this could be the nail in the coffin that sends you running back to America

“Mommy, I missed you.”

But the truth of the matter is this pig face in Jello actually tastes alright. The fact is there’s something wrong with you, some quirk or glitch that makes you okay with this. You sort of derive an odd satisfaction from this.

And luckily you’re happy to see your host family (who are really cool) and there’s a lot of laughter as you recount your past few weeks in your now deteriorated Georgian (not that it wasn’t awful before you left). But you manage to understand the latest village gossip from them.

And then you head up to your unheated and freezing cold room, climb into your sleeping bag and for the first time in the past few weeks your room isn’t uncomfortably hot. You’re not going to get up at 2am to search in vain for a shutoff valve on the radiator. You’re not going to complain that your room is an oven. Not now. Currently your room is a perfect and balmy 40 something degrees. So you lay shivering and comfy in bed thinking about some projects you’re excited to get started on in your community. “This isn’t so bad,” you admit to yourself, as the hail starts to pound the tin roof and the lightning and thunder rattles your windows. You pull your wool hat down over your ears, getting cozy and comfortable. There are lots of good things about being back in Georgia and you’re even a little excited to return to work and you’re definitely well rested and recharged.

But don’t think I’ve totally lost my mind. As I mentioned to Paige in the text message I sent her that first night back in site: “I wish we were still in Santorini.”

Best sunset in the whole world.


Peace Corps service has given me so much: the chance to live in another country, immerse myself in another culture, and pad my feelings of self-worth by bettering the world. Thanks Peace Corps!

However, the best thing about being here is that I got to know Tom Schreiber. The real Tom Schreiber, not that poser Tom Schreiber from Michigan.

Tom Schreiber is completely and totally The Man. He’s the coolest guy I’ve ever met. If I could choose one person, living or dead, to have dinner with, I would choose Tom Schreiber. And if Jesus or Abraham Lincoln were given the same choice they would choose Tom Schreiber also.

Want to know how Neil Armstrong felt when he walked on the moon? It’s probably a lot like how I feel when I get to grab a beer with Tom Schreiber. All that stuff on the Internet about how awesome Chuck Norris is? Total crap. Those are plagiarized accounts about Tom Schreiber.

Why is Tom God’s gift to everything? I don’t even need to answer that. Tom is what he is. Men want to be him and ladies want to be with him. But all that glory and envy doesn’t go to his head. He’s totally laid back, probably because he’s from Cleveland! Cleveland! He’s had three weddings, all to the same woman and he’s never been divorced. How does he do that? He’s like magic or something.

In addition to being the guy who texts me Seahawk scores and game summaries, he also conspires to stream NFL games on the web on Christmas day, and answers all my questions regarding NGOs. But Tom’s an even more clutch friend because he gives the best pep talk in Peace Corps.

When you’ve spent another frustrating and demoralizing day at school and are pondering who lobotomized all your male students and whether you can get a direct flight home to the states Tom is there for you. When you are down Tom comes through with his D-Day analogy speech and makes everything better.

But the coolest thing about Tom Schreiber is he once spent a week hanging out with Anna Kournikova. I don’t want to get into the specifics of it, but needless to say that’s one reason why Tom Schreiber is my idol and hero. He’s also a very good friend and one hell of an American.


This is Jesse, my host family’s dog. We used to have two, but the little one’s skin condition cleared it up allowing its hair to grow back and some cousin or something decided they wanted it and now it’s gone. Sometimes I think the language barrier keeps certain details from me and sometimes I think it’s just that simple.

Anyway, now Jesse is our only dog and she’s plenty to keep track of. Jesse’s hobbies include wiping her muddy paws on my leg, barking at everyone who walks in the gate, begging for food and humping every dog within 25 square miles. Brave Jesse is the village skank and I have to sleep with cotton balls in my ears to drown out the sounds that her and her male-company make outside my window.

I spend a good amount of my waking hours stepping outside to hurl small rocks at the numerous mutts attempting to impregnate poor Jessie. I’m almost embarrassed with how good my aim is. Our yard is full pained yelps from horny dogs that I’ve tagged with a rock to the flank as they scurry for the fence.

But even away from home Jessie’s scandalous lifestyle is a burden. Recently she slipped out the gate while I was walking to school, racing down the road to catch up with me. I had no time to take her back so she followed me on the 20-minute walk. Soon the male dogs in the area picked up her scent and came after her. I spent the last few kilometers hurling rocks at them to save Jesse’s already compromised public reputation. I can’t vouch for her purity once I was inside the school, but I know from experience that if the students see dogs mating in the schoolyard (and there’s a lot of it) they chase them with rocks and sticks.

Throwing rocks at dogs here is a common occurrence and the locals have impressive aim. They also throw them at cows when they sneak in the garden to eat the vegetables. Everyone has their own method, but I prefer a medium sized rock with round edges. I set them out beside every door and keep a few in my pocket. My method is to use a skip shot. The advantage of this method is you’re less likely to overshoot the target and it reduces the velocity of the trajectory. I fake the throw once to get them turned and then I pelt them. This reduces the chance of a face shot. Some of my friends have grown a little concerned about this new hobby.

Jesse, despite her sinful ways, has her upsides. She’s able to live on a diet almost entirely made up of old bread crusts. I try to supplement this with occasional stale bits of cheese and the fat from the meat I’m served. She is also loyal and can balance on her hind legs while she begs to be fed.

The dog is actually my host brother’s, but he lives in Greece now and nobody else really likes the thing. He made his mother promise to care for it while he’s gone. She confessed to me the other day that if Shako didn’t love the dog so much she would have taken it to Zestaponi a long time ago.

In Georgia, when you want to rid yourself of a dog you just dump it in the nearest city.

So I am now the dog’s best friend and I spend a good amount of time petting it and untangling burrs and twigs from her hair. Neighbors come and go staring at me with morbid curiosity as I pull Jesse’s ticks off with a crappy pair of green tweezers.

All summer I thought mosquitoes were attacking my ankles and calves at night, only to learn it was actually Jesse’s fleas. During the summer, to reduce Jesse’s flea problem (and odor) my host father and I would take Jesse to the river. The dog’s afraid of the water so Omari grabs it by the scruff of the neck and hurls it off the riverbank (10 feet above the river), launching it into the current. This delights him to no end and he manages to get a minimum 360-degree rotation before the dog hits the water. It’s quite impressive and the dog has come to kind of like it.

The first time I saw him do it I was swimming when suddenly the dog flew over my head and splashed down beside me. Hi Jessie.

Georgians have a generally different attitude towards dogs then Americans. The upside is that you’ll never see one in a sweater and little Gortex booties being walked around on a leash like in the states (see photo below). Also, nobody here takes their animals to pet psychics or psychiatrists, as I know some of my friends have back in the states.

However, like everything else western, this is changing, as Georgians continue adopting the worst aspects of our culture. Recently I saw a black poodle in my village with bleached bangs.

Rabies is a very real problem in Georgia and dog bites are common (I’ve received some sort of vaccination). I know a few people who have been attacked by dogs while walking at night and I know one person who saw an old woman attacked by two dogs in the middle of a city park in the afternoon. Dogs cause a lot of problems here and Georgians are baffled with the way we Americans are so fond of them.

My American friends and I compounded this perception while we were living in my training village. Our friend Van’s host family had a little dog named Chico. He was stinky and dirty but very friendly and we all took a strong liking to him.

I don’t know why, but one day we decided to hold a supra in the dog’s honor. We made fajitas and virgin mojitos and made toasts to brave Chico’s heroism, creating various fictional deeds. There was a lot of talk amongst the village about the Americans holding a supra for a dog.

Friday, January 05, 2007

Megobrebs, Homies, Amgios, Etc.

In addition to acquiring two host families, both of which are full of really wonderful people, I’ve made a lot of close friends. Peace Corps attracts quite a cast of characters and a lot of what makes this experience so special is the people I’ve gotten to know here.

This is my good friend Nicholas, dressed up for Halloween as one of the characters on the Spanish-language soap operas that are all the rage over here. Nicholas was my roommate the first 10 days and we both lived in Kheltubani for training. His host family there put on 11AM supras that, after some wine, turned into Toni Braxton dance parties. Somewhere out there is video of all of us dancing like idiots in a banquet room. Anyone who has seen me try to dance realizes the horror of such a site. I pray that Nicholas gets hold of the tape. He’s a really cool guy, a close friend and does an incredible Whitney Houston impression.

The girl on the left is Jen and the girl on the right is Heidi. While they are both good friends of mine they are also my sworn enemies, as they are always smudging my glasses with their thumbs and sending me text messages reminding me that I am old and bald. Someday down the road Jen and Heidi will be old maids, sitting beside each other at a country club completing a puzzle and insulting the wait staff.

Baby Seth and Lyssa. Baby Seth is only 21, yet he's a virtual encyclopedia and a fun guy to hang out with. Someday he will run for congress as a Republican and I will hopefully have gathered enough dirt on him to bring down his candidacy. However, I would recommend him for a cabinet position. Seth enjoys virtual celebrity status here, thanks to his blond hair and boyish looks. I enjoy no such status. In fact, no one in my village really paid any attention to me or the other volunteer (Jeff) until Lyssa came to visit us for the day. After that everyone wanted to meet us and inquire about the tall blond girl.

This is Jeff, a good friend and a really funny guy who also lives in the village next to mine. The room in the picture is not mine. It belongs to Paige’s host 11 and 13 year old host sisters. We were visiting Paige’s site to judge a language competition and we stayed the night in the room. The walls are decorated with pictures of their favorite Russian pop stars, Brazilian footballers and models. The girls' parents are particularly embarrassed about the posters. Georgia and American families are really not so different.

Here we are hanging out in the vineyard at Jeff’s house. That’s me, Ian Jobe, Jeff, Lyssa and Paige. Ian Jobe is one of my favorite people here. He is truly a man for all seasons. If I had a sister I would hide her away from Ian, but it wouldn’t work because his raw charisma is just that strong. He’s like a young Barry White or Marvin Gaye. Ladies love Ian Jobe and who can blame them.
The girl on the right is Paige. She is an upstanding young woman, with good values and excellent table manners. She is a solid Peace Corps volunteer, skilled teacher, and very funny girl. She practices excellent tooth care, is responsible, thoughtful, and is caring of children and animals. She is clearly the product of outstanding parenting.

Free Time

In addition to our teaching, Peace Corps volunteers are involved in various other projects. We judge English language competitions, offer teacher trainings and organize summer camps and other activities. Recently Peace Corps volunteers took part in the Breast Health Awareness Walk in Kutaisi. I photographed the event, including this picture of Georgia’s first lady at the self-examination info table. I felt like the paparazzi as I jostled to get through the crowd to get this and a dozen other shots.

But we still find time a lot of time for ourselves. Being a Peace Corps Volunteer in Georgia allows us the rare opportunity to explore the region along with our fellow volunteers. Here Brandon, Lyssa, Nicholas and I are standing in a “Wishing Tree.” People tear bits of cloth and tie them around the branches to make a wish. As volunteers, we dutifully pick up the ones that have fallen and retie them to the tree. We are givers, humanitarians in every sense of the word. There is no limit to our hard work over here. Please write your congressman and ask that they increase our living stipend. Without a raise I’m afraid I’ll never be able to continue touring wineries like this one.

Top row from me: Owner of the winery, Arianna (Brooklyn), Peg (Portland), Sarah (Back in the US now), Lyssa (Montana).
Bottom Row: Brandon (back in the US), Paige (Texas) and Nicholas (Sacramento).
The owner of the winery showed off former President Sheverdnadze’s personal wine cellar, including bottles of French wine from the 1800s. We purchased a few much newer bottles (2006) and Brandon purchased a bottle of cha cha—homemade booze that tastes like rubbing alcohol. And Brandon, if you’re reading this I want to thank you on behalf of all your fellow volunteers for giving me that bottle of cha cha before you departed for America. At a volunteer party we opened it and I had everyone take a shot and toast to you. Unfortunately, that cha cha was so horrid and poisonous it ended a few volunteers evenings before they could really begin. The hangovers and suffering that bottle of cha cha caused was unforgivable. We all blame you. Oh, by the way... the winter gloves you also gave me are totally saving me right now... I forgive you.

Georgia is a small country with a rich history making it an easy place to play tourist. Everywhere you turn it seems there’s an old castle or a crumbling 1,000+ year old church. On weekends we try to go on hikes, tour old churches, like this one—Baghrati in nearby Kutaisi. There is also the Stalin museum in Gori (regrettably the tyrant is a local boy and a source of pride to some Georgians).

This is an old cave monastery near Gori. The girl in the picture is Keti, one of my host sisters from my training village (Kheltubani).