Friday, March 16, 2007

English Language Competition

I know you’re all excited to hear the results of the Greater Baghdati English Language Competition. You've been up pacing the house, fingers crossed, wondering if Dimi School was going to come out on top. Well the results are finally in! Dimi School got creamed. But while it did not run away with any 1st, 2nd or 3rd place prizes, it did win three of the four “Most Promising Student” prizes, a sort of honorable mention for the kids who were most eager or engaging. We'll take it.

The whole event was organized by myself, fellow PC volunteer Jeff, and Manana, a local teacher. The judging was done by a dozen Peace Corps volunteers who were also in town for my birthday. Overall, it was a huge success. The Country Director for Peace Corps came, along with the Governor of our region. Both donated prizes and we supplemented them with some free books from the embassy.

Overall, 100+ kids competed in the contest, which involved an interview and essay. I think there are a lot of people in the community who have no idea what the strange Americans are doing here so this gave us a sort of public showing.

“You know those strange guys with the big backpacks? Turns out they’re not Jehovah’s Witnesses. They’re English teachers who put on that event at Mayakofsky School that had all the American girls.”

The only downside was some apparent cheating by at least one local teacher, who fed answers to a couple of students in the 5th grade. It was the only room in which there wasn’t an American volunteer overseeing it. It caused a large controversy in the community, but worse yet it proved that this competition probably isn’t sustainable. When the Peace Corps volunteers leave there’s simply no way this competition could be administered fairly since most teachers not only allow cheating, but actively support it. However, despite this hiccup the competition was a big success and the students who participated were much more active and motivated in class the next week.

The weekend also played host to my 31st birthday, a milestone that my 21-29 year old friends had no problem making fun of—Thanks for the pillbox Ian. My other presents included a decorative dagger, coffee cup, some drinking horns/bowls, beer, salami, a bandana reading “You’re wanted in Williams” and a doll that plays music when you pull the string on its back. It was definitely the most eclectic collection of gifts I’ve ever received and I look forward to regifting many of them.

This is my first birthday in Georgia and it proved as boisterous as my last one in Seattle. I have a very good group of friends here and it was greatly appreciated that so many of them traveled so far to celebrate it.

In a major scheduling error, I designated March 3rd for the competition and my birthday party. This turns out to be Mother’s Day in Georgia and to help my host mother celebrate this I dropped 14 overnight guests on her. When I realized my mistake I tried to reschedule it for a local restaurant, but she thwarted my plan, as well my request that my fellow Americans and I would do all the cooking. It was no use. She insisted. Even after her nephew died and she knew she had to be in Tbilisi for the funeral the next morning she still insisted. So she cooked all day Saturday and stayed up until 2am picking up dishes and wine glasses. She refused our help at every turn, except for carrying a table downstairs. Early the next morning she went to Tbilisi and returned that night. Then she woke up early the next day to wash all the sheets and laundry by hand. My Mother’s Day gift of some colorful jars for storing food seemed paltry compared to everything she did for my birthday.

Such generosity is pretty overwhelming, so I felt particularly bad that some of the party’s dancing spilled over onto the bearskin rug and broke off a claw. Georgian hospitality knows no limits and Georgian women are the engine behind it. I imagine somewhere in the upper reaches of heaven is a massive banquet hall reserved just for Georgian women, and they are getting drunk as hell and putting their feet up.

Once a year Georgian women get a taste of such heaven on earth, when they gather for International Women’s Day and hold a women-only supra. They eat and they drink and the men get no part of it. A few years ago in my village the women got so drunk they blocked the only road through town for 4 hours. No taxis or buses could get through as they sang and danced and locked arms across the street.

I recently got back from a 5-day trip to Armenia with Paige, Nicholas, Lyssa, Ariana and Seth. It was an awesome vacation and left us Georgian volunteers a little envious of our neighbor to the South. Overall, the country seemed poorer then Georgia, but the capital city of Yerevan was much wealthier and safer then Tbilisi, and more importantly, possessed much better restaurants and beer. I’m sad to admit that I didn’t eat much Armenian food, choosing instead to dine at various Syrian, Mexican and Lebanese restaurants.

Anyone who has traveled with me knows I’m lead primarily by my stomach and I’m afraid that I’m more impressed with good hummus then old churches. However, Armenia had many more comforts then just fantastic food. Particularly welcome was the lack of drunk men leering at the American girls. There were still plenty of shady cab drivers, stray dogs and garbage, but overall Yerevan was a real vacation from good old Georgia.

Since none of us know Russian or Armenian we had to make due with hand gestures and grunts, something I proved more talented at then my companions. My Georgian is famously bad amongst my friends and I do quite a bit of my communicating in this way on a daily basis. Also, as I learned from traveling with my father, if you want to order chicken at the restaurant, but don’t know the word, you can always cluck and flap your arms like wings. It’s not as good as being fluent in the local language, but it is effective.

Thanks to air pollution and Soviet-era architecture, Yerevan is not the most beautiful city in the world. However, it rests in the shadow of Mr. Ararat, a gigantic snow covered volcano that supposedly provided a resting place for Noah’s Arc. The clouds hid it most of the days, so I couldn’t get a good photo, but if you have the time to Google it I’m sure you will find some incredible pictures.

While there, we visited the Armenian Genocide Museum, a very informative and depressing tour through the 20th century’s first holocaust (1.5 million systematically killed by the Turks and Kurds). Turkey continues to deny the whole event and it’s soured relations between the two countries.

We visited a museum near the statue of Mother Armenia that focused on the recent war with Azerbaijan. Unfortunately nothing was in English so we left without much understanding of the conflict.

We also visited the Garni Temple, built in honor of Helios, the Roman god of the sun. The taxi ride through the country lead us through villages seriously damaged by recent earthquakes. Coupled with all the Soviet-era relics we were constantly reminded of the various tragedies that have befallen poor Armenia.

To lighten the mood we toured a local brandy distillery. We walked through rows of oak barrels in which brandy was ageing. They showed us one barrel that they will open when Armenia and Azerbaijan sign a peace treaty. It’s the only barrel they hope to open before it gets the chance to age properly. Eventually we made it to the tasting room, where we sampled 3, 10 and 20 year old brandy. Amateurs that we were, I think we astutely managed to taste the complexities of each and walked away with a pretty good buzz.

While visiting the Echmiadzin, the Vatican for the Armenian Apostolic Church, we failed to sneak in with a tour group that got to see the pagan fire temple in the basement, but we still saw some impressive religious relics, although there was no sign of the spear that pierced Jesus’ side during the crucifixion, something that was promised in Lonely Planet.

We also visited Geghard Monastery, a very old Church built into the side of a canyon. The stone carvings were a blend of Christian and pagan symbols and I found myself impressed with the artistic depictions of animals interspersed with crosses.

There was a spring inside that is said to keep one from ageing. I find that stuff pretty hokey, but as I’d just turned 31 a few days before I figured it couldn’t hurt, so I splashed some on my face. Time will tell.

We spent one night hanging out with some Armenian Peace Corps Volunteers, who played good hosts to us and we got to discuss the similarities and differences between our two countries and programs. One volunteer was from East Texas who had lived in Seattle 10 years before coming to Peace Corps so Paige and I pestered her with questions.

On the last day we went to the National Art Museum, which boasts the third best art collection in the former Soviet Union. Much of it was obtained by looting during the Soviet withdrawal from Germany during WWII and there were some big names in the gallery. Unfortunately, we were the only guests and the staff decided to call it a day early, so we were ushered out of room after room by impatient workers. It was like a chase scene from a Scooby Doo cartoon, as we sped from one room to another, racing against the staff that was locking doors behind us as fast as they could. It’s hard to see 7 floors of art in 45 minutes, especially with the sun glare reflecting off the protective glass on the paintings, while in others the lights were off completely. We left in a bitter mood and, as the photo below shows, Seth gave it the big thumbs down.

The final night we had more Mexican food and margaritas, and then retreated to a bar called “Texas.” We had heard that Armenia was even more socially conservative then Georgia so were surprised to find ourselves beside a table of boisterous lesbians. The other tables took no notice of it and the women danced together without a seeming care in the world. It felt like any bar in Seattle and it was reassuring to see such tolerance in the Caucuses. The only prejudice proved to be against poor Paige, as the neighboring table slighted Texas, an odd insult considering the name of the bar.

The next day we took a series of taxis and minibuses back home and spoke of falafel and enchiladas. It was a great trip.

Pushup: The Great Motivator

Try as I might, I just couldn’t seem to get through to the boys in my 6th grade class. Motivational talks, individual attention, assistance in finding the text book in their bag, making sure the homework assignment was copied down—I’ve tried it all and I just couldn’t seem to get them to do their homework. That is until I turned to pushups.

As a kid, I had sadists for football coaches. Some of them had military experience and the army taught them some valuable motivational techniques. Bear crawls, pushups, leg lifts, burpees, running laps—they had a variety of ways to ensure we ran the correct routes, remembered the snap count and blocked the right person. I used to fear those men, and fear is a great motivator.

So the first day a student forgets his homework—“Teacher... duh... uhh... homework? Uhh, ha ha ha, it’s at my house”—I tell them the next time that happens they will do ten pushups in front of the class.

The desired reaction isn’t instantaneous. They giggle and squeal at my threat, then return to hitting each other in the heads with pens and throwing their hats around the room. Soon they’ve forgotten. However, at the next lesson when they come unprepared I line them up in front of the class and make them do pushups. I make them count out loud. It helps them learn numbers.

Ten isn’t so much, but when I assign homework that day I tell them it will be 20 pushups next time. Some don’t believe me and when the lesson arrives they find themselves face down on the floor, arms shoulder width apart, feet together, back straight—and one, two, three, four...

Since the girls all wear skirts at my school I threaten them with wall-sits or make them write sentences on the board. They like to write sentences.

I recommend this technique highly. My counterparts thought I was crazy at first, but they came around. And more importantly you see a marked improvement in your male students. It won’t be long until they are dutifully copying their homework from the smart girls in class. At the next lesson they will have carefully copied sentences such as: “In winter I wear skirt, tights, blouse, and scarf.”

The ones that don’t learn keep doing pushups and someday when they are digging ditches because they never studied they will think of me fondly because their arms will be big and strong and they will dig with ease.