Thursday, May 31, 2007

Drinking and Dancing with My Students

If you get the chance, the best way to drink wine is to dip a dirty glass that's been used by dozens of people into a plastic barrel and then have a drunk man in a paper crown serve it. It's delicious. And if you're an American well then it's your lucky day because you get to drink two cups with the King of the Barrel himself.

While the priests did accuse me of being an American spy for all the photos I was taking, they are cool guys, sometimes offering me rides, giving me religious icons for decoration and once even paying my bus fare.

Two months before this picture was taken a man in my village offered to help his son bridenap this girl. Luckily the boy refused.

People refuse to believe I can't dance. They keep telling me to get out there, but when I finally do dance I more than prove my point. Many of the students looked on in horror, but most were to drunk to care.

Practical Jokes

I've written often about the glory of care packages. Today, when I learned I'd received one, I dropped what I was doing and rushed to the mail room. An oddly shaped package from Pojken, Chaitee and Bonny awaited. I excitedly began to open it when I recalled a phone call I had with my Mom a few weeks before. She's spoken with Bonny who had warned that they'd sent me a package that was low on goodies and heavy on humor.

Nervously, I opened it. Inside were a number of delicious food products, but most of the space was filled with giant bamboo wind chimes.

I hate wind chimes. I don't mean I dislike them or that they merely annoy me. I mean I HATE THEM. I hate them with every ounce of my being. And there they were. Great big wind chimes. As if Georgia doesn't have enough problems, now this. So I have to find a place to bury them. Maybe i can burn them in winter to keep warm?

Anyway, it was a good prank. I won't dwell on how they could have filled the space filled with wind chimes with delicious tastes of home. I will have a little chuckle, move on, and plot my revenge.

Theft and Illness in Good Ol' Georgia

Monday morning began normally enough. I reluctantly got out of bed and took a shower. But while shaving in the mirror I noticed a strange bump in the middle of my forehead. I’d noticed my sides ached earlier and pointed it out to my host mother. She said the pain in my side was probably from having the window open the night before. “Breezes cause backaches.”

“What about the lump on my head,” I asked. “Put some vodka on it,” she replied. This is supposedly good for bug bites. The bump didn’t itch, but it was far larger than a mosquito bite. “Is it a spider bite perhaps?” My host mother insists there are no biting spiders in Georgia. Pushing the memories of the numerous varieties I’ve seen in my room and in the kitchen out of my mind, I just nodded knowingly.

Little things like this happen all the time so I didn’t think much of it. But as the day progressed my sides began to ache worse and worse and I’d noticed another lump on my neck. Soon my nose began to swell. So I called the Peace Corps doctor and she told me to come in right away.

At the same time my girlfriend Paige was heading to Tbilisi so we met in Kutaisi to catch the bus to the capital. After being harassed by gypsy women for 10 minutes I got on the bus with Paige. As I walked up the stairs a strange man was standing in my way. He looked nervous and confused and I tried to squeeze past him. As I did he jerked me around by my backpack. I turned to face him, thinking it was some drunk jerk, but found myself facing a downcast man shaking slightly and looking at the floor. He awkwardly pushed past me and shuffled down the aisle and off the bus.

I felt like a jerk. The guy appeared to be both mentally and physically disabled and I’d turned on him like some kind of antagonistic jerk. I felt guilty, sat down next to Paige and told her what happened.

Then, as the bus departed Kutaisi I suddenly realized my wallet was missing. I retraced the previous 20 minutes and realized what happened. I’d been pick-pocketed by the apparently disabled man. He’d tugged my backpack to turn me so he could access my pocket while also distracting me from my wallet by suddenly requiring me to brace myself against the seat. Sneaky bastard.

I’m highly anal about keeping track of my wallet. Every time I get bumped in a crowd I check my pocket to see if my wallet’s been swiped. I’ve already caught one man with his hand in my pocket trying to steal my cellphone. That nearly ended with us fighting in the back of the bus. The police refused to do anything.

The more I’ve thought about it, the more I think the guy whot took my wallet was actually playing disabled, like some kind of act. Like in Usual Suspects where Kevin Spacey’s character pretends to be crippled, but it turns out he’s the mastermind.

I imagine the man shuffled off the bus in a nervous, shaky sweat. As he passed the kiosks and ice-cream carts he probably resumed a normal pace. Looking back, he probably watched my bus pull out of site. I imagine a grin flashed across his face. He probably ducked behind a wall, opened the wallet and discovered his stupid American victim had recently gone to the cash machine and withdrawn $120. Sucker. After that he probably called up some of his faux-handicapped friends and had one hell of a party.

Meanwhile, I was kicking myself for my stupidity on the bus. My face was continuing to swell and soon I looked like I’d lost a 10 round boxing match. My nose was broad and swollen and the bump was getting bigger.

By 10pm I looked like I’d bean beaten by angry genies who allowed me one wish, and I’d chosen to become a unicorn. The lump on my head was perfectly squared on my forehead, and growing. The other volunteers and I sat around and made jokes about my future on the endangered species list, or what potential X-man I might be. I seriously looked like I’d had my ass-whipped and was growing a horn.

The next morning, my whole body ached, the swelling had increased, and worse, it had now reached my tongue. With my swollen tongue I couldn’t pronounce my words very easily and the doctor hurried to pick me up. The whole day was spent drawing blood, taking various other samples, going to labs and answering numerous questions, and get injections in my butt cheeks. Not the best day.

That was yesterday. Today I’m feeling much better. The doctors suspect it’s some kind of food allergy. They don’t think it’s because I was sitting outside while my host father was spraying the grapes with some bluish pesticide 20 feet away (I was engrossed in my book and didn’t notice).

The swelling has gone down considerably, but I’m being kept in the capital for monitoring. Basically this entails getting more shots in the ass and having my diet restricted. The lady who runs the hostel I’m at has been given careful instructions on how to feed me, although it seems to conflict with what the doctor’s told me.

Since I'm in Tbilisi I actually have access to non-Georgian food and to be deprived of it is torture. I’ve begged the doctors to let me have coffee or burgers or Thai food but they refuse. There are various potential foods that could have caused the allergy, although I’ve never had a food allergy before.

“Maybe tomorrow you can have tomatoes,” the doctors told me. “And maybe the next day you can try cucumbers.”

Of course I was served both at the hostel the day before. After much pressure, they’ve finally agreed to let me have McDonalds today. We had to negotiate the menu, but finally they conceded to let me have a Big Mac, fries and a Sprite. No ice cream or ketchup and I have to remove the pickles. So in 30 minutes I’ll take my puffy face and aches and pains and head to the golden arches. There had to be a silver lining in this somewhere.

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Wedding Season

One of the most important things to know about Georgian weddings is that there is not one, but rather two receptions following the wedding. This detail is particularly helpful when you’re trying to find the balance of how much to drink. “Phew,” you might think. “I made it through that supra without being in danger of a hangover, but I still drank enough so as not to look like a complete wimp.”

But then you will notice the car you thought was taking you home has suddenly veered into a driveway leading up to yet another banquet hall. “#%&$,” you might think. “Here we &$%@ing go again...”

And so the supra begins anew. Same food, worse wine, more unintelligible chatter (for me), huge speakers blaring Russian pop songs, old ladies tugging at the skin on your neck telling you what a good boy you are, etc. Round 2, ding!

Georgian weddings (and funerals) are judged by how many attend and how much wine is consumed. Very little attention is paid to the actual ceremony. I was the only one (bride and groom included) who was listening to the priest during the ceremony and I understood almost none of what he said.

This was not my first Georgian wedding, but it’s the first one I’ve been to where I recognized anyone. The last one I attended was for the son of the gym teacher at the school where a friend of mine is Peace Corps volunteer. Despite this distant connection, it was imperative that I came. A good demonstration of how much Georgians desire even total strangers to attend their weddings was at this one. During the reception/supra, the groom and the Best Man, both of whom served in the Georgian army in Iraq, came over to my table to toast me. Me. I’m the guy who did not serve in Iraq, but simply crashed the wedding.

Having missed the past few host family-related weddings I really had to go to this one, even though it meant missing a day of school. Missing a day of poorly attended lessons is no big deal at my school. We sometimes end school an hour or two early if any of the faculty are having a supra at their house. Partying comes first in Georgia. You have to grudgingly admire this.

While the wedding for her husband’s second cousin once removed’s wasn’t till Tuesday, my host mother began preparing food on Sunday. She baked a dozen cakes and a half-dozen trays of achma khatchapuri. The wedding was all the talk in the neighborhood. Of primary interest was whether the bride’s husband-to-be was taller than her. She is a tall girl by Georgian standards.


On the morning of the wedding I put on my suit and walked down the dusty road with my host family. A passing relic of Soviet engineering picked us up and drove us to the bride’s house in Kutaisi, the nearest city.

I mingled with a bunch of Georgian men as they smoked and played cards. Soon the groom arrived, the bride's father cried, we all shook hands and toasted the bride and groom. At this one, no plate was broken so those of us unmarried people could pick up pieces to put under our pillows so we could dream about our future spouses.

After this, everyone piled into cars to drive to the church. Georgian tradition requires everyone to form a caravan, drive at a high rate of speed, honk incessantly, and brake suddenly. This may sound dangerous, but there were only a handful of near-wrecks. the most frightening part was that my host sister was holding her 1-year-old baby in the passenger seat and when her husband had to slam on the breaks, she would just barely hold onto the baby, narrowly keeping it from hitting the windshield.

The ceremony was performed by an orthodox priest in a roofless 900-year-old church called Baghrati. It was very warm and most of the attendees hung out in the yard smoking, while a few dozen others stood in the church, idly chatting on their cell-phones. The bride and groom put on crowns, exchanged rings and circled the altar. Then they were pronounced husband and wife and out came the cell-phones. We all headed back to our cars, resumed our honking caravan and headed for the supra. The 1st supra it turned out.

At the supra, the main tamada (toast master) appoints little tamadas to head each of the tables. Our table didn’t get one, so we were spared a rambling presence calling on us to drink. I was seated next to my host brother-in-law Dato. He is not a typical Georgian man. He does not like to drink and actively avoids it with amazing dexterity. Sitting beside Dato in the sweltering heat of a crowded banquet room, we skipped over various toasts, drinking only when my host father was looking.

After three hours of feasting and dancing, we moved on to the next supra. I had consumed only five glasses of wine, something akin to a gross injustice by Georgian standards. Small children drink more than this at supras.

At supra number 2 I was not so lucky. The wine had loosened up the guests and they’d become interested in the American with the camera. Soon I was holding a horn full of wine and drinking it to the bottom. After that I was pulled over by various groups and urged to join them in toasting to America and Georgia’s friendship. Glass after glass we drank to the bottom and I began hoping for escape.

Thankfully, 15-hours after the wedding festivities began, we headed for home. I was probably the only person there that rode home in a car driven by someone passably sober. Overall, the wedding was good fun. I highly recommend attending one if you get the chance.


This is my new puppy Soko, the sole survivor of a litter of 4. The others succumbed to exposure, as the mother had so nurse her new puppies in a roofless dog house in sub-freezing weather. Once we were down to one puppy I finally convinced my host family to bring the mother and pup into the storeroom where they would be warmer.

This worked and Soko lived. In fact, she more than lived, she thrived. With no competition for the milk little Soko ate and ate and ate. Soon little Soko was not so little. She was obese. Like a gigantic burrito perched on stubby legs like cocktail wieners, Soko was a waddling mass of blubber.

Now about six-weeks old, she has shed some of her fat, but she is still a hefty thing that busies herself with chasing her mother around hoping for more milk. Her other food option is the severed chicken-head her mother stashed in the box she sleeps in. She's too lazy to eat the ticks that cling to her, so I spend much of my time picking them off her and squishing them.

As she has grown, she's developed quite a unique personality. She runs about the yard, hiding behind shrubs, occasionally sneaking up on me to attack my pant legs. She has the odd habit of bucking about like a mule, sleeping on my feet and hiding behind me when people come over. She has a good bark on her, far larger than her size.

The neighbors occasionally stop by and ask if they can have her (she has good coloring apparently), but my host mother says it's mine. "It's Ryan's dog. He saved it so he gets to train it." She doesn't seem to happy about it surviving.

While not a problem now, I wonder what is expected of Soko when I leave? Is she supposed to come with me? My host mother already told me that if the other dog was not so loved by her son she would have long ago dumped it in Zestaponi (neighboring industrial town). It's common for Georgians to drop off unwanted pets in the outskirts of large towns or cities.

I would hate such a fate to befall poor Soko. I have a while to figure out a plan for her, but I still worry over it. It's been years since I dumped a housepet at my parents so I'm sure they're ready for another one. Why wouldn't they want a mangy, un-housetrained, tick-ridden Georgian mutt? She adorable.

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Total Jim and the Gift of Giving

This courageous young man (doing a keg stand) is Total Jim Cooley, a good friend of mine who lives in Seattle. After years of sloth and utter laziness Total Jim set aside his part-time job at a driving school and secured a real job, like the kind with a salary and Christmas parties and stock options and stuff. I admired Jim for this, particularly because it made him capable of picking up his end of the bar tab.

But despite Jim's past poverty, he never forgot those who paid his share. This is probably why Jim attempted, at great expense to himself, to send me a bottle of Woodburn Reserve Bourbon, along with three microbrews. It might also be because I split my collectino of clip-on ties with him. Unfortunately for Jim, and even more so for me, these delicious beverages did not make it to the fair country of Georgia, and for once it wasn't due to theft by Georgian postal workers. I will allow the US Postal Service to explain why, in their own words, just as they informed Total Jim Cooley in a letter.

"Dear Mr. Cooley, On April 16th a Priority parcel from you addressed to PCV Ryan Nickum arrived at our mail facility with broken glass inside. The package was wet and soaked with what smelled like an alcoholic beverage. Since we were unable to locate you by telephone we were prompted to write this letter. Because alcoholic beverages are unmailable by individuals (see the attached section 11.7 from the Domestic Mail Manual) we had to hold your package.

We will hold your package for one week, until April 27, 2007, if you would like to pick it up at our facility... or you can call us to give us permission to destroy the contents... Sincerely... USPS."

Obviously, this is a great tragedy. Good bourbon is absent here in Georgia. Sometimes an overpriced bottle of Johnny Walker Red Label arrives in a Tbilisi store or cafe, but this is scotch-whiskey, not real bourbon. It is not a good substitute, although it would not be rejected out-of-hand. The other alternative is a homemade cha cha derived from Walnut husks. It is reputed to be very tasty, but the threat of dying from drinking even tasty moonshine remains moderately high.

While the law forbids the mailing of alcoholic beverages, and as Total Jim Cooley proved, doing so is wrought with perils, I still strongly encourage others to break the law and to mail me microbrews (like the homemade beers my Aunties make and which come in plastic bottles) as well as top shelf bourbon. I recommend using bubble wrap to protect the glass, and also taping the hell out of the box to keep out thirsty postal workers.

These bourbons would be most welcome: Bookers, Baisel Hayden, Makers Mark, Knob Creek, Old Rip Van Winkle, Woodford Reserve.

These bourbons would also be welcome: Jim Beam, Evan Williams, Jack Daniels.
But enough about booze. Let's also talk about Indian pickles.

These bourbons would probably lead to severe headaches, an unappreciative host family, and possibly a justified early termination of my service by Peace Corps officials: Ten High, Old Crow, Wild Turkey

But in case you're someone who is aware that the good people of Georgia go out of their way to see to it that we have plenty to drink, and wonder if more alcohol is really necessary, let me direct you to the topic of food I'd like. It's strange what things you begin to miss when away from home. And I will list those items in the hopes that you fine people will send them to me.

-INDIAN PICKLES These are not like cucumber pickles, nor are they Georgian pickles which often taste as if the cucumbers or peppers have been soaking in a brine of goat urine and skunk cabbage for months. These are Indian pickles, a little like chutney, and come in a variety of flavors, such as brinjal, chili, chili + ginger, lime, mango, mixed, and thecha. There are no doubt other varieties and I long to taste them all.
-Basically any Indian seasoning or foods. Be it freeze-dried camping food or jars of Tikka Masala I will wolf down anything that tastes of Indian food.
-Guacamole seasoning packets: we can make a sort-of-guacamole out of ground peas if we have the seasoning packets.
-Fajita seasoning
-Peanut Butter Twix
-Swedish fish
-Smoked salmon
-Instant hummus
-Uniball pens
-Instant Indian food (like they sell at camping stores)
-Any DVDs you've tired of
-BBQ sauce
-Dried parmesan
-Enchilada sauce
-Beef jerky
-Washington State wine, to show my host family.

I also enjoy good books, any DVDs, and Uniball pens. I hope all of you are well. Good luck with your care packages! I look forward to receiving them from you Pojken, Ryan Hubbard, Luther Hubbard, aunts and uncles, cousins, former classmates, those of you who stumbled on this blog by accident, those who feel remorse for past misdeeds and long to make up for them, people with Christian generosity, orphans, doctors, people of the land, Fitz Cahall, Mead Trick, Megan Farley, Diana Ross, former PCVs who feel my pain, and any citizen of Lichtenstein. Please, send me stuff.

Ryan Nickum
c/o Peace Corps/Georgia
PO Box 66
Tbilisi 0194
Republic of Georgia

PS: my puppy is alive and well.