Tuesday, June 19, 2007

School's Out 4 Summer

School is finally out for summer, bringing an end to a year of trial and error, frustration and amusement, steps forward and back, little victories and many defeats.

My final days were spent playing school photographer, showing photos of the 10th grade concert on my computer, and burning the pictures onto CDs for the students. This could be my legacy here. "Who was Ryan? Oh, he was that American guy with the camera."

My fellow volunteers and I just celebrated our 1 year anniversary here. We booked the Thai restaurant in Tbilisi, brought jugs of bad wine and had a mock "Peace Corps Prom." Aside from dressing up and voting for prom king and queen I have no idea why it was called prom. Congrats to Jen and Nicholas on their victory as Prom King and Queen. I did not receive a single vote, truly an oversight on the part of the other volunteers.

After a year together as a group we've established some close friendships and become really tight. But after one year of hanging out with and gossiping about the same 40+ volunteers we were more than ready for the next wave of volunteers, who arrived a few days ago. Now we’ve got see some new faces and something new to talk about.

Georgia changes a person. After a year here we're a little bit jaded, a little less polite, louder, and our general appearance has gone completely to hell. Hand washing our worn clothes, infrequent bathing, and language mix ups with the local hairdressers and barbers have cheapened our looks a bit. We are not so shiny and new anymore. So when the new group showed up at the Ambassador's house to meet us they seemed to be positively glowing. With their pressed shirts, recent showers, designer eye ware, and wide-eyed excitement they might well have been UFOs dropping down from the heavens. They looked nothing like us. They looked like we did a year ago. What the hell happened to us?

"They're so clean!" muttered more than one volunteer. After an hour of chatting with them we discovered they're also more experienced and probably a little better educated as well. They arrived with the same fears we had: crime, illness, difficulty of language, etc. We tried to be reassuring, but it was hard.

New Guy: "Is crime a big problem here?
Me: "No. I think that's exaggerated"
New Guy: "Have you ever been the victim of any crime?"
Me: "Well, I was pick-pocketed the other day. And another time I nearly got into a fight with a guy on the bus after he tried to forcibly steal my cell-phone, but no, crime’s not really much of an issue."

New Guy: "How about illness?"
Me: "No. That's exaggerated also. Just try not to drink the water."
New Guy: "Have you ever been sick?"
Me: "Yeah. I just had an allergic reaction that caused my face to swell up and I could barely walk for a few days... and then I had a stomach parasite that was kind of, err... bad."
Heidi: "Bad? You crapped the bed didn't you?"
Me: "Shut up Heidi. It was only a little bit. It's not like I completely crapped myself. And then there was that fever that left me hallucinating and then I had..."
New Guy: "Uhh, but you said illness isn't that common?"
Me: "Uhm, well, just don't worry about it."

I don’t think the New Guy needed to hear that I’d sort of crapped the bed a long time ago. I was certainly kind enough not to mention to the New Guy that Heidi has lice—(that’s Heidi Laki, of Houston Texas, graduate of Pepperdine University—I hope this comes up on a Google search). And I don't mean she had lice, no, wait actually she had lice a few months back, but now she has it again. Lice! Like the bugs in your hair and stuff. I mean yeah, once when I was reeling with severe diarrhea from an unidentified parasite I did inadvertently sort-of-just-a-little-bit-kind-of-crap-the-bed. I can't emphasize enough how little it was. And yes, to hide it from my host family I had to sneak downstairs and wash my sheet in the bathtub while I took a bucket bath, but it was only a little bit. It's not like I completely crapped my pants like some other volunteers here did when their stomach parasites reared their ugly heads. And I certainly never had lice. I mean come on. Who gets lice?

Anyway, we were hoping to be considerate, reassuring, and welcoming to the new volunteers. We were going to not talk about crapping ourselves or anything else of the sort. In fact we were going to skip over the topic of bowel movements altogether, which is surprisingly hard for Peace Corps volunteers because we talk about it a lot. I know that’s sick, but it’s true, and not just for PC volunteers in Georgia but pretty much for PC volunteers everywhere.

We weren’t going to scare the new guys. We were hoping they wouldn't hate us like we hated the group before us when we first arrived, until we grew a little bit jaded like them, and discovered they weren’t condescending and jaded jerks. They were just a little more experienced, in tune with the realities of working and living in Georgia.

We tried to emphasize the upsides, the warmth of the people, the beauty of the country, but they just kept asking questions that led to bad answers. And they always asked the wrong people. If the question was about the frequency of men groping girls on the bus, it seemed they always asked the few who had been victims. When they asked questions about the probability of illness they invariably asked the ones who have spent more time in the doctor's office than in their schools.

Some of the volunteers from my group laughed about the questions the new volunteers asked and their somewhat over-active enthusiasm. But they got this thrown back in their face by one of the Peace Corps officials. "You guys were exactly the same when you first came. You guys asked all those same questions. You guys were completely the same." And it’s true. We were.

So hopefully we didn't scare them. Hopefully our answers to their questions were helpful and insightful. And if we might have sort of left out giving them advice on how to not get your hair butchered by the local hairdresser and barbers, well it's only because they're all so damn clean and well-groomed and we'd like to see them as peers and equals, something we simply can't do with them all looking so much better than us.


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