Thursday, August 23, 2007

Personal Growth

Peace Corps brochures often advertise the profound personal developments volunteers undergo during their service abroad. One the slogans on their recruitment posters reads, “Sure, I made in a difference in their lives, but not half as much as they made in mine.” It’s too early to assess how much personal growth I’ll undergo here, but in recent months I’ve noticed another type of growth—increased chest hair.

I haven’t asked the doctor about this, but is this normal? Do most 31-year-olds suddenly experience dramatic increases in chest hair? Or might this be a sign of bad things to come? How come I continue to lose hair on my head, but am now growing it on my chest. Good or bad, if anything, this is completely unfair.

What causes this? I know joining the marines or something is supposed to “put hair on a man’s chest,” but come on, this is Peace Corps. Is there something in the diet here that causes the sudden increase? Is there a chest hair fairy that flies around at night sprinkling stray black hairs on sleeping men, or perhaps, plucking them from their head and attaching them to their chest? I hope not. I’ve got enough problems with bats and mosquitoes flying into my room. The last thing I need are chest hair fairies.

I have by no means become apelike, but I was content with my previous coverage. I spent no listless nights worrying about the state of my chest hair. Actually, even in those trying days of puberty I never spent any time thinking about my chest hair. And now suddenly, there it is. At this rate, I have no idea where this hair growth might lead. I could become one of those sweaty guys, shirt unbuttoned to my navel, a glossy chest of matted hair and gold chains, leering disgustingly at passing women.

Sure I made a difference in their lives, but seriously, look what a did for me? C’mon, look at all the chest hair! Hey, baby. Where you going? What’s your sign? Come give daddy a kiss.”

I really don’t want to become that guy. But hell, I’ve got plenty of razors, so if it starts to affect my personality dramatically I can always shave off the offending hair. Of course, that could alter me as well, turning me into some creepy guy at the gym, standing over the bench press, patting my biceps and leering about the room. Plus I’d probably have to start tanning and get a nipple ring and... well it just doesn’t bode well. I hope the unexplained chest hair growth stops soon. I really don’t want this kind of personal development. This experience is supposed to create POSITVE change in a person.


Somewhere, in some Peace Corps file, is a hastily written list of goals and aspirations I was required to fill out during training. I don’t remember exactly what I put in there, but I’m sure it was overly idealistic and filled with wild ideas that would seem positively laughable now. They’ll give it back to me when I leave and I can compare mine with other volunteers and we can all share a good laugh at our combined naiveté.

Some of those goals were no doubt very simple and practical. I recall writing that I wanted to learn to make wine, milk a cow and kill and pluck a chicken. Wine making will occur in the fall, but the cows are off limits apparently. My neighbors think I’m joking when I ask to help with the milking. They think I’m mocking them and tell me the cow is ill tempered and will kick me. I sincerely want to know how to milk a cow.

The matter of the chicken was becoming a near obsession for me. Originally, it was simple curiosity, something I thought seemed a practical thing to know. However, a year of eating Georgian chickens had left me with one burning question: What happens to the chicken breasts? Every time a pot of chopped chicken pieces appear before me it turns into some sort of incomplete anatomy lesson. It’s as if the chicken’s body had been censored by Focus on the Family or some other lobbying group concerned that the sight of breasts could adversely affect impressionable young people. The repeated absence has turned me into some sort of amateur poultry coroner. I investigate the carcass and fail to find the chicken breasts. The plot thickens.

During training, my site mates and I engaged in endless speculation as to what had become of the breasts. We’d see the chickens roaming the yard, looking plump and busty, but once they were on the plate the breasts were missing.

Does the cook eat them? Do Georgian chickens simply not grow breasts? Or is there some sort of cultural aversion to them, the way we volunteers are towards the chicken feet, neck, organs and heads we are served (actually fried chicken feet are kind of tasty). Georgians enjoy these little bits and we don’t. Maybe the inverse is true for breasts.

I’ve told my host mother repeatedly that I’d like to be on hand for one of the chicken executions. To her, this is like asking to be on hand for when she peels an onion or opens a jar of mayonnaise. “Ryan, come quick, for I am to use the magical can opener! Get your camera!” Or maybe she just thinks I’m morbid. The months have passed, and I’ve eaten my share of chicken, but had never been included in the killing.

A few weeks ago, around high noon, I opened the back door and caught my host father, axe in his hand with a chicken pinned to a rotting log. Aha!

It’s pretty much how you figure it. Axe comes down, head comes off, body attempts to run the 100-meter dash but is thwarted by being stuffed under an overturned laundry basket. The flopping goes on for thirty seconds, while my host father keeps his foot on the basket and absentmindedly scratches his stomach and admires the view. I suppose this method is employed to keep it from running off to warn the others.

All the while it flops, the chicken’s severed head stares blankly back at the world that, only a few seconds earlier, was the happy site of its incessant clucking and endless search for bugs and worms. I thought maybe it would blink or give me a disdainful look, but nothing.

I passed on to my host parents the story my mother told me, in which, as a child, she and her cousins would draw a big circle in the yard, chop the head off and see if the headless chicken could run out of the circle. If it did, it won. My host parents nodded sheepishly, knowing this game first hand. “No need to act ashamed,” I thought. “It seems a fine game to me.”

Once the uncontrolled jerking had ended, my host mother heated up a pot of water to aid with the plucking. To test for the proper temperature she would dip the severed head in, pull it out and check if the feathers could be pulled out with ease. Apparently, the water has to be at less than a boil. Once the proper temperature was reached, the bird was dipped in and the feathers were then pulled off with ease. It was then briefly held over the open flame of the gas stove to burn off what little bits of feather remained and then butchered. And with this, the matter of ‘where the hell are the chicken breasts?’ was settled for me once and for all.

A Georgian chicken is flat as a board.

Perhaps growing up eating hormone laden chickens and watching the actresses of Baywatch jog in slow motion down the beach had given me unrealistic expectations of breast size. Perhaps it is unreasonable to expect a 2-1 breast to body ratio. These chickens aren’t posing for centerfolds after all, they’re simply living out their days, roaming the yard, eating bugs and bits of corn, and cockle-doodle-doing at all hours of the night. Perhaps this lifestyle and diet limit the size of their breasts. Or perhaps their free-range status instead of being crammed into tiny cages that does it. Or maybe it’s a local poultry conspiracy, as they might opposed to developing meatier portions often served in a garlicky broth and mopped up with bread. I’m not really sure.

Regardless, like tissue paper in a bra, their feathers exaggerate their size. Chickens in Georgia are simply A-cups. When chicken is served it’s best to rush for a thigh and avoid the pointless search for absent breast meat.

And thus, the mystery of the missing chicken breasts was solved.

REJECTION & unrelated pics

A few days ago I received a rejection letter from the good people at Andrews McMeel Publishing. I have included it below:

Dear Mr. Nickum
Thank you for submitting the “This Day in Bald History” calendar proposal to Andrews McMeel Publishing. I am sorry to say that there is not enough support among our staff for us to pursue it. We do wish you success in placing the work with another publisher, though, and appreciate the opportunity to review your material.

Apparently, the good publisher felt that a page-a-day calendar (the kind you tear out each day) detailing the many accomplishments and failures of bald people throughout history just wasn’t something they were interested in, even if written in an irreverent way. You might agree with the publisher’s judgment, thinking, perhaps rightly, that the concept is ridiculous and absurd. You’d be in good company. Andrew McMeel Publishing is not the first publisher to reject this out of hand.

I recall reading the first rejection of my calendar over a year ago. I was sitting in my rented “apartment” comparing the crushing rejection letter with the shiny announcement from Peace Corps announcing I’d been selected to serve in the Republic of Georgia. In one, there was a sense of hope and adventure. In the other, a sense of failure and the possibility I’d wasted a good many months on something frivolous and dumb. It was in that moment I decided to walk through the door that opened and away from the one that had slammed in my face.

The decision wasn’t difficult. I simply looked around my apartment, an unfinished room I’d rented from my friend Pojken. It was above his woodshop and beside his sagging and decrepit farmhouse. I’d enthusiastically agreed to live in the house at a very discounted rent in exchange for helping with its remodel. Living in a dilapidated house turned construction zone prepared me immensely for living in a redeveloping country.

I’d lifted my eyes from the two letters, imagined Georgia, and then scanned the room, noticing the exposed insulation, the unfinished drywall project, the mouse droppings, the rattling windows, the woodstove in the corner that was my sole source of heat, and the Gatorade bottle by the door that often served as my urinal while the bathroom was under repairs. The bathroom was often under repairs and the decision turned out to be not so difficult after all.

There are certain things that didn’t go on my resume or letter of purpose that I’d sent to Peace Corps during the application process that probably were more important than prior education and work experience. I have faced winters without heat. I am accustomed to days without electricity. I have not only used an outhouse, but even dug the hole for them, which is far worse. These were good preparations for life in a village in Georgia.

Early in training here, we were asked to tell the other volunteers why we were glad to be in Georgia. I’d been quiet for most of these training sessions, but immediately felt the urge to speak up. I recounted to the others a dream I’d had the previous night. In it, I was back in America at the temp job I held for a few months before departing for Georgia. I was working at a mortgage company in Bellevue, a bland sea of office parks and chain restaurants near Seattle, that should be razed to the ground. For eight hours a day, I labored in the basement listening to an overly talkative girl with a limited understanding of the alphabet. For a little more than minimum wage I’d endured her anti-immigrant rants and calmly explained that P, in fact, came after O and not the other way around. In the dream I was back there again. I was panicked, the walls felt to be closing in and this girl was rambling on and on about how she hoped the INS would take “all the Mexicans back to where they belong.” I awoke from the dream in a sweat. Outside, a herd of water buffalo noisily passed by my window. The room was unbearably hot, the baby in the next room was crying, something unpleasant could be smelled cooking on the stove, and I was relieved beyond anything that I was in Georgia and not back in the states. I was away from that dreadful calendar, away from that miserable job, suddenly living in a strange land full of surprises, and, thankfully, no longer peeing in a Gatorade bottle.

I try to remember things like that when life here gets a little frustrating. Of course now my previous life has come calling in the form of another rejection letter. And grad school deadlines are approaching and the question of “What do I do after Peace Corps?” is looming like a rogue wave. Another school year will soon begin, and with it un-measurable frustrations. Through it all I try to remember that basement filing room, and be thankful that if nothing else, Georgia is anything but boring.

This blog may seem to be filled with my bitching and moaning, but keep in mind that I can leave at any time. Peace Corps has a contract with a very reputable travel agent who will book you a flight at a moments notice and fly you directly back to your place of permanent residence. They are forbidden to try to talk you out of it. And I’m still here, still trudging down the dusty road every day and preparing for another school year. And even if bald history isn’t a bestseller, perhaps something marketable can be written about life in Georgia. Or, it it’s not marketable, perhaps at least I can gain some variety in my rejection letters.

Thursday, August 02, 2007


Here in Dimi the oppressive summer heat has arrived—humidity, sweat, glaring sun, sweat, offensive sweat, even more sweat, and ... well, you can’t believe how much sweat. It’s disgusting. As a native of the mild climate of the northwest I’m ill-prepared for this type of heat. All winter I felt pretty smug about my ability to withstand the cold in my unheated room with cold wind blowing in through gaps in my windows. I am now eating my words from when I called everyone else a sissy for their heaters and long johns and complaints about the cold.

Even after a few weeks in the humidity of Washington DC in July, I was not prepared for another summer of sweltering heat in Georgia. And unlike the semi-hot places I’ve lived previously, here there is no AC, no rotating fan, no nothing.

I open my window at night in hopes of a slight breeze and instead all I get is bats. I rest in my bed, under the semi-protection of my mosquito net and watch these creatures do frantic laps around my room. I assume they’re supposedly looking for the exit, but mostly they seem content to nest in my curtains and circle about above my bed. The least they could do is eat the mosquitoes and moths that invade my bedroom, but they do nothing of the sort. So I sweat it out in my room and thank God I was given some sort of rabies vaccine.

Unlike back home, there is no washing machine to take care of my stinky T-shirts and shorts. Unlike certain spoiled American volunteers whose host mothers diligently hand wash their clothes (and iron their underwear—Seth), my own host mom is much too progressive and modern. I didn’t even have to put up a fight about who would do the laundry. When I first mentioned that I needed to wash my clothes, my host mom showed me where the sink and buckets were and left me to it. It should be noted that I have not been allowed to wash any dishes.

I’m completely in favor of liberating the women here from their unfair share of domestic chores, but this noble attitude unfortunately entails a lot of work on my end. At a minimum it would be nice if my host mother hadn’t laughed at me for the blisters I got the first couple times I washed my clothes by hand. But I am a noble guy, an ardent feminist by this country’s standards.

Recently, my girlfriend Paige visited. She is beloved by my host family. Her only fault, according to them, is that she is too skinny and that she refuses to eat enough.

Her latest visit won major points as she made chocolate chip cookies. She also won over my host sister’s baby, as little Mariami followed her around like a lost puppy. My host mother was very impressed with Paige’s domestic skills and motherly instinct, pulling me aside to tell me what a “good girl” she was and how she would be more than happy to tell Paige’s parents what a “good boy” I was. So Paige has her backers. But is she really such a wonderful potential wife?

Allow me to display exhibit A.

It was a ridiculously hot summer day and I was sweating profusely. Paige alleged that I was not smelling very fresh, which is really a very rude thing to tell someone regardless of how very, very true it might have been. Actually, I believe her comments were something along the lines of, “Ryan, you stink. You should take a shower and wash your clothes.”

I admit, my clothes were not smelling of roses. And yes, I attempted to remedy this by washing them with Barf brand detergent. And despite it’s poor name, Barf is a fine detergent and I stand by it and would recommend it to friends.

However, despite my host mother’s kind words, Paige is NOT a good woman by Georgian standards. Even after I made her wonderful grilled cheese sandwiches she still absolutely refused to wash my clothes for me.
Oh, sure, all of you back in America are shocked by that comment, but it is the norm here in Georgia. Women do laundry and cook and clean. What do the men do? Well... I can’t pass that one by the censors so just never mind. Use your imagination.

This is not the first time that Paige has refused to do her female duty of washing my clothes. Oh, sure, she does wash her own clothes by hand, but her refusal to wash mine makes me look bad. A previous visit involved her reading a book in the sun while I washed my clothes, all the while the neighborhood men, uhm... consumed responsible amounts of alcohol in my yard and looked on in disgust. I appeared very shameful in their eyes. I appeared to be a bit of a pansy. And worse yet, Paige appeared not to care. Oh, sure. I open car doors for her, kill spiders, give her my coat on cold walks, offer up my umbrella, glare at leering men on busses and all the rest, but does she reciprocate by scrubbing my socks and shirts? No. She does not.

So here I am, washing my clothes and hanging them on clothesline, while my dear Paige just sits around chatting with my host mother, drinking coffee and discussing the weather. By Georgian standards this is wrong, and aren’t we supposed to be culturally assimilating?

But before you all send cards of condolence please know that here in the world of Georgia there is a catch to this gross unfairness. There is a strange silver lining to these “traditional gender roles.”

On a recent night, I found myself at a large Georgian supra with Paige and a handful of other American girls. And, unfortunately, I also found that I was the sole American male. This supra was very traditional and that means the women sit and talk and the men drink, uhm... considerable but responsible portions. I’ve come to fear such situations. And as the sole American male amidst a number of Georgian men there was a lot of added pressure on me to drink.

I’m a fairly competent drinker (for an American), but the stakes are much higher over here. One has to drink a lot, but also maintain sobriety, something that is completely unfair given the amounts involved. One tries their best.

Over the course of 4-5 hours the wine poured far too freely for my liking. I was stuck at the end of the table with the men and we drank glass after glass of wine. And when the glasses proved to small for the gravity of the toast, my fellow drinkers broke out larger cups, various larger vessels and even bowls, just to up the ante. For the sake of my mom and the Peace Corps officials reading this blog I won’t say how much we drank, but it’s fair to say that it was enough to bring down a family of camels.

Sitting two seats away from Paige I bravely kept up with the Georgians and represented my dear America most admirably. By the end of the supra the Georgians were impressed. I was declared a “good boy” and a fine drinker and a credit to my family and country. I was encouraged to leave my village and move to theirs’. We were now brothers and I had proved my worth.

When it was finally over Paige expressed how impressed she was with how I was able to keep up with the Georgians. Did you catch that? She was impressed with my drinking.

And there you have the strange contradiction of life for Americans living in Georgia. If this was back in the states and someone had gone out and drank like this, any respectable girlfriend (Paige especially) would have ripped her boyfriend apart for such irresponsible behavior. But since this is Georgia, and the rules are different, Paige gave me a pat on the back for holding my own. When does anyone in the states ever hear their girlfriend say “Way to go! I can’t believe you were able to drink so much.” This is a rare place and time. The rules are very different.

When I return to America, I look forward to not washing my boxers in the sink with my bare hands. But even more so, I look forward to not drinking a good portion of my body weight in wine out of social obligation. Oh, Georgia. You are a strange and magnificent land. Possibly bad for the health, but quite a place all the same. Wait, can I say that? Maybe I should mention the many curative powers of their mineral waters. They say the mineral waters are very good for the liver and kidneys.

Babies and Lost


In Georgian villages babysitters are rare, but there's plenty of grandparents. This is good for my house, since my host sister lives in a different village and we have only South American soap operas and the clumsiness of the puppy to entertain us. The near constant presence of grandkids is very welcome indeed. Even though my host mother is only nine years older than I am, she already has two grandkids. The most recent is Romani, a chubby little baby boy who cares for little more than milk.


His big sister Mariami is 1 ½ years old and a lot of fun. Her hobbies include following the puppy about, playing with a watermelon in a bucket of water, and squealing.

I have an ongoing joke with my host father that I know when he’s been drinking heavily or has a grandchild around because it’s the only time he talks and smiles. The new baby means a lot of grandkid time and since my host father hasn’t cut back on his role as toast master for most the neighborhood’s supras, he’s been all smiles as of late.


Babies are universally loved, but here in Georgia they’re the absolute center of the world. If one of the grandkids are around the whole neighborhood seems to drop by on a daily basis. It’s not uncommon for seven people to oversee the baby’s bath.

I really enjoy the little guys, but sadly I haven’t paid as much attention to them since I’ve been a bit distracted as of late. The cause of this the American TV series “Lost.”

While I was in the states, my brother gave me the first two seasons on DVD. For those of you who haven’t seen this series my advice is to avoid it like it was crack, because that’s what it is. Crack.

I do not get caught up in television in America. Aside from SportsCenter and the Daily Show and Seahawks games I don’t watch a lot of television. I don’t say this like I’m too highbrow for TV, I just don’t like feeling obligated to be home at a certain hour to watch my favorite program. And Lost is exactly my greatest fear. This show is rock cocaine. Stay away from it. It is addictive. While I should have been writing a new 6th grade English textbook the past week, I’ve instead been watching episode after episode of this program. Essentially I watched 40 hours of TV in four days. I ate my meals and wasted the best hours of the day and night watching the series on my laptop, trying to figure out just what was going to happen next.

I have never been so ashamed of myself. When I sleep, my dreams are filled with this remote island and it’s weird cast. I’m suddenly running through the jungle, trying to get away from the “others,” helping Mr. Echo and Jack in their various escapades, consoling Michael over the loss of his son, cursing that stupid Shannon and hanging out with Hurley and Charlie.

And now that I’ve watched all the episodes of season 1 and 2, I’m desperately trying to get season 3. WHAT HAPPENS NEXT! I think I found another volunteer who downloaded season 3 somehow and I’ve made arrangements to get it. I have to get it. Absolutely have to.

Now I understand why the most productive conversation topic with my more advanced students was this show, which has been showing on Georgian TV. It’s all they could talk about. Their notebooks were covered with stickers from actors of this show. They’d debate long and hard about which guy they thought was better looking, Jack or Sawyer. And I think I’ve found the way to get them to come to class: I show the program in English and get them to discuss it in English. Who said Hollywood was the bane of the planet. It may be the way to get through to these kids, and I’ll get to watch my precious Lost also. Finally, a win-win.