Thursday, December 13, 2007

Warmth and Caring

Sometimes it’s easy to focus on the negative aspects of life. Sometimes we don’t reflect enough on the sunny side of things, like when one’s day is uplifted by the boy waiting at the gate of his house for the American volunteer to pass by so he can give him a freshly picked pear. Sometimes it’s the sun rising above the neighboring hills, casting the clouds in peculiar wonder. Or maybe the sounds of children laughing... err... and sometimes it’s the care package that arrives full of pre-made Indian food, CDs, Gobstoppers, Dots, Reece’s Peanut Butter Cups and a bottle of Maker’s Mark bourbon.

Care packages are awesome, as I think I might have mentioned a few times on this blog. And Luther Hubbard’s care package hit the mark in a way I can’t begin to explain. It was happiness in a box. And I wasn’t totally selfish with it. I passed out some peanut butter cups to the other volunteers, shared my beef jerky, and even parted with a few precious packets of Indian food. And despite Paige eating all the macaroni and cheese she received in the mail after promising to share it with me, I still gave her the box of instant red beans and rice (although she forgot it at the Peace Corps office).

When I first flew to Georgia I purchased two small bottles of Jack Daniels at the duty free store at the airport. My plan was to give one bottle to my training host family and then one to my permanent host family. I followed through on the first part, but after I noticed they just put it in a display case and never drank it I decided not to risk wasting the next bottle on my permanent host family. Instead I shared it with an American volunteer I knew would appreciate it—Heidi.

So it was with trepidation that I poured my current host father a glass of the Maker’s Mark handcrafted bourbon I received in my care package. It’s not that he doesn’t know alcohol or can’t appreciate it—that could NOT be further from the truth. It’s just that he hasn’t reacted enthusiastically to imported alcohol in the past. I brought a bottle of wine back from Greece thinking it would be a kind gesture to share it with him, as he is a man with an appreciation for wine. He took it as an insult. “Ryan, why did you buy this wine? How much did this cost? We have a storeroom full of wine. Why did you waste the money?” But he took a sip, grunted, glared at me and left the room.

So I wasn’t really sure how he would respond to whisky. He could hate it, or he could really like it, and if the latter happened, I know he could polish a fifth of 45 proof booze in the time it takes me to brush my teeth and he wouldn’t show so much as a buzz. He’s like a Superman with no kryptonite.

So I gave him a glass and explained that, silly Americans that we are, we generally sip our bourbon instead of pounding it one big gulp. He nodded suspiciously and drank half the glass in a gulp. He eyed it with a cold, judgmental stare and then returned to watching TV. “Do you like it?” I asked him. “Uhmmrrrrghhh,” he replied. Granted a long description of his impressions would be beyond my pitiful Georgian, but a simple “yes” or “no” is something I could decipher. My guess is “no,” but I suppose it’s better for me that he doesn’t care for it. And that’s mainly because it’s really cold here and I have no heat in my room. And I’ve discovered a shot of bourbon in one’s post dinner coffee does an incredible job of warming oneself. I mean it really does the trick. It’s positively lovely. Wait... that sounds kind of bad. Mom, if you’re reading this, please know I do recall how Grandpa got sort of carried away with the bourbon/coffee combo for a good number of years there and wandered off into something a medical professional might have called “alcoholism.” Don’t be startled. I haven’t made it a morning drink.

So for the coming weeks I’ll be enjoying a little bourbon in my coffee, Indian curry on my piroshkies, and listening to the latest MOP album. Thanks Luther (and everyone else in Seattle who contributed to the care package). And when the contents of it are all gone, I’ll be on my way to Paris for Christmas break and that’s the best care package I can even begin to imagine.

In addition to bourbon, I have another aid in keeping me warm here in Georgia, and that’s my Filson jacket. It’s wool. It was expensive, but it was well worth the cash. I sent them a letter of thanks and I included it below.

Dear Filson,

I’m writing to express my appreciation for the wool jacket I purchased in May of 2006. I’m currently a Peace Corps volunteer working as a schoolteacher in the Republic of Georgia. It’s a little known former Soviet republic that rarely appears in the news. Scenically located in the shadow of the mighty Caucus Mountains, winter here is bitter cold and there is simply no escape from its miserable bite. I mean it is really cold.

The infrastructure here is dilapidated and poverty is a constant problem, especially in villages like mine. This means there is no heat or insulation in the school where I work. I teach class in freezing weather and the concrete walls and single pane windows do little to keep the cold out. This jacket has been my best friend.

In winter, the family I live with heats only one room via a small wood stove. It’s also the room with the television and they pass their time watching Latin American soap operas dubbed in Georgian. And since I can’t stand soap operas, warmth comes at a price I’m deeply reluctant to pay. Your jacket allows me to sit outside under a balcony and read my history books while watching the snow come down without discomfort. The neighbors come over and shout at me to go inside before I catch my death, but I’m plenty warm in my Filson jacket. I would like to note that many locals also believe sitting on cold concrete causes infertility, luckily my jacket comes down far enough that when I sit I'm sitting on wool and my potential offspring are protected.

When I trudge through snow or rain to my school 20 minutes from my house, my jacket keeps me warm and dry, my notebooks secure in the rear map pouch (unfortunately the pouch also protects some of the learning materials we are forced to use, some of which should really be burned in a ritual ceremony to the patron saint of education, whoever that might be.

This coat is also a Godsend when I cross the yard to the outhouse, where on occasion I've squatted over a hole for hours as I suffered the horrid effects of the stomach parasites that riddled my digestive system, but all the while my Filson coat keeps me from shivering with aching cold. If only you would expand your efforts to cover medication to combat Giardia.

I’ll spare you ALL the details of the horror of diarrhea, but I sincerely wish I had purchased those oil skin pants because the ricochet off the outhouse bowl tends to splatter the calves and Lord knows it would be much easier to wash off the oil skin pants than my khakis. I’m sorry for the ugly picture, but it’s my reality.

Also, when I exit the cold-water shower (hose draped over rafter of bathroom ceiling) on a sub-freezing morning, my jacket immediately allows me to regain a good portion of my body temperature.

This coat was by far the best purchase I made before leaving for the Republic of Georgia. My other clothes have become dingy and torn, a result of harsh conditions and from hand washing them in cold water with “Barf” brand detergent. My jeans have blown out at the knees, the cuffs on all my pant legs are shredded, my sweaters and socks are riddled with holes, my shoes have quite simply given up, and even my Carhardt work pants have let me down. And not only is the blue wool of this jacket fairly fashionable, it also hides the wine stains that come from people slopping it on me at ritual feasts.

If I could do over all my pre-Peace Corps shopping I would do it exclusively at Filson. I passed on many of your products because of the high prices, but I have repaid those costs in suffering and the actually money spent replacing my destroyed clothes with inferior items from the local bazaar. Do you make underwear? I don’t recall seeing those in your shop, but could really use some boxer shorts.

In today’s throw-away-culture, quality and durability are rare features in anything we buy. I’m glad there are still companies like yours that continue to produce products that are built to last. And I can’t even begin to express my thanks for keeping me warm. That may sound kind of trivial, but day after day with no escape from the chill it really means something significant. It’s so damn cold here. At times it feels like a camping trip in the snow that will never end. They don’t sell hot chocolate in stores in my village and I don’t want to substitute the vodka they sell in its place.

So keep up the good work and thanks again. You guys truly rock.


Ryan Nickum


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