Friday, February 29, 2008

The Winter of My Discontent


Tis the season for... well... not much really. Here in my village Winter has slammed us with some truly awful weather. Last year we had a few days of snow and subfreezing weather. This year it has just been one dumping of snow after another. Most of the homes in my village don't have gas and must heat their homes with wood stoves. The government has reduced the amount of logging in the neighboring mountains so people generally scavenge the forests for fallen limbs instead. These are dragged back to the house and we cut them using a two-person saw. I really enjoy this chore because it gives me a sense of accomplishment, something I don't get much of in my other endeavors here.

My host family continues to be one of the best aspects of life here. They're funny, outgoing, warm, and generous. Occasionally the grandkids visit and when they do we light the woodstove and play with them. The kids are particularly enamored with my cell phone's ring tones.

Because of the bitter cold and lack of heat, I find myself spending a lot of time in my sleeping bag listening to podcasts. There are often supras to attend, but for the most part there is just a lot of free time, but because of the weather there's not many good ways to spend it. I'd like to sit up and write, but my fingers quickly grow numb. Also the power goes out a lot when there's snow and my computer rapidly runs out of batteries. So for entertainment I watch the neighbor's ducks wander the dirt road. I check up on the Stalin statue to see how the snow has altered his hairstyle. I watch the stars come out on clear nights and make frequent cups of coffee. On weekends I usually escape to other volunteers' sites or head to Tbilisi. My feet have been numb for six weeks now and even the occasional hot shower in Tbilisi fails to revive them. This can't be good.

Winter here can sort of crush your spirit. This seems to be the case for many of my students as well. Their efforts have declined dramatically and it's not unusual for me to assign students in class work and have none of them work on it. They seem confused that I don't find their excuses for not doing the work very convincing. "Teacher, I don't want to." Well that doesn't really do it for me.

To further exacerbate my frustrations they've largely decided that they don't want to participate in the 2nd Annual Language Competition. Last year this was a huge success and one of the few genuine accomplishments I can point to for my service here. We organized it, judged, held an awards ceremony and doled out prizes. The community was actively involved and the students participated with enthusiasm. This year most of my students said they didn't want to attend and few wrote the essays that would make the eligible to enter. When students refuse to do something as simple as write a 40 word essay it makes me feel like the balance is kind of tipping in an unfair manner.

Despite their largely discouraging efforts, I have a few classes that still make coming to school feel worthwhile. My two 7th grade classes have a good number of students who are enthusiastic about English and eager to improve. This doesn't always mean they do their homework, but they still show enthusiasm. As the school year winds down over here I have to keep thinking of how I'm going to get the most out of my final months here. So everyday is spent reanalyzing the reality of school and how best to focus my energies. Hopefully these two classes will be interested in doing more in the coming months. If they don't, well it's going to be pretty discouraging.

Luckily, it seems that most of the worst of winter is over. Spring isn't too far around the corner. Perhaps my toes will unfreeze. Maybe the sunshine will awaken my students' interest in school. Perhaps my clothes will finally be able to dry in under 5 days and I can start bathing more than once a week. Who knows. At a minimum I hope that once the temperature becomes bearable I can spend my free time trying to write something up about my experience here. I'm pretty certain that the difficulties, impasses, and frustrations I feel are probably universally shared by volunteers in other countries. The roller coaster of emotion that comes with this type of service, the variety of strange and uplifting experiences, the humor of so many odd moments here, well it just seems like something that would easier to write about than other topics. And it might be nice to gain some perspective on everything I've experienced in the past 20 months.

If I were the Tamada and the toasting topics were left to my discretion I would ask everyone to raise their glasses and toast to spring. Toast to education and hard work and learning and how these things will help a person and a country move forward. Toast to warmth and heat and dry socks. Toast to combating apathy. Toast to wearing seatbelts and not passing other cars on blind corners or trying to speed on icy roads. Toast to some sort of lasting accomplishment being left behind in my village to have made this all worth while. Toast to 139 days to go until I can come back home.

Lasha's Birthday

Around the time Hollywood was celebrating the Oscars those of us in my village put together a little soire of our own that was a virtual who’s who in my neighborhood. Time for Lasha’s 6th birthday party. Lasha’s a neighbor kid whose family is close with my host family. Since his last birthday Lasha has grown up a lot. He doesn’t hide behind his mother’s leg when adults talk to him and it’s been months since he’s wandered into our yard wearing a one-piece girl’s bathing suit.


Lasha’s mother shares cow milking rights with my neighbor so I see her a lot. Lasha’s older sister is one of my students and we talk every day when we walk to school. “Ryan... I English you today yes?” Lasha’s father Skippy is sort of the neighborhood handyman and is a fixture at all the local supras. I often hear him late at night playing a drum and singing at various supras in the neighborhood. They’re good people and neighbors so I made my way there with my host family to celebrate with them.

My own sixth birthday was very different from Lasha’s. I got a baseball hat and a T-shirt and none of my dad’s friends drank 20 glasses of wine or toasted to me or danced on chairs. I also received a Velcro dartboard that stopped working after a few days, but my parents never locked arms and drank wine from oversized horns. I don’t know what young Lasha was expecting for his birthday, but he seemed pleased with the result—a supra.

Children’s birthday = supra. Funeral = supra. Weddings = supra. Christmas = supra. Pretty much any significant day results in a supra. So for Lasha’s birthday he got all the locals at his house, drinking wine and toasting late into the night. While for some it might have seemed like a rerun of most the other supras in the village (same people, same food, same wine, same toasts), those in attendance seemed to enjoy themselves thoroughly.

As per the local custom, wine glasses proved much to small for the significance of the occasion and they broke out the animal horns and filled them with wine so we could toast to Lasha with the necessary respect. When Lasha blew out the candles I don’t know what he wished for, but if it was to see me drink a giant horn of wine and say some kind words in his honor then his wish failed to come true. Lasha ran out of the room in the middle of my toast to play in a back room with his friend. But I made the toast anyway and drank my horn to the bottom. Then I listened to the 30 other men as they toasted to brave Lasha.

The night continued on in this fashion although I disappointed many by refusing to drink from the horn again. “Ryan, you’re not drinking enough!” Really? That’s too bad. My sincere apologies.

A common feature at supras in my village is the well-meaning neighbor who tries to make me feel included by rambling on in Russian to explain the toasts. At this one, a local man at the supra who knew 10 words of English insisted on translating for me even though I knew what was being said. His few English words proved inadequate. “Ryan! I... you... brother... (random Russian gibberish)... wine good...drink!” He repeated this in various forms for some time.

The men continued drinking and toasting for six hours. The women sat at a different table and laughed at them. The children kept tugging on my sleeve to have me take their photograph. Finally at 2am we called it a night and we all set off into the snow for the long walk home.

Saturday, February 23, 2008

Plenty of Spare Time

When there's two feet of snow in the yard, no fire in the woodstove, no electricity, a broken flashlight, and you've already read all the books in your room, you find yourself without much to do.

With my laptop out of batteries I turned to my old friend iPod and cued up another podcast from The Dirtbag Diaries. For those of you not up on podcasts, they're like little radio programs you can download online and listen to while you commute to work, kill some time at the office, or while you shiver under the covers while listening to the cat chase mice in the attic.

This podcast is produced by my friend Fitz Cahall, but even if it wasn't I would still be forcing it on all my friends and family. The podcast focusses on outdoor sports, travel, adventure, etc. There's stories about soldiers who put up a climbing wall in Iraq and another about setting fire to his dead car and pushing it into the Indian Ocean. The stories are funny, touching, though-provoking and above all they're entertaining. We could all use a little more of that in our life. So if you're a bored Peace Corps volunteer or someone who likes rock climbing or traveling then give him a listen.

Check it out at or download it for free from iTunes.