Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Change, Miss, & Advice

Gorgeous Svaneti

I don’t want to make excuses, but this month of Movember might be a bit slow here. I have a lot on my plate, including raising money for a worthy cause and the creepiness of my face, organizing my annual Thanksgiving football game from over 3000 miles away, a stiffening workload (I’m now tutoring a few of my students while also giving English lessons to the other teachers at my school, not to mention the teaching I’m doing at home), and trying to see as much of Georgia before the weather gets to the point where I’d rather not go anywhere (at which point, I’ll have plenty of time to fill these pages). I’ll still do my best to update this blog as much as I can, but don’t be alarmed if a week may pass in between posts (although I hope it never comes to that).

In response to a question one of the readers (Irakli) prompted in the comment section a week ago, this post will step back from Georgia a little and focus more on judging myself. As Thoreau said, “I should not talk about myself if there were anybody else whom I knew as well.” The most elegant excuse for being a narcissistic asshole I know of.

The family car, which gets washed every other day. By far, the most important family possession. I hope to have a post on Georgian Men and their manqana (car) obsessions up soon

ErtiWhat would you change immediately in the country, in the host family, your students and teachers - what inconveniences you or drives you most crazy?

I had to think about this awhile. There are many things I believe to be “backwards” in Georgia, but I don’t know if I would change any of them. Little faults and chinks are what make Georgia, Georgia. They give it a sense of identity and—if this makes any sense—culture. Mostly we think of culture as positive things that define a society, but negatives can also do the shaping. I only have one request of anywhere I go: that people won’t be assholes. Needless to say, that has not been a problem in Georgia.

Beautiful Svaneti... Again

But the one thing I do find frustrating is the resistance to change or progress. This is especially true in the schools (specifically mine), where they’ve had a way of going about things for so long and at such a comfortable pace, that they are averse to any change whatsoever. It could be the simple things (having teachers’ meetings in the middle of school when classes are going on [and therefore taking away class-time from the students] instead of having the teachers come in early or stay later) or the big things (not splitting up classes based on proficiency; there are kids in my year VII-XI who barely know their alphabet but are still blindly shuffled along with the rest of their class. I could write a dissertation on the problems with this system), but it all depends on one thing: it’s too much work. It’s easier just to keep going on at the status quo as long as it’s comfortable, and it’s always comfortable doing things the way they’ve always been done.

God knows this isn’t restricted to Georgia, this is a problem everywhere in the world. In some places the bureaucracy is so gigantic and established that bringing about change resembles hopelessly trying to move Everest (ask anyone who works for the US government), while in others there is actually a chance to change but the people are too content with the current system (my Mother encountered these same problems while in Liberia, where the average working day was five hours). The key for me is to not fall in with the process. It would be easy for me to just say, Do as the Georgians do, and mindlessly sludge away for the next nine months without trying to enact any real progressive change. Unfortunately for my fellow teachers and director, that is not my intention. I’m still relatively new to the school, so I’m not about to crown myself the King and declare what needs to be done. But things will change, mostly because they can. All it takes is a little hard work.

Luka booting his Rugby ball. The boys love Rugby much like most of Georgia

OriWhat were the most important things you did not take with you but you found out you can't live without them?

I was asked this same question by a New Yorker I met at the sulfur baths in Tbilisi this weekend (kind of a weird place to meet a fellow American), and I had an answer that surprised even myself, “Not much.” That’s not completely true as there’s certainly tons of things I’ve missed from time to time, but they all seem of the material type that were holding me back from living a life of fulfillment. Part of the reason I’ve loved Georgia so much is that it’s deprived me of American distractions (constant connection to the internet, excessive TV, and sports [this blog was originally built upon my obsession with sports]) and got me back to doing things that are much more mentally healthy (reading, writing, and thorough thinking). 

I might be reusing a few of this picture by now; but this shot just reinforce my longing for a solid two-wheeler

There are certainly some practical things that I wish I had the foresight to bring (more winter clothing becoming more and more apparent as the temperature dips), but those are just things that can be replaced (as my Dad always says, opportunity to upgrade). But if I had to choose one thing, it’d have to be the Kindle my Aunt let me borrow which I left in my room at home (by the way, if someone wants to grab that…). I’m running out of books quickly and recently went to the English bookstore in Tbilisi, and there wasn’t much selection (not surprised, but I’m just sayin’). I could think of a handful of instances where a Kindle can really help, and amazingly, I find myself in one of them right now.

And I miss my bike. I rode a rickshaw through college to earn money (sort of a bike-taxi thing with a carriage on the back), so I never really wanted to go biking in my spare time (I always compared it to an accountant doing his taxes when he got off work). But when I moved home a year ago, I started cycling consistently with my father (already an avid cyclist) and came to really love the sport. The time alone is nice (it’s an astoundingly solitary activity), but what I really love is the ability to see so much in such little time (more so than running, plus better for your knees) at a good pace (you can’t really enjoy the sights of the road when you’re in a car, you miss too much). When I first got to Georgia, I thought it’d be suicidal to ride a bike on the roads, but now I’m not so certain. It would be dangerous, but no more dangerous than riding in Charleston (worst place to cycle in America). So I’ve bought a cruiser than I can use to get around town and the close surrounding area, but I really miss my road bike and the ability to get up early, bang out one hundred kilometers, get some good thinking in, clear my head, and see some sights (Georgia has some impressive views now that the dense air has cleared away).

My father and I on our bikes in Tuscon this past March; gettin' is some quality F&S time

But that’s kind of it. Give me my Cervello and a Kindle, and I’d have zero reason to complain. But as for people…

I’ve actually decided not to come back stateside for Christmas and instead head off to Southeast Asia to meet up with my Mother. TLG offers us a plane ticket home for the winter holidays, or a ticket to anywhere in the world for the equivalent price (or less). I figured I was already a quarter-way around the world, why not take the plunge to half-way around the world and go see some place amazing while I can.

It was a tough decision, because as much as I long for my Kindle, I also miss my family and friends. But—and I might sound like a heartless bastard here—I grew up a very independent person who has gotten used to separation by now. Being a child of divorce, going far away for college, a constantly shifting group of friends… all of these things have helped me to become a very adaptable person. It didn’t take long for me to gain a solid core of friends in Georgia (mostly volunteers) and I already feel like I’m part of a new family here at the Gabunias. Don’t get me wrong, both of these groups would have to go to the end of the world for me before they could replace my friends and family back home, but I feel like wherever I am in my life, as long as I look for it, I’ll have support.

Although it would be nice to see my Annabelle (sister’s dog).

My Annabella; the love of my life

SamiWhat would your advice to people who will be coming later on TLG program so they are successful in their jobs? At the same time - what are the greatest obstacles they need to overcome to achieve such a goal?

When I was in Tbilisi the first time, myself and a few other volunteers got to partake in an question and answer session with the newest volunteers who were just starting their training. I was ecstatic, because I felt like this type of thing would have been monumentally helpful when I had first gotten to Georgia. There were definitely some positive things that came out of that conference, and I think the new volunteers were probably for the better because of it. But immediately afterwards, I had the feeling that a few of us answering—including myself—had come off as a little preachy, this is going to happen to you, and this is what you should do… That sort of thing.

So of course I did what I’ve been doing here for quite some time, I thought about it (I also talked about it with a few of the wiser volunteers). I came up with what I feel like is pretty good advice to anyone coming over here: whatever may happen to you will be unique. There’s no set of guidelines you can follow that can guarantee you will be successful or even like Georgia. But if you keep an open mind and are motivated enough, this should be as great an experience as it has been for me. I know that may seem like a cop-out or that I’m dodging the question, but the point is that I don’t feel comfortable telling someone how to go about things, since we are all different people with different personalities (and in turn, different reactions to each situation). 

Again, probably already used this one as well, but it's getting so cold over here, and this is the only source of heat in my house

Just enjoy it as much as you can. Don’t worry (because in Georgia, that never helps and usually only results in useless anxiety), try and always say Yes, and never lose perspective on just how lucky you are. When I was in Batumi, and we were partying on a Pirate Ship (also a hotel) in the harbor, I had to stop for a second, look around, and think this is pretty fuckin’ crazy. There’ve been heaps of other experiences that have mirrored that same outline, and I’d have to say that if you stay positive and optimistic in Georgia, the same thing will happen to you.

I just realized my answer had little to do with the teaching aspect. So my advice on the actual job side of things is to never be afraid to speak your mind to your fellow teachers or director, and don’t be afraid to be dependent on your fellow volunteers. There are tons of us over here, some with excellent teaching experience, and we are all willing to help because we’ve probably been in the same tough spot before. That’s one of the highlights of TLG, the outreach provided, whether it’s the bigwigs in Tbilisi, or your fellow volunteer ten kilometers down the road; help is never too far away.

Me trying to tempt a stray dog at the Senaki train station. I was a little wet due to an apocalyptic rain shower


  1. What were you going to do if the dog eventually came closer?


  2. Max,

    Thank you very much for answering my questions. Honestly, it is a pleasure to read your thoughts - an intelligent person like you is not quite common in general population.

    I reserve a right to ask three other questions close to end of your tenure. If I manage to get in Georgia while you are still there it would be pleasure of mine to meet you and shake hands.

    Thanks again,

  3. Ty: Hug her?

    Irakli: Thanks for the good words and the inspiring questions. Look forward to meeting you and sharing some ghvino Georgian style: arms locked drinking out of husks.