Saturday, November 6, 2010

Charity, Volunteering, & Contracts

A look back at the mountains of Samegrelo after a long day of hiking in the foothills. Now I understand when someone told me before I came that the views are reminiscent of Colorado

So I’m going to try something a bit different in this post. Instead of restricting myself with bullets, I’ll just write until I’ve exhausted the topic (or I’m tired of writing). Recently, I’ve felt myself filling space just to reach a quota of ten points, and though I think at times that’s led me to stumbling upon some fairly healthy realizations, for the most part the expectations have made writing feel like more of a chore than a joy. So we’ll see how this works, but it should make my posts briefer and more to the point, which may feel like dumbing things down a bit (more Dan Brown than James Joyce), but since this here ain’t no democracy, there’s little you can do about it. 

In correction to a previous post, this fruit is actually called Khumro and is strung up outside the house until January at which point it is deliciously frozen and shriveled. Also makes for a nice ornament

I was discussing charity with my students today during our weekly English Club (I really need to find a better title, as the current one is a bit bandzi [lame]). I was trying to explain Movember while also raising the idea of starting our own charity at the school (I told them that we had to establish a goal that would be useful [new chalk boards, a community garden, cleaning up the school grounds, etc.] and not what some of the boys suggested [TV-satellite and flat screens]). I’ll let you know how it goes (I told them to come back next week with some ideas), but a majority of the EC members are clever girls (in Georgian English, people are not smart or unintelligent, they’re clever or stupid).

During the discussion, I brought up the term volunteer, which I think is an exceedingly useful word in Georgia since everybody here seems to be so giving and welcoming. Originally it stemmed from talking about donating, and what we can donate. I explained to them that along with donating money and old clothes, we can also donate our time, and that when we do, it’s called volunteering. Of course they understood all of this. They just needed me to help them navigate through this fairly specific topic. In fact, a few of my students had volunteered before in a program that reaches out to kids who don’t have a family (that notion amazed me, since everybody is family in Georgia, including people who are not blood relatives).

This is a group of guys who hang out on the main drag in Martvili and play nardi all day long; this picture was taken at 9 in the morning and they were out there at 9 in the evening

But I ran into trouble when I told them that our program refers to us as volunteers, even though we get paid. It wasn’t that they didn’t get it; it was that I didn’t get it. I stood at the front of the class for a second trying to figure out how that made sense. When I was first reading about the program and coming to Georgia, I was a little startled at how little the monthly salary was (I will not bring up how much it is; if you’re really interested, you can find out on your own). But after I got to Georgia, and realized how low the cost of living is (not to mention that our food and housing are taken care of), all of my previous reservations vanished.

I’m hesitant to say I live like a king here, but compared to my fellow teachers, I think that’s a fair statement. I make much more than them despite the fact that they have families to worry about (most of them are women whose husbands work, but that doesn’t take away from how little they make). If anything, they’re the volunteers. 

This is where I'm heading when I die, supposedly.

So, needless to say, I’m hesitant to refer to myself as a volunteer, although if you’ve noticed before, I usually refer to other members of the program as “fellow volunteers.” I think it’s a term I picked up from TLG, since that’s what they call us in any official communication. But again, I wouldn’t call any of us volunteers. When my Mother and Father met in the early-eighties as Visa Vista Volunteers, they were much more deserved of the title, since they made next to nothing and had to pay for their own housing (my Mother at first shared an apartment with another volunteer for $80 a month). My parents were downright poor then, while right now in Georgia, I’m practically middle-class.

Quite often, Georgians have asked me why I came to Georgia. I usually tell them some bland answer about teaching and seeing the world. There’s definitely some truth to that answer, but the real reason lies being what I told other members of the program (I am already tring to wean myself off of calling ourselves volunteers) when we discussed the topic. The actual specifics behind me coming to Georgia go like this; I was looking at a few places (Kyrzgstan, Indonesia, and half of Southeast Asia) but the opportunity in Georgia was moving the quickest while I was also broke, unemployed, and itching to get going. Yeah, I did a little bit of research, and Georgia seemed interesting, but I had no burning desire to come to Georgia specifically. In fact, I had never really heard much about it before I started researching during the process, but even then, I read about the terrain and wine and that was all I needed to know.

Fellow TLGer Darryl, Temuri (random Georgian kid), and myself outside the entrance into the Monastery at Balda

All of my fellow TLG members have their own reasons for coming here, but a majority of us fit the same mold: mid-twenties, college educated, but with little idea of what we want to do. A few of us like to joke that since the program is funded mostly through foreign financial backing (read: United States), that this was in fact just a way to lower the unemployment rate back home. But the point is, many of us came to Georgia in search of something.

I have little idea of what I want to do with my life, but if I had any aim at all in coming to Georgia, it was to find out if I’m cut out for teaching. Now TEFL is certainly a specialized form of teaching, and even if I do love or hate this experience, that sentiment may not carry over to, say, teaching English Literature to high school students in Pennsylvania. But I think it’s a fair litmus test.

Saw this kid at the tolerance concert held in Senaki; he was fifteen at the most, but had a better Mo than me... Oh yeah, Donate!

But here’s the twist. Many of my fellow TLG members only signed up for the six-month contract (and really, it’s more like a four-month contract [mid-August to mid-December]) or they had originally signed the ten-month contract but opted to reduce it. Everyone has their own reasons for this (I don’t know specifics, but if I were to guess it’d be frustration, better opportunities, or just being uncomfortable and missing home), and I’m not about to pass judgment or disparage my colleagues.

Again, I can only speak for myself, but three months doesn’t seem like a long enough time to really make any significant change or impact (school starts in mid-September while we are flown out in mid/late-December, making it just over three months of actual teaching). My mother has been working abroad for the past five years, and on her first assignment in the African country of Liberia, she had initially signed a one-year contract but eventually extended it to two years. Her reason being that she felt one year was simply not long enough to make a substantial impression.

A nice shot from my Saturday hike up from the Balda Monastery showing off much of the Samegrelo flatlands in the distance

Now there are definitely some differences between our circumstances (my Mother gets paid a whole lot more, while working under intensely pressurized conditions), but I have the same concerns over leaving early. But really, what it comes down to is why I’m staying rather than why I’m not leaving. There’s two glaring reason, with the first being that I have nothing better to do. I know that sounds like a really bad reason, and maybe it is, but the other presentable options don’t seem nearly as interesting. I could go back to graduate school, but experience always beats education in my eyes. I also might be able to find a better paying TEFL job somewhere else, but I’m not in massive debt and therefore have little monetary motivation. Most important, if I do go elsewhere, there’s no guarantee I would like it as much as Georgia.

Saw this in the hallway at the school in Senaki; hey, at least they're using the language (plus I learned a new Georgian word)

Which brings me to the second reason, I love it here. I really am convinced that the place I was looking for when I bought a one-way ticket to Firenze this past summer was here in Georgia and not in Italy (a topic for another time). I love the customs, the people, the unwarranted friendliness, and the natural beauty (something that’s become more and more obvious as the air has thinned and the views have cleared up). Probably the most compelling reason to stay is my host-family, their devotion, helpfulness, and willingness to let me be me. Yes, there are and will be some trying times, but those are everywhere and I doubt there’s a place on Earth where we can hide from them. But adversity makes us stronger and, to be honest, I wouldn’t want to be anywhere perfect, as I’d learn little from myself in such a place.

I doubt I’ll stay in Georgia past a year, mostly because I’m young and there are tons of opportunities out there. I left Charleston because I was convinced that five years in one place at a young age is four too many, and I’m sticking to that theory. I never want to be too sedentary or comfortable because at my age, I have the blood and attitude to be a bit transient. But really, who knows? Just as soon as I’m set on putting an expiration date on something, I remember that I’m also at the age and have the mind frame where I can’t put restrictions on myself. Just go with it.

This was the bonfire they had outside the school in Senaki immediately following the tolerance concert. Some of the students were jumping over it, which would normally be cause for alarm, but in Georgia it's just chalked up to boys being boys

Prologue: So I guess that was kind of similar to my previous posts, as I went from charity to volunteering, to contracts, and right back to my love of Georgia. But at least I didn’t need to insert any abrupt expressions like, and now I’ll be changing directions… But I promise I’ll soon get back to ignorantly tearing apart Georgian culture. Next up: A post on Georgian men and their cars.


  1. where is the promised post about Georgian men and cars? :D I'd love to read your perspective about that, what nuances you have noticed so far to compare with my observation : ))

  2. i love this post, max! so much i read it twice.