Monday, November 29, 2010

An Overdue Post

I am so sorry that this post has taken so long for me to write. I feel like this is the first free time I have had in the past two weeks; things have been dzalian giji (very crazy) on this side of the world. I hope you all had a wonderful thanksgiving with your loved ones. I was so sad I wasn't able to attend my family's thanksgiving; it is my favorite holiday and it broke my heart a little that I wasn't able to be with them on that special day. We celebrated thanksgiving here, though. A few of my friends and I went out for a nice dinner, had a few bottles of delicious georgian wine, and ordered many, many chocolate cakes. We went around the table and each said something we were thankful for. It was no thanksgiving at home, but it was enough.

Anyways, where to begin, where to begin? Istanbul was totally incredible. I went with two of my closest friends, Caroline and Elana, and we flew into Istanbul last Saturday morning. We spent the evening before our flight camped out in the airport, snuggling under artificial trees, looking up at the escalator. Not exactly relaxing, and we boarded our plane at four after the security guards had to wake us up from the other side of the glass. We got to Istanbul at 6:30 in the morning and made friends with the somewhat creepy man sitting in front of us. Dave (the creepy man) pursuaded us to come with him because, as he said, he knew his way around. Four hours later, we had taken a taxi, a marshutka, a subway, a ferry, and a tram and finally made it to Sultanahment, the region of Istanbul where we were staying. We bid Dave kargad (goodbye), and checked into the Metropolis Hostel where we would spend the next three nights. Our hostel proprietor was actually the biggest jerk in the whole world, so we didn't spend much time in the hostel because he was all negative energy. This was not a problem, however, because istanbul was AMAZING. We spent the four days shopping, being touristy (Hagia Sophia, Blue Mosque, Underground Cistern pictures to come), eating an offensive amount of doners/shwarmas, etc. One of the highlights was the Turkish bath we went to, in which we, not only the only american girls in the place, but also the only CUSTOMERS in the place, were ushered into a room of about 130 degrees and ordered to strip and lie on a heated slate of marble. after leaving us there, sweating for 45 minutes (elana and caroline looked at me and wondered why i was so much sweatier than they were....i was actually a waterfall), four naked, obese turkish women came in with scrubs in hand. They lathered us up with soap, scrubbed our bodies clean of dead skin, and basically whipped the blood into our limbs. It was interesting. Painful is a word that comes to mind. But also hysterical. The three of us were dying as we left there, trying to piece together the reason that people do this but also relishing in how truly clean we felt being doused by such an ancient method of bathing. It was an exerience. Our trip to Istanbul concluded with an amazing four hour jam session on our last night with some truly cool backpackers from the UK, hookah, and some great friends. It was a trip I'll never forget.

We got back from Istanbul at five o'clock Wednesday morning. I naturally called in sick to school (I actually really was sick though), and finished the week out just fine. This weekend all of us teachers went on a government sponsored trip to Signaghi, this beautiful little village about an hour and a half east of Tbilisi. It was a big festival with lots of food, dancing, and singing. We walked around the city for the day, buying little souveneirs, eating, and taking pictures of the beautiful wall that surrounds the small city. It was a lovely day, and we got back early enough to grab dinner, go to a bar with some friends, and to a nightclub where we danced the night away!

My experience in Georgia has been amazing, rewarding, frustrating, and difficult. This country is so new, yet so old. It is torn between a past of Soviet rule and consequently an outdated education system, yet it so wants to be considered a part of Europe. It is rooted in traditionalist beliefs about genders and races, yet it seems stubborn to welcome new ideas. It has been interesting to be a part of this culture, but it wears on someone like me. I feel as though the country is stuck in a rut, like it has to either committ fully to its Russian past or give itself completely to a new, European identity. If it doesn't move in either of these directions, it will continue to be stuck in the position it is in, and this stagnance is a large part of my reason for leaving it in three weeks when my contract is up. I don't feel like any of the things I am doing are getting anywhere, because the country maintains such ideologies as to not let it. It is frustrating to want to introduce new literature, new games and ideas to my students, to see them struggle with it and give up because they just do not have the drive or the discipline to learn. It is frustrating to be their teacher when they are so unbelievably disrespectful in class. While I have a few good classes, my students are largely horrible, and they create a  negative atmosphere in which their more driven peers are incapable of learning. It is such a shame and has become very difficult for me, for the more I invest in teaching and in providing my students with new, progressive methods of learning, the more they seem to lose interest. What can one person do in a country that is stuck in a rut between the past and the future?

Frustrations aside, however, it has been an amazing two weeks. Istanbul and Signaghi were two of the highlights of my time here for sure. I have three weeks left here--I'll be sure to make it count!


Tuesday, November 16, 2010

My Life as a Georgian Movie Star....Well, Sort of

Hello, Hello!

Well, big and exciting news. I am officially a Georgian movie star. Well, kind of. I was on television this past weekend. The local news channel came to my school and did an interview with me and my kids, and then they came to my house to watch me interacting with my host family. Here is the link:

Click on the 14 of November, and set the timer to 11:14. I have my own little two minute segment! My kids were all like, "Ali! You were on television!" And the ones who couldn't speak English just mimed television. Oh, Georgia.

Not a whole lot has happened other than my television appearance. My children continue to be challenging, as do the lack of resources in the school. The kids' behavior is abysmal; they do not know the meaning of discipline and they never listen. Some of my friends here have taught in Korea in a program kind of similar to this one. My friends Caroline and Amanda are seriously considering going there next!

In other news, I am going to Turkey this upcoming weekend with two of my closest friends. I will have more updates for you in my next blog post. I apologize that this one is so short--but my computer battery is dying and I have to send a few more emails. Will update when I get the chance, but I wanted to share with you the link to the television segment. Kargad!!

Sunday, November 7, 2010

Marshutka Friends and Other Thoughts

I am going to update my blog a day early because tomorrow is bringing a real treat: I’ve been asked to be on television! Yes, that’s right. A news crew is coming to my school tomorrow to tape me teaching, and they are coming back to my house tomorrow afternoon to film me at home, interacting with my host family. I don’t know why they picked me, but I OBVIOUSLY agreed. I will let you all know how it goes and will send you a link to the segment if it airs.

This week brought with it many adventures, namely a hilarious trip to a suburb of the city. Last Tuesday, my friends and I went on a trip to Rustavi, a city about 30 minutes outside of Tbilisi. We picked up our marshutka on the outskirts of Tbilisi, in the town in which my friend Amanda lives. We thought we were really suave because we were able to read the marshutka sign that said “Rustavi” in Georgian script, and we piled onto a smelly bus whose upholstery resembled a grandmother’s living room. To make a long story short, we obviously got on the wrong marshutka and ended up in the backroads of god only knows where, passing sheep, chickens, cows, and horses roaming in front of us. We passed village women with mounds of flour to bake their weekly food…and we were unable to ask about our whereabouts because no one spoke any English—and our Georgian is really not that great. We somehow made it into Rustavi, but definitely not the way we were supposed to. When the marshutka stopped at what appeared to be its final destination and all the passengers got out, we played charades (our favorite game here in Georgia) with our marshutka driver and his friend. They decided that they loved us, and then they took pictures with us and gave us fruits. They became our personal cab drivers for the next twenty minutes, communicating with our friend’s Georgian host brother until they dropped us off at the bar where we were meeting our fellow Rustavi teachers. What an experience. Needless to say, the ride home was much more normal, and we actually went on a highway without chickens.

On a serious note, one of the most difficult things that I am experiencing is the task of trying not to judge the people I meet as ignorant and prejudiced, specifically as racist, sexist, or homophobic. The other day, my host mom told me that TLG had initially offered her and Dato a black girl, and she told me that she “didn’t want a black girl living in my house.” When talking about attractive people, she told me that Caucasus people (the people living in the Caucasus region of the world…Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, etc) were very attractive, but that Chinese people were not because of their eyes. The racist nature of these remarks were difficult to swallow, as are the numerous instances I see and hear in which other Georgian people make known that they do not like those who are different. Stories of host families kicking their teachers out of their home because they are “too fat” or gay or “weird” abound here; and the gender binary is stronger here than I have ever seen it in the states. My host mother waits on my host father hand and foot—he doesn’t even put his dishes in the sink, never mind help around the house. Women are expected to be virgins until marriage, but men are expected to be experienced sexually before they wed---I’m still trying to figure out how that works out. These ideologies are germane to Georgia, and I can understand and try to respect that. But it is difficult to swallow comments that display a culture rooted in extreme dislike of the different. While I understand that it may not be “intolerance,” it often seems that way, such as when one of my students told me that it is bad that I am not Christian Orthodox, because that is the only way to live. The traditional nature of Georgia and its stark contrast to many things I believe in make for very frustrating interactions. Each time I hear a racially insensitive comment, I struggle to not judge the person as racist—and try to better understand the culture that created these racially/sexually/disability/etc-insensitive ideologies. But make no mistake, this task is not easy. I often find myself wanting to yell at the parents, the teachers, the taxi drivers who use the n-word, who talk about gay people as abominations, who dislike anyone who is not of their religion. But how do you explain to someone that these ideologies are exclusive to many wonderful people, that maintaining such ideologies prevents them and the rest of the world from attaining peace---when you can barely talk about what you had for lunch today?

Monday, November 1, 2010

Friends and Field Trips

Well, it is officially fall here. Scratch that, it is officially winter. November came with a vengeance, and we plunged from beautiful 70 degree, sunny days to cold rain and--slightly drunk after the supra last night-- what felt like snow. Turns out it was just white in the pavement, but hey, it could happen.

Anyways, what a week it's been. Lets start from the beginning. I make friends everywhere I go. The Georgian people are so unbelievably warm and friendly. You get them talking (even if it is with my broken Georgian, and/or their broken English) and you have made a best friend ten minutes into your marshutka ride to work. The other day, Caroline (one of my closest friends) and I went to get manicures ($3.50 manicures, ladies!) at this salon, and were a little nervous because the women there didn't seem friendly. Two minutes into conversation, we became best friends. On the way out, we all hugged, one of them walked us out to our marshutka and kissed us goodbye like family. Then, on the marshutka, we met two schoolgirls who told us about the best shopping areas and the proceeded to take us there as though they had nothing else they would rather do. The people are so kind, and so giving...they make me feel at home in a country that once felt strange and unnerving. They have helped set my internal clock to Tbilisi time, in all senses of that phrase.

School has been going well. I feel like I am actually making some difference in my schools...I see my students actually beginning to learn and it feels incredible to realize that I am a part of that. From the smallest detail (pronouncing the -th sound,which they do not have in Georgian and seems impossible for georgian children to replicate sometimes) to understanding what subject-verb agreement entails, I see my students learning everyday. They are, for the most part, enthusiastic, excited, and always happy to see me. Every time i pass by one of them in the halls, I'm greeted by hugs, smiles, loud hello's, and sometimes even presents. They are just so cute! My favorite student so far, however, has been little Mari. She is like a cute little sponge, and she picks up everything so quickly. The other day I was teaching her the conjugation of the verb "to be," which she was having trouble understanding. Then, all of a sudden, she said, "You are Ali. I am Mari. We are silly." I almost fell out of my chair. I am so proud to be making an impact on her, and she (though she doesn't know it) is teaching me, too. Here are two pictures of us...these were taken when we went to Mtsketa, one of the oldest cities in Georgia.
This weekend brought with it Halloween parties, movie nights and an amazing excursion with my class. With no Halloween holiday here, us Americans partied it up US style and decked ourselves out at a bar downtown. The georgians probably thought we were crazy walking down the streets in our hats and outfits, but it was great and total shenanigans.
The best part of the weekend (and maybe the most amazing part of Georgia thus far) was the excursion I went on with my students on Sunday. Excursions here in Georgia are like school field trips, and many students and parents participate in them. On Sunday morning, bright and early, I got to school by 9 and boarded the bus with 15 seventh graders and their parents, my english co-teacher Tina, and we left for Gori, a city located about one hour west of Tbilisi. Winding through mountains and teeny-tiny neighborhoods, we suddenly saw this beautiful view in the town of Ateni.
Naturally, we stopped to take pictures!

It was stunning. We went to a church that had been built in the 9th century and lit prayer candles. My co-teacher understands that I'm not very religious, and so she explained to me as she gave me the three candles that I could simply make wishes and that I didn't have to pray if I didn't want to. She told me that the church was the godmother's church and that she felt that the godmother was there, in the ancient church, right at that moment. Looking around at the old walls and paintings and listening to the nun's songs, I believe that there was a godmother there--maybe not Jesus' mother, but one who is more important to nana. So I lit a prayer candle for her and then another one for peace.
...and then the children began buying me religious relics. I now have quite a collection of paintings of Jesus, Mary, and many saints. Oh boy.
Anyways, we then went to this rock temple in Gori that boasted some of the most beautiful views I have ever seen. Our tour guide explained to us (in georgian, and my co-teacher translated for the less georgian-inclined) that the temple ruins that sat atop the rocks were built before the year these rocks were from well before the Christ era. We're talking O-L-D. What is even more amazing is that much of the temple's outsides and the accompanying church were still intact, despite the fact that much of it had been destroyed by the Mongols. Unbelievable.

After the cool rocks we had a picnic up on a mountain with lots of food (it was basically an outside supra) and wine. Apparently one of my favorite students, Sandro (his classmates call him "dwarf" because he is so small!) got his hands on two glasses of wine and was walking around, playing with the cows and lighting fires. Gotta love my georgian children.

I am learning so much from these experiences. Yes, my trips to Gori and Ateni were unbelievably informative, and I love hearing about the history of these places. But what I find most interesting, and most important in my own life, are the stories from the people, from the students and my friends. A seemingly silly conversation with my co-teacher turned serious on the car ride home as she, in her broken English, explained to me that there are few real problems in life. Running late, being sleepy or tired--these are not real problems. "Cancer is real problem. Death and pain are real problems. Everything else, not problem. It can be done another time. No worry." It's amazing the kind of perspective you can get when you least expect it.

A perfect end of the trip was the sign that I saw on the marshutka home. On the opposite side of the highway, written in both Georgian script and in English, I read two simple words: Happy Journey.