Wednesday, April 3, 2013

A Snapshot of My Life in 20 Pictures

In this picture my darling Claire and I are at the marshutka station in my town.  The mountains behind us are the Caucasus Mountains which create a natural and political border border between Russia (or rather the volatile region known as Dagestan) and Georgia.  Marshutka rides have gone from being one of the greatest anxiety-inducing experiences in Georgia, to a minor nuisance that I now accept as part of the reality of getting around. I have made friends with the nice lady who sells tickets and the man in charge of corralling passengers.  Now, when it is cold she brings me back into her office area to sit by the stove and I get VIP treatment from the man who even tells the drivers to let me sit up front (a coveted seat on most marshutkas in which one must get special permission to sit).

I was awarded for my school a USAID Small Projects Assistance Grant to renovate the restroom facilities. For years the school has been without running water inside.  This is not atypical in Georgia, however, the school has had indoor facilities all this time.  Just use your imagination to figure out the major issue with having indoor facilities with no running water, manual flushing, and 700 students.  Beyond the germ factor, it was less than pleasant aromatically speaking.  Unfortunately, schools often times do not receive large enough budgets to achieve the full extent of the repairs necessary for these kinds of renovations.  So, with 25% contribution from my school and with the rest coming from the grant, we were able to have 17 toilets either replaced or fully renovated, as well as restore running water capabilities to 8 sinks, 2 of which had to be replaced.  Because of the large number of toilets and sinks, we were unable to have a budget large enough to do superficial renovations.  Students and teachers were thrilled nonetheless with the makeover!

 I did not simply want to do a physical improvement project, but ever in the mindset of youth development, we agreed if we did the renovation that I would be allowed to have health trainings to tie in with the project.  I had a training of trainers (ToT) with my wonderful 10th grade students in which we discussed basic hygiene, the spread of germs and disease through unclean hands, how to properly wash one's hands, and the importance of water sanitation.   Then, for two days, the students and my counterpart Lina held this training for nearly every class in the school.  All in all, close to 650 students participated in the trainings.  One of the greatest achievements of the project was that I only facilitated the ToT and from there, they completely took ownership of the project.  These are the types of projects that reaffirm the meaning in volunteers' services!

This is the room in which I have lived and called home for 18 months.

On the bed is the sleeping bag that I have spent no less than 10 months of my life hunkered in.  While this winter is nowhere near the arctic conditions of last winter, when you live in a concrete house, even when it is nice Spring weather outside, it is quite like living inside a refrigerator.  On the desk in the corner is a shelving unit which Claire and I constructed out of USPS boxes from my care packages. Although my beds are two twins pushed together, I have spent a year and half sleeping basically in the crack for want of an ability to pick a side. And yes, that is my Titanic towel in the chair, and I am very proud to own it.  The rug in the middle of the floor with rectangles is my version of a yoga mat. I was unaware of the one place in the country where the genuine article is sold when I decided to make do. To make do is the necessary Peace Corps Volunteer mantra.

Nearly every item in this cabinet is a vessel from which Georgians drink.  The little crystal glasses on the top shelf are from what wine is typically drunk.  Typically at supras (Georgian dinner parties), men will drink their entire glass every time the Tamada (toastmaster) makes a toast.  Someone will usually exclaim "bolomde", which literally translates to "to the end" - the end being the end of the glass.  The bell in the middle of the second shelf, is, in fact, a drinking vessel.  The idea of both the bell, and the horns to either side of it being that once one has wine in the vessel, it is impossible to place said vessel back down, so the contents must be consumed.  Once the bell is emptied, it is usually rung, while all other vessels are held upside down over the table to prove they are empty.  Recently my host dad was having a supra with his friends and tried to hand me the horn.  Initially, I thought it would be an affront to not accept it, but there are also always delicate rules which females must navigate.  I am part of the family enough that I would not have been at risk of being looked down upon, but I was not particularly interested in chugging a horn's worth of wine.  My host mom gave me an amused look letting me know the decision was entirely mine.  So, after initially accepting I instantly handed it back to my host father.  At which point my host mom told me, "If you don't want it, then don't put out your hand to accept, because technically once you have accepted, the responsibility to empty the vessel and render it able to be set back down is yours." (No I don't know "render" in Georgian, but that was the gist.)  In the middle of the bottom shelf there are small terracotta bowls which also serve as drinking containers, but since they can be set down even with liquid inside of them, I do not know what their special purpose is.  The final vessel, which is not pictured, is a shingle.  Yes, a shingle. As in the terracotta semi-cylindrical objects of which roofs are made.  Although I have never personally encountered this practice, many volunteers have participated in the act of placing a shingle to his or her mouth and the wine then being poured into it. 

This is the view from my front window. It is gorgeous. No explanation necessary.

In the beginning of tackling the challenge of hanging clothes on the line, I was, in a word, terrible.  It usually took me a good half of an hour to hang a load of laundry.  Despite how many episodes of "Little House on the Prairie" I watched when I was younger, and other educational period movies, I really did not know what I was doing.  Regardless of what you may think, it is not a very intuitive chore. Some things hang by the bottom, others by the top, others are spread out completely.  Then there is the sharing of clothes pins that most items require, because there never seem to be enough pins for all of the articles of clothing.  On top of all of that, Georgians are particular about the way in which laundry is hung.  It is not okay to have pants, and then a shirt, then a long-sleeved shirt, then a skirt.  Things must be grouped together and hung in an orderly fashion. It is a sign of being tidy to the neighbors.  Well I am proud to report, after nearly two years, I have just about mastered the process!  This picture is my recent handy-work.  I am also saddened to report a bird mistook one of my articles of clothing for a litter box.  I look forward to using a dryer once again soon.

This is my host dad's still in our back yard.  Here, chacha (Georgian hard alcohol which can only be made from grapes) is being made.  The pot in the bottom of the picture is the final product and ready to be consumed.  When a new batch is made, it is not very easy to refuse the proud maker when (s)he offers you a taste of the chach of his/her labor... I only choked a little bit.  Another fun fact - my host dad made mtsvadi over the fire while the alcohol was processing. (Is that right word?  I'm not realy up on technical alcohol making lingo.)  Nevertheless, to make mtsvadi, the meat is cut into roughly 2x2 inch pieces, coated in salt, and cooked on skewers on an open fire.

 This kind of decorating, which is commonplace in the States does not really take place here all that often.  Last year, my counterpart and I, on multiple occasions, hung things in the hallways only to discover they had been destroyed within a few minutes.  This year we tried again, only now we hang everything where only extremely tall students can reach the students' artwork on a chair.  It seems the students either really cannot reach what we put on the walls, or they too have come to appreciate the brightening up of the hallway.  I always loved holiday artwork when I was in school, and I get a great deal of joy out of passing this on to my students now.  This Easter artwork is particularly exciting because Easter eggs in Georgia are traditionally only died red, so it was nice to see the students embracing the American style of decorating their eggs and expressing themselves and being creative.

I know, I'm being such a doting teacher right now, but I am so proud of my little kiddos.  Sometimes, as a remnant from the Soviet system of education, it can be a bit of a struggle to draw out students' creativity here.  With this activity, the kids just ran with it!

I believe I may have posted this picture before, but it never really gets old.  It says "school" in Russian.  I like it for a number of reasons.  I had earlier believed it to simply be a relic from the Soviet past when it was upside down and lying to the side of the road.  But since then, someone has put it back in place.  The kicker is, it is not pointing in the direction of either school in town, so it continues to boggle the mind.  I was on a run recently, which is always a possibly more stressful task than stress relieving here, and I ran past this sign.  Dogs tend to be problems in this country, but I personally had never really had a problem with them on my runs.  On this particular day, I was scared senseless multiple times by particularly ferocious canines. My system was to keep running and they generally left me alone.  As I was passing my beloved sign, a dog came at me which I wasn't particularly concerned about as one of the three men staring at me as I passed by had just been playing with it.  I slowed down just a bit so as to not antagonize it further, and thinking the man would call it off.  I slowed down just enough for it to nip at my leg.  Fortunately I had on baggy enough running pants that it didn't break the skin.  I would have been none too pleased if my run turned into needing Rabies shots. 

These are piglets at my host family's village house. I have enough farm to table food experience, from living here, that I am well aware that it was a few pigs ago that these little cuties were alive.  Now that I have been faced with this fact, I don't see how vegetarianism wasn't a bigger social phenomenon sooner .  Full disclosure: I still eat my family's mtsvadi (Georgian pork BBQ).  So, I guess I do.

This is one of the most amazing places I have ever visited.  I went to it this past year on a camping trip with fellow volunteers that one of our staff members coordinated.  It is called "The Balcony of the Earth".  It is positioned so that one can see the deep valley below and the mountains in the distance for miles - truly breathtaking!

A few of us on the balcony.  The mural is made up of many vibrant and intricate historical representations of Georgian history.

View from the balcony!  This group of people is known around here as the Wolf Pack or Mglis Khrova in Georgian.  We have been together since the very beginning, when we were in a training group together for our first three months in country.  I do not know what my service would have been like without them. Our friendships and what they have contributed to my success as a volunteer cannot be overstated.  I love each of them and we will be life long friends! Insert cheesy "aww" here. But seriously, I mean it, I love them.

This is the trek up to Gergeti Trinity church, one of the most notable places to visit in Georgia, which is across the valley from Mount Kazbegi.  This is another volunteer and me going directly  up the side of the mountain (the hard way) rather than taking the road around.  It was quite difficult, but it took considerably less time.

And this is the view from the top! It is absolutely worth the hike.  Fun fact about the way I am sitting: here in Georgia this stance is known as a birzha squat.  A birzha is typically a group of men who sit in groups talking, playing games, and often drinking some form of alcohol.  In lieu of adequate seating, the individuals in these groups will often sit just like this - thus the name.  However, one does not have to be in a birzha for it to be absolutely socially acceptable to sit like this.  So, when waiting for public transportation, in line, or anywhere really where there isn't seating available and one does not feel like standing for a long time, this is a viable option.  I am particularly fond of this given that I practice this in the States.  Although there I am often met with strange stares.  But not in Georgia!  Win for the birzha squat!

Here is the actual church.  Half of the reason for the arduous hike is to take in the scenery and the other is to see the church itself.  Historical churches are very common in Georgia.  Given their thriving Orthodoxy membership, they have done a lot to preserve the many churches throughout the country.  The dome in the background is typical for Georgian Orthodox church architecture.

Another view from the top.  It never gets old.  Georgia truly has beautiful and diverse nature that I am going to miss a great deal when I leave.  In two years I have never tired of going down the road and frequently seeing centuries old fortresses or churches nestled in scarcely developed natural surroundings. 

Sunday, December 16, 2012

A Day to Celebrate Family, Near and Far

Well, it is that time of year again.  To me, holiday season, in Georgia, begins with Barbaroba or St. Barbara’s Day, on December 17.  It does not feel like it has been all that long since I last wrote about this special day, but here we are again.  Something about having a holiday with my own mother’s namesake makes it more special.

An interesting element of Georgian holidays is that they are very often celebrated beginning at midnight, rather than the evening of the day of the holiday.  So, it is 1:30 in the morning and I have just come from a supra (Georgian fest) and I was the first to leave.  Another fun fact is that any Georgian family I have ever stayed or lived with has been able to stay up much later than I, and they wake up earlier!

This was not an all out feast, only my host parents and two neighbors, even still it was one of those times that while it is happening one knows will become a special memory.   As I sat in the same place I sat a year ago, understanding significantly more of the conversation, I did my best to enjoy the time I have left with my second family.  There was banter between my host father and me, hugs with my host mom, and shared conversation with our guests.  My host dad toasted Americans and said ours is a country with good ladies, which he now knows because of knowing me.  There was nothing particularly special or out of the ordinary about this evening compared to the many other supras at which we have spent time together, but it was just the kind of memory the Peace Corps experience is all about.  It was another night of spending time celebrating a holiday from a different culture with people whom I will always treasure and who have taken me into their home and family.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Making Chorchkhela "Georgian Snicker's" with the Fam and Neighbors

Chorchkhela is a traditional Georgian food which they often refer to as Georgian Snickers.  The remaining bits of grape and juice left over after making wine are saved, mixed with flour, and boiled for many hours.  The concoction is a natural sweet goo.  Hazelnuts and walnuts are strung prior to the day of making the treats.  The string is held in the middle with nuts on either side and then dipped into the vat of grape blend.  Then the string is slowly pulled out as a coating of the grape mixture sticks to the nuts.  They are then hung to dry and saved to be eaten all throughout the winter.

The neighbors all came over to help to make an assembly line.

My host Mom Ketino stirring the grape mixture.

The steaming grape mix.
Hanging them to dry.

My turn!

Ketino coaches me.

Not half bad!

My host dad Giorgi counting our finished products.
All of the finished Chorchkhela!

Turning 25 in My Third Birthday Abroad!

Birthdays abroad are always an adventure and this one was no different!  I spent the weekend before with dear friends in Tbilisi and celebrated with teachers at school on the actual day.

My counterpart Lina had this written on the board when I came in! 

Lina, my counterpart and dear friend celebrating my birthday in my classroom! I love her!

My birthday cake and khinkali (meat dumplings) the teachers got for me to celebrate with me. (There was also wine, because it's Georgian tradition.)

Teachers celebrating with me.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Nothing is Ever Normal...

Here in Georgia there is almost never a time when things go absolutely as planned and what one would call routine.  I will say, that I have only lived here as a blonde-haired (which they call a 'kara'), green-eyed foreigner, so maybe for the more dark featured not-so-obviously-foreign-looking volunteers this is not quite so, and I suppose the locals also do just fine.  Nevertheless, it is a fact of living here that I will stand out no matter where I go.  This is more often than not not a danger to me, it is simply an interruption to what otherwise would be normal days.  I understand a major element of being a Peace Corps volunteer is being the American for locals to interact with, without whom they may not otherwise have the chance.  So, despite how unnerving it is to always be a novelty, I do try my best to politely oblige when Georgians want my time and attention. Here are some examples of routine occurrences, (usually on public transportation): 1.) My hair is regularly petted, caressed, and played with by random women.  They do, however, usually remark on its beauty when doing so, so I tend to let this one slide. 2.) If I speak basic Georgian, just as a matter of necessity, the next remarks out of anyone sitting next to me's mouth are, "Oh, you know Georgian? Great! Do you like it?  Do you want to get married and stay here forever?"  I am more forceful when answering these questions with a resounding "Yes.  Yes.  Absolutely not."  3.) Again if I open my mouth to speak Georgian - "Where are you from?  Oh you're from America?  How much money do you make?"  4.) When I don't open my mouth to speak Georgian - "Russian, Russian, Russian, and more Russian."  (For anyone who didn't already know, let me clarify, I speak less than 10 words of Russian. This is a fact lost on many who cannot reconcile my appearance with my inability to speak Russian rather than Georgian).  5.) I have had nice old ladies who speak to me regularly in town finagle the seating so that I sit beside some man for whom they decide I would make a good bride.  When said gentleman finally departs the mini-bus, they then spend the duration of the trip explaining to me the error of my refusal and why he is such a catch.  7.) The woman and men alike regularly try to feed me, but this happens to all volunteers, not just karas. 8.) I am asked to take pictures with strangers, and at a recent public event in the capital city, which was full of ex-pats, I at one time had no fewer than six cameras pointed at me as I was fixing my pony-tail.

Those are all things that have happened more times than I count.  I began this post to tell a slightly more unique story that happened to me recently when traveling back from a friend's site.  First, I waited along the side of the highway in his tiny village for a marshutka (mini-bus) to come for close to an hour.  During this time I counted along the shoulder of the road 14 syringes, 3 IV bags, and 3 viles.  To be fair, the old hospital was across the street up a  hill and the new one was just down the street a ways, so maybe a trash bag from one of them fell off a truck, but that is nevertheless not the type of trash one likes to stand amongst for an hour.  After waiting patiently (because what other choice did I have) to no avail, two villagers in a car, a nice old man and a middle aged man, asked if I was going to a specific destination, which I was and told me to get in and that they would take me.  This is not atypical for Georgians to randomly offer others rides because they too know how long people generally have to wait for public transportation.  With this in mind, I was not as afraid to take a ride as I might have been otherwise, but being that I am a foreign girl I was still reluctant to accept.  My friend Colin lives in a pretty small village and everyone knows him and when he has foreign guests, so I knew if they tried to kidnap me, they were not likely to get away with it; I was still at the beginning of a 7 hour trek cross country; and I did not want to wait another hour, so I accepted.

Then the conversation began, since nothing is really free.  For the thirty minutes of the trip I was bombarded with questions for 27 of them.  Because most conversations with strangers go the same way in this country, by understanding this one dialogue, you can get the gist of most.  The questions are usually as follows:  "Are you and the foreign boy you were visiting/ hanging out with dating?", "Do you want to marry a Georgian?, "What places have you seen in Georgia?", "When will you come back to the village?", "Where are you from in the states?", "Do you have parents?", "Do you have children or a husband?", "Are you sure you don't want children and a husband in Georgia?", "Which Georgian foods do you like?", "Are students good students in Georgia?", "How long have you been here?", "Do you like America or Georgia better?", "Do you like President Saakasvhili?", "Do you like President Obama?", "Where do you live in Georgia?", "Do you like it there?", "Don't you love Georgia's nature?", "Don't you love the air in Georgia?", "Isn't it such good air?", and "How much does X item cost in America?".  I have literally had this same conversation hundreds of times.  If nothing else, I am getting pretty good at the answers.

But back to the trip.  When we were almost to the town to which they were bringing me, we stopped for gas.  Another thing to understand about daily life in Georgia is that the concept of lines do not really exist here.  There are usually clusters of people crowded around any ticket window, cashier register, or the entrance to board any type of transportation.  The same rules apply for cars.  So, at gas stations there are cars going every which direction, wedged in front of each other, at each pump.  They are also full service stations.  When they young gas attendant did not come to our vehicle in a timely manner, the man who had been making friendly conversation with me for the past half an hour took less than two seconds to yell at him for slighting us.  The kid tried to explain that the other vehicle was there first, but realistically who could tell?  The man did not agree and continued to yell at the young man, at which point the young man began to mouth off in response.  Then, the man was out of the car in less than another two seconds and was in the attendant's face in a full on rage verbally slaying him.  This was the closet I have been to seeing a real life Hulk situation ever.  All the other men at the station saw me in the back seat and tried to pull the men apart.  Still, because this type of uproar between men is not really that uncommon here, no one was really all that excited about the situation, except for Hulk and his prey.  He finally got back into the car and we continued into town. Not another word was said about the altercation.  They then tried to take me to the newly renovated castle atop the hill in this town.  I explained to them I was in a hurry and had already seen it and they finally agreed to forgo the trip and simply dropped me at the station.  The man had turned back into his cordial self and escorted me to the marshutka.  He then proceeded to pay for my ride and even when I adamantly refused, he explained that I am their guest in Georgia and it was only right that he pay for it.  He also told the driver that I am their American guest and that he should protect me and look out for me for the duration of the trip.  I thanked him emphatically, thrilled to have received a free ride being that I am a volunteer and all, and boarded the marshutka, ready to spend the next four and half hours reading and listening to my ipod unmolested.

Fast forward two hours when the man, who had not so subtly been staring at me, sitting beside me finally got the gumption to talk to me.  Because the original nice man made such an ordeal out of announcing that I was the American guest, all of the other passengers knew that as well.  The man beside me, who it turns out is a mayor of a small neighboring village to my friend's, decided he too needed to impress upon me the hospitality of Georgians.  So, when we stopped for a rest stop he bought xatchapuri (Georgian cheesy bread), despite my many refusals, for us to eat during the break.  There comes a time in these instances when it is simply easier to acquiesce than to try to refuse.  Many times the problem with saying yes to offers of food of conversation with a man is that as a foreign girl it can be perceived as an acceptance of a much larger invitation, i.e. for marriage or other less than PG acts.  By the same token, to blatantly ignore the man who had just seen me speaking to another and to refuse his hospitality when he is a man of distinguished standing in the community would be a slight that could ultimately reflect poorly on my friend, the Peace Corps, and America.  No pressure, just the entire reputation of my program, country, gender, and friend.  It is a fine line that us female volunteers must constantly navigate.  Fun fact, having lighter features can also signify to many people one is a woman of less than pure virtue.  I realized I was less in danger of procuring a husband accidentally than of being rude, so I ate the cheese bread and had the same conversation with him that I had with the other man a few hours before.  I finally feigned sleeping so I could get out of it.  Seven hours later I arrived back home with relatively few occurrences, but not none, because nothing is ever normal.
Just another day in the life of a volunteer.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Gamarjoba Madame Secretary!

Secretary Hillary Clinton and Ambassador John Bass
Have you ever met someone to whom you look up to so greatly, that the encounter actually brought you to tears?  Well, thanks to a recent visit by none other than Secretary Clinton, I have.  In one leg of a 3 country tour in the Caucasus region, Secretary Clinton visited Georgia as part of an ongoing celebration of 20 years of official relations between The United States and the country of Georgia.  After her official meetings with Georgian President Saakashvili and other members of the Georgian government, on her last day, she took time to address the Embassy staff and Peace Corps volunteers.  In a brief speech to all of us expats she specifically gave a shout out to the Peace Corps.  She thanked us for all of the work we are doing on behalf of the nation and said we are "ambassadors" of goodwill and friendship for our nation to others around the world.  As I have looked up to this woman for as long as I can remember, this was a particularly special day for me.  After her speech she approached all of us on the front row to shake our hands.  The volunteer beside me gave a very distinguished "Madame Secretary thank you for your visit."  I must have looked like a combination of a deer caught in headlights and a child about to get her first ever Popsicle, because when she proceeded to me she spoke first, asking if I am having fun in my service.  Try as I might to remain dignified, I responded with something to the effect of how much I love it, and then proceeded to barely hold back my tears as I told her in a significantly higher pitched voice than I normally communicate with "It's so nice to meet you!"  She really was the epitome of charm and grace, and rather than look at me like a weirdo she smiled graciously and was exceedingly friendly.  She also informed us when she had moved on to shaking Claire's hand to my left, that she had never eaten so much cheese in her life as she had here in Georgia.  We refrained from taking that conversation in the usual direction Peace Corps volunteers have a habit of taking conversations about dairy or food of any type for that matter.  She did a few more hand shakes all the while I literally was fighting back my tears of joy.  As soon as she left the room I could not contain myself and actually cried!  My country director (A.K.A. the big guns of the program here, or better yet, mine and everyone else's boss) gave me his handkerchief.  I truly was overcome with joy.  Overall it was absolutely amazing!

Monday, May 7, 2012

Earthquakes, Goodbyes, and Casting Calls

So, I guess the most important thing to mention is I have experienced my first very, very personal loss while serving in the Peace Corps.  It is not my first loved one to die since I've been here, a dear friend's mother, to whom I was also very close, passed away when I was still in training.  That was devastating enough, even though we weren't technically related.  This time, I had to say goodbye to my Grandma Leree.  People say that because this is the natural order of things that it is somehow easier to deal with the loss.  Intrinsically, I know this must be true, but when it is my own grandmother to whom I must say goodbye, it isn't as simple as the acknowledgement of the "circle of life".  This is one of the greatest challenges individuals face when joining the Peace Corps and also our greatest fear.  We all dread the call informing us that something terrible has happened to someone we love back home.  There is nothing I could have done to have prevented this, again, a fact of which I am well aware.  However, being here, without friends from home or family, it yields a sense of powerlessness and isolation that can never really be anticipated until one is in the situation.  I do not say these things to solicit sympathy or to scare off potential volunteers.  It is a fact of life as a volunteer that I simply wish to point out.  I knew when I joined and departed America there was a very real chance one of my grandparents, and maybe even others would not make it through the 2 years.  An unfortunate consequence of going off and seeing the world and pursuing one's dreams is the inevitable missing out on so many milestones, both good and bad.  I was not there to see my nephews' Christmas pageant, or my baby sister go to the Neches River Festival, or help her get ready for prom, I missed the birth of my best friend's first baby, will not get to attend and be a bridesmaid in a lifelong friend's wedding, was not there for another life long friend's mother's passing, and I was not there to see my Grandmother in her last year on Earth, or to tell her goodbye.  I am happy with the path I have chosen for myself, and I knew what I was giving up when I joined, but it doesn't make the loss any easier.  I guess for me, one of the greatest challenges with coming to terms with this loss is that I had every intention to go to Kansas and spend some real quality time with my family, as I have not been able to do in years past in university in New York and as a child growing up in Texas.  Sure, I have spent time with my family, and my grandma even got to attend my graduation from NYU (the last time I saw her), but I was so looking forward to the little bit of free time I would have after my service ended and the next chapter of my life began where I could learn where it is that I came from, all about our family's history, and just get to know them better.  Of course I have plenty of family to still do that with, but there is something about Grandma that was kind of the glue of the operation, and the vacancy she left with always be felt. I wasn't ready to tell her goodbye, but in the end it wasn't really my choice, nor were the circumstances under which she departed.  At least with modern technology I was able to speak to my family before she actually passed, and even if for the briefest moment, I did not feel so alone in this difficult time.

Now on a much lighter note, I would like to inform you, dear reader, that today I experienced a 5.7 earthquake.  The epicenter was in Azerbaijan, which as most of you now know, is the border on which I live.  At around 8:40 this morning I was startled from my sleep from an intense rattling, and in my delirium felt the Earth shake for I'm guessing close to 30 seconds, but I could be wrong.  It is a bizarre thing when your whole world literally shakes beneath you.  I have in my life been through hurricanes, tornadoes, a flood, an ice storm, a record breaking blizzard, and now a relatively significant earthquake.  It was not significant enough to cause severe damage, but according to this site which tracks earthquakes, it was on the scale to cause some.
This is the local map of where it originated from and Lagodekhi is in the picture. 

Here is all of the information on the quake, should you be interested.

Last weekend, I was in Tbilisi for several committee meetings.  On Sunday, the U.S. embassy hosted a concert with Terrence Simian's Zydeco Experience performing.  It was a free concert as a celebration marking 20 years of American, Georgian relations.  It was honestly one of the most exciting times I have had in the country!  There were quite a few Americans there, but there were also loads of Georgians, especially younger Georgians.  It felt even more special since Zydeco music feels so close to home, given the strong Cajun influence in Beaumont.  For hours, Georgians and Americans alike let loose and danced and just enjoyed the care free atmosphere all together! It truly was a wonderful celebration!
As part of the evening, Goodloe and I decided to get dressed (I dare not say up, but more up than normal), and go to dinner to feel like normal people for a night.  As we were leaving the restaurant, a man ran out after us and stopped us.  He informed us he is a director and is directing a commercial soon, which he wanted us to be in!  It was very tempting, and he called Goodloe later so we could go to the studio.  The commercial was for a casino.  However, given the economic issues already plaguing this country and the devastating effects casinos can have on people's lives (from individuals to the entire society) and in our positions as volunteers here to promote peace and understanding, we thought it might be a conflict of interest, so we opted out.  The main things to take from this last story are: I am still a diva, even when showers are few and far between for me, people still recognize my star power, I'm kind of a big deal, and I've still got it! :)