Allen in the Land of Stone

Friends,

I spent twelve-odd days in Armenia. I took the overnight train from Tblisi, passed the border sometime around midnight, and woke up in the land of Stone. Armenia is an incredibly beautiful country of mountains, hills, and valleys with old churches perched in the most unlikely places. I fell in with a young German traveller and we stumbled out of the train in the early morning before dawn and walked, with overloaded packs, towards the downtown. Yerevan is a beautiful city, newer and more open than Tblisi, and I immediately liked the place.

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After some knocking on random doors we found our way to a homestay. Homestays, for those not acquainted with them, are private residences that the family opens up to travellers. They are usually very affordable, get you into close contact with local people, and more often than not include homecooked breakfast and dinner. Great! For instance, at the homestay was a young girl, full of energy and wide-eyed curiosity, who was absolutely fascinated by me. We played catch with a stuffed bunny for about a half hour as I chatted with her father about higher education systems in the West and in Armenia. Eventually my playmate got bored (or rather, I did) and I sicced her onto my netbook: she became completely obsessed with mucking about on Paint.

This brings up something important about the Caucasus: the children are absolutely showered with love and attention and also happen to be far better adjusted socially and emotionally than North American kids. Perhaps children get socialized in a healthy manner by -gasp- social interaction? Practice makes perfect, and human attention here starts once out of the womb- babies are passed around like hotcakes, cuddled and coddled non-stop. Toddlers always have an older sibling, cousin, or neighbour around to play with. If the family even owns a television then anytime they spend in front of it is most likely to be spent with a Grandparent or tuning in to some bizarre variety show with the whole family.

Incidentally, babies are far less fragile than I have been led to believe: North American parents freak out it you get too close to their babies as if they were made of crystal or, if they’re white and upper middle class, aerogel (anyone remember Science One?). In the Caucasus you’re more likely to get a baby thrust in your face to hold as the mother struggles onto the marshutka with two armloads of groceries than scolded for touching another human being. Buses and marshutkas are my favorite: even the coolest, black-jacketed and aloof young man turns into a goo-goo gaa-ing playmate when faced with a wide-eyed toddler.

Anyways, after hanging out for a bit and recovering from the rigors of the night train I got out and rambled around the city. I climbed the ridiculous and ridiculously expensive Cascade, twenty five years in the making, tromped over to the University, and eventually found myself in the Museum of Modern Art. Yerevan has a slew of excellent galleries, and the National Gallery has wonderful traditional collections as well. Armenian art seems dominated by the exact sort of brightly coloured oil landscapes that I love. Under the cascade is probably the coolest collection of glass art I’ve ever seen (I actually like glass art now!) and a very impressive two story-tall modern tryptech celebrating three eras of Armenian national history. Good stuff.

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I stayed at the homestay a couple days until my friend took off for Iran. By this time I had sorted out couchsurfing arrangements and entered the Black Hole: I intended to stay only for a couple days, but got sucked in for eight! It was the abode of three Iranian students and is one of the most ridiculously open and dynamic place I’ve ever been: there was a constant flow of couchsurfers, peace corps volunteers, and family through the place which made it very hard to leave. Every time I had my bag packed someone new and interesting showed up! Copious amounts of whisky and the associated hangovers didn’t help.

Out of Yerevan I made a number of daytrips. Since Armenia is so small and its history so concentrated around the capital it is possible to see many sights in half-day jaunts. I visited the monestary of Khor-Vidap, the birthplace of institutionalized Christianity where St. Gregor the Illuminator, after being imprisoned in a well for twelve years, was brought up in the king’s desperation to cure his blindness (or, in some versions of the story, the king’s cursed head, which had become that of a boar). With the Power of God St. Gregory summarily healed the king and Armenia became the world’s first Christian country in AD 330 (more pragmatic arguments have been made that the king converted in order to encourage national unity in the face of Zoroastrian Persian and Pagan Roman military advances, but boar-head curses are way cooler than realpolitik).

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Also nearby is Echmiadzin, the spiritual center of Armenian Christianity (officially the “One Holy Universal Apostolic Orthodox Armenian Church”). Armenian Christianity falls into the Oriental Orthodox tradition, along with Egyptian coptics and the Syrian church. Tradition has it that it was founded by the preaching of Thaddeus and Bartholemew, two of Jesus’ disciples, who drifted up here after Jesus’ death to preach the Good News. The theology separating the Oriental Churches, the Catholic church and the Eastern Orthodox churches is largely beyond me, but from my understanding the Oriental Orthodox rejected the resolutions arising from the Council of Nicedon in 451 which stated that Christ has two natures: human and divine. The Armenians believe that Christ is first and foremost a united being with both human and divine natures existing side by side as a perfect whole- a doctrine known as monophysitism (or maybe miaphysitism).

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Garni temple and Geghard monestary are collectively another day trip from Yerevan. The bus ride to Garni is beautiful- you pile into a public bus with a bunch of locals and take off from downtown Yerevan, immediately rising up out of Yerevan’s valley into the surrounding hills. Garni is a bizarrely out of plance 1st century pagan temple in what is elsewhere an entirely Christian country; Geghard is an old monestary up the valley where the church is carved directly into the rock face and the surrounding cliffs riddled with hermitage nooks. The valley connecting the two is a national park and a great place for a hike.

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My next day trip was over to Asterak, a small town a half hour from Yerevan. I wanted to see a couple old churches and hike along the gorge connecting the two. Again however I was frustrated by fog and winter. Instead of a hike I got to have lunch next to a ruined church that looked like somewhere a necromancer would hang out and coffee with Ashot who tried to marry me off to his (not entirely unattractive) daughters.

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In Yerevan I met a large number of the Peace Corps volunteers doing work in Armenia. Their projects ranged from education (like my own work in Georgia), medicine, environmental awareness projects, and the development of sustainable buisinesses and the encouragement of tourism. Peace corps, for those who haven’t heard, is an American program involving two years of volunteer work Somewhere Else, with the volunteers themselves given considerable latitude and ability to develope their own projects/ ideas. Generally speaking their feelings and moral were the same mixed bag that I’d encoutered in the TLG program- some people were loving it and doing good work, but most were resigned to the reality that change in a foreign country takes time and that their own commitment -even for the relatively long two year stay- is short in the wider scheme of things. Despite having fifty years of experience doing development work Peace Corps doesn’t quite have it right yet, and the whole experience highlighted to me that the West (and humans more generally) are still very bad at cultivating positive change in far-away places. As usual I’m optimistic about this (there’s still work to do! Yay!) but I think more emphasis needs to be placed on creative, novel and exploratory approaches to reach development goals.

From Yerevan I took a marshutka to Lake Sevan, a large and very beautiful lake in the center of the country. A bustling beach destination in the summer, in the middle of February relatively little was happening. The views of the lake however were amazing, the downtown surprisingly busy and inviting, and the police incredibly hospitable- after politely declining the usual invitation to coffee and vodka, I also had to sadly decline what I think were offers of cocaine, cannibis and heroin. They were in a very good mood that afternoon (and not on duty, thankfully).

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From Lake Sevan I hitched back to Tblisi, and I was quite happy to again see the happy little characters into which I’ve anthromorphized the Georgian alphabet.

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Allen in the Land of Fire

Howdy team,

So I spent a grand total of six days in Azerbaijan. Strange country- Turkic but Shi’ite due to Persian influence, Islamic but secular due to Soviet influence, poor but rich due to inequalities that come with oil wealth. A blend of soviet-era rustbelt industrialism, new school globalized resource extraction, and dictatorship style personality cult. Perhaps the best way to reconcile this mess is via self centered temporal narrative, so here we go:

I arrived at the Azeri border at 10PM local time. The boarder is frighteningly close to Tblisi- maybe a half hour on the train. The train stops FOREVER at the boarder- probably one hour each side. As we cross the friendly Georgian police-type customs officials get replaced by the much scarier army-type Azeri variety. After a sweep with an old-school radioactivity detector (basically a lead cube on a stick) and a thorough look at my passport and visa I got called to another room for a homeland-security style photo (albeit with Soviet technology, which is remarkably similar to the American equipment I’m familiar with). For some reason beyond my comprehension they swept Edi, the old woman with whom I was sharing my sleeping compartment and dinner, off the train and presumably into some zone for diappeared people. I was a little worried, but on the up side I had my sleeping compartment to myself for the next eight hours.

Upon arrival the next morning I took out my camera and started photographing everything. The sun was shining and I felt the call of the sea- I followed the sea breeze to the Caspian like a cariboo to a saltlick. On the way is the monolithic Dom Soviet, an incredible building from which the government was run in Soviet days. Before me was the Caspian, blue, vast, and the biggest extropic resevoir of water in the world- water flows into this thing, but not out. The water in the Caspian never reaches the sea.

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As an aside, due to this geographical particularity the Caspian has quite ambiguous legal status- is it a lake, or is it a sea? This has some very interesting political ramifications, since according to international law, resources drawn from lakes must be equally divided among bordering states, while seas have the usual 200 mile “economic exclusion zone”. With large oil and natural gas reserves around Azerbaijan, and absolutely massive ones near Kazakhstan, Russia is of course quite interested in getting its dick in the pie.

After eating lunch by the sea (lake?) I walked down the Boulevard. Beautiful, modern, open. Compared to Tblisi I was blown away by the sheer wealth and extravagance around me. I skirted around to a very European pedestrianizd shopping district and arranged to meet my couch surfing host Jamil.

Jamil is an incredibly generous and welcoming Azeri who was on his way to drop of the previous couch surfer he was hosting before me at the airport. We piled into his car and drove out to the airport, and I got a tour of the Baku suburbs and bizarre pagoda-like airport terminal. On the way home we stopped to pay at the toll booth at the exit of the airport parking lot and were promptly backed into by the jackass in the car in front of us (of course, the guy didn’t have change so had to back up to the change machines to the left of the tolls). A surprisingly civil exchange ensued and we arranged to go together to a garage and figure out how much the damage was on the front of Jamils shiny much-loved Marcedes.

The next day I woke up with Jamil and left when he went to work. I wandered towards downtown, camera blazing, and found myself in the state cemetary. Inside are many fancy graves for Azerbaijan’s Fancy People, the most striking of which is Heydar Aliyev’s grave. Aliyev is Azerbaijan’s “National Hero” who saved the country during the Karabakh war, turned the economy around by encouraging Western investment in the oil fields, and plastered pictures of himself and quotes pretty much on every imaginable public surface. He also decided not to stop being president. Only his death in 2004 precluded further terms, but before he skirted off this mortal coil he passed the seat onto his son, who remains in control until today.

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Right, Nagorno-Karabakh. In 1991, immediately after independence, Azerbaijan and Armenia fought a war over a fairly large and very fertile region south west of Azerbaijan. Like everything in the Caucasus this conflict is complex with roots that are both very ancient and incredibly recent. It was a region set aside by the Soviets as part of the Azeri republic in 1921 but contains many ethnic Armenians. Come independece in the 1990s the Armenians felt like their boys and the land they lived on beloged to Armenia, the Azeris had gotten quite used to the idea that the land was rightfully theirs, and a sad and awful story of ethnic cleansing (by both parties) ensued. Armenia won the war and has been occupying 18% of Azerbaijan ever since (from the Azeri point of view). The real tradgedy is that from what I gather the people who actually lived there -peasants, for the most part- had been living side by side for at least a few hundred years, had intermarried, had long standing friendships and buisiness arrangements with each other, and a long history of mutual tolerance and understanding. Despite suffering the brunt of the brutality it seems like they never really wanted any of it to happen to begin with. At any rate, in solidarity with their fellow Turks the Turkish government closed the Armenian-Turkish border and things haven’t really changed since. The closed borders have made Soviet era transportion networks useless and has generally resulted in a lot of suffering, economic damage, nationalist rhetoric on all sides, and political corruption and autocratic government in both countries. Heydar Aliyev came to power and saved Azerbaijan from various Armenian offensives and this is one of the things that granted him the political capital to stick around for so long.

Across the street from the state cemetary is an architecturally beautiful monolith of a building, combining Soviet, Persian and 1970s brutalist concretism with tan sandstone and marble. Out came my camera, click, click, click, and out came a very concerned army dude who grabbed my camera and took off. Confused and a little scared I followed him inside and had my passport inspected, was told to sit in a white room until they could find someone who spoke English, and hung out with a bunch of hilarious Vorgon-type overweight bureaucrats who kept trying to get me to give them my camera as a “present”. Yeah right buddy.

Eventually I was taken upstairs and interrogated (quite politely) by no less than four officers. I had nothing to hide, and felt like it was so blatantly obvious that I was a tourist that they’d have to be idiots to let this thing drag on. I guess its very quiet however in Azeri secret service headquarters (which I was soon to learn was where I was) since they questioned me for an hour and a half, went through my camera and basically made me describe my entire life over the last few months and my previous day minute by minute.

This went on in circular fashion for some time. Of course my camera was full of photos of the metro (which they are quite concerned about people photographing, which is strange because its EXACTLY like the metros in both Tblisi and Yerevan), various parliment buildings, and the airport- note to salf: avoid pictures of anything bombable on future visits to autocratic states. There’s something about living in an oil state semi-dictatorship which lost the last war that breeds a certain paranoia. I was now experiencing this first hand.

When they had their fill I was free to go and proceeded to explore downtown. Old Baku is an ancient and fantastic collection of mud adobe buildings crammed inside the city hallls with winding streets and alleys more convoluted than Shapeir. Outside the walls is a ring of mansions from the oil boom of the late nineteenth century, bizarrly representative of their owners eccentricities: next to the mud brick of old town stands a Bavarian chalet, a square that feels like reconsturcted venice, and other similarly out of place architectures. A third layer of contrast is provided by new Baku, with its apartment buildings, trendy shopping districts, and expensive boutiques along pedestrianized streets.

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Also, I got to see my first mosque:

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I spent a couple days exploring Baku, hanging out with Peace Corps and couchsurfers, and taking day trips from the city. The landscape around Baku itself is a bleak combination of rusted out oil wells, soviet industry and residential blocks, and desert. The whole things adds up to a ascetic post-apocalyptic feeling which I found strangely fascinating. I took a long walk in the desert to find some mud volcanoes and visited Astragah temple, a unique site holy to, sequentially, Zoroastrians, Muslims and Hindu shiva worshippers for its “ever burning” flame. Sadly the flame went out in 1864 when a natural gas extraction facility was opened by the Nobel brothers over the next hill.

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Sick of the city life, I decided to do a relatively simple hike from Laza in Northern Azerbaijan, through Xinaliq, to Laza in North Western Azerbaijan. I negotiated my way through buses to Qusar (pronounced Gusar) but arrived after dark. I was greeted by an incredibly friendly taxi driver who expertly hustled me into his cab like a lamb to slaughter.

Aside: I hate taxi drivers. Not only will they rip you off, attempt awkward semi-conversation, and generally render you powerless via their superior knowledge, but they will insist more often than not in taking you to places you don’t want to go. All I wanted was a hotel in Qusar such that I could hitch hike to Laza early the next day to start my trek. Instead I found myself taking his advice to head into Laza that night only to have him twently minutes later stop the car the middle of nowhere, in the pitch dark, in the winter, and say “Laza. Hotel, no. Monat (money) more, Turkish friend speak english bring”. Yeah, well screw you buddy, I’m a fucking self sufficient deployment machine! I called his bluff, paid him, and jumped out.

I set up my tent and spent a night with cold-induced hallucinations, half-dreaming half-visioning myself getting up out of my tent to find my house in Toronto right next to me. In my semi-delerium I was also afraid of being captured by the army as in my head the well-lit quarry below me morphed into a barracks. It wasn’t that bad (as in I knew I was safe enough) but I hate being cold at night. It makes your dreams weird.

The next day however was glorious: sunny, the landscape dusted with crystal and the mountains around me shining in the morning light. Below me clouds hid the swirling fog that had dominated my surroundings the night before. I broke camp and headed up to begin my hike, when I realized that the landmarks were much harder to discern than I had thought it would be from the safety of Baku. Without GPS, compass, decent maps, a friend, conscious of having to dodge a nearby army checkpoint and very cold the night before I took the executive decision to back out. I was also afraid of the fog sweeping in, rendering navigation without a GPS impossible. Instead of heading into the wilderness, I found myself in a decrepit green lada which limped its way back to Qusar (every time it stopped we had to get out and push it to get it rolling again). The driver and other passengers laughed the entire way, missing teeth and all, so it was still a good time.

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And that was Azerbaijan: I was planning to stay longer, but was conscious that all my friends would be getting back to Tblisi that weekend as it was the end of their Christmas holidays. Except for the taxi drivers and the bureaucrats, everyone I met gave me the exact same Cacausus welcome I’d come to expect in Georgia, except with vast amounts of tea instead of wine. Lonely and sick of the cold, I jumped another overnight train to Tblisi.

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Two, Christmases, Two New Years, and no updates?!?

Friends,

Apologies on the long delay in updates- over the past couple of months most of my computer time has been dedicated to finishing my thesis revisions. That was a bit of a quest, but I’m pretty sure I’m a Master now! Way more badass than a Doctor anyways.

My work with TLG ended December 21st. I had an “open lesson” on this day with my coteacher Khatuna and my grade seven class for which we had been preparing for a few weeks, working on weekends and during our classes. An open lesson is basically a lesson to which parents, other teachers and our director is invited to such that we can show case what we’ve been up to. We had a class demonstrating both Canadian and Georgian Christmas traditions and it was fun to compare the two. I played “Frosty the Snowman” on my guitar, danced around in a Santa suit and the kids had a good time.

After class I was surprised (although I shouldn’t have been by this point) by speeches and gifts in my honour as everyone knew it was my last day. It was a beautiful scene and touched my heart deeply. It was with a melancholy air that I left the school, because even though I promised to come back for a day before leaving the country for good I knew that I had could not continue to share my energy meaningfully with the kids, the ideas I had for new projects would never be realized and that yet another page was turning in my life. I had grown to love the school, the kids and my coteachers over the previous few months and all that was coming to an end.

After the mandatory supra with my family (and a similarly sad so-long) I went to Tblisi to house sit for a couple friends of mine. I shared an improvised Christmas dinner with a couple of friends from Sakatchewan and devoted the next couple of weeks to playing DotA, watching the series Coupling in its entirety, and just chilling out. I delighted in my solitude as it was so hard to come by since I had left Canada, and I had a great time familiarizing myself with the local Bazar, discovering that Georgian cheese need not all be the same, cooking for myself, and regaining the weight I had lost due karate, stress, and illness. I struggled with my thoughts and feelings over my recent breakup and used the time to reevaluate, ponder, make decisions, and rebalance myself. All in all it was an entirely necesssary process of crawling into a cocoon, hiding from the world for awhile, and reemerging again as a beautiful butterfly (although I’ve always been more partial to moths).

Suddenly life caught up with me and I threw myself into thesis revisions. On top of a pile of cosmetic changes, I had misinterpreted the results of one analysis (“only one!” I kept telling myself) and had to learn all about the fun and wonderful world of multiple comparisons. Strangely enough, multiple comparisons is poorly supported in R so I had to learn SAS as well (I found SAS surprisingly intuitive so life is golden). My friends returned to Georgia from their Christmas vacations and life was back on track (although the whole time really felt kind of like those scenes in the matrix where everything goes slow for awhile before -BAM- the bullet hits you in the leg and life returns to normal speed).

Sometime along the way was New Years eve. Happy to be alone, I stayed home, and the Tblisi suburb I was in exploded with a spontaneous firestorm that would put the bombing of Dresden to shame. This was a storm which had been building for a few weeks: the sound of the odd firecracker had become commonplace and more than once had I jumped due to some kid dropping a cracker at my feet from the apartments above. This steady hum of activity slowly intensified, until finally escalating into a roar at about 11:50 PM which continued for over an hour. There’s something way more awesome about fireworks when its a participatory sport, and this was democracy reified: every balcony poured fire and noise in all directions, opposing appartment blocks waged war, and mundane reality was replaced with celebration. The streets were not safe! Balls of fire were spewn about like it was Contra IV: Return of the Creepy Soviet Aliens. As summer storm eventually exhausts its potential energy and peters out, so the explosives eventually ran low and peace descended once again upon Georgia. The odd bang however would continue to be heard over the next few days.

Anyways, the wonderful thing about Georgia is that after all this celebrating, you get to do it again! Orthodox Christmas and New Years is on the 7th and 14th of January respectively, and since they for some reason celebrate Western holidays as well this all adds up to a party a week for a month. I spent my second Christmas (Shobats) with my family in Kutaisi which was something of a non-event: due to a miscommunication I think I missed the party as they celebrate on their Christmas eve! My unfulfilled expectation of a party gave way to a brooding solitude caused by being alone in a place where the last time I was there was filled with my friends and loved ones, familliar sites betraying me and conveying not nostalgia but regret and revealing the superficiality of my presence- the place had been meaningful and transformative to me but my being there had only scratched the surface. I sought refuge in one of my favorite places in the city, the ruins of Bagrati cathedral, which cradeled me in its palm for hours until the sun was low in the sky.

I was saved by a friend returned that afternoon from the States. We had dinner, I rejoiced, and I prepared to return to Tblisi. There I celebrated my second New Years with my saviour friend from Kutaisi at the foot of Mount Kazbek. Next stop: Azerbaijan!

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Another day, another church: Tsminda Sameba Church high above Kazbegi (Holy Trinity Church).

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Mount Kazbek. If you look closely on the left slope you can see Promethesus chained up and an eagle descending to devour his liver. I contuinue to be perplexed as to why his eternally regenerating liver has not in the past 2.5 thousand years given rise to a near infinite number of eagles due to exponential growth; as far as I can tell the eagles have no predators. Disease? Divine intervention? Chaotic population fluxuations? Other hypotheses?

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Looking for a charity

I am wondering if any of you wonderful readers would know of a charity that could help me ship used books gathered by my friends and loved ones in Canada to Georgia? Leave a comment!

My school is wonderful, but the library is basic and the English section consists of a foot of shelf-space, all of which occupied by books that are either grammars intended for teachers or novels that are way to difficult for the kids here. It would be amazing to fix this and would open up entire worlds for the children here! I would love to establish some sort of system to facilitate TLGers shipping books from their home countries to Georgia. Can anyone help? Anyone done this sort of thing before?

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Collapse

I just finished watching the movie Collapse, featuring the life and thought of Michael Ruppert. The documentary is boring and the guy is a bit of a nut, but the reason I bring it up here is that what he believes with regards to Where The World Is Going is essentially the same that I’ve developed over the last decade. Basically, this is that the paradigmn of infinite growth is a dangerous illusion, that sustainability is not a debate but a necessity (by definition we can continue to do something or we can’t), and that our political, journalistic and economic systems are too slow and broken to deal with things before they fall apart. We’re at or past peak oil, global warming continues at alarming and accelerating rates, we continue as a civilization to ignore our scientists and intellectuals, and basically we needed to change about ten years ago. The most recent “economic collapse” is not a blip in the historical radar but the start of a new age of resource and financial instability which denotes a fundamental civilizational shift.

Just an aside- these aren’t really things I “believe” but things that I am convinced are true given the evidence at hand. I am fundamentally a scientist. I am also fundamentally an optimist, and I know that we can do a lot about many of these things. But we need to take a long, hard look at these issues and admit they’re happening before we can act.

The future will feature a time of transition before we shift to a sustainable economic regime. Ideally this will be slow, enlightened and have minimal impact on our personal lives. Less ideal scenarios feature a massive reduction in human population, violence, war, starvation and disease. Our job won’t be to change (that’ll happen anyways) but to control how that change happens and direct it in directions that minimize suffering. Long term many more of us will be working on the land, we’ll likely be growing much of it locally, and everything we do will be quite a bit slower.

The reason I’m writing on this here is that Georgia is in a very different place to deal with this than Canada. The poor country has had so many shitty things happen to it in its 2000+ year history and I fear that just after recovering from a hundred and fifty years of tsarist rule, seventy years of soviet mismanagement, and fifteen years of wars and political instability it will be caught in the middle of a global meltdown which will throw the current growth spurt here right out the window.

On the upside, the population has been dropping here for the past twenty years and most families have ties to a village somewhere with enough land to feed people. People here just went through what was essentially a global meltdown, are used to being hungry and growing things themselves, and know what it’s like when there’s just no food on the shelves and what its like when people are carrying AK47s on the metro.

Really, all of us are going to have to live the way Georgians do now- barely ever traveling, with highly reduced energy consumption, eating food when its in season rather than when we want it, and wearing extra sweaters in winter instead of turning up the heat. Its just heartbreaking to forsee these poor people suffering again when things are just starting to look up.

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Definition of a “developing” country

A country can be considered to belong to the set of countries known as “developing” if, when coffee is ordered, you are served Nescafe instead. In addition, the country’s state of development is inversely proportional to the degree that Nescafe is considered the best, most delicious coffee and thus the first thing offered to guests and foreigners.

Seriously, in Ecuador and Peru they grow some of the best coffee in the world and the only java available first had to be shipped to America (or more likely to an American-owned foreign subsidiary with minimal labour costs), stripped of its character and sophisticated flavour through industrialized flash-drying alchemy, and then shipped back to the South and resold at exorbitant prices. A drop of colonialism first thing in the morning.

Why is it like this here too? Georgians have too much respect for food to have fallen for this. I am just so sick of this acidic, vile-tasting chemical perversion of my favorite drink.

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Why school vouchers don’t work

Georgian school funding operates via a voucher system- students each get a voucher worth a certain amout of federal money (I’m not sure how much), and can then attend whatever school they wish. The connected money then gets funneled to their school of attendance. Now, I’m all for the choice that this affords families in selecting the school that their children attend. Given the notorious difficulty in assessing whether or not education is successful (how does one measure critical thinking, social adaptation and integration, the development of people skills, confidence, cultural mores, etc) and that different people have different goals (strong science and mathematics, or music, or art, or humanities and languages?) on the surface it seems like good and intelligent policy to recognize that given the complexity of the problem it is best to just let people sort it out themselves. There is just one problem: as a system, it is a complete and abject failure.

Why? Simply put, people are rational. Although cunning might be a better word. What ends up happening is that instead of sending children to the school which offers the “best” education, they send kids to schools which offer the best marks. Since students come with money attached, schools have incentive to give students the highest possible grades, regardless of their performance. I see the results of this every day: cheating is tolerated to the point that children don’t know what “cheating” means, what are called “tests” are really class-wide group work, and teachers pick and choose when to grade students (often when I grade a student I receive the reply “but he did badly today- lets just not record it”).

After teaching for about a week you come to realize that children are Really Freaking Smart. Even the “dumb ones”. My students are all quite aware that marks are cooked and don’t matter, and therefore they don’t care. They cannot fail. Why then should they try? Effort is not rewarded and lack of effort is not punished. I wouldn’t do my homework either if I were them.

But I’m not. I’m their teacher, and without marks I lose my most powerful tool for maintaining class discipline and directing learning. I can’t encourage students doing homework because I can’t assign participation marks. I can’t assign bonus marks for the keeners. My only recourse is to try to inspire respect through force of personality (and occasionally emotion) and while this works in some classes it doesn’t in others. My kids know that they have nothing to fear- even a trip to the principal’s office is toothless since the principal has incentive to NOT go to the kid’s parents. This results in wasted time, frayed nerves, angry, stressed out teachers and ultimately children not learning.

I must emphasize that this NOT the teacher’s problem, or the school principal’s- it is the direct result of the funding structure which must be changed. I’m not sure where such a system came from- I hope that its left over from the manic post-soviet rush to liberalize and not something new, whether imposed as strings attached to foreign aid or IMF loans or internally generated. It doesn’t really matter- the most important thing a culture does is perpetuate itself by educating the next generation and its absolutely vital that its done right.

In Canada how things work is that there is a school assigned to your district and that’s where you go- no choice. If you want your kids to go to another school you can 1. move, 2. sign them up for a special program like french immersion, 3. send your kid to a private school or homeschool, or 4. go through a long process of justifing youself (there are many very good reasons for switching a child’s school). This system is not perfect, but it works.

I’m sure that by using our brains we can devise a system which both allows for choice AND doesn’t erode the integrity of the system. This is the sort of system I would like to see in Georgia.

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