Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Does Georgia's Reliance on Family Hinder the Economy?

This post was inspired by Freakonomics Radio on Marketplace, the episode "Why Family and Business Don't Mix," broadcast 13 June, 2013.

Family is the foundation of Georgian society. For the vast majority of society, family is much more influential than even religion - I say this largely because most Georgians rarely attend church regularly, and Orthodox churches don't really have a Sunday school equivalent where children learn the tenents of the religion. Children are taught religious principles, or at least the general social conceptions of what religious principles are (mainly chastity, obedience, and the virtues of poverty and suffering), by their family. 

Anyone who has spent time in Georgia has likely noticed the intense influence of family. For example:
  • Young people generally live with their parents until they get married
  • Usually, a young married couple will move in with the husband's family, affording them no privacy, no honeymoon period, no independence from birth until death...this also means that several generations usually live in the same apartment
  • Parents call their adult children constantly on the phone, even when they live together
  • Family obligations come before everything 
  • It is completely off limits to date the family member of a friend, including family members not by blood or marriage but by the church, which includes godparents, and best man/maid of honor
  • Parents have a significant influence on their children's choice of partner

A 2010 study by Alberto Alesina and Paola Giuliano at the UCLA Anderson School of Management analyzed how family ties in different cultures affect economic outcomes. The study determined that "cultures that have strong family ties tend to have weaker economies." Giuliano summarized the two main reasons for this correlation for Marketplace:

"People who rely on the family tend to trust, mostly, the family and less the outside world.  Therefore, they tend to be more inward-looking and they develop a lower level of social capital or political participation."

Relying on close family structures is associated with less reliance on and trust in external institutions, such as the court system, the legislature, and civil society. What direction does the correlation, flow, though? Perhaps it's a chicken and egg question. Is it the case that family structures once dominated the world, and in industrialized, large economies reliable democratic institutions replaced the family as the foundation of life and business? Or is it that in economies where public institutions have failed, families pick up the burden?

Consider, if you will, the concept of blood feuds. This series of cyclic, vengeful violence was common practice in many cultures worldwide (including, famously, Georgia's Svaneti region until relatively recently) until societies became more centralized and law enforcement developed to the point where it more or less reliably and predictably punished those who broke the social contract. With the ability to rely on the government (police), people no longer needed to rely on their families (Uncle Joe going after the kid in the next town over for besmirching his niece's virtue) in this particular realm.

Defensive towers in Svaneti, Georgia; Kuriositas

Wikipedia claims that "Blood feuds were common in societies with a weak rule of law (or where the state does not consider itself responsible for mediating this kind of dispute), where family and kinship ties are the main source of authority." It's easy to see how this relationship between family and government transfers to other sectors - banking, property, contract enforcement. When you can't count on the government, you can trust your family to help get the job done, and when you can trust your family, you have less incentive to push the government to take on those roles.
There are some sectors where even family would have a hard time filling the gaps, like copyright or taxes. Still, in less centralized, less democratic, societies these sectors are not very well developed. In Georgia, Saakashvili post-Rose Revolution (2003) introduced what every western news outlet calls "sweeping reforms" which cut through corruption and bribery. Georgia, however, still suffers quite significantly from crony capitalism, and the relation to close family ties is quite obvious.

As noted on Freakonomics, family business are necessarily less profitable, on average, than other business.

"There’s a lot of research showing that a family firm – let’s say where the founder hands off the reins to a relative – that that firm will do worse than if they bring in an outside CEO. I mean, just think about it for a minute, what are the odds that the best person to run my company happens to be blood-related to me?  That said, family business is still very common in many parts of the world — Latin America, parts of Asia and western Europe.  Especially where institutions are not as strong.  The U.S. actually has a pretty low incidence of family firms — and seemingly getting fewer all the time" - Stephen J Dubner (emphasis added).
"family business"

Georgia isn't exactly crawling with family businesses, but I think that's mainly because the entrepreneurial spirit is somewhat lacking. You do see the pattern play out, however, in rampant nepotism. If you're looking for a job, you can count on a relative (by blood, marriage, or church) to find something for you. If you have a job and you hear of an opening, you are sure to recommend a relative for it. Even in government ministries you can find the minister's nieces, nephews, and godsons...as Dubner noted - what are the odds that the best person for the job is your relative? I wonder how things would look in Georgia if it were a more merit based system.

Another significant problem in Georgia's development is the transparency and efficacy of the judiciary. This is an area where, I think it's relatively clear, due to the inability of the judiciary to provide for its citizens, family relationships pick up the slack. If you want to take an issue to the courts for a civil case, you will be faced with unbelievably long wait times, high fees, and judgements that are often questioned by international watchdog organizations.

During the 2016 US Presidential election, and the recent Alabama special election for the Senate, a recurring theme has been family - family values, family-led policy, support for family businesses. Many conservatives have decried the loss of family as the primary institution in American society. But with this new evidence, you have to ask, has America's post-WWII economic growth, political leadership, and social development been spurred on by a less family-focused structure? Has America's success allowed Americans to center their lives on the institutions of their choosing, rather than being left with family as the only choice?

Ultimately, I think if you ask Georgians whether they would trade their strong family ties for a better economy, the answer will be a resounding no.

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

5 Ways Gender Roles are Harmful in Georgian Society

Hello, and good morning/afternoon/evening/anytime of day - because every time of day is ideal for acknowledging (and getting fired up about) the toxic consequences that strict gender roles have on society. In this case, we are talking specifically about Georgia, the country in which I currently live.

feminism protest that freaked everyone out
because some women didn't shave their armpits

First, I want to distinguish gender roles, the topic of this post, from sexism.

Gender roles: social expectations of the distinct and separate roles that men and women should hold

Sexism: "discrimination based on sex or gender, or the belief that men are superior to women and thus discrimination is justified. Such a belief can be conscious or unconscious. In sexism as in racism the differences between two (or more) groups are viewed as indications that one group is superior or inferior." - Jone Johnson Lewis.

In many western countries, sexism comes most often in the form of social norms, ignorance, implicit bias, and institutionalized sexism rather than explicit, intentional discrimination. Georgia has a little of both, but I find myself getting the most riled up about the ways that gender roles are harmful. Additionally, sexism is often banished (at least temporarily) by drawing attention to it and calling out casually sexist behavior, while gender roles are generally more ingrained, more stubborn, and people often have trouble seeing past ‘tradition’ to the systematic harm that gender roles can cause.

Now, a disclaimer for all my readers who are afraid of the term ‘feminism’: Some argue that gender equality doesn’t make sense because men and women are biologically different. I am not arguing that men and women are always biologically the same. I am arguing that, irrespective of any biological differences, men and women are equal – equally good, equally valuable, equally deserving of respect and opportunities in society, at work, and at home, and equally able to serve their communities in various ways. Individuals certainly have specialized skills, interests, and desires, but as a group, there are no tasks, no jobs, no ROLES that men as a whole or women as a whole must or should fulfill.

I love Georgia, and want to be part of continuing to make it a better place to live for everyone.

Now, onto the list...

1. Sexual Repression and its Consequences ~my favorite problem~

As I mentioned above, most people can't talk about sex. Even many people who are theoretically sex-positive have a lot of difficulty discussing sex in a mature, rational way. If you are one of these men reading this, please keep reading!!! But please don't think that me discussing sex here is a sign that I am interested in having sex with you. I'm not. I am also not trying to be scandalizing for the sake of scandal, but this needs to be discussed! 

Young people are not raised with an understanding of what role sex can and should play in a relationship other than as a vehicle for reproduction. On the other extreme end of the spectrum, many boys are encouraged by their male family members to go to a prostitute to lose their virginity, sometimes on their 16th or 18th birthdays they are given a visit to a brothel as a gift from an uncle or older cousin. Men are perceived as needing sex biologically, and women are painted as having little to no sexual desire.

Batumi, Georgia
Men learn about sex through internet porn and their 30-min stints with prostitutes. They don't know how to have good sex, consensual, emotion-based sex. It is simply a transaction. They don't know or think about women's needs or desires, or giving pleasure to their partner, or using sex to strengthen a relationship.

Women don't learn about sex other than that it is their duty to provide their husbands a child, through sex, and that men need sex. Women are not told that sex can and should be pleasurable for them. They are not taught how to seek their own pleasure, or even that women can have an orgasm. They are told that if a man asks them for something other than missionary sex, they are being disrespected - it's out of the question that a woman may want something other then missionary herself.

Both men and women are often told that it is disrespectful to a woman to ask for oral or anal sex, or even to have sex in any position other than missionary. There is no dialogue between a couple about what they want from sex, or the role of sex in their relationship. Men are told that their desires for more interesting, varied, or frequent sex is normal, but asking for it from their wives is disrespectful, so going to a prostitute is a good solution - women often accept this. 

I have heard Georgian men explain that prostitutes are working in the sex industry because they love sex so much and can't get enough on their own. Thus, some men feel that they are doing the women a favor by buying sex from them, satisfying the women's needs.

Dolce Vita Strip Club in the daytime

Is this a problem in and of itself? Women feel respected, men satisfy their needs and interests, brothels are a booming industry. 
Yes, of course it's a problem!!!! All the other issues I mention below are interwoven into this essential, kernel problem of Georgian society.
a) A lack of communication between couples harms a relationship, increasing the risk of domestic violence, divorce, and general unhappiness and unfulfillment. If Georgians are so family-oriented, shouldn't this be a concern of the first degree?
b) Women are left sexually unsatisfied - sex is a burden and a responsibility. The benefits of regular orgasm in adult women are well documented hereherehere, and here
c) Women are pressured or even forced into the sex trade, prostitutes are physically and emotionally abused. Teenage prostitution is another alarming aspect. Although prostitution is illegal in Georgia, the laws are barely and inconsistently enforced. With such a heavy push on tourism as a source of economic growth, the government low key benefits from the sex trade as truck drivers from Muslim countries in particular (Iran, Turkey, Azerbaijan) see Georgia as the ideal sex pit-stop.
d) Boys are encouraged to go to prostitutes from a young age, immediately connecting sex and their body and physical desires with immediate gratification and a sense of entitlement, as well as disconnecting sex from emotions. This has negative implications for psychological health, and conditions men to see sex as their right, rather than a consensual agreement, entered into through mutual desire and built on trust and affection.

these photos are from an awesome campaign in Georgia from
UNFPA encouraging men to be active fathers and caregivers

Finally, the cult of virginity is extremely detrimental to young women. Anecdotally, hymen reconstruction surgery (generally before a wedding) is alarmingly common. Many people do not understand the female anatomy, and believe that virginity is a clear-cut physical element, a body part. Especially in rural areas, women are often subjected to invasive, shameful, and medically inaccurate virginity tests. Women are taught that their self worth is entirely tied to their virginity. When a woman first engages in sexual activity, her identity and confidence can be shaken. It is not uncommon for young men to promise a girlfriend that they will eventually get married and convince her to have sex with him, then break up with her, leaving her feeling used and somehow 'ruined'. Even if a woman waits until after marriage to have sex, it can still be traumatic to part with something by which her value as a 'kargi gogo' (good girl) has thus been defined.

Of course, my description here is not indicative of all Georgians, but it is extremely prevalent in the country, particularly in rural areas, in more traditional families, in places with poorer education, and for older people.

2. Women’s Double Burden (particularly in Economically Depressed Areas)

The concept of women's double burden is not new, and not unique to the post-Soviet space, but it is certainly prevalent here. It refers to women being both expected to work, a legacy of Soviet labor policy, and expected to run the household, including being the primary caregiver of children. The Soviet communist dream was a society where childcare was state run and available to all, where cheap, attractive cafeterias (столовые) on every street would replace the need for women to cook, and where communal apartments would allow families to share the domestic burden. However, this vision never fully materialized, and while women were required to work in factories or on collective farms equally alongside men, they continued to also shoulder the bulk of the domestic burden, as had been the pre-Soviet tradition. 
In modern Georgia, particularly in rural and economically depressed areas, jobs are scare. If agriculture is not productive (and it is rarely more than subsistence farming for most people), there are few alternative jobs. The fact that jobs are heavily gendered (another gender role problem), means that men have less access to work that will support their family that is available in the regions, such as being a teacher, or working in a kindergarten or a health clinic.

Poverty in Georgia 

3. Men Resort to Violence

Gender based violence (GBV) is a huge issue in Georgia, and has been getting more attention lately! Some of the biggest challenges in eradicating GBV is that it is largely normalized and that it is almost never reported to authorities. There are no reliable national statistics on how many women and girls are affected. This article from the World Bank says that "a 2010 study estimated that 10% of married women throughout Georgia have experienced physical violence, and 3.9% of women have experienced sexual violence. These numbers are considered to be vastly under-reported." GBV particularly affects women in national minority groups (mainly ethnic Azeris and Armenians), and goes hand in hand with early marriage. This UNFPA article is full of shocking facts, including that "75 per cent of the women in Georgia believe that domestic violence is a private affair and should not be spoken about outside the family. The same research shows that only 2 per cent of women reach out to police, lawyers and other service providers when they face violence at home."

Gender roles play into this in a few ways - first, it is so tolerated because it is normalized. Women are taught that it is in men's character to be violent and aggressive, and it is not feminine to fight back. It is a woman's job to tame the wild spirit of the man through keeping the home, cooking, cleaning, providing him children, maintaining the family reputation, etc. If her husband gets angry, maybe it's the woman's fault for not giving him what he needs.

poverty in Georgia

Second - emotional conditioning. Worldwide, men are conditioned to not feel empathy, not to express emotions. This can cause men to lash out, to explode, rather than dealing with negative emotions in a productive and peaceful way, such as through crying, talking about their feelings, etc. Men are taught to solve problems through fighting. Honor and respect are such touchstones here in Georgia, if someone were to insult the honor of a man (through anything from someone making a pass at his girlfriend to calling him a name), him and his friends are socially 'required' to physically fight whoever insulted them. Women are conditioned to be open and soft and caring, creating a target for violence and aggression. Women are rarely taught to defend themselves physically. This is sort of an interesting point in Georgian culture, because although this emotional conditioning is definitely strong, the supra tradition includes the effusive expression of emotion, through 'toasts' (speeches), song, and physical affection. Interestingly, this gush of emotion is generally reserved for drunkenness and all-male environments.

Third, of course GBV is prevalent worldwide, in countries at all levels of economic development, but is often exasperated by strict expectations on men to provide for their families. In economically depressed areas, the other side of the coin to women's double burden is the 'impotency' of men (I hate using this word because it sort of propagates the idea that men need to be sexually virile to be men, but I can't find a better term...). This is frequently discussed when describing the lure of terrorist organizations for men in poor areas of Central Asia.

It also contributes to a frustration within Georgian men who feel they are failing to fulfill in the stereotypical role of breadwinner, which can be expressed through violence, particularly within the home.

4. Rape.

The World Bank article also references a 2013 study on Men and Gender in Georgia, in which "more than a third of respondents believed that women who are raped have been reckless, or that rape only affects women with a ‘bad reputation.’ Half the respondents believe that if a women does not physically resist, it cannot be considered rape."

I don't have much to say on this issue. It's just horrific.
There is essentially no sexual education in public schools, and thus no discussions of consent.

The topic of sex is so taboo that even among young adults, when I bring up sex in an abstract sense, it usually elicits blushes and silence from women and snickers and crude jokes from men. If you can't talk about sex, you can't talk about respect or consent, or the right to say no. In mixed company, if a woman starts talking about sex, she is often perceived as slutty or easy; if a man tries to talk about sex, it is considered highly inappropriate and offensive to the women. It's a vicious cycle.

5. Political and Economic Disparities

UN Women writes that "Gender perceptions in Georgia place men in a dominant position in many areas of social, economic and political life. Data confirms persistent inequalities between women and men. There is a significant gender gap in labour force participation with the gender wage gap reaching 35 per cent. Women’s entrepreneurship is limited. Female-headed households, marginalized social groups among the internally displaced and conflict affected populations, and women from other excluded groups often experience poverty or at a high risk."

Women have low political participation - only 11 percent of parliamentarians in national and local governments are women. It is a man's role to lead, and a woman's role to support, maintain. So many government agencies are full of brilliant, young women, running everything, but almost always with a male boss at the head. I hear that famous quote from My Big Fat Greek Wedding a lot here - "the man is the head [of the house], but the woman is the neck. And she can turn the head any way she wants." I honestly used to love this quote, but now I find it quite dangerous. It tells men and women that they have a "place" and encourages them to stay there. Why have a relationship full of deception, trying to make the husband believe he controls everything when really the woman controls him through manipulation? That doesn't sound like a healthy marriage to me.

Gender is not mainstreamed into national planning and budgeting, and is almost always an afterthought and a platitude. Although, as I mentioned above, women often carry the economic burden of the family, they are rarely economically empowered. Men are considered the final decider on how a household should spend its finances. Despite the fact that women are responsible for shopping for food and household goods and managing the family budget, they are not encouraged to start businesses, ask for raises at work, or negotiate their salary.

If you made it this far, bravo. I hope you're not too disheartened by the situation in Georgia. I hope I have successfully argued about the harm caused by strict gender roles, and I hope that it is clear how they harm both men and women.

There are various campaigns and organizations working on behalf of this issue, with varied success. The UNFPA campaign I mentioned above is great, and the national rugby team recently ran a memorable anti-domestic violence campaign. However, as soon as sexism or gender roles are mentioned by those with real power to change laws or influence norms, the push back from society and the Orthodox Church is extreme and restrictive.  

I should add a call to action here, a link to donate to some amazing organization working to end discrimination and violence and sexism, encouraging sex education and women's empowerment. But I don't have anything to give. 

If you know of an organization doing great gender-based work in Georgia, please comment it here!

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

$7.58 Massage

Photo: National Geographic Russia
You can get almost anything for cheap in Georgia.
In most places with less developed economies, less centralization, less chain-ification, less commercial legislation/enforcement of laws, you have a more stratified consumer economy than in the US. 

In the US, if you want some juice, for example, you go to the grocery store and there are 100 brands to choose from, but they all have approximately the same quality, you're sure that you won't get sick from any of them, and their prices are all within a couple dollars of each other. There are also maybe some fancier juices - cold pressed kale carrot or some Jamba Juice concoction. 
But what if you want something else? You don't need high quality, or fancy, you want something super basic and cheap and you're willing to drink your juice from an old Coke bottle even if it doesn't have FDA approval, but the grandma who sold it to you from the side of the rode was super sweet so it's probably fine - and actually even tastes more natural and fresh than the fanciest of cold presses - as long as you don't get food poisoning...

and this is just the cold juices...
So in Georgia, most things are available along this model. You have a deeper range of options, for price and quality (quality of the product itself, but more reliability/predictability of the quality, and quality of the 'packaging'), although a narrower range (of brands) at the mid-upper price point. 

I tell you all this to explain how I ended up getting a 20 GEL ($7.58) massage this Tuesday. There are plenty of places here to get a high quality massage, spas and hotels, but they come at a price! I could get a $50 massage once every 2-3 months maybe, but a $7.58 massage - twice a month! The main problems that come with these lower end products is quality and finding them. You know where to find the high end things - there are websites and facebook pages and big stores full of brand name items. The lower end stuff is trickier. There are signs everywhere on the street for massages but most of them are just fronts for prostitution, so to get something legitimate, you mostly have to rely on word of mouth. So when a friend of mine (thanks Alex!) said she got a pretty good massage for 20 GEL, I was excited to check it out!

That is how I found myself jumping onto a rickety yellow Bogdan in a rainstorm on Tuesday night headed towards Lamika's house. I called her when I got the Domino's, as she'd told me to on the phone the day before.
"SAMANTA?! HI, HI" she shouted into the receiver
"Hi, Lamika? I'm here, at the Domino's"

"Hi Lamika, it's Samantha! I'm here, at the Domino's - how can I get to your apartment?"
"It's a little further down the street - by the new cafe [it was a Dunkin Donuts]"

I looked up and saw a small blonde woman waving frantically from her balcony.
I made my way up to her apartment, where she was standing, smiling in the open doorway, wearing a tank top, linen pants, and an apron-type over skirt. In the front room there was a spread of fruits laid out, and when I declined she led be into the massage room/her bedroom/second half of the living room separated by a sheet hanging from the ceiling. There was a massage table set up on one side of the room, and Lamika worked quickly to strip it of the sheets from the last client. As she ran around the apartment doing I don't know what, she told me to sit down, relax, without telling me where exactly to sit, so I picked one of the several chairs near the massage table and sat down.

a fair approximation of Lamika's apartment

I was trying to play it cool, but I was actually super nervous. After a few minutes of me trying to look really occupied with taking off my jacket and earrings, Lamika stopped flitted around and asked me - "полное, да?" (polnoe, da?) The thing about language is that when you are nervous, you stop thinking...and while sometimes this makes your instincts kick in and you just start speaking like a pro, other times you get super confused and mix up the words polnoe (full) and golaya (naked). So Lamika verified that I wanted a full body massage, and I thought she was asking if I would be naked, which, obviously I would be, so I took it as a sign that I should have already stripped and she was waiting for me! So, without further hesitation, I started to take off my clothes just right there next to the table in her bedroom. She sort of cocked her head then turned around and occupied herself with untying and retying her apron over skirt thing. It wasn't until I had awkwardly slithered on the table (crinkly from the layer of plastic wrap under the cloth) and under the blanket that I realized what she had actually said...but never mind, I was here now and that was the ultimate goal. I hoped she would just think I was super cool and confident and not concerned about nudity.

"Music, yes?" I nodded and Lamika went over to her boombox (yes, it was an actual boombox), and twisted the dial until she found Radio Monte Carlo. At this point, I strongly recommend you click THIS LINK to get the full effect of what my massage was like, listening to a rotation of Romanian beach club music and electronic remixes of Destiny’s Child, Kylie Minogue, and Madonna. Not exactly ocean waves or rain sounds, but it added its own sort of ambiance. It perhaps also added a sense of urgency, a driving rhythm, because the massage itself was pretty good, but her hands worked extremely fast. She probably spent as much time on each area as any other masseuse would, but used twice as many strokes. She also employed the favorite technique of children giving their dads massages everywhere: the karate chop method. I sort of thought that wasn’t a real professional technique but I guess it is... The only thing that I was really not happy with was that the table was too short for my legs, which is really no one's fault but genetics for making my legs awkwardly long...so I came away with a pair of bruises across my shins where the edge of the table bit into them.

Throughout the massage, Lamika's primary concern was clearly not my modesty, or that my skin not touch the plastic table underneath the cloth, but that I don’t get cold. She frequently shifted the little space heater and halfway through the massage remembered she had a thicker blanket and brought it in to lay across me. I think this obsession with staying warm comes from her being super Slavic - she also refused to accept money directly from my hand, insisting that I lay it on the table, which is a superstition I had heard about in Russia but never actually seen anyone take seriously!

After the massage, she just said “relax” and then sat on her bed (4-5 feet from the table) and got on her laptop. When I asked if I could get up, she said sure, but didn’t leave the room or turn to give me privacy like she had when I undressed. Instead she came closer and held the sheets so they didn’t fall off the table as I got up. At least I was wearing underwear, but although I'm not really a shy person, I definitely felt awkward that my top was totally exposed, just, like, free swinging in the breeze, and Lamika just smiled at me and said “tell Alex hello for me!” It was great. Also, I'm definitely still not clear on the European concept of boobs. I know that in magazines and TV, boobs are often not blurred out like they are in the US. On the other hand, it’s not like nude beaches are common in this part of Europe or women wear transparent shirts (like in Spain, wow that shocked 14-year old me!). But I guess this massage was like the sulfur baths - we’re all ladies!

Three days later, my back muscles were still a bit sore - in a good way. By the fourth day I had completely recovered. I can see myself going back to Lamika! Maybe once a month. Not as a relaxing end of week spa treatment, more like a medical procedure, but definitely not a bad use of $7.58!

Friday, October 6, 2017

First Field Visit - Marneuli and the Thousand Staring Eyes

Over the last two days, I ventured out to one of my field work sites for the first time - the town of Marneuli!

Marneuli is interesting because it is the capital of the Marneuli District, about an hour south of Tbilisi in the Kvemo Kartli region, and it is about 80% ethnic Azerbaijani.

Signs are alternately in Georgian, Russian and Azeri. I theorize (without evidence) that when a sign is in Georgian and Russian, it's a Georgian-owned business attempting to bride to Azeris, and when a sign is in Georgian and Azeri, it's an Azeri-owned business. There are also sometimes signs only in Azeri, so I guess those business either aren't making an effort to attract Georgian clientele, or figure that their business is obviously pharmacy/vegetable stand/flower shop and multilingual signage isn't really needed. 

Azeris are generally Muslims, but on my hour and half stroll of the town center, I only saw about 10 women wearing the hijab (I actually didn't see that many women...maybe 20% of the people on the street were women). There were many older women wearing kerchiefs and sort of standard Caucasian Muslim clothing, but, interestingly, there were also a handful of younger women, maybe high school age, wearing more Arab or Turkish style Islamic clothing (basically abayas). 

As I walked around, I was stared at like an alien. I haven't been solo traveling in a small town in Georgia in a long time and had forgotten the mix of apprehension, confusion, and celebrity you feel when everyone gawks at you. Even little kids somehow noticed my foreignness and leapt back when I passed them on the sidewalk, and grabbed their friends' arms and pointed, open mouthed. I have no clue what they were whispering, though, because it was in Azeri.

On the first day, I ended up with a massive headache because I forgot my contacts/glasses and because I didn't have time to grab coffee as I had planned. On the second day, I left my house an hour before I had to be at the meeting point (without traffic, it takes 8 mins by car/24 mins by bus, and there wasn't much traffic at this point) so I could stop by Dunkin Donuts to grab a latte. This plan was quite successful, but pretty much as soon as I got in the driver's fancy new Prius with a no-smoking sign, I spilled the coffee all over my seat. The thing is, no one seemed to notice...so I frantically tried to use the 2.5 tissues I had in my backpack to hide the evidence of the spill, as the scalding hot coffee seeped into the seat and into my pants...and my butt, let's be real. I had coffee everywhere. As the pain from the burning subsided, I continued to sit in a pool of hazelnut scented embarrassment. No matter how I shifted, I couldn't escape it. Thank goodness I was wearing black pants! But the seat did not escape a stain, and the whole car smelled like the coffee. I was sweating bullets throughout the hour long ride, waiting for someone to say "WOW that coffee smells SO intense! Did you spill it or something?" but no one said anything...I am terrified to get back into the car because the driver will definitely have discovered it by then. I can't decide if it would be more embarrassing for him to have cleaned it up, or not...I know this smell is going to follow me around the rest of the day. I hope people just think I'm wearing hazelnut perfume. On my butt.


Since I was in Marneuli as part of a different project that I was observing, I didn't have that much time in the town, but I did manage to take a few pictures. This is a short post - I don't have much to say yet about Marneuli, I just wanted to share these photos, Hopefully more to come from Kvemo Kartli in the near future!

huge lemons? young grapefruit? bumpy apples?

Town mosque

Monument to Persian/Azeri poet
It wasn't raining but water was overflowing from the
cistern on this roof and falling on the street


Sign in Russian

Typical Caucasian Muslim head covering

Marneuli Judo Academy

Signs say something like 'keep the grass green - stay off'

One of many shops selling elaborate party/wedding gowns
(Azeri brides typically wear white and red)

Kids putting up posters of the ruling party
candidate for mayor in this months' elections

A row of ruling party election posters torn down

"Men's Paradise"

A big poster of an opposition candidate for mayor
(whom I met - the first Azeri woman to ever run for mayor of Marneuli!),
above rows of smaller ruling party posters

Something in Arabic script on a residential side street
(if anyone can translate, let me know!)

Poster in Azeri on a lamp post. I think it said something
about a credit bank or an agricultural collective...

Monday, October 2, 2017

Adjusting to Tbilisi: What I Miss, What I Don't

Last week, this week. Nothing but rain, rain, rain. 
I guess the nonstop deluge makes up for a bone dry September of temperatures in the low 30s (high 80s/low 90s). Finally fall is here, but we skipped through that crispy, crunchy, light jacket weather and went straight to a wet, grey fog that I pray is not indicative of the next 4 months of my life in Tbilisi.

So how is my life in Tbilisi, anyway?

Everything is going well: 10 hours of language classes a week (6 Geo, 4 Rus) is exhausting, especially given the additional 1.5-2 hours it takes each day to get to and from the location of my classes on the other side of town. My research is kind of sluggishly progressing. There are lots of moving pieces right now and I'm still establishing contacts and laying some ground work. 

I am adjusting pretty well, I think, and since this is my 5th time in Georgia and 3rd time for an extended period, I'm not that surprised. However, there are still many things that frustrate me, confuse me, and make me uncomfortable. I could complain about them for hours, but for now, here is a short listicle of my most salient adjustments coming from a summer of suburban leisure to big(ish) city sort-of-leisure-sort-of-supposed-to-be-working life...

courtesy: Lonely Planet

There is no HGTV in Georgia, which I binged regularly in Yorktown. I don't miss having so much free time, but I do miss the opportunity to watch mindless TV sometimes - and learn about interior design and construction! Although the interior design knowledge has come in handy decorating my new apartment!

Hello, old friends

I miss listening to Morning Edition and 1A in the morning, instead of while cooking dinner.
my NPR app is what keeps me going

I miss flavored creamer. Now I just put cinnamon in my coffee grounds. I also miss having a coffee maker that I didn't accidentally crack by putting cold water in the burning hot glass carafe...
In Georgia, there are no deals at bars/restaurants like happy hour or half priced wine Wednesdays, and no coupons. Some grocery stores do have sort of loyalty cards but the benefits are unclear.
In Georgia there are fewer chains - restaurants and stores. At non-chain places I've never been, there is no predictability in quality and it's hard to know where to go to get stuff - where is the go-to place to buy towels? Poster board? Pillowcases? Okay, maybe I just miss Target.

It is SO hard to find good to-go coffee here! Most to-go places are just little newspaper/cigarette stands that will dump a tube of instant coffee in hot water. Some actually have espresso machines and for a premium, they will add a splash of milk. There ARE a couple "fancy" coffee places, but they are few and far between, and expensive. No Starbucks (RIP pumpkin spice latte this fall), although there is a place in the small industrial city of Zestaponi called Legends of Starbucks which tries pretty hard. 

I miss good ethnic food (Mexican, Thai, Chinese, Indian, Lebanese). There are some okay Chinese places, but not American style Chinese, and the quality of other places is questionable, although with more immigrants in the city, more Indian and Persian restaurants are popping up, so I have hope! There is straight up no Mexican food in Tbilisi - just one horrible attempt in Sighnaghi, a couple hours to the east. The closest thing we have here are the copious shawarma places around Saakadze Square.

There are some things you just can't get in Georgia - frozen yogurt, good milkshakes,  custard, cheap take out sushi, cupcakes, pumpkin spice lattes (yeah, coming back around to this again, it's really painful), fall scented candles, index cards, 3-prong folders, English trash magazines, Milky Way Midnight, Texas Pete - the list goes on.

I can't find out as much with a quick Google - partly because a lot of stuff isn't online (opening hours for a family owned restaurant, prices for small appliances at the store on the corner) and if it is online, it might not be in English.

I miss driving! I miss running errands quickly - shout out to parking lots! I know this is largely a city thing, not a Georgia thing. The craziness of drivers here is also quite off-putting, along with limited parking, and bad roads. I miss rocking out to music in my car on the long drives from Charlottesville to Yorktown or DC, I miss state inspection laws ensuring cars have their bumpers and lights and catalytic converters (that part that filters out the most toxic of the fumes a car produces). 

I miss being able to easily talk on the phone. After many painful middle and high school years of serious phone-phobia, I finally realized how simple a quick phone call can be, and how much time it can save you - especially if some information isn't on the Internet, or isn't in English. Here, however, I have to go through the whole spiel - do you speak English? No? Russian? Not really? Does this 3-word broken Georgian sentence make sense to you? Making appointments is the worst.

I miss healthy(ish) flavored yogurt, and Greek yogurt. In Georgia all they really have is matsoni (unflavored tart, thin - delicious in its own way) and yogurt-based, artificial-ingredient-filled desserts that masquerade as yogurt in the dairy aisle. Yogurt is actually my favorite food so this one is particularly painful for me... 

Stuffed crust pizza. My last meal in Yorktown. I still remember the melt in your mouth taste...I will always cherish you, Pizza Hut.

I miss quick-prepare food - instant rice, easy mac, shake n bake, hamburger helper, biscuits in a can, etc. There is some of that here, but it's not easy to find. I was actually shocked and awed the other day to find microwaveable single serve pouches of traditional Georgian dishes. Such a great idea!! I wanted to buy out the whole supply just to support the business, but unfortunately I have no microwave...

I miss American phone etiquette: writing texts when possible rather than calling, ringer generally on silent/vibrate, not answering the phone when you're in a meeting, teaching a class, taking a class, on public transportation, in a movie theater, in a play, etc. Of course, in America it's also okay to not answer your phone. In Georgia, if someone doesn't answer their phone, you don't just assume they're busy and will call back when they can, you call them again, and again, and again until they answer. It is nice, however, how in Georgia people call just to say hi, just to check in, just for 2-3 minutes. 

I miss fashion being predictable and understandable...here I can't really tell if someone is dressed fashionably and I just don't like it (because Georgian fashion seems to mirror some of the worst trends of the past 3-4 decades), or if they aren't fashionable.

And then there are the things I certainly don't miss from the states...

The dominance of chain restaurants and stores

The artificial flavors and sugars in everything, how expensive local, natural (whatever that means), wholesome foods generally are

How it's impossible to walk anywhere in most places other than big cities
Yorktown, VA: no sidewalks, no public transportation - lots of parking lots

Gun violence. Gun violence. Gun violence. Gun violence.

I'm sure there are more to add to this list, I'll add as time goes on...

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Salar de Uyuni from La Paz in 34 Hours

(If you're not going to the Salar de Uyuni and just want to read about my experience, scroll 2/3rds of the way down the page!)

So, you're planning a trip to Bolivia. If you have an extra day and a half in La Paz, it IS possible to do Salar de Uyuni (the beautiful, perspective-bending salt flats south of La Paz) in what is essentially a day trip. By spending two night in a row in transit, you avoid paying for two nights of hotel accommodation, and save lots of time. There are two main ways to get to Uyuni from La Paz - bus or train. Only the buses run at night, and that's what I am going to discuss here.

General Schedule
Day 1
Be at bus terminal at 7:30 pm
Get on bus at 8:00 pm
Leave terminal between 8:30-9:00 pm

Day 2
Arrive in Uyuni around 7:30 am
Have breakfast/coffee
Look for a tour company
Leave for tour around 10:30 am
Arrive back in Uyuni around 6:30 or 7 pm
Grab something to eat
Get bus back to La Paz at 8:00 or 8:30 pm

Buying Bus Tickets
I bought my tickets from www.ticketsbolivia.com, and I was satisfied with the service, price, and options offered. If you're really looking to save a buck, you can go in person to the bus terminal (on Uruguay Ave, northwest corner of the city) and pick out a company, buying tickets directly. Most companies don't have a web presence apart from aggregators like Tickets Bolivia.

There are two types of bus companies: 'publico' and 'turistico'. The public buses aren't municipal buses, but are aimed more for local people traveling between the cities, while the tourist buses are aimed at, well, tourists going to see the salt flats. Tourist buses are a bit more expensive but are generally newer, nicer, cleaner, have safety precautions so your bags don't get stolen from the hold, and maybe even offer water and a meal upon arrival in Uyuni. I tried two different companies out, here's what I thought:

Trans Omar Turistico:
I would recommend this bus service. It is not luxury, but is tourist oriented, and has full cama (lie flat beds). The buses are pretty new, they have nice seats, warm blankets, and a secure-feeling baggage check system. It also technically has wifi, although it wasn't working right on my bus. 



Panasur (publico):
I wanted to take this bus because it left Uyuni at 8:30 pm, so I figured I would have more time to catch it and get dinner before - I did. If I had left at 8, I probably would have only had time to get something to-go (para llevar) before getting on the bus, since our tour ran a bit longer (we left a little late, plus some of the girls REALLY wanted to get pictures at every single location). It also had a later arrival time to La Paz, and I had heard the area around the bus station was really sketchy so I felt better about 8:30 am than 6:00 am (still dark in the winter). In the end, though, the bus arrived around 6:30 and it was still dark and I was nervous...but no one tried to jump me. I just quickly got in a radio (official) taxi and went to my hostel.


Panasur really sucks, though. The buses are dirty and look old inside. The seats are that old gross cracked black leather. But I guess it gets the job done - they also provide blankets which was my big fear!

Bonus: there is no "terminal tax" or document check out of Uyuni

What is Uyuni like?

Uyuni is a pale, dusty town full of low, white washed buildings and parades of salt-encrusted 4x4s. You can really feel its history as an edge-of-the-world salt mining town that once had aspirations to be a big city, but instead plateaued mid-century. There isn't much nightlife here, so don't expect to find a trendy bar to pass the time. The residents of Uyuni rely on the 60,000 tourists that pass through each year to support local businesses (including the dozens of Salar tour companies), but don't completely embrace the unending influx of outsiders to the otherwise quiet town. Bolivians in general are not overly friendly, and especially in a place so oriented towards tourists, there is quite a bit of tension. I don't recommend spending too much time here, but a few hours of thoughtful exploration, with a dose of local history and cultural sensitivity, would be well worth your time. 

Should I just spend the night in Uyuni?

Unless you have lots of money to spend, no. The quality of available lodgings is only a notch higher than sleeping on the bus, and Uyuni doesn't have much to offer beyond a couple of hours of walking around in the morning. If you are looking to splurge, there are a couple of salt hotels just outside of town that are worth your consideration! Start by checking out Luna Salada or Palacio del Sal.

How do I find a tour company?

Two options: book in advance online or in La Paz, choose a company in Uyuni. 
Booking online works well for a multi-day tour or if you have a big budget ($75-100 USD/person for a day tour), but the vast majority of companies don't really have an online presence. Booking in La Paz is a good option - you guarantee your spot on a tour (useful especially in the high season), and have a pretty good selection - also, most tourism companies in La Paz will be able to communicate with you in English. Booking in Uyuni is a good option if you want to really investigate all the options and be confident in what sort of product you are getting, but beware that most companies speak only Spanish and accept only cash. I have heard both that it's cheaper to buy in La Paz and cheaper in Uyuni...so I can't really say, but I ended up paying about $25 for my day tour, which included lunch. There are lots of options in Uyuni - you can either wait until someone (women at the bus stop, waitress at a cafe) asks if you have a tour booked and they will offer you some package, or you can go yourself door to door at the tour companies' offices and compare packages.

What should I look for in a 1-day tour?

  • Newer cars 
  • Small group size (maximum 6, not 7!) 
  • Lunch (ask what's on the menu) 
  • Guide: mostly, the driver is also the guide but sometimes you get both - ask if they speak English, if that matters to you (you will pay more) and if it's a driver/guide, make sure they are really knowledgeable - and feel free to ask lots of questions on the tour if your driver isn't talkative!   
  • All the key stops: train cemetery, Colchani town, the original salt hotel, Isla del Pescado or Isla Incahuasi

How was your trip to the Salar de Uyuni, Samantha?

leche con cafe
I had a really excellent time in Uyuni! Probably the best activity I did in Bolivia. I was, however, still suffering from altitude sickness and since Uyuni is a little bit higher than La Paz, I felt bad from the moment I arrived. Also, I felt dirty and gross the whole time after the night on the bus and nothing but a quick sink clean up in a cafe bathroom. I sat writing post cards in a small cafe for about 2.5 hours waiting for the tour to start at 10 am. I had a HUGE cup of milk, a small cup of coffee, and a sort of omelette. 

My tour group was, interestingly, all girls! Maria, the driver/answerer of questions (not a guide, per say), who loves both traditional pan flute music and Backstreet Boys, was very nice but quite introverted. In addition to me, the passengers were a Colombian girl taking a field trip from her business trip to Uyuni, two German friends on vacation, and two Puerto Rican friends on vacation.

The landscape is stunning and beautiful, but the sun was just killing me and I hadn't eaten much. My stomach was turning, I couldn't muster enough energy to lay in the salt and try to get a ton of dramatic photos. 
lots of people

At about the fourth stop of maybe ten, I started to feel dizzy and disoriented. I knew what was coming. While everyone got out of the car to take pictures of the "ojos del agua" (bubbles of water coming up through the ground) I went behind the car, put my hair up in a bun, and threw up all over the salar. Twice. It was mostly liquid since all I ate today was warm milk, half a piece of toast, and a few bites of a cheese omelet. I give you this detail to note that I didn't leave a significant mark on the already white and tan desert landscape. If anyone noticed it was our driver Maria, but she didn't say anything as I rushed back to the car to grab a roll of toilet paper between heaves.
ojos del agua
ojos del agua
I felt varying degrees of nauseous since I arrived in Bolivia, and really wasn't able to force myself to eat. I worried I felt sick because I wasn't eating, but the thought of every food made me sick - especially what I saw on offer in Bolivia. It was a lot of cuts of meat I'm not used to eating and fried bread. The night before I had my only full meal since my arrival - a street cheeseburger which absolutely hit the spot. Actually, I could only eat about 70% before it got cold (because I was eating so slow) and was no longer so appetizing...

But after I puked on the world's largest salt flats, I actually felt a lot better! I managed to put down some vegetables (finally!) and quinoa at lunch, and the nausea mostly subsided for the rest of the day. There were lots of reasons for me to be sick - the (near?) sun poisoning I got in Playa del Carmen, the cold I got in Playa del Carmen, the stress-induced weakened immune system from traveling, the altitude, eating unusual food, not eating, using the water to brush my teeth once or twice, dehydration...so who knows what really got me.

After watching the sun set, we raced a public bus (going from pueblitos on the edge of the Salar) back to Uyuni. Behind us the clouds glowed with pink and red fire, to the right the mountains and sky blended in a blue brilliantly offset by the white salt. Ahead of us, town lights were faint enough for me to wonder how the drivers don't get lost. Maria assured me they can read the landscape, but many tourists get lost each year after attempting to navigate the flats alone, and it can be very dangerous.

Back in Uyuni I said farewell to my fellow passengers, and scarfed down a weird mushroom and cheese pizza before hopping on my bus back to La Paz!

Overall, I highly recommend Salar de Uyuni if you're in Bolivia! Stunning, unforgettable, and demonstrates the power of nature. It is definitely better with a partner - someone to take pictures of you and someone to talk to on the long open stretches of salt flats.