I received an interesting phone call today from TLG, the government program that I am working for. They were calling to let me know that they offering an excursion for volunteers this weekend which was leaving from Telavi, the town I live in. Alexander, the friendly Georgian in charge of these excursions, wanted to know if I was interested in joining this all expenses paid, one day excursion. Unfortunately, I had already made plans for the weekend. Alexander seemed a little disappointed, but assured me there was another free excursion next Sunday and he promised to e-mail me the information.
Alexander's call was very informative and I appreciated his effort to inform me of this complementary outing. But at the same time the call reminded me of a telemarketer calling to let me know about a free weekend at a ski resort, if I would only agree to an hour long informational session, or a free lunch for anyone interested in a real deal of a cruise package! But, no. Of course these excursions aren't gimmicks to get me to buy something... Or are they?
The teaching program I'm on is called TLG, Teach and Learn with Georgia. It is run by the Georgian Ministry of Education and its objective is to bring native English speakers into Georgian public schools and teach English alongside a Georgian English teacher. At its heart it is an educational program. But I can't seem to shake this nagging feeling that it is also some greater tourism ploy. And this suspicion is not unfounded. From the outset TLG has strongly encouraged us "volunteers" (because we are technically, legally, and contractually called volunteers, an irony that I will reveal later) to travel around Georgia. Although TLG is an educational program, it is also a cultural interchange program. We live with host families- which, as you may have inferred from my previous blogs, is a whole lot of cultural interchange. As a result of living with host families we get to know the culture of the area we are living in. TLG also encourages us to visit fellow TLG'ers around the country, which offers a chance to learn more about the cultures in different areas; and in a country that's only the size of South Carolina, there are actually significant differences between the regions. (Me? I'm in the region known for its traditional values and aversion to social change. Great.)
It is not surprising that TLG encourages us to travel. Most of us are under 30 and if we're willing to take a job in the tiny, little known country of Georgia than chances are we are a group of people not averse to travel. But what I was surprised by was just how emphatic they are about getting us to travel around the country. In order for TLG "volunteers" to be able to travel around we are actually paid more per month than our Georgian co-teachers. Yes, you read that right. We get paid more than our co- teachers who do this thanklessly day in and day out. And it is not a small difference. Volunteers working for TLG get paid 500 lari after taxes every month. The average Georgian schoolteacher gets paid 100-200 lari per month. This is an awkwardly huge discrepancy that I am often embarrassed of when people ask me what I get paid. And Georgians do ask what we get paid, often. I have met people and within five minutes of being introduced they have asked me what I get paid. The extra salary is not going toward our savings for flights back home, either. TLG pays for our flights to and from Georgia, including summer vacation. During our week-long orientation the TLG staff was quite open about the fact that we get paid this extra amount in order for us to travel around Georgia, and in part to compensate for some of the situations that people might be placed in. In a country where a kilo of fruit or vegetables might cost as little as 3 lari, 500 lari goes a long way.
So why the expense? It's not like the Ministry of Education and Science couldn't use the money somewhere else, like making sure every school has heat and electricity, basic supplies for schools such as chalk and proper chalk boards, repairing the rooms that simply can't be used because the floors have been torn up and the windows have been broken. The list could go on. Perhaps the government hopes that by bringing enough foreigners into this tiny Caucasian country- they're goal is to have 1,000 volunteers by the end of the school year- that word will spread about what a wonderful vacation spot Georgia is. After all, when the program started they placed volunteers in the west of Georgia, on the Black Sea. I don't know how familiar you are with Soviet-era vacation spots, but let's just say Moscow is still green with envy that they don't have easy access to Batumi any more. The program has been moving eastward. My group, which arrived in January was the first to be placed in the Kakheti region, the last region in the east of the country. Despite the fact that the TLG program is being run out of Tbilisi, Georgia's capital and about an hour and a half car ride from Telavi, they started placing people in the west. The west of Georgia not only has beautiful beaches but it is also a lot more socially progressive. And it is in Batumi, the biggest town in the west, that Donald Trump will have another tower in his name. This latest mammoth of gambling and western "culture" (any dictionary with a definition of culture including Donald Trump should be sent back to the editor) is the product of a friendship between Mikheil Saakashvili, the Georgian president, and Donald Trump himself. Clearly, the president has high hopes for Batumi to become the latest summer hot spot.
I might be thinking about this too much, but I simply can't shake the feeling that this is all part of a greater desire by the Georgian government to propel itself back to the "first world" or the "developed world" (which ever term is no longer politically incorrect). I had a conversation with a Georgian man not much older than myself today and he told me that Georgia used to look at countries like India and Pakistan (those were his countries of choice, not mine) and think how nice it was to not be in the third world. But now Georgia is behind. After independence in 1991 Georgia went through a few civil wars, which left a majority of the nation without electricity, even Tbilisi had regulated blackouts at night. This electricity crisis lasted several years. It was probably this period that caused Georgia to slip "out of the top." As other countries in the world were quite literally powering forward- advancing technology, incorporating computers into daily life, developing this little thing called the world wide web- Georgia didn't have any power. And to this day there are stop lights in Telavi that have not worked since Georgia became an independent country. If there are any Georgian political experts in the audience, please correct me if I'm wrong with this theoretical summary of modern Georgian history. Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that is is a bad thing for a country to want to improve its status in the world and bring in foreign investments, but I do want them to be up front about it. If I'm being used to promote Georgia, just give me a heads up, and maybe a bumper sticker or something. However, before Georgia uses all of this energy and money, they should sit down with a mirror and see what needs to be fixed internally before they focus on external opinion.
Perhaps the Georgian government hopes that these several hundred volunteers will spread the word about this sleepy little country with high hopes. Perhaps I am simply a pawn, part of some plan thought of during some governmental financial planning meeting. All I know is that no matter what ulterior motives may lie behind my being here, I am here. And I will enjoy my time here while I have it, even if I am playing right into their hands...