Welcome to Abasha!
After living with a host family for the first half of my Peace Corps service, I decided to move out and find my own place. Before I moved out, I had to break the news to my host family. It wasn’t easy because I had grown close with them and they considered me part of the family. I think they also relied some on the money Peace Corps was paying them, about $140 a month, which covered everything.
The hardest part was explaining to them why I wanted to live alone. In Georgia, like many parts of the world, family is the most important thing in a person’s life – virtually no one lives alone. They couldn’t fathom a person who didn’t want company. In a culture in which guests are revered, they also worried that the neighbors might think they were bad hosts. I told all the neighbors and my colleagues at school that the family had treated me wonderfully (which was true), but that Americans are more accustomed to privacy and independence.
My host family was definitely upset, but eventually understood. For my 14-year-old host brother, my departure was bittersweet. I was leaving, but he was getting my bedroom, which had been remodeled and is by far the nicest room in the house. I’m still close with the family, and go to visit a couple of times a week.
The author, hiking with his former host family “brothers”.
My first challenge was finding a place to rent. I work as an English teacher here, and at first my school colleagues were reluctant to help me. They are friends with my host family, and they didn’t want to be the one who “helped me” move out. Plus, they also couldn’t understand why I wanted to live alone. Why I would want to trade a very modern house (two indoor toilets, a shower, and central heating) for what would most likely be a low-end apartment?
Georgia is very traditional, and men hardly ever cook or clean, so I had to convince them I was capable of living independently. They were convinced I would starve to death. I understand now, but at the time I was a bit frustrated that they thought I was so helpless.
Decent apartments are hard to come by in Abasha, so after looking at some really crappy places, I settled on a less crappy place about one kilometer from my school. The school biology teacher lives above me, and she negotiated the price – 80 lari a month (about $47). It’s a Soviet-era apartment complex that’s only 30 years old, but looks 60 years old. It’s safe to say the communists didn’t have a knack for architectural beauty.
I met the landlord at a “birja”, a small, informal outdoor social gathering. I didn’t sign any papers; we just shook hands and shared a few glasses of wine, a staple of Georgian get-togethers. I prefer these types of contractual agreements to filing a $1,000 security deposit like you do in the U.S. That said, I have no idea what would happen if, god forbid, I burn the place down.
I moved there in May. The apartment is two rooms, divided into one pretty large bedroom and the kitchen. It came mostly furnished, and some of my colleagues generously donated some kitchenware. There is running water (sometimes), but you have to plug in a switch to turn it on, so when there isn’t power, there isn’t water. There is also a pretty nice balcony where I can dry clothes. The balcony is my favorite part of the apartment, and in nice weather I often read and eat there. I don’t have hot water, a refrigerator, a shower, central air, an oven, a dishwasher or a washing machine. Rent, food, and utilities included, I live on about $5 a day. I deal with the lack of amenities as follows:
No oven: Like many Georgians, I don’t have a functioning oven. I’m following their custom of using my defunct oven as storage for pots and pans. Because I can’t bake things, I cook everything on the stove top, which works okay, although it forces me to fry more foods. The stove runs on a gas tank that sits in the kitchen, and which I pray never blows up.
No shower: The solution to not having a shower is simply showering less. I take bucket baths once every week or two (less often in the winter) in my bathroom, which has a drain on the floor. I’ve gotten used to bucket baths, and they can actually be pretty refreshing. I shower more often when I’m traveling on holidays or at Peace Corps conferences, sometimes twice a day, to make up for my lack of hygiene at site. In cooler weather, not showering isn’t a huge problem, but during the summer, I often go to bed feeling sticky. Wet wipes can help with the stickiness.
Who knew indoor plumbing could be so complicated?
No washing machine: This is the biggest inconvenience for me. Washing clothes by hands sucks. It takes a long time, and it’s hard to get the stains out. I’m now adhering to the Georgian tradition of just wearing darker clothes, which hide the stains. I bring my bed sheets to my former host family, who have a washing machine, because they are too big to wash by hand.
No refrigerator: This is also pretty annoying, especially in the summer. Luckily, Georgian food is heavily salted, so it typically lasts longer. Things like canned tomato paste, however, go bad pretty much the next day without refrigeration. I basically have to buy small amounts of food every day. In cooler weather, my balcony serves as a large refrigerator.
No hot water: Not having hot water is a challenge, but when you don’t have a shower anyway, it’s not a huge deal. I just heat up water on the stove when I need to take bucket baths/shave.
No central air: I use a “pechi” (wood-burning oven) when it gets cold. I have some wood stored up, but I’m sure I’ll have to chop more in mid-winter. I’m a little scared of the winter because my glass windows, one of which just shattered during a storm, are really thin, and don’t do a great job of keeping out the cold. This past summer, however, was very hot, so I used a fan to try to stay cool. The vast majority of Georgia is mountainous, but I live in a swampy area near the Black Sea. During Communist times, the Soviets tried repeatedly to drain the area, but to no avail. All over Abasha, there is standing water, which serves as a perfect breeding ground for mosquitoes. It drops down into the 40s (F) at night, so I sleep in a sleeping bag, but I also still have to sleep under a mosquito net. I didn’t think it was possible to be shivering cold while simultaneously bitten by mosquitoes.
Frequent water outages: Living without hot water is doable, but when there isn’t any running water at all, it’s a real struggle. This summer I didn’t have running water for three straight weeks. I had to haul large pails of water from an outside spring up to the fourth floor, where I live. During those weeks, I felt like I earned my stripes as a Peace Corps volunteer. I also learned to store large amounts of water in buckets for unexpected future outages. Lately, the water outages have been limited to just a day or two.
My “toilet”: Using the toilet is particularly interesting. There is a pipe running from the bath to the toilet bowl, which constantly runs if the water is turned on. Thus, using the toilet involves a complicated series of maneuvers: unplugging the water switch (in the hallway), taking the pipe out of the toilet, placing the detachable toilet seat on … then afterwards … taking the seat off, placing the pipe back in the toilet, throwing the toilet paper into a separate garbage bin, and going out to the hallway to plug the water switch back in. As you may imagine, it’s awkward walking into the hallway halfway through using the toilet. Also, I learned the hard way that forgetting to put the pipe back in the toilet floods the bathroom when you turn the water back on.
The physical labor that accompanies this lack of amenities is less glamorous than I envisioned. When I moved out of my host family’s home, I pictured myself the star of a Rocky IV-type montage in which I was slinging a sledgehammer and throwing logs around on a rustic farm behind my apartment. I naively dreamed of growing a thick beard and chopping wood on summer nights, as neighbors gawked at how the American had gotten buff and “gone native”. In reality, I get calluses on my hand from using an axe and my back aches from leaning over to wash clothes and dishes. Plus, my calves are often sore from hauling water up the steps so I can flush my toilet when the water is out. Calluses, back aches, bucket-flushing toilets, and a patchy beard aren’t quite as sexy as Sylvester Stallone climbing mountains in the Siberian wilderness … but I should have seen that one coming.
Physical labor aside, I actually feel more integrated into the community, despite living alone. I cannot rely on the safety net of my former host family to buy my food, protect me in awkward social situations – for example, trying to persuade intoxicated neighbors that the party’s over and it’s time to leave my apartment – and fix things like broken windows. I have to use my Georgian language skills to solve problems, and I feel a sense of pride that I am surviving in a less-than-ideal living situation. Also, I think most of the townspeople view me as part of the community now, especially when they see me at the bazaar buying produce on a rainy Sunday morning or joking with neighborhood boys at a birja. That’s not to say I don’t rely on anyone. The enduring support (e.g. home cooked meals, phone calls, a bottle of homemade wine) I receive from my neighbors, colleagues, and fellow Peace Corps volunteers is what keeps me going.
If any Peace Corps volunteers in Africa read this, they might think I sound like a wuss, but when it’s 10 below freezing, and the only thing keeping me warm is burning wood and moonshine vodka, I feel pretty tough. 😀 But in all seriousness, I didn’t write this to complain or brag about the big sacrifices I’ve made, and I know millions of people have it harder than I do. I’ve learned a lot about what it takes to support myself without the luxuries of the developed world, and I wanted to share that with anyone willing to read. I know it’s trite, but after my Peace Corps experience, I won’t take for granted little things I never thought about in America, like putting on a clean shirt or turning on the heat. As I’m finding out now, a lot of labor is put into having clean clothes and heating a room, and this is true for the majority of the world.
Tom Babington, 25, is a Peace Corps Volunteer (2012-14) in the small town of Abasha in the Republic of Georgia, where he works as an English teacher.