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RPCV Ken Goff, teaches in Georgia
RPCV Ken Goff, teaches in Georgia
By TILL BRUCKNER
Special to the Star-Tribune
AKHALTSIKHE, Georgia -- "Just look at the view," exclaims Ken Goff, pointing from the balcony of his home. Across a sea of roofs, before a backdrop of green mountains still topped by last winter's snow, a massive fortress clings to a hilltop. "There is so much history here. That building is well over a thousand years old, may times older than the United States."
When the Glenrock teacher first entered the Republic of Georgia, he was surprised that he could not see anything except the blackness of night out of the plane window as they approached the airport. It was only later that he discovered that the entire capital of this small nation between Turkey and Russia had suffered one of its periodic blackouts, leaving over a million people sitting in the dark.
The 40-year-old Goff was probably less shocked than his fellow Peace Corps volunteers across the aisle. Having spent two years living in a mud hut in Africa in the late 1980s, Goff has some experience surviving without the comforts taken for granted by most of his friends in the states. But why would somebody with a master's degree in literature and a good job as a schoolteacher in Wyoming leave everything behind to teach English for a hundred dollars a month on the other side of the world?
"I felt nostalgic for the life of a volunteer," Goff explained over a cup of coffee recently in Akhaltsikhe. "I missed that every day is different. You cannot predict what the next day will bring."
On the first evening that he spent in his adopted hometown of Akhaltsikhe, he was taken to the theatre for a concert.
"But it turned out to be a ballroom dancing competition with kids doing the waltz in tuxedos," Goff grinned. "And on the very same evening, a family friend took us for a ride in his car. We wound up at an astronomical observatory high in the mountains, and crowned the night by looking at the rings of Saturn through a giant telescope. Georgia is full of surprises like that."
Living with a Georgian family, a woman and her three children, has proven a valuable experience, Goff said.
"I've learned the importance of hidden relationships between people," said Goff, who, after almost two years in the country has a good command of the notoriously difficult Georgian language. "Most people here are very poor, but there is always somebody in the family who has apples, cheese, or potatoes to share. We in turn have cherry trees in the garden and chickens out in the back."
Life in Akhaltsikhe can be difficult. At the university where he teaches n "a miserable, big concrete building" n the classrooms are not heated during the freezing winters. After work, as the only man in the house, Goff carries water for the entire family up from a public tap at the bottom of the hill, and there are power shortages every day.
"After eight o'clock in the evening, you had better be near a candle," he said, explaining the realities of small-town life in the former Soviet Union, "At first it was difficult to adapt, but now I am used to working by candlelight."
Goff seems to hardly notice the daily hardships anymore. He is far more interested in cultural than in material differences. "People have been living here for thousands of years, and the old traditions are still respected," he says, giving Georgian hospitality as an example. "A family here will break its back financially to put on a huge feast for guests who are complete strangers. People back home are welcoming too, but Georgians carry it to an entirely different level."
Spending his formative years in Glenrock was a good preparation for his new life abroad, Goff believes. "Growing up in a small town makes you more aware of other people and what they are doing," he said, "and the self-reliance and independence of the frontiersman is a real asset out here."
Despite the differences in traditions, cultures and lifestyles, he thinks there are some strong similarities between people from Wyoming and his new neighbors in Georgia.
"Both are very proud of nature," said Goff, who has the healthy outdoor looks of the avid hiker and birdwatcher he is. "I really appreciate the strong connection between people and the land that you find both in Glenrock and in Akhaltsikhe."
After two years abroad, Goff is looking forward to returning home in July. "I miss my family," he says, "I haven't seen them for two years."
But it will be a quick visit home. "I'm only staying there for a month," the Peace Corps veteran smiles, his gaze wandering to the fortress outside his window, "I've just extended my contract for another year. Eventually, it would be good to go back to teach at university or college in Wyoming, but not until I've had some more adventures here."