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The Night We Became Fans of Georgian Folk Dance

On our last night in Akhaltsikhe, we went with Sean and McKinze and a few other PCVs to a traditional Georgian dance recital. Just before the concert, the heavens opened and it poured. We sat in a cafe across the street and watched people scramble in with umbrellas and newspapers and whatever they could find to shield themselves from the deluge. Finally, a few minutes before the advertized start time, the rain let up and we walked into the theater to find our seats.

The theatre

The theatre was of Soviet construction. Completely utilitarian and no space wasted on silly things like aisles. There would be no bathroom breaks. Each row spanned the entire room, which was surely filled beyond any (non-existing) fire codes. We sat in the clamor of mothers talking on their cell phones and excited children shouting to one another for about half an hour before the lights dimmed and the hostess for the evening took the microphone and announced the first act. The beginning of the program didn’t actually silence the room; everyone was far too amped up to give their undivided attention to the stage.

I’m not sure what we were expecting. We knew it was a dance recital and it was important enough that they were selling tickets. It turned out to be a genuine treat of almost three hours of dance and song.

Apparently, Georgian dance is a big deal to just about everyone here. The kids, who ranged from what looked like six years old all the way through high school, threw themselves into the choreography with an astounding amount of enthusiasm and precision. Even though we were in a back row, we could see the pride on their faces as they performed their steps. The girls’ slippered feet carried them, floating, in graceful circles and the boys hopped and kicked as fiercely as they could manage. Some of their steps required them to bounce around on the tops of their feet with their curled completely under. We weren’t sure which would burst first — their tortured metatarsals or their parents’ hearts.

Traditional Georgian dance

A crackly sound system and an out of tune guitar didn’t stop a group of young guys from belting out their patriotic songs. They drew deep breaths and drew up each note from deep in their bellies. The audience recognized every ballad after the first few notes filled the air and they and hollered and clapped along in approval. The singers grinned the entire time, as if they knew how much their friends and sweethearts adored them at that very moment.

Georgian folk singers

We knew the program was drawing to an end when a horde of children bearing bouquets began to gather near the stage. They got closer and closer and eventually some of them started to impatiently climb the stage and group off to the side. There was a false start with the bouquet-giving as half of the deliveries were made after the second-to-last song and some of the dancers had to think quickly to get rid of their blooms before the music started up again.

Traditional Georgian dance

It was a long evening, but we were completely amazed and impressed by everything. Yet another experience we felt privileged to witness in Georgia, and yet another example of someone showing us how to love something new. It’s the best kind of contagious.

(Go watch the video!)

30
Jul 2012
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Sightseeing in Akhaltsikhe

On our last day in Akhaltsikhe, Sean took us to see the original city of Akhaltsikhe. McKinze had to work, but first we all stopped at the tone bread shop.

The tone bread shop window

Sean poked his head in the window and ordered a loaf, which cost a princely sum of 70 tetri (about $0.44). It was fresh from the tone oven, so it came wrapped in a few pages of an Avon magazine to protect our fingers from the heat. We tore off steaming chunks and devoured the whole salty thing in the shadow of the Queen Tamar statue.

Yummy tone bread

Queen Tamar statue, Akhaltsikhe

Then it was time to hike up to the old city. It’s on top of a hill and the mosque, synagogue, church and walls still stand in one form or another. The Georgian goverment is pouring money into into rebuilding and expanding the area into a tourist attraction. It looks like the emphasis was probably more on making it a pretty tourist site than on historical accuracy.

Walking up to the old city

Old Akhaltsikhe

Nothing prevented us from walking onto the construction site, so we did. Apparently, no one was in charge of keeping civilians out, so no one bothered to tell us we shouldn’t be there. We just kept going, expecting to be kicked out. Besides getting a lot of stares, no one seemed to care. Some old bits of the original buildings were just strewn about.

Rubble or relic?

Construction site

Castle tower

Looking down into modern Akhaltsikhe

DIY scaffolding

It’s hard to tell from the picture, but this fire was huge and hot (the pieces of wood were about the size of railroad ties). We joked that it was to dispose of the bodies of the workers who perished due to unsafe construction practices.

Construction fire

Walking through construction

Some fancy people arrived, along with photographers. We asked one of the workers about them and he said the man in uniform was “Chief of Border Patrol.”

Chief of Border Control?

Alicia expressed interest in seeing the cemetery, so we walked over the hill and checked it out. It seems that it is tradition to engrave a portrait of the deceased on the headstones. We didn’t feel like we should take photos, so you’ll have to imagine the dead looking on; some with pleasant smiles, others with stoic gazes, a few with cigarettes eternally dangling from their fingers. There were also small shelters and tables for picnics.

cemetery

Just in case you forgot the Soviets were once in charge…

Stalin is still popular here

Walking back to town

On the way back to town, we were hot and thirsty. And so we bought the most delicious orange Fanta. Instant time warp back to our childhoods.

Fanta 1

Fanta 2]

And then it rained again.

29
Jul 2012
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Khertvisi Fortress and Sapara Monastery

After exploring the cave city of Vardzia, and despite the thunderstorms that had been rolling through the valley all morning, we had our taxi driver drop us off at Khertvisi Fortress. There has been a fortress on this spot for almost 2,000 years, although the walls that currently stand are “only” 700 years old.

Approaching Khertvisi Fortress

It started to sprinkle as we hurried up the rocky hill. Some cattle guarded the entrance. Judging by the fresh cow pies we had to avoid, they also maintained the grass inside the walls.

Standing guard

We stood in the rain and watched the valley emerge from the mist. The roving patches of sun and blankets of rain shifted the colors before our eyes.

The fortress bell

Tony and Alicia

Fat droplets started to fall and we ran down the hill to the taxi.

As we approached Akhaltsikhe, our driver pointed at a sign for Sapara Monastery. We didn’t plan on going there, but knew there was no way he was going to throw in the side trip for free, so we asked, “ra ghirs?” He pulled off the road, put on a pair of glasses and wrote a large number on the piece of paper that showed our previously agreed upon price. We laughed and said, “ara, ara, Akhaltsikhshi.” He scribbled a slightly smaller number on the page. We hesitated, but repeated our previous statement. He wrote one more number. Well, ok.

On the road to Sapara

The Lada’s engine roared to life and up the gravel road we went. Or careened, or hurtled, or whatever the appropriate adjective is for the things he was able to do with that car. It was truly amazing because back home this would be something that would be undertaken at a quarter of the speed, and maybe only then with four wheel drive.

Sapara from above

At the top of the mountain, Sapara emerged from the trees in all of its ancient glory. It was silent except for the lizards patrolling the stone walls, the hum of the bee boxes and the splashing of the spring water.

St. Saba, Sapara

View from Sapara

Architectural detail

Maybe the toolshed

We stayed longer than we intended, and of course our driver tried to extract more money from us by the time we returned, but we finally agreed on a price that was more than fair. Vardzia, Khertvisi, Sapara… it was such a full day! And it ended with a rainbow. What can we say? Georgia loves us as much as we love it.

Rainbow

(Click here for our short video of Sapara!)

28
Jul 2012
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Soviet Taxis and Holy Water

On the 48th day of this thing that we’re doing, we decided to take a day trip out of Akhaltsikhe. Our friends told us that the monastery and cave homes at Vardzia were definitely worth the trip. We didn’t have to walk more than a block from our temporary home at Hotel Meskheti before we heard a mustachioed taxi driver yelling “VARDZIA! VARDZIA! VARDZIA!” at us all-too-obvious foreigners.

He gave us a price, double what we wanted to pay. I showed him the money I had planted earlier in my left pocket, which he laughed at. I added a little bit out of my right pocket. He shook his head in feigned disgust, but as we started to walk away, he conceded and waved us inside his Lada, an aging but mighty Soviet car with an orange paint job.

So green!  The road to Vardzia.

After our driver filled up the tank (which seems to be standard practice after your vehicle is full of passengers in both taxis and marshrutkas), we attempted to make some friendly small talk, but only managed to determine that he was Armenian. Next to a gold embossed Jesus card were two pairs of glasses hanging from his visor. We would glance at these three objects from the backseat over the next hour as he swerved through the mountains, bounced through potholes, and slammed on the brakes to avoid hitting a baby calf – after which he gave a big smile and said his only two English words: “no problem!”

The cabbie and his glasses

After a while we started to see a few scattered caves in the landscape, the entrances obviously carved by hand. When we came around the final turn, there was a large group of them half way up the opposite cliffs. Our Armenian friend pointed and said, “Vardzia.” After pulling into the parking lot, he finally made use of one of those pairs of glasses, scribbled some numbers on a piece of paper and smiled at us. Apparently the deal struck back in Akhaltsikhe only included one hour of waiting, two hours (the proper time needed to really see the site) was going to cost more. I decided we could haggle later. There was a fortress we could stop at on the way back and maybe that could be included in the new price.

Alicia at Vardzia

Vardzia

I won’t give a full history lesson about Vardzia. I could look up a bunch of stuff on Wikipedia and pretend it was retained knowledge from our visit there, or you could do the same if you are really interested.

But one thing that makes Vardzia special is that it is still a monastery. Monks still live there in some of the caves. Near the entrance to the Church of the Dormition was a skinny guy in a travel vest and a fishing hat who seemed to be either a freelance tour guide or volunteer. He was hanging out with a mama (Georgian priest) and attempted to translate for as questions were asked about where we were from, how many kids we (don’t) have, and his curiosity with my tattoos – all with big smiles and laughter.

Hiding out inside a cave

Fresco from Church of the Dominion, Vardzia

We spent some time trying take in all the painted walls in the tiny 800-year-old cave church before the man with the hat motioned us to follow him. He took us further back into a cave behind the church, around a couple turns, a long dark tunnel and two locked gates. We didn’t know exactly where he was taking us, but he was talking the whole time (mostly in Georgian) and we heard the word ts’kali (water) repeated. He finally flipped on a bare light bulb and pointed down a dark open well and said “70 centimeters” (which I think should be taken as 70 meters?). He dipped an old plastic cup into a bucket and said, “holy water,” then put it in my hands. An ounce of hesitation — less about potential microbe ingestion and more about the sudden somberness of being offered holy water from an ancient well — and it was down the hatch. Ice cold. Not exactly the climax to The Last Crusade, though I did appreciate the humble orange plastic grail.

Honestly, I felt more like Dr. Jones getting back into that orange taxi.

-T

The cabbie and his Lada

A thunderstorm rolls through the valley at Vardzia

Also check out our videos from Vardzia and Sapara!

28
Jul 2012
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Alicia’s Little Black Book

A thin notebook that easily tucks into your pocket or bag quickly becomes a helpful little friend.

You can use it for jotting down hostel wifi passwords, drawing pictures for waiters when you don’t know the right words, or writing down the name of the viscous, pale green homebrewed potion that you don’t want to forget.

Miscellaneous scribblings

You can draw little reference maps so you don’t have to cart around a guide book or unfold a city map that’s dedicated more to advertisements than to actual cartography.

Map to Museo del Prado, Madrid

Map for the neighborhood of our hostel, Madrid

Directions to our hotel, Paris

Sketch a striking art piece so you can look it up and read more about it later.

Photo montage by Josep Renau at the Reina Sofia

Keep track of your friends’ flight details…

Flight details

…and a fill up a cheat sheet of key words and phrases to study when you’re waiting for a bus.

Catalan

Georgian

Turkish

You can use it to scribble down the words and numbers that Nino and Nunu are trying to teach you while you bounce down a rough Georgian highway.

Georgian numbers and nouns

And you can practice your alphabet and keep track of a friend’s restaurant recommendations.

Georgian alphabet and Batumi restaurants (thanks, Chuck)

You’ll use it so much, it will become tattered and start falling apart. Time for some duct tape.

20
Jul 2012
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The Georgian Receipt Lottery: “Unfortunately, you are without winning.”

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A few years ago, in an effort to get businesses to report their sales correctly (and thus pay their tax obligations), the Georgian government required every business to use electronic cash registers and use them to enter even the smallest transactions. To boost compliance and public support, they started a new program that incentivized consumers to expect and ask for a receipt with every transaction. Each receipt has a unique code number on it, and when you text the code in, you receive a reply that says whether or not you have won a cash prize. Apparently, the prizes can be up to several thousand lari. It was fun, but the only message we ever got back said something to the effect of “unfortunately, you are without winning…

Also pictured: sunflower seeds from the an old lady who on a stool outside her door all day with a washtub full of them on her lap. 10 tetri per scoop ($.06).

19
Jul 2012
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Rained out in Borjomi

Borjomi park

Sean and McKinze planned for us to take a trip to Borjomi National Park, a one hour marshrutka ride away. Borjomi is famous for its mineral water springs. The park is situated in a lush forest that spans a section of the Lesser Caucasus mountains and the Mtkvari River gorge forms its southeast border.

Its website says that Borjomi National Park is “one of the largest in Europe – it covers more than 85,000 hectares of native forest and sub-alpine and alpine meadows, home to rare species of flora and fauna. A network of trails invites you to experience the stunning variety of blossoming plants, breathtaking views and a magical atmosphere.”

Unfortunately, the rain that poured down all week didn’t want to take the day off just for us, so we saw none of that.

Rained out

We tried to wait it out by having an early lunch at a great little pizza restaurant, but the bad weather persisted. We thought we’d start on a trail anyway, and managed get through the family-oriented playground area before we got thoroughly wet and cold and decided to abort our mission.

Mtkvari River

Mtkvari River

Pints!

Sean knew of a restaurant nearby and we ordered some pints of Natakhtari and set our shoes by the fire and spent the rest of the time snacking and making the most of the afternoon.

Borjomi street

2Pac is alive!

Highway through Borjomi

The avtosadguri (bus station) at Borjomi.

We caught a marshrutka home just in time for the sun to come out.

08
Jul 2012
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Alicia’s village field trip

While we were in Akhaltsikhe (a not-quite-correct-but-easier way to pronounce it is, “Akh-alt-seek-hay“), we spent a bit of time at McKinze’s office. As we mentioned, Sean and McKinze are Peace Corps volunteers (PCVs), and PCVs are assigned to non-governmental organizations (NGO) who have requested assistance. McKinze’s NGO works specifically on womens’ issues like domestic violence and health care access.

Us outside the office

Mckinze showed us the mammography equipment that was donated so that her organization can provide free breast health screenings. It is an old machine, but the only one in the region.

The mammography room

There is also a sewing room at the NGO office, which is used by women who are escaping domestic violence situations. They make clothes and sell them so they can support themselves.

The sewing room

Tea time at McKinze's office.  The posters on the wall depict projects and trips of local youth.

Sean and McKinze also have a weekly American Corner where they lead a group of school children in reading a news article in English and discussing the new words and concepts. The two sessions we were sat in on were attended only by a few younger girls; the older students were busy with exams. We also enjoyed imparting an extremely important part of American culture (at least in my opinion): the art of Scrabble.

Scrabble at American Corner

One of McKinze’s coworkers owns a restaurant, so they treated us to a huge lunch one day: a pile of khachapuri and tubs full of khinkali.

Khinkali

One afternoon, McKinze and I and several other workers from the organization piled into the director’s vehicle (literally… it involved lap-sitting and no seat belts) and traveled to a little village outside of Akhaltsikhe.  The purpose of the visit was to tell the village women about the health services available to them in Akhaltsikhe and to perform free PAP smears at the village’s ambulatoria. (This is why Sean and Tony were not invited.) The presentation was given in the front yard.

Ambulatoria sign

Introductions and the informational talk

A sweet village woman

The exam room:
The exam room

The pharmacy:
The pharmacy

One of the nurses:
One of the nurses

After the talk, there was nothing for McKinze and I to do, so we took a walk through the village. It had been a rainy week, but there were blue skies and sunshine that morning.

But a giant bank of rainclouds hovered in the distance, waiting to pounce.

rain clouds

This village has little indoor plumbing or heating, but satellite is pretty easy to get, so it’s not uncommon for a household to have a latrine in the back yard and 1,000 TV stations in the front room.

satellite tv

As we sat on a bench next to the road, waiting for things to wrap-up, an old village woman wearing a red headscarf and a heavy dark sweater and skirt trudged over to us with a bowl of apples. Her tattered slippers kept the most of the muddy road from seeping into her black stockings. She grinned as she offered us an apple, half of her smile strong white teeth and the other half gleaming gold. We had watched her sprinkle the bowl with a hose a moment ago and wondered if our digestive systems were prepared. It would be impossible to decline.

The three of us ate our apples and chatted a few minutes. McKinze translated as the woman told us about her children (after inquiring about our own status as mothers, of course). It was one of those moments where you’d love to whip out your camera to document, but you tell yourself it’s better to stay still and soak it in. We had privately guessed that our new friend was well past eighty, but from the ages of her children, we knew she was only in her early sixties. It’s a hard life here.

When it was time to leave, we said our goodbyes, and the woman flashed her gold teeth again and we told us we were kargi gogoebi. Good girls.

-A

08
Jul 2012
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Hotel Meskheti, Akhaltsikhe

Bye, Charlie

After a few days in Leliani, we said goodbye to Eleni and Charlie early in the morning and a marshrutka hauled us the long and bumpy way back to Tbilisi. Kamran was headed on a weekend trip to visit his fiancée, so he came with us. The radio blared a mix of Georgian patriotic songs, American power ballads covered by Russian singers, and Backstreet Boys. In Tbilisi, we said goodbye to Kamran and hopped another marshrutka headed for Sean and McKinze’s town, Akhaltsikhe, in the Samtskhe-Javakheti region, near the Turkish border.

Akhaltsikhe soccer field

While we waited for it to leave, human pop-up ads shoved their wares into the open door and shouted words we didn’t understand. A boy selling paper saint cards passed one out to each passenger, waited a moment, and then collected the cards from those who didn’t offer him a coin in return. An old woman selling packets of sunflower seeds and tissues appeared. A packet of tissues is one of the most practical purchases one can make in this part of the world. Alicia asked, “ra rghirs?”

The trouble with knowing only how to ask questions in another language is that you won’t understand the reply. But that’s really not too much of an obstacle, if you think about it. If you’re asking for directions, even if you have no idea what the person is saying, they will gesture and point, and you can head in that direction until you find someone else to point and wave, and if you’re lucky, they might even escort you to your destination. If you’re shopping and ask “how much?,” the seller knows you’re interested in buying, and you can hold out the coins you think will be sufficient to cover the purchase, and they will pick out the ones they need. There’s a level of trust involved, but the risk is negligible.

Cows and more cows

The woman hunted through the coins and pulled out 20 tetri. A bargain! Soon we were off, and this section of highway was much better than the eastern part we had just traveled. It took several hours, and this driver’s radio was mercifully broken. We wound our way through the lush countryside, past Stalin’s hometown of Gori, through Borjomi National Park, all the while passing innumerable cows and crumbling Soviet factories, apartment buildings and bridges.

A heavy thunderstorm descended on us as we passed through the most mountainous sections of road, but the reduced visibility and slippery road did little to slow the driver’s pace. The Mtkvari river heaved with rushing, muddy water from the daily rains and Alicia tried to imagine the best escape route if the marshrutka ended up floating in it.

Room 203, Hotel Meskheti

As always, we arrived safely, and McKinze took us to the cheapest hotel room in town (per our request) at the Hotel Meskheti. It set us back 30 lari per night. Just over $18. Hotel Meskheti, with its wood floors, enormous windows and high ceilings, must have once been a grand place. You can see where the crown molding used to hang. Now, there is mildew near the floor under the peeling wallpaper, it smells like stale cigarette smoke, and the requisite tiny burn marks sprinkle every piece of linen and furniture surface.

Hotel Meskheti

Hotel Meskheti

But it’s clean, and that’s really all that matters. Well, there are certainly parts that have a thick coating of grime, but nothing that you need to actually touch. Later, we would realize that the mildew on the walls is only because the floors are enthusiastically and obsessively mopped at every opportunity. If you can ignore the myriad cosmetic failings, it’s actually fairly pleasant.

Hotel Meskheti

The location is central, and if you remember to flip on the switch at least two hours before you want to shower, there will even be plentiful hot water. But don’t forget to turn it off when you’re done, or the landlady will be sure to instruct you (via charades, unless you know Georgian or Russian) on the proper usage every day. How can she know you forgot? Somehow, she knows.

View from our window, Hotel Meskheti

View from our window, Hotel Meskheti

06
Jul 2012
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Simple blessings in Leliani

Sean and McKinze gave us a great start in Georgia with our weekend in Tbilisi, and they planned to share one of their favorite places-and people- with us by sending us to Kamran, Eleni and Dato in Leliani.

McKinze put us on a marshrutka and told the driver to drop us off at Kamran’s office in Leliani. Since Kamran is apparently a famous person in Georgia (we say that only half joking), the driver knew exactly where that was. Leliani is located in Georgia’s far eastern Kakheti region, which is famous for winemaking and fertile fields.

Marshrutka to Leliani

It took several hours to get there, and on the way, two ladies, a mother and daughter named Nino and Nunu, pointed at animals and objects along the way and tried to teach their Georgian names to Alicia. They thought it was hilarious when Alicia resorted to crowing when she was unable to communicate that she wanted to know the Georgian word for rooster (mamali). Just before we got to their town, Nunu handed Alicia a gaudy pair of earrings. Unfortunately, the only thing she had to offer in return was a mandarin orange fished from the depths of her bag, but she tried to express her appreciation for the ladies’ interest and kindness with many grateful repetitions of didi madloba. Literally, “big thanks.”

The road through Leliani

At last, we reached Leliani and met Kamran. Kamran is one of Sean and McKinze’s fellow Peace Corps volunteers. He’s from North Carolina, has been in country for two years and was recently approved to extend his service for a third. Eleni and Dato are his host mom and brother. The three of them live on a 100-year-old farm that has been passed down through Dato’s father’s family (now seven years deceased). On the other side of the mountains to the north is Russia, and Azerbaijan is a few short miles to the east.

Eleni's cow

Eleni works the farm, taking care of the animals, baking bread, making cheese and keeping the dining table heaped with the labor and bounty of her hands and land. Dato was recently honored with directorship of a local school. Kamran works at the youth center just up the road from the farm.

The house is large and airy, with tall ceiling and enormous porches that make it easy to imagine its splendor in earlier Soviet times. The well runs constantly with cool mountain water, and travels through a gutter along the length of the house and empties into a small stream that runs through the front yard. The detached bathroom is large and luxurious by local standards – it has an electric water heater for the shower and a washing machine.

bathroom

The spring/well

A garden, vineyard and cow pasture cover the property behind the house and are populated by dozens of chickens, a pregnant cow and calf, and several bee colonies. And Charlie.

The vineyards

The garden

The bees

Chickens

Alicia and a chick

Charlie Chaplain is Dato and Eleni’s loyal dog who guards the chick crates at night and lives on table scraps and large hunks of puri. Eleni says he is “an American,” although his true lineage is unclear. He was born in Tbilisi, either to American owners or perhaps to a dog that they had brought with them from America. Charlie was initially suspicious of us, like any good farm dog should be, but was quickly won over when he realized Alicia was a reliable source for belly scratches.

Charlie: baby chickie protector

After a quick tour of the farm, Kamran took Tony to their wine room, where they dipped wine the color of apple juice from the kvevri – large clay jars for aging and storing wine, buried to their tops – and into pitchers for the table. Alicia noted the wine’s color and naively asked if it was “like a rosé,” which Kamran found extremely amusing. Nearly every household in Kakheti makes their own wine using whatever grapes their ancestors planted in their vineyards.

Ladybug on a grapevine

Scooping the wine from the kvevri

Pouring the wine into pitchers

That evening, we were treated to a feast – a supra. Kamran assisted with expert translation. Many toasts were made. To God. To mothers. To children. To future children. To siblings. To America and Georgia. To the dead. To friendship. Our glasses were constantly refilled with the golden wine at a wonderful and terrifying pace.

Supra table

Supra table

Supra table

We ate fried chicken, khachapuri, bread, tkmali (spicy, sour green plum sauce), generous slices of cheese, and greens and herbs. All sourced a few feet from where we dined. In the United States, there is a big trend towards locally sourced organic foods, and “slow” foods prepared with care from scratch. In Leliani, this is not a new thing. It is Eleni and Dato’s reality, mostly unchanged for centuries, save for the added luxury of propane burners and the ice cream bars we had for dessert.

Eleni cooking a pot of chicken

Eleni and the calf

I’m afraid we were too exhausted from our whirlwind weekend in Tbilisi to truly communicate our appreciation of it all while it was happening. We struggled to surpress our yawns and clean our plates and absorb this new country and these new friends.

Kamran, Alicia, Eleni and Tony

To look at this with an American eye, our hosts may seem superficially “poor.” But Eleni is truly rich, and we will always be grateful to have been recipients of her family’s lavish hospitality and friendship.

Didi madloba.

Kamran, Eleni and Charlie

—–

Watch the video we made:

That’s Where You Are: Leliani

If you want to read more about supras, food and winemaking at Eleni’s farm, you can read what Sean and McKinze have written:

—–

04
Jul 2012
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A weekend in Tbilisi

(Hi visitor from the internets! Did you come here looking for info about 144 Stairs in Tbilisi? Here’s their Facebook page, or you can see a few pictures of it towards the bottom of this post. But do feel free to hang out here a while.)

After our early morning arrival and glorious introduction to Georgian food, the rest of our Tbilisi weekend was a blur of seeing everything, doing everything, and having a super fun time getting to know Sean and McKinze better and soaking up all the Georgia intel our brains could handle.

We visited the new city park that President Mikheil Saakashvili (we preferred his nickname, Misha) opened last summer. The glass-domed presidential mansion, “Misha’s house,” is at the top of the hill, so this new park is essentially his front yard.

The new park in Tbilisi and the President's house

Children playing in the splash pad at Tbilisi's new city park

A fountain at Tbilisi's new city park

We walked across the incongruously modern Peace Bridge at noon and at night.

Tbilisi Peace Bridge

Tbilisi Peace Bridge

We came across a free streetside wine tasting and sampled our first Georgian wine (they claim to have invented it 8,000 years ago) while a man alternated between playing his accordion and his organ grinder.

Tbilisi sidewalk wine tasting

Tbilisi sidewalk wine tasting

Tbilisi organ grinder

We climbed Narikala Fortress, whose first stones were laid in the 4th century, and within its walls, we saw a portion of a Georgian Orthodox mass in St. Nicholas Church.

Narikala Fortress

Narikala Fortress

St. Nicholas Church, Tbilisi

View of Tbilisi from Narikala Fortress

We cooled down in a Turkish tea house.

Turkish tea house

The bath houses in Tbilisi

We ate more Georgian food at “the Ossetian place” and piles of noodles and meat at “the Uzbeki place,” where we were treated to an awkward belly dance (is it rude to look, or is it rude to not look?).

Uzbeki food

Uzbeki food

We went to the gold bazaar where McKinze bought a silver St. George pendant (he’s Sakartvelo’s patron saint) and Alicia bought earrings.

Sean and McKinze shopping

Sean and McKinze shopping

We went to the regular bazaar.

Tbilisi bazaar

Near the Tbilisi bazaar

Sean and McKinze negotiated a great cell phone deal for us (up to this point, we didn’t have phones with us).

Cell phone shopping in Tbilisi

Cell phone shopping in Tbilisi

Cell phone shopping in Tbilisi

We had tea and lobiani (khachapuri with beans instead of cheese) in a cafe where a man played guitar and made up funny songs about the men gathered around the back table.

Impromptu musical comedy

We climbed the hill to the brand-new Holy Trinity Cathedral of Tbilisi, surrounded by rose gardens and a palpable sense of national pride.

 Holy Trinity Cathedral, Tbilisi

 Holy Trinity Cathedral, Tbilisi

The grounds of Holy Trinity Cathedral, Tbilisi

 Holy Trinity Cathedral, Tbilisi

Tony and Alicia at Holy Trinity Cathedral, Tbilisi

We visited the statue of Tbilisi’s founder, King Vakhtang Gorgasali, whose hand served as a perch to a real bird (although not the falcon of legend).

Statue of King Vakhtang Gorgasali, Tbilisi

Statue of King Vakhtang Gorgasali, Tbilisi

Statue of King Vakhtang Gorgasali, Tbilisi

We climbed 144 steps to a wine bar of the same name, where we felt like kings as we enjoyed the view of the city from the patio until a thunderstorm drove us indoors. We decided to wait it out, which ended up many long conversations later at 4:30 a.m.

144 Steps, Tbilisi

144 Steps, Tbilisi

144 Steps, Tbilisi

We walked. Everywhere.

Graffiti, Tbilisi

Wandering through Tbilisi

Children playing in a fountain, Tbilisi

Wandering through Tbilisi

The long escalator down to the Metro

All of that in one weekend. Exhausting. Perfect.

On Monday afternoon, McKinze escorted us to the marshrutka station, and translated all the requisite questions that the drivers had for us. Questions that we would answer again and again with every Georgian we would meet.

Marshrutka drivers in Tbilisi

Where are you from? (America… Iowa.)
Do you like Georgia? (We love Georgia! Georgia is beautiful!)
Are you married? (Yes.)
How long are you married? (Almost eight years.)
How many children do you have? (None). Concerned looks from the drivers.
When will you have children? (Maybe when we go back to America.) They perked up. An acceptable answer.
How old are you? (30 and 33.)

When it was time to leave, we hopped in the front seat, bound for Kamran’s village of Leliani. Who is Kamran? A guy we had never met before. Where is Leliani? Several hours east of Tbilisi, by the Russian and Azeri borders. You can’t find it on Google Maps. But we would soon find Leliani in our memories forever.

01
Jul 2012
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Iowans, Meet Georgia

Our first introduction to Georgia came before our feet even hit the tarmac of Tbilisi International Airport. We were waiting for the boarding announcement for our connecting flight in Istanbul. It was delayed by 30 minutes and everyone had gathered at the gate. It was midnight, there was an unexplained delay, and everyone clumped towards the front. It was not a matter who arrived first. Rather, it was who wanted to be first. Despite the late hour and the jostling for position, all the Georgians were happy. They were going home.

As we were two of the only three obviously non-Georgian or non-Russians on the flight, most chose to stare at us to pass the time. The stares are always overt, with no attempt to pretend they were looking elsewhere. To many cultures, including ours, this would be a terribly rude thing to do. But in Georgia… well, why would you not stare at the utskhoelebi (foreigners)? God gave you those eyes for a reason.

Tbilisi International Airport

At arrivals, we stepped into a crowd of people staring back at us and briefly felt like red carpet celebrities, but of course they were anxious for their own friends and family to walk through the door. The only blonde in the crowd was easy to spot, even though she is only five feet tall. McKinze and Sean gave us huge hugs and we piled into a taxi. Or maybe it was just an opportunistic kid who had a car and needed gas money. Either way, we were soon hurtling down George W. Bush Avenue (yep) towards downtown and the Peace Corps office. White lines? Merely a suggestion. We decided that either the drivers of every single vehicle on the road had hit the chacha hard that evening or the rules of the road were very different here.

Tony noticed a large glass building that resembled an American style car dealership, until you read the huge POLICE sign, written in both Georgian and English. McKinze explained that a few years ago President Saakashvili fired and replaced the entirety of an overtly corrupt 30,000 member police force. It was one of his more successful and beneficial initiatives for the country. Part of the overhaul included new police stations with glass facades as a symbol of transparency.

After a sufficient recall of traveler mortality statistics had passed through Alicia’s brain (motor vehicle accidents are at the top of the list), we arrived safely. It was 4 a.m., and rather than paying for a room for the remaining few hours of darkness, we would just sleep on the couches at the Peace Corp office.

But first, Sean suggested a bedtime snack of khachapuri imeruli at the cafe across the street. If you can imagine tangy, salty, homemade cheese stuffed into a leavened dough, baked into a flat, oily, disc and cut into pizza-esque slices, that is your basic khachapuri. Alicia was certain that the recipe had to include a generous squeeze of lemon juice, but Sean said that flavor was all in the cheese. Tony and Sean each enjoyed a pint of Natakhtari, not certain if it qualified as a nightcap or as breakfast.

Khachapuri imeruli, photo courtesy of Sean Fredericks

(photo courtesy of Sean Fredericks)

We caught up with each other’s lives, and they told us about what they had been doing during the nearly two years of service as Peace Corps volunteers here. The sun rose, the birds awoke and we finally walked back to the office and slumped into the couches for a few hours of rest.

Peace Corps office

When we awoke, we grabbed our bags and walked to the guesthouse where we’d stay that evening. It always feels good to find the place you’re sleeping and then leave your heavy bags behind. Our 34 liter backpacks are about half the size of the average backpackers’, and conform to even the strictest airline carryon maximums, but they’re still a ball and chain after a short distance.

Guesthouse

Guesthouse courtyard

We left the leafy courtyard and took the subway to the old city district, to a restaurant where we would have our Very First Georgian Meal Ever. (And the people rejoiced.) The preview of the early morning khachapuri was enough to get us excited for all the wonderful things we would soon be experiencing.

The fastest way to both of our hearts is through our stomachs and Sean and McKinze made sure it was love at first sight. They ordered puri, salty bread; lobio, mashed beans baked in a clay pot; kitri da pomidori salata, cucumber and tomato salad, always with lots of onions, parsley and salt, and sometimes with dill, basil, jalapeños or walnut sauce; two kinds of khinkali, large pasta dumplings filled with either mashed potatoes or ground beef, pork and broth; and khachapuri acharuli, a huge bread boat filled with tangy cheese, an egg yolk, and a slab of butter.

Lobio, puri, kitri da pomidori salata

We started in on this new type of khachapuri. McKinze instructed us to rip off a chunk of bread, stir it up, and eat. Sweet mother of heaven.

Khachapuri acharuli

Sean taught us how to eat the meat-filled khinkali. Hold it bellybutton side down, take a small bite from the edge, then suck out the broth. An expert khinkali eater keeps his plate dry. The bellybutton is edible, but most people keep them on their plates so they can count how many they’ve eaten, and so they can save room for more khinkali. The vegetable salad was a welcome break from the heavy (and heavenly) salt, fat and carbs, and would be something we would continue to order with almost every meal.

Khinkali

We felt only a little remorseful as we waddled out of the restaurant. We would pack a lot into this weekend, and the first day had barely begun.

01
Jul 2012
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საქართველო ლამაზია.

IMG_4430

So we went to Republic of Georgia. The first time we ever heard of Georgia was when the Russians invaded South Ossetia in 2008. The second time was when Alicia’s co-worker, McKinze, joined the Peace Corps with her husband Sean. Alicia remembers looking at photos of Tbilisi and Georgia and thinking it looked beautiful… but very far away, and a very unlikely that we would ever visit. Then we made a series of big life decisions that made visiting Georgia… well, a very easy decision.

Georgia has about 4 million people and is nestled in the Caucasus mountains. It’s bordered by the Black Sea on the west, Russia on the north, Azerbaijan on the east and Turkey and Armenia to the south. By modern continental divisions, it’s half in Europe and half in Asia. Being in the same neighborhood as Turkey, Iran and Iraq, it might be tempting to call it the Middle East, but that doesn’t fit either. For a large part of the 20th century, it was under Soviet rule. Georgians have a long history of cycles of occupation and independence and they are fiercely proud of their heritage. They speak Georgian (Kartuli), and, although the country is known internationally as “Georgia,” its true name is Sakartvelo.

So why did we want to go to Georgia?

First of all, Sean and McKinze have lived there for two years. We like them. If that wasn’t enough, Georgia is starting to appear on “best undiscovered places” backpackers’ lists. Not many people go there. This would be our first truly off-the-beaten-track adventure. And our friends could help us navigate and discover totally foreign country in ways that would be incredibly difficult to do on our own. We stayed much longer than we planned. Sean and McKinze showed us how to love Georgia. They also taught us our first Kartuli phrase:

საქართველო ლამაზია.
Sakartvelo lamazia.
Georgia is beautiful.

01
Jul 2012
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