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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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