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Sakartvelo World Domination

International Folk Dance Competition

One night, we were wandering around Sultanahmet after dinner with Micah and Steph, some of our favorite fellow travelers we’ve met so far. (Go visit their blog, especially if you love great photography.) Some music caught our ear and we followed it to a stage where there was some sort of folk dance event.

We began to casually watch for a few minutes, and intended to start walking again, when a girl with silver medallions in her hair caught my eye. And then a boy with a black, shaggy headdress darted through the crowd. I managed to surpress a shriek of excitement, but still got a little bouncy and clap-happy. Micah and Steph were probably a little alarmed at my sudden enthusiasm. (If you know me well, you know that I don’t get genuinely giddy over very many things. Except maybe small, cuddly animals. And free food. And making Excel spreadsheets.)

Only a few weeks earlier, we were treated to a fantastic evening of Georgian folk dance in Akhaltsikhe. Could it be?? A whole troupe of Kartvelians in Istanbul? And we just happened to run into them??

Ukraine

I waited impatiently for the Ukranians and Romanians and Hungarians and other groups to complete their routines. They were all good, and entertaining even to those who might be less than enthusiastic about dance. Most teams were made up of adults or older teens. When the Georgians finally took the stage for the last performance for the evening, it was obvious that they were much younger than the other represented countries.

Georgian dance troupe

Since I don’t have much experience describing dance, here is what EasternArtists.com says about Georgian folk dancing:

“Georgian dance is generally characterized by the graceful floating gait of the female dancers. With bodies erect and leaning very slightly forward, the women create lovely formations and turns in an appearance that has been said to form the illusion of ice skating along the floor. The hand, arm and head movements are flowing and gentle while traveling in this quick floating manner.

The most characteristic element of the male Georgian dance is the acrobatic, or gymnastic movements including knee spins, aerial cartwheels, splits and kicks and many other such feats. But the most amazing to most viewers is the fast and varied manner of dancing on the knuckles of the toes. The dancers wear soft soled boots and often jump continually on the toe knuckle, with the body straight and strong, the arms in a very heroic posture, the men often shout or proudly stare as they do this spectacular feat.”

We weren’t surprised when the little soldiers and fair maidens floated and twirled and leaped and kicked with more skill, precision, vigor and heart than their predecessors. The crowd yelled and clapped more loudly for the Georgians than they had for anyone else, and you could see on the dancers’ faces that they were so happy and proud in that moment.

Dancers

The crowd started to filter away, and I noticed the white and red Georgian flag heading up the sidewalk, with the dancers all in a row behind it. I thought they were probably headed back to their hotel and was still so excited to have made another Georgia memory (in Istanbul!) that I decided it wouldn’t be too creepy to follow them. Our hostel was in the same direction, and we were headed that way, anyway.

Following the group

When we caught up to the group, I said hello to one of the girls. I told her how much I enjoyed their performance and asked if they were from Georgia. (Not the most brilliant of questions, but I was having a fangirl moment.) She said, yes, they were from Batumi, and that they had made the finals. Tomorrow night, they would dance again at the same stage. I promised that I would be there to see it.

Then I noticed that one of the chaperones kept glancing at us nervously. Walking a large group of children through a major world city late at night was probably not her idea of a good time, and me following them with a deranged smile wasn’t helping. Tony was very relieved when I agreed to turn around.

Gogo

The following evening, we returned to the park and the place was packed. Our Georgian team took the stage and repeated their great performance, and the crowd seemed to respond even more loudly. A man standing in the middle of the seating area kept standing up and waving the white flag with red crosses. The people behind him weren’t happy and eventually convinced him to at least sit down. But his flag kept waving.

Drummers

We stayed to see the results of the competition, and it was difficult to know what was going on since the emcee was speaking only in Turkish. Suddenly, I realized that there were a lot more Georgian children at the wings. It was another Georgian dance team. TWO teams had made it into the finals; one from Batumi and one from Tbilisi.

Final dance

The second team also brought the house down, and a section of the crowd was cheering, “SA-KART-VE-LO! SA-KART-VE-LO!” The man with the flag went nuts along with them.

Suspense

The emcee called the eight finalist teams to the stage. Some sort of local celebrity and a beauty queen joined him and they began handing out the awards. It was really apparent how young the Georgian teams were when they were standing with the other countries. In a fairytale moment, the two teams were awarded first and second place, and they all looked ready to burst with joy. I couldn’t help but be proud of them, too.

-A

Victory!

30
Sep 2012
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Running Water for Schools in Georgia

Remember when we went to Leliani, Georgia and hung out at Kamran’s host family’s farm?

Leliani road

Kamran is working on a project to pipe water to the Leliani community school. Right now, there is no running water for drinking or hand-washing inside the building. This type of project is great for several reasons:

  • It solves a basic but very important need
  • It will positively impact 300 kids
  • It can be quickly completed
  • Local suppliers and workers will benefit
  • It has a small budget ($550!), so your help really does make a difference

If you would like to contribute to the Leliani school water project, you can read all about it and make your secure donation here: http://appropriateprojects.com/node/1286

Kamran Beikmohamadi photo
(photo by Kamran Beikmohamadi)


(photo by Kamran Beikmohamadi)

Our friend Kelley, another Peace Corps volunteer, has a similar water project that needs funding in Akhaltsikhe. You can read about it here: http://appropriateprojects.com/node/1271

Photo by Kelley Gallagher
(photo by Kelly Gallagher)

Want to read about a completed water project in Georgia? Our friend McKinze wrote a great blog post about how the staff of an Akhaltsikhe nursery managed to care for 60 toddlers without running water.

25
Aug 2012
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Farewell, Georgia. Thanks for Everything.

Turkey/Georgia border (Sarpi)
(photo courtesy of Goggins World)

To cross from Georgia into Turkey, you have to take a bus to Sarpi to the border control complex. It looks like a giant cut-out of a cloud. As if to highlight the cultural differences between the two countries, the Sakartvelo side has a Georgian Orthodox church and the Türkiye side has a mosque. You cross on foot and have to actually bypass passport control, find the tiny office near the Turkish exit gate that sells tourist visa stamps, pay your $20, then walk back over the border and get in line to “officially” leave. It seems like it would be way too easy to waltz across without proper documentation or being confronted by any guards. Not that I’m suggesting that’s a good idea.

The officer mashed the exit stamp into my passport, looked me in the eye and smiled as he said,

“You are always welcome in Georgia.”

I melted a little and had the overwhelming urge to turn around and run straight back across the border. Forget Turkey. Surely he says it to everyone, but it felt like he knew exactly how much we had grown to love Georgia over the last month and how grateful we were to have experienced it.

Georgia’s leaders desperately want Sakartvelo to be respected as a country and seen as a people who have much to offer the world. It does have much to offer the world. When you consider that so much of the country lacks basic infrastructure or access to health care, the flashy aesthetic attempts at modernity that we saw in Tbilisi and Batumi, seem to have a “me too!” vibe, like a tagalong little brother who isn’t quite big enough to climb the tree house ladder.

But Georgia will get there. And if you ever decide to get acquainted with her, she will arrive in a cloud of marshrutka exhaust, plant a big kiss on your cheek and fill your glass to overflowing.

-A

Supra!

09
Aug 2012
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Georgia

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Ten Days in Batumi

(Note: all but one of the photos on this post are courtesy of tomislavmedak and zigurdszakis. Thanks to them, our broken camera doesn’t mean you miss out on pretty pictures.)

After hanging out in Kutaisi, we headed for the Black Sea coast and the city of Batumi. We had been in Georgia for two and a half weeks at this point, so there was plenty of familiarity. By this time, we could rattle off the names of foods to waiters, confidently navigate public transportation, and handle basic transactions like buying water and bananas from maghazias. We were really getting comfortable in Georgia and feeling pretty pleased with our self-sufficiency.

Batumi by tomislavmedak, on Flickr

We found a cheap hotel room in a place that we were pretty sure was not a brothel, and after a few days we decided that it was mostly not a brothel (only a few guests seemed to be paying an hourly rate). There was always hot water, the air conditioning worked, the location was good and the price was right.

Batumi is a strange place. It has the laid back vibe of a resort town, with a lengthy boardwalk and big shiny ferris wheel to go along with it. Tall palm trees line both sides of the cobblestoned main bulvari and at night they are illuminated in hot pinks and electric greens. Fountains explode in synchronized exuberance to loud pop music and there is an abundance of public art in the form of modern sculptures. There are big name hotels like the Sheraton and the Radisson, and the latter’s all-glass top floor luxury bathrooms allow you to relieve yourself while enjoying a commanding view of the city.

Gruzija2011. Batumi by zigurdszakis, on Flickr

Then there is the public image that Batumi is trying so hard to shake. Half the sidewalks are torn up from a massive city-wide public works project, providing opportunities to participate in some rugged urban hiking every other block or so. There’s a nearly empty mall that seems to be a product of the questionable “if you build it, they will come” business strategies that we’ve seen all over Georgia. The marshrutka station is a bustling anthill of vans and taxis, restaurants and money changers, beggar children and little old ladies squatting on stools in front of their tables of sunflower seeds and cheap cigarettes. The chaos is actually a little exhilarating if you’re not in a hurry and you know how to navigate it.

Batumi by tomislavmedak, on Flickr

Gruzija2011. Batumi. Kallas by zigurdszakis, on Flickr

One of our favorite things to do was to go to the restaurant next to the port and watch the shipping containers being moved, and the fishermen dipping their poles into the sea and the kids doing cannonballs off the dock.

Batumi by tomislavmedak, on Flickr

We never actually managed to do any swimming of our own. We took a bus to Sarpi, the border town with a cleaner and less crowded beach, and I braved swarms of (non-stinging) moon jellyfish and waded out up to my waist. In the end, their ability to slowly pulsate their pale gelatinous bodies and surround me wherever I was standing was just too creepy to bear.

We met with numerous friends-of-friends. We had a great time hanging out with Emily, Ariana, Denise, and Amy (some of Sean and McKinze’s fellow PCVs), who were responsible for introducing us to the aforementioned port restaurant, a hookah cafe, and a chill little place called Vinyl. It’s not too often that you can sip a brew on the sidewalk next to an Iranian consulate.

Gruzija2011. Batumi by zigurdszakis, on Flickr

Chuck, a friend of our friend Crissa, met up with us at what he called “The Treehouse,” a breezy beachside cafe that didn’t seem to have an official name. Besides taking the only of picture we have of us in Batumi (thanks!), he gave us a list of great places to eat in Batumi, and we spent an evening hopping from place to place with him and some of his TLG friends. At one point, we ended up in a tiny basement club (smaller than Iowa City’s Yacht Club) that was filled with what we can only describe as lively “Batumi hipsters.” The staff kept the door locked and you had to request to be let out. Apparently this was done for security purposes. Let us hope there is never a fire.

At a restaurant one night, a group of Polish men on holiday stood and sung their national anthem, hands on hearts, before the football (soccer) match they came to watch, and sent a jug of wine to our table. One of the men came over and introduced himself and gave us buttons with crossed Polish and Georgian flags. He shook our hands and took our pictures and tried in vain to get our Facebook contact info. He was very charming, if a bit inebriated.

One evening we were negotiating with a taxi driver. Due to my limited language skills, “negotiating” is an incredibly sophisticated strategy that involves me acting surprised at their first price and then forcefully repeating the price I want until they cave. He rejected my counteroffer with a long-winded diatribe and I recognized only one word: benzini. I turned to Tony and told him that the driver says he cannot afford gasoline at my price and we turned to walk away. Another driver who was observing the exchange asked in amazement if I was Georgian. Even though I knew my “translation” was a lucky guess, it was a nice compliment.

Although we weren’t tired of Georgia, we began to feel the tug of the road again and decided it was time to get ourselves to Turkey. We had a final late night khachapuri on the evening before we left. We sat at a table next to the marshrutka station and tried to ignore the clouds of exhaust as we wondered how long it would be until we could devour slices of that salty, cheesy goodness again.

-A

Gruzija2011. Batumi by zigurdszakis, on Flickr

09
Aug 2012
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Georgia

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Memories Without Photographs – Former Glory

I remember thinking in Akhaltsikhe that I had basically been to two types of countries before Georgia: westernized, modern societies and places that never had much to begin with. (I stop short of using the term “third world” because I’m not sure how to properly define that, but I’ve been to orphanages in Jamaica and remote fishing towns in Mexico.) Either Georgia is more complex than my previous experiences or my pigeonholes are just too simplistic (probably both). I’ve never personally been to a place that felt so post-apocalyptic. The cities especially are full of reminders of their history, some of it more recent than I can really comprehend. Soviet hints as big as formerly-swank dive-hotels, and small as Stalin’s bust adorning random home gates.

The most memorable example of this happened while we were on a four hour marshrutka ride to Kutaisi. I was reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and Alicia was teaching herself the Georgian alphabet. At the exact moment she realized she could read, I was set in the midst of a deep mind-swim (as that book is prone to do). It was truly exciting for her – seriously, she just realized that she could READ – but I had just looked up into a thousand-yard-stare, realizing how much I was like a character that I really did not expect or want to be anything like. So I’m getting all existential (as I am prone to do) and Alicia is excitedly pointing out that she can read the names of all the towns on a little sign above the driver that showed the fares. I was impressed but it was at a moment that made it hard to match her excitement.

Realizing how lost I was getting in my own head, not to mention a touch car sick from trying to read while on Georgia’s favorite form of public transportation, I looked out the window. My self-diagnosed-adult-onset-ADD pulled me straight out of the fog at the sight of the ghost town we were driving through. We were still somewhere east of Kutaisi, but out of the countryside. The fact that it was so empty wouldn’t have been so striking if it weren’t for all of the huge industrial buildings. They were solidly built, not many of them were crumbling, but most of them were covered in rust that poured down from their metal roofs. Windows were all either hazed over from the sun and dust or broken out, some from trees growing through from inside. This went on for miles. It wasn’t just a single factory location; you definitely got the impression that entire communities were symbiotic to whatever product was made or refined there. I was never able to figure out exactly what that product was, but I got a clue as to what it was probably used for.

It wasn’t going to work to ask the driver to let me out for a few photos (and I couldn’t anyway, my only translator was just learning her ABCs). And no one would have been happy about extending that ride for longer than it already needed to be, especially for an American who wanted to take some shots of abandoned factories. Probably not even for the twenty foot tall mosaic of a Soviet astronaut on the side of one of those buildings. One arm raised up triumphantly; soaring toward you like Superman with the earth behind him, likely as colorful and bright as the day it was pieced together. I might have been the only one to see it. Alicia was still gleefully looking around the van for other Georgian words to read. The other passengers had most likely taken that road enough to be unimpressed. Or maybe they had lived with enough reminders of what used to be that they didn’t need to take it in again.

Several of them crossed themselves when we drove by the next church, and I tried to remember what was so important that had me lost in my own head earlier.

-T

08
Aug 2012
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Georgia

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A Few More Things to Say About Kutaisi

We would love to show you more photos of Kutaisi. It’s very photogenic with its Russian architecture, parks and monuments. It’s also getting a lot of attention and development money from President Saakashvili’s administration. Unfortunately, our camera broke during our dino expedition to Sataplia and we didn’t replace it until after we left Georgia two weeks later.

Huge billboard advertisement for a magazine

Walking through its bazaar was an intense sensory overload experience. Imagine the streets packed shoulder-to-shoulder; honking Ladas vainly trying convince the crowds to part; sparks screaming from a tool sharpener’s grinder; a chorus of fluffy chicks trampling each other in cardboard boxes; a butcher splitting a whole hog down the middle, its blood slippery and congealing in the dirt; tables groaning under overflowing crates of produce and sacks of spices; sweaty old men selling lighter fluid and shoelaces and prayer cards; beggar women, many with a babe at the breast, mumbling with palms outstretched; poultry and rabbits in various states of undress and dismemberment; women chatting with each other while casually dangling a live stew hen by its legs.

Walking down the hill to town

Old homes overhanging the Rioni River

The Rioni river that splits Kutaisi in two was raging with muddy force from daily thunderstorms. We crossed it by a swaying cable car that deposited us in a hilltop amusement park. In a section of the park away from the rides was a very sad bear, plopped down with its scruffy behind in an old tire. We fed him several apples and he seemed appreciative. I still feel sick to my stomach thinking about the look in his eyes and his tiny, filthy cage.

We spent quiet evenings on “our” porch at Giorgi’s Homestay, listening to the thunder and the rain pattering on the grapevines, and thinking about where we wanted to go next.

-A

Dining room at Giorgi's

Our porch at Giorgi's

08
Aug 2012
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Hey Look, Dinosaurs!

The flowers in the city center read I (heart) Kutaisi.

You might remember our post that talked a bit about the fact that most Georgians aren’t shy about staring. We experienced this to the max in Kutaisi (say koo-TIE-see).

Stairs leading to the park in Kutaisi

The Rioni River

While there, we planned to meet up with another Peace Corps volunteer, LaToya. She graciously invited us to dinner with a group of PCVs and TLGs (Teach and Learn Georgia – English teachers hired by the Georgian government). We had a great evening at the Mirzaani Brewery, meeting more volunteers and students who were practicing their English conversation skills.

We made plans with LaToya and another volunteer, Freddy, to split a taxi the following day and check out Sataplia Natural Reserve. Sataplia has nature walks through a Colchian forest, a glass-floored lookout over the Rioni river valley, fossilized dinosaur footprints, a large cave illuminated by color changing LED lights, and an animatronic t-rex. It’s a pretty nice park and definitely up to par with what you’d expect from an important state or national park in the US. Even the dinobots, which we expected to be something similar to what you’d find at Chuck E. Cheese, impressed the horde of schoolchildren that descended upon the park just after our arrival.

Kids walking the elevated walkways over the dinosaur footprint exhibit

Nature walk entrance

Rawr

Sataplia Cave, in all its gaudy glory

Imagine for a minute, if you will, the sight of Tony, a blonde and bearded guy whose limbs and chest are colorfully illustrated; LaToya, an African-American woman with dreadlocks pulled into a thick ponytail; and Freddy, a Ugandan guy wearing a fedora, all wading through a sea of kids and chaperones whose experiences with people who look differently than them have been mostly limited to movies and TV.

Stares, whispers, and giggles spread through the group as kids nudged their friends and pointed in our direction. We were more popular and exotic than the rubbery stegosaurus, whose recorded moans went nearly unnoticed. Every ten minutes, a child or an adult would approach us and ask to take our picture. LaToya and Freddy were worn down by months of public scrutiny and politely declined. Tony would say yes. Then the hopeful photographer would hesitate, as if they suddenly realized that what they really wanted was a little inappropriate, but would again ask for a group photo, and walk back crestfallen when the other two again said no. They didn’t want a picture of just Tony.

We talked about it as we walked through the forest and along the limestone cliffs. We knew that for all their stares and whispers, the kids and all the locals that LaToya and Freddy encountered during their months in Kutaisi meant nothing unkind, and any actions that seemed racist were just rooted in innocent unfamiliarity. Because of this, you could easily say, “what’s the big deal? They mean no harm, just pause for a second and let them have their photo. At least they asked politely, instead of just taking the picture.” But they turned down the photos both because they wanted the kids to understand how to treat people with differences that they encounter in the future, and because everyone deserves the right to go about their daily business as part of the community, rather than as an object of curiosity.

Tony doesn’t mind the occasional polite photo request, but maybe it’s different for someone whose “otherness” was intentional. Or maybe it’s less about types of “otherness” and more about the individual and what they bring to and take from the situation. Or maybe (probably) comparing and contrasting tattoos and skin color is just clouds the issue. These things aren’t always fun or comfortable to talk about, and neither of us feel very qualified to do so, but talking about it is a good thing; it increases understanding and empathy.

Here's to hoping that the materials and construction standards were of the highest quality

Sataplia overlook

Towards the end of our hike, we found the path to the lookout, and shuffled onto the glass floor. The park ranger provided big over-the-shoe slippers to prevent damage to the (already thoroughly marred) glass. The kids found a better use — running around to build up some static then zapping each other. Dangerous on a glass skywalk? Not if they’re wearing the slippers. As they were leaving, one brave kid reached over and zinged Tony before he could turn around and see which one it was. They all laughed (including Tony) and scampered off.

The four of us never did get a group photo. Sataplia was cool, but we’re really glad to have a day of meaningful conversations with two great people. Thanks, friends!

LaToya, Tony and Freddy hiking at Sataplia

02
Aug 2012
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Public Transportation: A Slice of Georgian Life

Some of my more vivid Georgia memories are related to transportation. We took few pictures NO pictures (sad face) of the gorgeous fields and mountains and rivers that flashed past the windows or of our fellow passengers, but the mental images remain clear.

After a laid-back time in Akhaltsikhe, it was time to hit the road again. Sean and McKinze were busy wrapping up their last weeks of Peace Corps service and we had probably already stayed longer in Akhaltsikhe than any other tourist, ever. So, yet another trusty marshrutka hauled us through the mountains to Kutaisi, Georgia’s second largest city and new home to its parliament. We had the phone number of LaToya, another PCV, and were going to meet up with her at some point during our time there.

On the way to the station, we said goodbye to Dato, our faithful friend who sold 35 tetri soft-serve cones at the door to Hotel Meskheti, gave us alucha fruits, and marveled at Tony’s tattoos whenever Alicia wasn’t around.

The seating situation separated me from Tony, and I settled into the back row next to an older man who was cradling a sleeping toddler. After half an hour of silence, the man turned and began speaking to me. I replied with her best version of “I don’t speak Georgian” (in Georgian… so contradictory and confusing to the hearer, when you think about it) but then I realized he was rattling off country names and was trying to guess if I was Russian or German. He seemed very surprised at the answer, since Georgia sees very few visitors from the U.S. He asked another question, but I had no idea what he was saying, so I threw out a bit more information, that we were turistuli, shtatia Iowa. I didn’t have the words to inquire about his own health or current events in his life, so I smiled dotingly at the child and said bichi? He confirmed that yes, it was indeed a boy. Ok, then. Having exhausted our respective foreign vocabularies, we sat in contented silence for another long stretch of road, until the man pointed out the window.

There, along the banks of the turbulent, muddy river that the road had been following through the mountains, was a tow truck and a dozen men. They looked only mildly concerned about the task before them: hauling out a jackknifed semi truck and trailer that was half submerged in the swift current. The heavy thunderstorm that had blown through last night might have put it there. By the looks of the cab, the driver had likely escaped serious injury, but by such a narrow margin that a change of trousers was certain.

It was only then that I realized our driver’s rate of speed had been bordering on reckless the entire time. And of course, the sleepy-eyed bichi was not in a car seat. Cue recollection of travel mortality statistics. How had we become so accustomed to this new state of normal in less than two weeks?

At long last, the driver rolled to a stop in the center of Kutaisi. Then another strange and disorienting thing happened. After years of avoiding it at home, we were mysteriously unable to resist the glow of the golden arches that promised shiny clean restrooms and free wi-fi. And cheeseburgers.

After a few days in Kutaisi, we decided to visit Gelati Monastery which is a few kilometers up a steep hill from the city center. We headed to where the marshrutkas park, a block from the brand new fountain, behind the renovated theater building.

The new fountain in Kutaisi

After looking at all the destination signs in the windshields, we located the one that said გელათი. My alphabet studies were really starting to be useful now that we were responsible for our own navigation. The driver pointed to his watch to indicate he’d be leaving in about 30 minutes, so we climbed in, only to find all the seats taken. The van was full of women who stopped their conversations and eyed us as they clutched their bags of produce from the bazaar. A middle-aged woman screwed the cap back onto her Coke and tucked it into her purse, which also contained a buff colored chicken.

We hopped back out and looked at the driver, not knowing how to ask… not sure exactly what was expected of us… should we wait for the next one? Did he know that all 14 seats of his marshrutka were full? He gestured and waved and smiled and we decided that meant we should get in anyway. We returned to the now totally silent vehicle, giving the ladies sheepish smiles. The pullet breathed out a low, uncertain warble that rose at the end to form a question. I don’t know what’s going on, either, little friend.

We stood and clung to a railing installed the length of the ceiling, and the space continued to fill as the departure time neared. By the time the diesel engine rattled to life, I counted 29 souls. I tried as best as I could to angle my hips away from a sweet grandmother’s face, and the only relief from the stifling heat was the spot was where a teenager’s cellopani bag of fresh fish was pressed into the crook of my knee.

As the giant clown car rumbled up the hill, the chicken resigned herself to reality, pulled her lids half up over her glazed eyes, and rested her head on the black patent leather purse handle. The woman absentmindedly stroked the tail feathers that were poking out the top of the bag and I allowed myself to imagine that she purchased it with the intention of making it a treasured family pet. The red Coca-Cola label contrasted with the soft feathers that were gilded by a midday sunbeam… but getting to the camera was neither practical nor appropriate.

We lost passengers along the way, but most departures required up to one-third of us to untangle enough to hop out the side door, then Tetris our way back in. By the time we got to Gelati, it was just us and a Japanese woman who was touring the Caucuses solo, with not much more than her own determination and the intermediate level Russian she had studied.

Frescoed walls of Church of the Virgin, Gelati Monastery

Fresco detail, Church of the Virgin, Gelati Monastery

Gelati itself was impressive, but I’ll probably forget the faces in the 900-year-old frescoes and the lay of the green valley below. What I’ll always remember is the smell of tomatoes and overripe strawberries mingled with stale sweat and slimy fish scales. And that chicken. I’m sure it’s happily clucking in a yard behind a large metal gate in the outskirts of Kutaisi, catching grasshoppers and napping in an afternoon sunbeam.

-A

A young chicken in Leliani

Two videos of marshrutka rides!

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

IMG_5180

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).

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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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Georgia

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საქართველო ლამაზია.

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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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A Weekend in Tbilisi

We’re going to skip ahead a bit (we still have a few more Madrid posts to add, not to mention Barcelona, Toulouse, and Paris!) and update you on what’s going on at this very moment. I’m sitting in a cafe in Tbilisi enjoying the first wifi we’ve had in five days. We have a three hour marshrutka ride ahead of us and I’m going to finish learning the other half of the Georgian alphabet before it’s over.

Here’s what we did last weekend with our friends Sean and McKinze. Click around their site if you’re curious about Georgia! They are great ambassadors.

-A

23
May 2012
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