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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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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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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
POSTED BY admin
POSTED IN

Georgia

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