Khertvisi Castle, Khertvisi, Georgia

Monday, May 31, 2010


This weekend we had our first real chance to venture outside of the immediate environs of our village, on a “cultural trip” that Peace Corps has us make in order to get used to traveling and finding our way around the country. We decided to head for a little town called Abastumani. It’s famous for its hot sulfur baths, which drew the Romanovs here (their palace, still half-burnt, is now a convent), along with droves of tuberculosis patients who came for the baths, the clear mountain air, and the pollen given off from a certain kind of pine cone, which apparently does wonders for the lungs. But the real draw for me was that it’s the home of the Georgian national observatory. I’d spoken with someone working there and arranged to go up on Saturday night if the skies were clear and take a look.

We headed out with Sean, McKinze, and Reid, three trainees in the business development field. Our trip there was a bit longer and more crowded than we would have liked, but it went well, all things considered. We arrived to our newly renovated hotel and wandered around a little while until evening. The rivers are really roaring down off the mountains here, and it can be awe-inspiring just to watch it, especially against the backdrop of the hills.

Some of the bridges are a little less impressive.

Around midnight, we got a taxi up to the observatory. A “Soviet Mercedes,” the driver informed us, as we piled into the decades-old Lada and started the 6.5-kilometer ascent, which somehow consisted entirely of 90-degree angles, on a 2-way road just over a car’s width. Reid managed to take a video that captures some of the route; let’s just say we were all wide awake by the time we got up to the observatory.

We got to go up in the 40 centimeter refractor telescope; it was everything you might dream a telescope dome from 1937 might be. I used to have other career ambitions, but now I want to be the guy who’s up there every night, sitting at the little oak desk, writing in his notebook what he sees.

And what we saw was pretty spectacular – Saturn and its rings, a blue-hot star, and (after some waiting) the moon. It’s a little annoying that the word for “star” in Georgian is “varskvlavi, since, as you’ll notice, the letters r,s,k,v, and l come together without any vowels. This makes it a little hard for us to explain what we did this past weekend in Georgian.

It was incredible, our hosts at the observatory (and an English-speaking Georgian couple from our hotel who came at the same time) were very kind and patient, and that mountain was even more fun on the way down.

The next morning, we decided to ask about a castle that we’d seen perched atop a mountain the day before. At the hotel they told us that it was a 12th-century fortress of Queen Tamar’s. We asked if it was possible to get up there, and suddenly we had a guide: Pele, a worker at the hotel who was born and raised in Abastumani, spoke perfect Russian, and amazingly took us all the way up the mountain. Probably the steepest hike I’ve ever been on, but worth it:

Soviet troops had been quartered at the castle, so there was quite a lot of graffiti, and the castle itself was largely ruined, but looking up at the walls with a strip of meadow between them and the cliff, the mountains rising behind, or coming across some mossy corner as we tripped carefully along a deer track along the mountainside, was really something.

We made it back down just as some huge thunderheads rolled by and somehow missed us. As we went down, Pele pointed out where a bear had lain, told us some history (recent forest fires and old Soviet bases), pointed out the wild raspberry bushes and the best trout streams, and showed us the dust from the supposedly tuberculosis-curing pinecones. On the road back to the hotel, he pointed to an abandoned church. He told us that in Soviet times, they’d turned the church into a bakery (maybe to blacken the paintings and icons). But, Pele told us, some nostalgia in his voice, “They made the best bread.”

When we got back to Kortaneti some hours later, practically the whole village was at the train station; among other departees, our host sister was headed back to Tbilisi. Walking down to the faces that have become familiar, even if the names all haven’t, it really felt like home.

It’s hard to believe that we’re halfway through training now, and that it’s only a month before we move to our permanent site. In just a week and a half we’ll know where we’ll be going. It’s exciting, but it’s hard to think about leaving our host family here in Kortaneti. For now, anyway, it’s enough to enjoy summer coming to the village; the roses are just coming into full bloom, the cucumbers we helped plant from seed are growing right up, and on our run today, there was, amazingly, no mud.

Saturday, May 22, 2010

Daily Routines

So we've talked a little about what we've been up to during our PC training, but I thought I'd post a bit more detailed info. The 5 of us in our village attend language classes 6 days a week in the village school. For the first two weeks, that meant 6 days of Georgian language class for 4 hours a day. This past week, we started into our second language, and swapped Russian for Georgian two days. Since those of us in this village all had Russian experience before arriving, we've been recruited to head to minority regions in Georgia. Our permanent sites will be in either predominantly Armenian or predominantly Azeri regions (each group makes up about 5-6 percent of Georgia's population, unsurprising since Armenia and Azerbaijan, also both former Soviet republics, are neighbors of Georgia's). Within these minority communities, the language really varies; we could find that Russian is the best means of communication, or the language of the group (either Armenian or Azeri) could be better, or, least likely, Georgian might work best. Given this uncertainty, we're going going for the trifecta and will start learning our third language next week. Sam and I have just found out that this will be Armenian, which means we'll get yet another alphabet of squiggly lines.

So language training has eaten up a good chunk of our time every day. In the afternoons, we get together with the 18 other TEFL (Teaching English as a Foreign Language) volunteers-in-training to have technical sessions about how to teach English. We learn everything from what the Georgian school context is like to the types of reforms and programs the Ministry of Education is undertaking to the proper way to lesson plan. As part of these sessions we've also begun our practicum, first by observing some English classes held in our villages and, beginning this week, by teaching lessons with Georgian counterparts. It's been a real rush to get to start working already, and we've been able to gain a lot of good practical hands-on experience that will help us tremendously as we set up shop in our permanent sites. (This being almost the end of the school year, the teachers partnered up with us seem more than happy to let us take over the reins in their classes.)

The PC trainees all have lunches together with their "clusters," that group of 5 living in the same village. Our Georgian language teachers live in the villages with us and join us for these lunches (always rotating so that each person's host family hosts lunch on a different day of the week), which always involve way more food than should ever be set out for such a small group, but which is always so delicious that way more than needs be is consumed.

That sums up much of the day-to-day scheduling of things; we're pretty well booked solid, Monday through Friday from 9-6. We usually get free time from Saturday at 2 through Sunday, although different weekends have different activities and events planned for us, courtesy of the PC. For training, we aren't allowed to leave our villages after 7pm and if we leave the village anytime before 7, we must return before 7pm and must submit a paper permission form to our Georgian language teacher a day in advance. These seemed like pretty stringent and overzealous rules to us at first until we realized that we're pretty well hopeless with the language still and couldn't do too much more if we had more freedom. Moreover, we're all so beat after language classes, training, teaching and stuffing ourselves with carb- and cheese-laden food that we're pretty contented just to hang around our little village, talking with our host families and watching Mexican soap operas each evening.

And speaking of carbolicious food offerings, and by way of closing this post out, I learned how to make Georgian donuts today. Don't tell Dunkin Donuts that I'm cheating on them. I still love them, too, but these fresh-out-of-the-frying-pan creme-filled donuts were fantastically wonderful. I'll be sure to perfect my art form while I'm here and I'll treat anyone who wants to a donut or 12 when next I'm stateside.

Stuffed with creme and waiting for the frying...

Not too long now...

Plate full of delicious

A few more long overdue pictures

Some long delayed, long promised photos

Thursday, May 20, 2010

On The Hazards of Language

Our host family has been extremely kind and patient in helping us with our Georgian; we've tried to return the favor and pass along some English, but sometimes things just don't work out. Three weeks in, the entire village of Kortaneti believes that the word for "jam" is "blueberry."

Friday, May 14, 2010

The storm

The weather here had been not all that worth mentioning in the two-and-a-half weeks since we first landed in Tbilisi. It was rainy and cold when the plane landed, has been cool and foggy with scattered showers many days. In the village we've had some rainy days, cold mornings and nights, lots of fog nestled among the mountains in the morning and lately, have had sunny and warm afternoons. All in all, it was about what warned me to expect.

Two nights ago, however, we had the very worst storm I've ever experienced.

It was just about midnight when we all headed off to bed. There was what looked to be heat lightening bouncing off the mountains to the north of us and we thought nothing of it at first. We'd had some rain in the late afternoon and then the clouds had cleared. But as we began to drift off to sleep, the lightening grew more and more frequent and intense, lighting our room up as it flashed. I got up and looked out the window and, even though the flashes came ever half second and lit the whole sky, they were on the other side of the mountains and still resembled heat lightening. I crawled back into bed and we watched, confused, as the sky flickered.

I thought it was thunder that I heard next, but I soon realized it was the sound of the heavens opening up, dumping what Sam deemed Hollywood-special-effects quality rain on our village. We didn't ease into this rain; tankers of water dumped onto our house all at once. It was almost deafening and, though our house is well-built, I worried that no roof would be able to withstand the pounding of that much rain. We could see the rain perfectly, since the sky continued to be streaked with almost constant lightening. It may have thundered as well, but since the rain was so loud, I couldn't tell.

That's when the hail started.

We had hail the size of quarters coming down in a density I didn't think possible for hail. It lasted almost 20 minutes.

We had a little water come in our window, despite it's being latched shut tight, so we busied ourselves with mopping it up and moving things off the floor, as a precaution. Then, just as suddenly as the storm began, it was gone, moving off to find another valley to inundate. No tapering off, no slowing, just silence. That's also when the power went out.

It was now nearing 1am and although it was dark, you could hear that people nearby were up and about in their houses, most likely shaking their heads and wondering at how such a crazy, terrible storm could happen. We heard our host parents up and didn't think much of it until we realized they were yelling and sounded frantic.

We headed downstairs and saw them desperately trying to stem off the river of mud that was streaming into the dining room on the first floor. Pools of water a foot high covered every last surface in their back yard, despite continuing to flow downhill through flower garden and the driveway. We grabbed some flashlights and any implements we could find to help Maia and Zurab clear the drainage system and keep the water from spilling over from the dining room into the bedrooms. We worked for about an hour, mopping up mud and water, picking up branches and moving things out of the newly developed streams. Luckily, the dining room floor is wood and there wasn't anything severely damaged. Luckily, we kept the water contained in the one room. Maia and I got most of the mud and water up after filling three washtubs with debris and mud and water. Sam and Zurab got the drains cleared so the lake where the backyard once was finally drained. We washed most of the mud off the front porch and wrung out the shoes and slippers that got drenched. Then we all went back to bed.

We got up the next morning early, despite the late night. It took most of the day for power to come back, but it was a bright, sunny day, the kind of weather that makes you think the previous night's storm had to have been a bad dream. But the carnage was evident all through the village: trees stripped of leaves and flowers, the mud roads all but washed away, the river streaming higher and faster than it had the previous day, neighbors dropping by to share their experiences and offer help to those with flooded rooms (seems like at least 4 other houses right near ours had some kind of water coming in somehow). Everyone agreed that it was the worst storm in memory. Our 82-year-old host Bebia (grandmother) was close to tears all day, shaking her head and repeating over and over that there's never, ever been a storm so bad in this village in her life.

But life in the village goes on. Unofficial road crews drove around, dumping new dirt and rocks on the washed-out roads, the women in the village spent the day cleaning out the mud that had invaded their homes, the kids went to school and opened the windows to let the sun light their rooms, the last pools of hail slowly melted away and the spooked cows returned to their owners. Sam and I went for a run this morning and the roads have mostly dried out by now.

I hope, as everyone here does, I'm sure, that like Bebia I never see another storm like this in 82 years.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Oh, I so love my cows!

It seems like we've been in Georgia for months. We've officially been in our village for eleven days, but it seems like so much longer than that. This is in great part due to the very busy schedule we've been keeping. We have Georgian language training Monday through Saturday from 9am-1pm, then we go to lunch as a cluster, switching every day to eat at a different one of the 5 volunteers' host families' houses. From 2:30-6, we have our practical training in teaching English in Georgia. We've started observing some English classes at the school in our village and soon will have to start running some practice activities as well. On top of this, we've got nightly homework, visiting with our host families, watching lots and lots of Spanish-language-but-dubbed-in-Georgian soap operas and, most importantly, the daily requirement of eating at least two tons of bread and cheese. It's been fabulous.

The cheese is, of course, homemade by our host mom, as Sam mentioned. It's an interesting type of cheese- something like the taste of feta cheese, with more the consistency of mozzarella. Cheese is such a staple here, and most of the families seem to own cows. It turns out that our host family has two cows. I was talking with our host mom about the cows and asked her if they had names. She told me, "Oh, I so love my cows! Of course they have names!" So, thanks to Gogona and Nisha, (and of course, Maia's constant milking of said lovely cows, and her expertise in cheese making), we eat a lot of tasty, tasty cheese.

I'll try to get straight which cow is which and post some pictures for you to all see what great cows they are.

Friday, May 7, 2010


Well, we’re nearing the end of our first week in the village where we’ll be staying for training during the next 9 weeks. The village is called Kortaneti. It’s small – about 120 families – and sits in a little valley among waves and waves of mountains. 3 other trainees – Christopher, Kelsey, and Sophie, all Russian speakers who will be teaching English like us – are our neighbors. It’s a nice house; heating is limited to an iron stove in the living room, but it feels so nice to sit beside; there’s no indoor plumbing, but the outdoor toilet has a seat; and the kitchen is small, but the food that comes out of it is amazing.

Our host family, the Gelashvilis, are as wonderful as anyone could hope for and then some. Our host father Zurab is the head of the little school here, and speaks fluent Russian thanks to 6 years studying there in the ‘70s. Our host mother Maia also speaks some Russian, and loves chatting with us over breakfast and helping us with our homework in the evenings. She’s an excellent cook; when we come back 15 pounds heavier, we can blame the homemade cheese she’s continually making. She’s also thrilled that we like her jam, since her own kids apparently aren’t too keen on sweet things. Our host sister Mariana, 19, is home on a break from university in Tbilisi, and we trade vocabulary words, since she’s starting to study English. Our host brother, Akaki, 16, was shy at first, but has lately been helping with homework (possibly to delay doing his own), and enjoyed working out his first chord or so on my guitar. Our host bebia (grandmother), Mary, greeted us the first day with no end of amusement as we struggled up the stairs with our bright red camping backpack and overstuffed suitcases; as we learn our first Georgian words and phrases we try them out on her and are invariably treated to her very oldladylike laugh. They’ve all been fantastic. Pretty much every evening we’ve sat together in the family room by the stove and talked over the TV (“Georgia’s Got Talent” is a hit, as are Latin soap operas, including a version of Zorro featuring improbably-clad Amazons). Tuesday night we celebrated fixing the town water pipe by firing up the wood-burning hot water furnace in the bathroom and sending everyone one by one in for a much-appreciated shower, our first since getting into town on Saturday. Meanwhile, I brought out the guitar and learned my first Georgian song; Kelsey’s host family (our neighbors) came by and played backgammon; and Kelsey’s host father Leri (“Larry”), tried, as usual, to persuade us all to go drink with him.

We’d been warned about Georgian drinking (take-home message: “Don’t try to keep up”), and it truly is a sight to behold. Monday night, I went out to watch the progress on the aforementioned burst pipe, but the sun went down before it could be fixed, so everyone decided to invite me and the other male trainee, Christopher, to a supra. The supra is a traditional Georgian feast marked by good company, good food, elaborate toasts, and amazing feats of alcohol consumption. Those of you who know me can imagine how well I fit in at an event that involves lots of public speaking and about six times as much drinking as your average fraternity kegger, but it was really a warm and lovely experience, and Zurab kindly held at bay the teasing about my un-Georgian little sips of wine, kept the strawberry juice flowing as fast as Larry could pour the wine, and helped us get out early, that is, at the stage people might still remember the next day.

A last bit of trivia: It’s “jonjoli” season here in Kortaneti, which means that people are off collecting huge buckets of white flowers from the “jonjoli” trees that grow wild around the village. They salt them, jar them, and then out comes a salad tasting something like cilantro salsa. Just one of the little pleasures of village life.

Today we’re in the resort town of Borjomi (the “big city” to us now) for a Peace Corps meeting, and it’s our first chance to use the Internet since we got here...more updates will follow, but for now, as they say here, nakhvamdis!