Khertvisi Castle, Khertvisi, Georgia

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Weekend Trip, or trying out every form of transportation available in Tbilisi

We had a full, fun weekend starting this past Friday that was so jam-packed it extended through Monday night. It all centered on my general sense of denial that my personal passport could possibly be 10 years old and thus expired (I only just got the thing when I graduated from high school! No way mine can already be used up!) and my utter failure before coming to Georgia to get it renewed. Since we have our Peace Corps official passports, I don't especially need to have a personal passport as well, but it is recommended to keep it up-to-date, and anyway I'll need it if we travel at all after our 2 years are up here. In short, all this came to a need to go to the U.S. Embassy in Tbilisi at some time during the hours of 2-4 on a Monday through Thursday. Very convenient hours, given the 5 hour marshrutka (mini-bus) ride it takes to get to Tbilisi from Akhalkalaki.

We decided that, rather than take that one long marshrutka ride, we would break things up a bit by going first to our old host family's house in Kortaneti to stay a bit and say hello and see how things were going. We got in on Friday evening and were reminded of how nice it is to have homemade bread and cheese all the time (and I was reminded how good it is to not be living in a house that constantly makes bread and cheese, as all the women kept complaining to me that it looks like I am not continuing to put on weight as I was while living in the village and enjoying said bread and cheese). It was fantastic to see everyone again and to see how much further along the grapes are and to get to eat a number of the cucumbers we "helped" plant.

The Kortaneti crew was expanded a bit from our days there, though, as there were some new faces in town to take a break from the sweltering heat in Tbilisi and to enjoy the beautiful scenery and fresh air. One holiday neighbor, Neuta, regaled us with stories of her family and it's crazy roots. She has an Italian grandmother, a Russian grandmother, and a Circassian grandfather, and her father had first come to Georgia with his family to vacation. He became an honorary member of Kortaneti's government when he sent in a proposal to the Soviet government to rebuild the town's bridge, which had collapsed at some point in the 70's, even though it wasn't in the 5-year-plan (the current bridge in Kortaneti is there thanks to this). Because of that honor, Neuta's brother was able to get a job teaching at the Kortaneti school (and had taught our host father German when he was a child attending the school); teaching at a village school meant that Neuta's brother was exempted from his military service. All in all, she was very happy to be in Kortaneti and said that it only holds fond memories for her. She and two of her grandsons plan to be there for the next month or so to relax.

The bridge that Neuta's father was responsible for is sort of visible in the far right-hand corner of this picture, and if you look really closely in the river just to the left of that, you see the remains of one of the supports of the bridge that collapsed in the 70's.

There was one other addition to the neighborhood, as a neighbor's daughter gave birth to her second child. The excitement around this and the necessity to drive her to the hospital in Borjomi took Maia and Zurab away for the better part of Saturday, which was fun and happy for them, but we were (selfishly) wishing to have had more time with them.

On Sunday morning we got up early and took another marshrutka, this time just to the outskirts of Tbilisi, to the old capital of the country, Mskheta. According to the English textbooks that the students in Kortaneti used, the capital was moved to Tbilisi after the king went there hunting. He shot a bird and it fell into a hot spring, where it was immediately boiled. The king founded a city in that spot and called it Tbilisi, from the Georgian word tbili, which means warm.

Mskheta, aside from having the draw of a few fabulous old churches and monasteries, is also where our Georgian teacher from training and her husband (also a PC training staff member) and their two daughters (made famous previously in this blog) have been relaxing since the end of training.

Gizo, Ana, Elene, Tea, me and Sam at Jvari

Us with the view from the Jvari Monastery

Jvari was built in the 6th century

Again from the English books our students used, we learned that from Jvari you can see the two rivers converging and see their two distinct colors mixing. We thought this was a silly topic for an English textbook, but it is in fact very true and very cool to see (even if it's a little tough to see in this picture)

Sam, surveying this land. And he shall call it this land.

More Jvari

From Jvari, we headed down into Mskheta proper to see the Svetitskhoveli Cathedral, where the Georgian kings had their coronations and were buried.

The view from Svetitskhoveli back up towards Jvari

The cathedral up close

Ana and Elene being adorable, as always

After a very full morning of site-seeing, we went and got some fresh baked bread and headed back to the house for some delicious kabobs (and got to watch Elene consume a vast number of chocolates as Ana exclaimed over and over how many she ate). Then, as the heat of the day started to die down some, Gizo, Sam and I headed in to Tbilisi to check out a cultural festival. It was being held on the grounds of the open-air ethnographic museum and celebrated traditional arts, crafts, song and dance of the various regions of Georgia. It was spectacular and despite the crowds and the heat, I can think of no better way to spend an evening.

This young man was the most incredible drummer I've ever seen

I'm sure the man in the middle is a hobbit

His abandoning his singing in order to dance confirmed my suspicions

One of many fantastic singing groups

This time in red!

And because the awesome day just kept getting awesomer, before being dropped off at our guesthouse in Tbilisi for the night, Gizo drove us up to the Tbilisi castle to get a midnight look at the town, all lit up (unfortunately we didn't bring our mini-tripod to get a better shot, but it was an incredible site). Also incredible was that we saw a real live wild hedgehog, being poked and prodded by some tourists before scampering off to safety (it extracted its revenge on one of the prodders, though, by stinging or biting or needling or something).

Tbilisi at night

After this very full weekend, we only had the monotonous duties of making it out to the American embassy to submit a passport application (me) and attempting half-heartedly to look for a winter coat (Sam) since we must surely be approaching the start of the "8 months of winter" we have been warned of here in Akhalkalaki. It seemed like it would be a simple enough set of tasks, but you should always expect the unexpected here. Sam was foiled in his attempts at getting everything to work out by a power failure in downtown Tbilisi which shut down one of the metro lines, causing some trouble in getting back and forth (Sam got to ride the metro, several marshrutkas and a cab in order to make it through the day!). I hopped on a random bus back from the embassy (to which I had to take a cab; it's pretty far out in the boondocks) and luckily made it back to the main bus/marshrutka station (I rode the metro, a bus, a cab and several marshrutkas in Tbilisi!) where I was able to finally locate the marshrutka heading back to Akhalkalaki. That is, I found it after asking 6 different drivers of some sort where it was. Since I had an hour to kill between finding the marshrutka and buying our tickets and actually needing to board, I wandered around the market, where I proceeded to bump into one after another of the various drivers who had (mis)directed me. Each was interested in who I was and why I was in Georgia. One made me take his cell phone number and promise to call him if Sam and I head to Kazbegi (his home town. He promises to give us a private drive there and a tour and a place to stay, as long as we give him at least 2 hours notice.)

Sam finally navigated his way through shut-down metro, wrong-way marshrutkas and taxi rides to get to the station and we packed up and headed off. We got to take that nice, long 5-hour ride back home, this time with only one car-sick passenger. We made it home by about 10pm, giving us just enough time to get our full 8-hours' sleep before summer camp started up the next morning.

And now, if you feel tired after reading all this (for those of you brave souls who made it all the way through), you'll know how we were feeling when we got home!

Monday, July 19, 2010

A little excursion

We’ve been in Akhalkalaki for 10 days now; it’s been a real adjustment from the familiarity of Kortaneti and the strict schedule we had during training, but we’re getting to know the city a little bit, and have spent some good time with our host family here (yesterday our host father was reminiscing about the games kids played when he was young). A few days ago we walked out to the ruined fortress right outside of town; the cows have claimed one of the last two standing buildings, and the swallows the other.

But over the weekend we came down the mountain; our neighbor Larry from Kortaneti called to say he was with his in-laws in a village called Sakhudabeli, outside of Aspindza, a town about 45 minutes from us toward Borjomi. He invited us down along with Christopher from Ninotsminda; we checked the marshrutka schedules and headed on down for a day in the village.

Larry and his brother-in-law met us in Aspindza; we piled into an old Soviet-era junker and started up toward the village. This was an isolated place, 20 minutes drive up a dubious road into the mountains; wolves had eaten a colt in the village a couple days before. We got there to a warm welcome from a warm family. Then Larry announced that he was off to make hay with his three brothers-in-law, and we decided to tag along.

Larry had said that the field was far away; from our walks around Kortaneti, I had assumed that “far away” meant maybe half a mile. But we weren’t walking, and this wasn’t Kortaneti. So for almost half an hour, we rode that old car along cliff faces, through two-foot deep puddles and two-foot high grass. There were some uncomfortable moments when we felt like we were on our way off the mountain, but somehow that old car made it (with a few groans of protest), and we found ourselves in a field below a ruined fortress, looking out across the valley at the mountains beyond.

Making hay by hand is hard work; Larry was nice (or tired) enough to let me try, and whatever else it might be, mowing with a scythe looks cool. I started to get the hang of it eventually, but the other guys were making like John Deere, so I got out of the way and went to sit in the shade to watch them mow.

Then we saw the rain coming across the mountains, a lot of rain, and we made our scrambling ascent back up to the car; they were anxious to get the field done, so it was just before the thunderheads rolled in that we all got up to the car.

And by all, I mean seven of us, plus the four scythes. The car could barely fit five. So Melissa and I squeezed into the front seat and one of the brothers took his seat in the little trunk, next to the scythes. And, with a push from the guy in the back to get us started we rolled up onto that mountain track. If it had been a little nervewracking before, it was terrifying this time, in the overloaded car with the rain starting to come down and turn what road there was into thick mud. Luckily we had cleared most of the cliff faces before the sky really opened up, but then it started to pour (which was an endless source of amusement to the brothers sitting in the back seat shouting encouragement to the poor guy sitting in the trunk, in the rain, next to the scythes).

There was about half a windshield wiper on the car, and it didn’t work. So it was through a sort of Impressionist lens that we saw our lives flashing before our eyes. We were sliding through the mud like it was a foot of ice and snow, and three times we got stuck and everyone got out and pushed. I don’t know how old that car is, or what kind of magic they put into it, but I want one. We made it back to the village, somehow, and just as we did, the windshield wiper started working.

It was about two when we got there and our marshrutka was supposed to leave at 3:30. We told Larry, and he, preferring us to stay longer, assured us that there were later transportation options, and if somehow we missed everything, he would have his brother-in-law take us back that night. He told us that the other brother-in-law who had gone to town was going to call him with the full schedule, but that didn’t seem to be happening, so we kept bothering him about it as the food started rolling in.

And it was good food. Mountain people, Larry told us, love their dumplings, and so did I (Melissa got major points for helping to make some). The wine came out soon after, and there was toast after toast. Larry got drunk pretty quickly, and then disappeared. The hours ticked by and by around 5:30, with no sign of Larry reappearing, we thanked our hosts and said that we probably should be going soon, since the marshrutkas probably wouldn’t run much later.

“What?” was the universal response. “Larry told us you were staying the night!”

Larry, it turned out, had gone to sleep, informing absolutely no one about our repeated requests for information about when we could go home (he was to sleep straight through until morning). The brother-in-law who he had promised would drive us had known nothing about it, and had gotten good and drunk himself. And so it was that we spent the night in the little village of Sakhudabeli.

After dinner, we went out to walk around, and, despite the mud sucking up to our ankles, it really was beautiful. We saw the sheep coming home, the sun setting over the mountains with the rain rolling away, the old Turkish cemetery, and the river running down the valley between us and the next village. A neighbor called out to us and sent out something that was half crescent roll, half nut roll, and all delicious, and we grabbed some sour cherries from the trees. We had to give a wide berth to the wolf-fighting sheepdogs, which would lunge against their fences when we came near. It was a really pleasant evening stroll, and the family was so friendly and open-hearted you couldn’t help but feel good.

We woke up the next (rainy) morning to find Larry pouring some homemade vodka to cure his hangover, and as we got ready to head back into Aspindza to catch the morning marshrutka home, he asked, “You’re leaving already?”

We flagged down the marshrutka to find it overfull; Melissa and I got to sit on little wooden stools between the seats; the trip up the mountain was mostly uneventful (only one person had to stop to be sick!), and I can tell you the hot showers here never felt so good.

The car that made it all possible.

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

Swearing in

We had our swearing-in ceremony on Friday, July 9 in Borjomi, the small city closest to the villages where all the PC trainees lived during training. It was a very nice ceremony, covered by some of the local press. We were each able to invite one host family member from both our training families and our permanent site families, and all of the teachers and organization representatives with whom we worked during training and will work during our two years of service were invited as well. A representative from the Georgian Ministry of Education came and spoke, as did the U.S. Ambassador to Georgia, John Bass.

We had some nice speeches by the Ambassador and the PC Georgia Country Director, Richard Record, which were translated into Georgian. Two brave trainees also delivered speeches, but did not have the luxury of a translator--they each had to give their speeches in both English and Georgian, and did fantastic jobs. A group of volunteers also faced off with the difficulties of the multiple "k" and throat scraping sounds so integral to the Georgian language in order to sing the Georgian national anthem (we sang the American anthem, too).

As the speeches ended, we got down to the serious business of saying the oath of office to become Peace Corps Volunteers (or PCVs, as it has become much easier to say and type). The oath we took was the same as that taken by government officials on taking office:

"I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter. So help me God."

After the formalities were all taken care of, we had a chance to watch a little bit of a cultural program, with some singing and dancing. (This isn't the ensemble we watched, but you'll get the idea from these videos.)

Once the ceremony and cultural performance were done, it was time for a final round of receiving papers (and our test scores-- everyone from our cluster in Kortaneti passed their language exam with flying colors!), then we all had to say goodbye and head off to our permanent sites. Now, thankfully, we shouldn't have to move our loads of luggage and PC materials again for another 2 years.

The new group of PCVs (they call us G10s, since we're the 10th group of volunteers in Georgia), with Ambassador Bass

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Cool video from the BBC

There's a great video on the BBC website that's all about the Georgian supra. Thought you might all it!

Last days in Kortaneti

We spent our last few days in Kortaneti in a whirlwind of taking tests for Peace Corps, finishing up our classes, packing, saying goodbyes, eating, toasting, eating and eating. PC requires us to fulfill a number of requirements by the end of our training before we can be officially sworn in as volunteers. We have to fill out a book, detailing our progress in integrating into the community, putting our technical training to use and so forth. We have tests on our technical training materials, health and well-being sessions, safety and security training and to test our language acquisition. On the technical side, we had to score at least 90% in order to pass. For the language, we were required to attain at least an intermediate low level of proficiency in Georgian. At this level, according to one PC manual we should be able to deal with a number of simple tasks and be able to discuss "topics related to basic personal information (such as) self and family, daily activities and personal preferences... ordering food and making simple purchases. Intermediate-Low speakers can generally be understood by sympathetic interlocutors, particularly by those accustomed to dealing with non-natives."

In our cluster of trainees, headed off to minority communities and thus struggling to learn not only Georgian, but also Russian and either Armenian or Azeri, we were only required to reach a novice high level of Georgian proficiency, and we were not required to be tested in our other languages, which was nice and took a little of the pressure off. All the same, though, we spent a lot of time studying, going through our copious notes and stacks of handouts, books and other materials.

The Kortaneti cluster, with our teacher, Tea, on our last day of class

We didn't spend all our time just working, though. We also found time to hang out with our host families and the other volunteers, enjoying some last-days-of-training supras. Our very last night in Kortaneti, we stayed up to the wee hours with our host family, some neighbors, our teacher and her husband (another PC staff member), talking back and forth in Georgian, Russian and English, toasting each other and trying not to get too upset about the leave taking that would happen the next morning.

The supra table is set...

Enjoying the feast

Raising a toast

Our Kortaneti host family

As if our last night in Kortaneti weren't already exciting enough and full of enough activity, we got a call at about 6pm that a television crew wanted to come interview some of us for the next morning's news, to talk about Peace Corps and what were were going to be doing. We were told that the reporter and camera man would show up within the next half hour or so, but several delays meant that they didn't show up until about 11:30pm. They interviewed me and Sam and another guy from our training cluster while about half the village gathered to watch. After they had gotten all the footage they needed, the journalists joined us at the supra table for a few toasts and some cake and khatchapuri before heading off to edit their tapes for the next day's news broadcast. The next morning (Friday), our host family's phone started ringing off the hook after the segment aired on the 9am news. If I can find a link to the clip, I'll post it, but otherwise you'll just have to take my word that I got at least my 15 seconds of fame here in Georgia!

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Hillary comes to Tbilisi

As mentioned, our July 4th party was originally scheduled for July 5th, but then moved back to July 4th. The reason for this? Hillary Clinton's visit to Tbilisi on July 5th and an invitation from the U.S. Embassy in Georgia to PCVs to do a meet and greet with Secretary Clinton.

We all loaded into our marshutkas (mini-vans that serve as the primary means of transportation for most volunteers) and headed off to Tbilisi on Monday morning. We killed a little time at the PC office (Sam found the office copy of Trivial Pursuit and read off questions for the crowd), then headed to the Marriott for the reception. We were pretty hungry, hot, thirsty and tired by the time we got there, so the air conditioning was spectacular. It has been very hot in Tbilisi and eastern Georgia lately, and the 2.5 hour marshutka ride in was blistering. After gawking around the hotel's lobby for a bit, we were taken down to the conference room, where most of the Embassy staff were already gathered.

Then, we waited.

Secretary Clinton was supposed to be there in 40 minutes, we were told. Then it was an hour and a half. Then, any minute. All told, we waited over 4 hours in the Marriott in a room that was increasingly warm and uncomfortable, that had no chairs and which had seen its meager cookie platter and bottled water supply demolished within seconds of the room being occupied. The PCVs, being not professionals and used (by now) to fairly less-than-clean situations, camped out on the floor, taking off ties and dress shoes.

Secretary Clinton did finally show up and gave a nice, if short, speech, thanking the Embassy staff for their work and dedication to diplomacy. She went around the room and shook a few hands and pinched the cheeks of a few babies. I got to shake her hand, and we got a few fairly spectacular pictures, I think.

Secretary Clinton and US Ambassador to Georgia, Ambassador Bass

Ambassador Bass and Secretary Clinton

My favorite picture of the day

Just to prove that she didn't eat the baby

All in all, though, and as sad as it may sound, the trip to McDonalds after seeing Secretary Clinton was the highlight of the day. I got two different kinds of ice cream treat, I was so hungry (our wait at the hotel had put us on a weird schedule wherein we hadn't eaten for 9 hours; sadly our PC allowances wouldn't really allow us to purchase the $20 "Marriott Burger" at the hotel). Still, an experience!

4th of July-A taste of (almost) home

We've been pretty busy over the last few days so I'm going to try to go back and get caught up here with all the festivities and activities we've had. First, the 4th of July party, which was originally scheduled to be held on July 5th, but was changed to July 4th.

Each trainee was allowed to invite 2 host family members to the party. The PC staff told us it was a day to try to fulfill the second mission of Peace Corps: "Helping promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of the peoples served." We went to Borjomi Park, a popular tourist destination for Georgians and international travelers. It was a beautiful day (as you'll see in some of the pictures).

We had a spread for the party that was like what you'd find at home--almost. We had hot dogs and ham and cheese sandwiches (although the ham and cheese weren't quite what you'd find at home). Our host mom thought it was strange to put meat and cheese together in a sandwich. There were chips, including tortilla chips, which, aside from various flavors of Doritos (Hot Corn or Taco, take your pick!) are not easy to find here. And there were desserts--individual apple and cherry pies (an interesting take on the American version of said pies) and "chocolate chip cookies" that were tasty, but somewhere between and muffin and a cookie. Our host families got a kick out of seeing us play games (we had a water balloon toss and a three-legged race). At first they were pretty confused as to what to do. Their version of a big party like this would be more structured, with everyone seated around a table with food in the middle and someone (the hostess) constantly urging them to eat. Our 4th of July party was picnic style. We had tables set up all around and food out in a buffet style, where you could just help yourself to whatever you wanted and go sit where ever you wanted. Some of the host families just stood around until we all assured them that they could indeed just go get the food they wanted and take a seat anywhere. When we got home later, my host mom couldn't stop talking about how odd it was, but how nice as well, that she could just take what she wanted, no more, no less.

It was nice for all of us, too, to have a meal where we were in charge of the intake of food and not consistently pressured to eat this or that or finish this or take more of that. The hospitality is fantastic here, but sometimes a little smothering!

The water balloon toss was a big hit

Happy Birthday, America!

Self-portrait (of course)

The three-legged race was also a hit and luckily did not end in any injuries

The view from the plateau in Borjomi Park (where we held our picnic)

The crew from Kortaneti

The cable car up to the plateau, where we had our picnic

A table full of mini-pies

Borjomi Park's Ferris wheel (stopping the wheel when loading or unloading is for wimps)

Friday, July 2, 2010

Summer Camps Photos

The group that arrived for camp on the first day, outside the village school

Musical chairs

Art day project

Showing off the goods collected on the scavenger hunt

Trying to untangle the human knot

Video of the extremely popular "Animal Sounds" game

And the art project presented to me on the last day (I'm not quite sure what she was trying to say with this piece)