Khertvisi Castle, Khertvisi, Georgia

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Signs of spring

Sam and I bought ice cream today in Akhalkalaki! If there's a surer sign of spring, I don't want to know what it is. More than robins, ice cream is a marker here of the approach of warmer weather, since most folks swear that eating ice cream when it's cold will bring certain death by cold, flu or other ailments. It was heartbreaking when, in late fall, all the ice cream freezers in town started to disappear from sidewalks, and stores cleared out their ice cream stocks to make way for frozen chickens.

I noticed the appearance of the first street-side ice cream freezer yesterday and sent Sam the following text: "Ice cream! :) It's spring!!!" Five minutes later, though, I had to send this follow-up text: "Well, strike the spring part. Now it's snowing. At least there's still ice cream!"

But the snow and ice are melting and the ice cream vendors can't be wrong. Before long, we'll be out of our sweaters and long underwear and on to less bulky clothing choices!

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

A lot of happenings, travelings and celebratings

(Looks sheepishly at the date of the last blog update.) I guess I’ll make this a long post, because 1) we’ve had a lot go on and done a lot since last post and 2) if it’s a long post, maybe you won’t see the date of our last post and be reminded of our slacking.

It has even been a long time since I’d uploaded my pictures from my camera to computer. Good thing I had photographic evidence, though, to remind me of all the things we’ve been up to.

First, on March 8, we celebrated International Women’s Day. We had the day off from school (my school was rounding out the end of its long holiday, combining this day with the March 3 Mother’s Day celebrations) and were able to relax and spend time with our host family. All of the females of the house got presents, including an adorable new outfit for Lilit. At one point during the evening, our host family decided that it would be best to dress our host father’s nephew, Narek, in Lilit’s dress. He’s only about a year older than Lilit and so was easily convinced that this was a great idea, totally unsuspecting our host family’s sinister plan to hold on to the subsequent photos of him decked out in his cousin’s dress and accessories until he starts to date, then springing the pictures on his girlfriend. All Narek had to say about the ordeal was “What a pretty girl!” when he saw himself in the mirror. Ah, the things we can dupe children into doing!

Narek strikes a pose

He does look quite dashing in Lilit's togs!

After finishing up a grueling 3-day week at school, we headed off to Kortaneti to see our host family from training. Last time we visited, Maia and Zurab made us swear to come back so they could celebrate my birthday with us. We got to the village at about 11:30am, expecting to sit around the pechi (the wood-burning stove that serves both to heat the house and as an oven to bake bread and khachapuri) and talk for a while. As we approached the house, though, we could smell the overwhelmingly delicious aromas of Maia’s cooking. She had been baking all day, producing several stacks of khachapuri, lobiani (same idea as khachapuri, only with beans and spices inside), fresh bread, soup, pigs in a blanket and a super fancy chocolate mousse cake. (A side note on pigs in a blanket; one time during training, Maia made these—hotdogs, wrapped in dough, then fried—for lunch for us and we told her that in English, we often call similar things pigs in a blanket. She loved this name and now tells everyone in the village that this is the name for this very tasty, very un-dietetic dish.)

The table was all set...

This was the leftover khachapuri and lobiani

We were immediately ushered to the table, where we began slowly to consume large quantities of all these delicious foods. And wine. Oh, the homemade wine of Kortaneti. Zurab and Maia grow the grapes, harvest the grapes, smash the grapes, make the wine, store the wine and then, boy, do they drink the wine. Wine culture in Georgia is fascinating, and something we don’t think too much about in Akhalkalaki, because the high elevation and harsh climate aren’t kind to grapes. Very few people here make their own wine, and so very few people drink wine like they do in other parts of Georgia. We went through the traditional series of toasts (to God, to friendship, to children, to parents, etc.), then we had a series of toasts for me, celebrating my birthday, special toasts to my parents in honor of my birthday, special toasts for all birthdays… Other folks from Kortaneti floated in and out to drink a few toasts, sample some of Maia’s lobiani, and give kisses all around. When we finally got up from the table, some 6-and-a-half hours later, we were all so full of food and wine and good cheer that there was a general consensus that the sensible thing to do was to pull up chairs and fold out the couches near the pechi and sleep for two hours. What a happy birthday!

A toast!

The cake, with me and Sam

Priorities: Zura pours wine, I cut the cake

On Sunday, we spent some more time in Kortaneti, watching the snow start up again and remarking at how many trees there are.

Snow in Kortaneti... just for me!

Then we headed off to Tbilisi to meet up with a few other volunteers to continue the birthday celebrations and in order for me to go to a meeting for a PC committee that I’m part of on the next day. The weather in Tbilisi was the first spring-like weather we’d seen, so I rung in 29 by making Sam go for a run with me in the warm sunshine (we didn’t have to wear hats! or gloves! or 13 layers of clothes!). After a refreshing run in the sun, we went with the other volunteers to get cake and coffee at a place called “Chocolate” (can’t go wrong with a name like that!) and then went to dinner at a Georgian/Ossetian restaurant in the old town that’s quickly becoming my favorite place to eat in Tbilisi. They make delicious Georgian food, but it’s spicier than normal (that’s the Ossetian touch, apparently), and to top it all off, the restaurant is also a brewery and makes a pretty good beer. So we ate some khinkali (meat dumplings) and more khachapuri (the Ossetian kind also has mashed potatoes mixed in with the cheese) and then waddled back up the road in the warm evening air.

On Monday, after my meeting at the PC office, we piled into a marshrutka (minibus) with the other Education volunteers and headed to the west coast of Georgia, to the Black Sea resort town of Kobuleti. We had a training all last week with our counterparts to talk about designing projects. Our usual training site is in Bazaleti, about an hour north of Tbilisi. By some stroke of unbelievable luck, it ended up being cheaper to hold this training, however, at a 5-star resort hotel on the seashore instead of in the conference facility we’ve become accustomed to. This is Peace Corps?! I can deal with this. The weather in Kobuleti was incredible, and even though we were inside all day for our training, the leftover minutes around lunchtime and the few remaining hours of sunshine at the end of the day were enough for us to really enjoy it.

Our super swanky hotel

The view from our hotel room balcony--do you see the sea?

The Black Sea at sunset

Me and my counterpart, Marina

Fishermen on the Black Sea

Once the training was over, Sam and I decided to take advantage of our position in the west of the country to do some exploring and site seeing. We traveled to Kutaisi, Georgia’s second city, about an hour away from Kobuleti. The big draw for us (read: Sam) was the chance to go to Sataplia park just outside of the city; it’s a big natural reserve with cool caves oozing stalactites and stalagmites, and also happens to have some fossilized dinosaur footprints. We went out to the park to see all these wonders, but unfortunately the park was still closed for winter (it opens April 1! We were so close!). We still had a great time, however, wandering around the city, heading out to a cool old monastery clinging to a cliffside and hiking through some very green (already!) forests (with dog companions picked up along the trail) on the outskirts of town. We checked out the Kutaisi museum, which was fantastic, even if it did make Sam start up again with his “awww, I should become a bronze age archeologist!” We stayed in a homestay recommended by our Lonely Planet guidebook. The owner of the house, a lovely older woman named Mariko, was so tickled that we knew some Georgian that she rattled on at us for hours, plying us with her homemade pickles, cheese and wine and then sadly sending us off with bottles of tkemali sauce (a sauce used all the time by Georgians on meat or potatoes, made from sour plums). We will definitely go back again sometime soon!

There were FLOWERS! GROWING! In Kutaisi!

One of our hiking dogs, near my new favorite graffiti: Magda, you are my lafe!

Sam and our hiking dog companion, overlooking someplace outside of Kutaisi

Me and Sam, with Gelati monastery in the background

Inside Gelati monastery church

More from Gelati

Sam, looking suspiciously at a Kutaisi statue

A park in Kutaisi

Another church/monastery in Kutaisi

On Sunday, we returned to Akhalkalki, tired but happy after a long time away and a lot of marshrutka travel. Our luck with the weather held out and we came back to find almost all of the snow melted away, lots of sunshine and warmer temps than we’ve had in a long time. All good things must come to an end, though, I suppose. Here’s a shot of the street outside our house this morning. Sigh.

Good while it lasted...