Khertvisi Castle, Khertvisi, Georgia

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Kakheti Adventure

Last weekend, Sam and I traveled to the east of Georgia, to the region of Kakheti, to visit some other volunteers and see a part of the country we hadn't yet made it to. There's a pretty strong concentration of G9 PCVs in Kakheti, since it is one of two regions in close proximity to Tbilisi that was opened for hosting volunteers when the PC Georgia program reopened almost a year after the August 2008 war. (Most of the regions in Georgia are now reopened to host volunteers, excepting, of course, the conflict areas of South Ossetia and Abkhazia and a few regions that directly border these conflict zones. PC Georgia is super cautious for PCV safety, so we still have certain travel restrictions in place that seem odd sometimes to Georgians because things are so calm now.)

We stayed with two great G9s, Heather and Jeff, in Kakheti's biggest town, Telavi. I was really excited to finally be going to Telavi, which all you fans of Soviet movies know from the hit movie Mimino. I especially like this scene. If you haven't seen Mimino, you should watch it. It's pretty good and available on YouTube with English subtitles here.

Me, Heather and Jeff in Telavi

We were lucky to pick this specific weekend to visit Kakheti. When we first got in to town, we learned that G9 Barbara had decided to celebrate her final birthday in Georgia in style. She and the other PCVs were in the middle of cooking a big, American dinner for all the volunteers to share. They made grilled, marinated chicken, salad with blue cheese dressing, biscuits, flourless chocolate torte with caramel sauce, sangria... it was overwhelmingly delicious. By scouring the western-style supermarkets in Tbilisi, they had even managed to find fixings for s'mores, which we somehow or other managed to consume, despite the feast we'd just enjoyed.

PCVs living the life

Sam, with his triumphant s'more

The next day, we got up and took a marshrutka to a nearby town, Kvareli, where another PCV, Johnny, has spent his two plus years of service working with a winery, to take a tour and do some tasting at said winery. You can watch a short Peace Corps video that highlights Johnny's work here or you can go and see him talk about his experiences live and in person at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival in Washington, DC, which will be featuring the Peace Corps this year. Seriously, if you're in DC, go to the Folklife Festival (June 30-July 4 then again from July 7-11)! It was always one of my favorite summer activities in DC. If you see Johnny, tell him Melissa sent you.

But, side notes and plugs for the Folklife Festival now done, let's get back to our trip!

We got into Kvareli a little early for the winery tour, so Sam and I had time to check out the Ilia Chavchavadze museum. The highlight, besides the swarms of school children on a tour, was the family's defense tower, where Ilia was actually born because the family had to take shelter there during a raid (by Dagestanis, possibly from Lezgin tribes).

Sam, outside the Chavchavadze Family's Defense Tower, watching out for raiders

Inside the family's wine cellar

The museum's grounds were beautiful

I'm going to go out on a limb and guess that this was not here in Ilia's day.

Later, we took our winery tour. Johnny likes to point out that his winery's namesake wine, the Kindzmarauli, was Stalin's favorite wine, which he ordered specifically from this winery. (Some of you lucky family members that got a bottle of wine from Georgia when we were home for Emily and John's wedding got just this wine!) We tasted a lot of wines and then had a short tour of the gift shop to allow the G9 PCVs to buy wine to take home when they finish service either later this month or next month. We topped the day off with loads of yummy Georgian food from the winery's restaurant before heading back to Telavi for a sleepy, hot, summer afternoon doze.

The Kindzmarauli Winery

Johnny, being a great tour guide

The Kindzmarauli winery is working on a project to start using ancient wine making techniques in kvevri, like those pictured below (currently they use only modern technologies for wine making)

Johnny, pouring out wine for the tastings

PCVs waiting patiently for their taste

One of the items for sale in the gift shop, chacha "for real men"

We capped the weekend off with a movie viewing session. We watched the movie Five Days of War (alternately called Five Days of August), which is all about the August 2008 war. It was really a pretty terrible movie (what the heck is wrong with Val Kilmer these days? I swear he just showed up drunk and ad-libbed his way through this one) but has some beautiful shots of Georgia and some really kitschy portrayals of Georgian culture. At any rate, this movie is supposedly being released in theaters in the U.S. in August, so watch for it (or just read the review that wrote about it)! It might not be worth the price of a movie ticket in America these days, but if you do go see it (if it is in fact released in America), maybe you can explain what the heck Val Kilmer is doing. Seriously.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Anticlimactic, but we aren't complaining... Bring on Summer!

We finished up our first school year in Peace Corps! We are quickly closing in on the one-year-of-service-left mark and it feels a little surprising and out of the blue to be already DONE with year one of school and to have been here now for way more than one year. Of course, these feelings of shock at how quickly it's all gone have been slightly influenced by the way in which our first Georgian school year all ended: three days earlier than we had planned.

School was supposed to let out on June 15, and teachers were supposed to continue going to school until the 17th or the 20th, depending on the school or who you asked. Everyone kept assuring us that we would indeed continue to hold classes and go, even if all we found there was the end-of-the-school-year party atmosphere that American schools also encounter as the weather warms. More seasoned PCVs, on the other hand, assured us that this wouldn't happen. That sooner or later the kids would mysteriously stop showing up for class and we would no longer have to plan lessons or teach classes.

We were skeptical of both sources, however. We doubted that we'd continue to have serious classes in school, since already through the end of May and beginning of June, certain classes would, as a group, somehow fail to show up for an English class held late in the day if the weather was nice. We also wondered about the PCV scoop, though, since our kids continued coming to school fairly consistently through the end of May and beginning of June (the occasional disappearing class excepted). So even though we'd had fair warning that maybe things would end abruptly, it still took us a little by surprise to in fact wrap up our final school days on June 10. I even missed the last day of school because I had to be in Tbilisi for meetings. Anticlimactic to the max (but, as I said, I'm not complaining).

So now we've been on summer vacation for the past week or so. No alarms, not too much set-in-stone on the schedule front, fruit reappearing at the bazaar, salads reappearing on the dinner table... it's the life.

But what will we be doing with ourselves during summer vacation, you might ask? Officially, as Peace Corps Volunteers, we are still expected to stay at site and continue to work on community integration and secondary projects. We're "on the clock" 24/7 and they want us to be working on summer camps or other groups, clubs or projects throughout the summer months as well, especially on those projects that eat up too much time during the school to implement. PCVs accumulate 2 vacation days per month, and Education Volunteers aren't allowed to take off too much time during the school year, so a lot of volunteers do end up traveling some during the summer. But for right now, Sam and I are keeping busy enough that we can't really focus too much on vacationing.

First up on my plate is some grant writing for a project I'd like to implement in conjunction with my women's fitness club. More details on that as things (fingers crossed!) come to fruition. I continue to meet three (or sometimes four) times a week with these great girls and women and continue to be impressed and amazed at how dedicated they have been to the club.

Later this week, on Thursday to be exact, Sam will travel to Tbilisi to take the GRE for (hopefully) the last time. Even though he previously took the GRE and got good enough scores to go to Georgetown for an MA, then acquired said MA, he still has to retake the stupid test in order to apply for PhD programs. If that testing process ain't a racket, I don't know what is. At any rate, he'll be taking the GRE at a testing center in the capital and then launch into the application process to start a PhD in Anthropology when we return stateside (or so is the plan as it stands right now).

Next week, I'll be helping out as a counselor for a girls' leadership camp that some other volunteers have organized called GLOW-- Girls Leading Our World. The camp will be held in Kakheti, a region of Georgia to the east, and will have about 30 girls ages 13-16. It's really exciting to be helping out with this camp; in 2007 the PCVs in Georgia had a pretty big deal with this camp, only to have their 2008 edition canceled due to the 2008 August war. I'm really glad that our fellow PCVs have been able to resurrect this great program, and proud to be helping out.

On July 2, Sam will take part in the Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure in Tbilisi (I'll still be tied up with GLOW camp, so can't participate). It will be the third year (I think) for the Race in Tbilisi and should be a great event. Maybe Sam will get to meet the First Lady of Georgia, who's rumored to be participating.

Following that, on July 4 my parents and Sam's mom will be coming to Georgia for a visit! We're putting together the schedule of things to see, things to do and things to eat. Hopefully we'll keep them entertained and not overwhelm them too much!

After that, we've got some other projects--summer camps, other possible grant proposals or projects to prep for and work on--that will keep us busy for a while. We're hoping to do some sightseeing around Georgia, do some more hikes and some camping and maybe after all that do an international trip to use up some more of our vacation days. In short, even though it's summer, we'll be trying our best not to be idle for too long. Of course, some idleness might not be too bad...

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Born to Run

The weather has been getting better and better in Akhalkalaki. The days have been mostly cooperative in terms of their rain schedules and it's been perfect for running lately. We don't get as warm here as in the rest of Georgia, so it's still sometimes cool in the morning, which makes for a nice run. The bulk of the spring rain we've been getting has come in the afternoon or evening, so Sam and I have been able to get our 3 miles in most days. And, based on our host sister's get-up yesterday, it looks like she might be just about ready to start pounding the pavement with us!

Lilit has started taking a bigger liking to Sam's running shoes than my slippers

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Sapara Monastery

I was in Borjomi a few days this week to help with training for the 2011 group of trainees. After Friday’s session, Melissa and I met up with fellow volunteer Lacey to fulfill a plan we’ve been working on for a while – a hike up to Sapara monastery, in the mountains near the regional center of Akhaltsikhe. We’d heard good things about it, enough to make us brave a 12-mile round trip walk into the mountains on a day with heavy rain predicted.

We set off in late morning with some lobiani, churchkhela, and fruit for a picnic, and after walking through a few villages, we came up to some beautiful views of the Akhaltsikhe valley.

It was sunny and hot, and, though the storm clouds were looming, we made good time and came around a bend to see Sapara:

It’s a place in which I think it would be easy to contemplate God and his works. The church of St. Saba was actually my favorite of those I’ve seen so far in Georgia. Maybe it was partly the walk up, maybe the quiet and the green all around, maybe the frescoes that seemed to me a little more alive than most I’ve seen, but it all added up to the perfect place of worship.

Hobbits like the place too, apparently.

After spending some time in the dim cool of the stone church, we scrambled up past the monks’ beehives to a ruined fortress on top of the hill before coming back down for lunch on the grass. We set off homework around 2:15, the clouds gathering ominously. About a mile down the road, a taxi bearing a single tourist rolled past us, and we didn’t have the presence of mind to flag it down. We joked that, 5 rainy miles later, we’d be sorry we missed it.

Good joke. It started pouring as we crested the ridge and headed back down into the valley where Akhaltsikhe huddled under a downpour. We tromped and slid through the rain and rocks and mud and made it back down to the first villages just about the time the sun came out. Even with the rain, we would have done it again.

Sunday was a good day to be at home, since it was the first khorovats – barbecue – of the season. Armenian-style summer barbecue is pork roasted on skewers, along with peppers, tomatoes, and eggplants which are blackened on the outside then peeled and served as something almost like a stew to go along with the meat, all to be picked up with and rolled inside the ubiquitous lavash. A great early-summer meal, especially finished off with ice cream.

And it really is starting to feel like summer – well, spring, at least – here in Akhalkalaki. The trees are blooming, the snow is almost gone off all but the highest mountains, and everything is greener than we’ve yet seen it. Not a bad time to be in the mountains.