Khertvisi Castle, Khertvisi, Georgia

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Georgia in 8 Days

We've had a busy, eventful few weeks since our last post. Just after the end of GLOW camp, my parents and Sam's mom came to Georgia to visit us. We tried to pull together a travel plan that took them to a lot of different, cool places while they were here without completely killing them with too much walking, riding and moving from place to place. (You can talk with them to see if we succeeded or not.)

Sam and I trekked out to the Tbilisi airport to meet our folks from the plane at 2:45am on Monday, July 4. Another volunteer, Alissa, was there too, awaiting her mom and sister, who happened to be on the same plane as our parents. Everyone got in safely, there were lots of hugs all around and all of the suitcases made it with the passengers (at least in our group--Alissa's family wasn't so lucky and had a day delay in claiming their bags). Our first experience in Georgia was getting a cab from the airport, which normally isn't any kind of problem or hassle at all. On this night, it wasn't too much trouble, but our cab driver was in a big hurry to go, so he packed up the trunk and shuffled us into the cab more quickly than things usually go here, all the while shouting at everyone to hurry up in at least 2 different languages that the majority of the people being rushed along didn't understand.

While the travelers were still fairly wired from jet lag and travel buzz, Sam and I immediately crashed back into sleep when we got to the hotel--we got to stay in the Courtyard Marriott in Tbilisi, which is super posh and felt like the finest quality hotel I've ever stayed in (such comfortable beds! An exercise room and pool! Fantastic shower with super great water pressure! Heaven!). A big thanks to my parents for using up their Marriott rewards points and pitching in the moolah to make that happen!

We spent the first three days of our trip in Tbilisi, wandering through the Old Town, going to some of the newly reopened museums, and eating delicious Georgian food at every opportunity. We rented out a private room in one of the sulphur baths to help ease out the kinks from longs hours of airplane travel and we took a day trip into the old capital of Georgia, Mtskheta.

On Wednesday night, we took a midnight train across Georgia to the Black Sea coast town of Batumi. We spent most of Thursday relaxing on the rocky beach, then went to the Botanical Gardens at the perfect time to watch the sun sink slowly over the sea. It was gorgeous, and I really think some of the views there are up there on my list of prettiest vistas.

About midday on Friday, we packed up again to head back to the middle of the country, to the Borjomi region to visit with our very first host family in Kortaneti. It was in Kortaneti that our parents got their first real taste of Georgia; Maia and Zurab (and all the neighbors) had the table all set for a supra. There was a lot of eating, toasting, drinking, laughing, talking, translating, and pushing to eat more and more throughout the night. It was really something that, although we've explained the supra to people and talked about it here in our blog, you really have to experience getting supra-ed to understand it. The hospitality and the genuine joy at having guests and the effort that goes into preparing the spread... it's hard to do justice to it all in words.

On Saturday, we spent some time wandering around Borjomi park, riding the cable-car gondola up to the top of the hill for some better views, riding the ferris wheel for an even higher-up vantage point, and hiking back down. We then set off to the south, in the direction of our permanent site, nestled between the borders of Turkey and Armenia. Since we were passing, and since any traveler to Georgia with the time should see it, we stopped at Vardzia, the 12th century cave city in our backyard. It was hot as we hiked up the hill to get to the caves, but the general consensus was that it was worth the toil. We came back down the hill through the tunnels and winding "stairways," which brought us ever so close to being disowned by our parents. Although we had assured them that the way down wasn't too difficult, they begged to differ. All survived in one piece, though, and at the end everyone was glad to look back up at what we had just done and exclaim at how "we were up there! And we made it back down alive!" So I'll just paraphrase everything else and say a good time was had by all.

After a long day of lots of hiking and climbing and driving (including a climb in the car up to the top of the plateau, to an elevation of about 1600 meters), we arrived at site, to our host family's house in Akhalkalaki. Although there are hotels in town, our host family insisted that it would be fine and more comfortable and easier and nicer for all if we all just stayed with them at their house. You really could say that for their last two days in Georgia, our folks got a chance to really see what our experience here has been like. We were again treated to lots of amazing food and drink (this time with more of an Armenian twist--no khachapuri, but lots and lots of dolma). During our time in Akhalkalaki, it was more about visiting (and being treated to an ever increasing amount of various foods and sweets and drinks) than site-seeing, which took its toll and tired us all out in a very different kind of way.

On Monday the 11th, we took our last long journey across Georgia all together, this time in the form of a marshrutka (mini-bus) ride to Tbilisi. We ate some last Georgian foods, bought some souvenir wine and then packed our parents into a taxi back to the airport. Then we headed back to site to unwind and settle back into our summer routine, grateful to our parents for making the trip, for putting up with our long and winding itinerary, for their patience in trying different foods and dealing with different languages and translations, for their generosity in taking us out to some nicer meals and hotels and sites than we usually manage and for all of their love and support that makes it possible for us to go off on such wild adventures. Thank you!

(And for those of you wanting pictures from this trip, you'll have to put pressure on the parentals... Sam and I gave our shutters a rest, since the three of them were snapping away. Or, do Moms or Dad want to do a guest post about your reactions to the trip and to show off some of your pictures?)

Sunday, July 3, 2011


I spent last week in the Kakheti village of Apeni working as a counselor with four other PCVs and 4 Georgian college students to oversee 28 Georgian girls, aged 13-16, for a 4-day camp called Girls Leading Our World (GLOW). GLOW is an international Peace Corps initiative that had been active in Georgia prior to the 2008 August war. My fellow PCVs were really motivated to get it restarted and have been extremely successful in their efforts. I am extremely proud to have been able to work with such talented volunteers on such a great project.

In the village of Apeni

The idea of GLOW camp is to give girls opportunities to learn leadership and teamwork skills, talk about gender roles and gender issues in their lives, study some basic health topics, and exercise. In the mix is a lot of fun and a whole lot of silliness. Everyone learned a lot and the girls made a lot of new friends.

Girls working on a "Team Flag" for my small group

Playing "Human Knot" as an ice breaker for the teamwork session

Listening attentively to one of the opening presentations

We started each day off with an hour of exercise, with each counselor leading a different "class." Heather taught yoga, Lauren took the girls running and played some running games with them, Samantha also led some games and walked with the girls and I led a class we called circuit training, which was fairly similar to what I do with my women's fitness club. After exercising, we met as a large group for an opening, where our Georgian counselor-counterparts gave short presentations on famous and successful Georgian women. Then we broke into small groups to discuss topics like peer education, hygiene, gender roles, leadership, etc. On Thursday morning we had a guest lecturer from a women's health NGO in Tbilisi, HERA XXI, come to talk with the girls about women's health, puberty and reproductive health and HIV/AIDS. Georgian schools don't include health education in the curriculum, so it's very hard to get reliable information on these types of topics, especially in villages. At lunch time, a local woman made tons of khatchapuri and lobiani and we ate cucumber and tomato salad before heading back for more sessions. In the evenings, we met back up for fun activities, like a scavenger hunt, talent show and dance party.

The talent show was a big hit!

I wasn't involved in any of the planning for GLOW, but just came in for the actual event to help lead one of the small groups (we broke the girls into 4 small groups to facilitate discussions when we weren't in the large group). The PCVs who did the planning (Kelsey, Heather, Samantha and Lauren) had been working on setting things in motion for the better part of a year. EVERYTHING was so well planned that I had no trouble stepping immediately into the role of counselor with no planning on my part. Each counselor was paired with a Georgian counselor counterpart (4 terrific girls who are all studying at Tbilisi State University). We worked as a team to lead conversations and discussions in our small groups, and our Georgian counterparts were hugely important to getting everything translated, clearing up questions and making discussion possible. Also, they were just really cool girls.

Writing compliments to one another during the self-esteem session

By the end of the week, when it was time to head home, our campers were begging us to stay longer, to add extra days to camp, exchanging phone numbers and email addresses and promising to friend one another on Facebook. We took that as a good sign that camp was a success. But even though GLOW was wonderful and went very smoothly, it wasn't nearly the kind of camp initially envisioned by the PCVs planning it.

Prior to the war, GLOW Georgia had been a big affair--more than a week long with 80 campers staying at an all-inclusive campground/conference facility of sorts, drawing in guest speakers like the First Lady of Georgia. GLOW in Armenia is similarly large scale and big budget. Our four PCVs shot for the moon in their restart attempt and were ready on the organizational end for such a big endeavor. Unfortunately, though, the funding just didn't come through. GLOW had previously been funded through U.S. Embassy grant money in Georgia (and continues to be thus funded in other countries frequently), so our PCVs were advised that they shouldn't have any problem also receiving funding. But cuts in U.S. foreign aid and changes in priorities for channeling aid money meant that GLOW's hopes were almost extinguished.

Thank goodness for the persistence and creativity of Peace Corps Volunteers.

Samantha, Heather, Kelsey and Lauren were not about to give up when their funding attempts fell through. They kept at it, writing different grant proposals, tweaking the schedule, cutting the size and length of the camp until it was finally possible to pull it all together.

Heather and Maka getting one of the large sessions started
We had 28 campers who came to the village of Apeni. 9 of the girls were from Apeni itself and hosted other girls from other parts of Kakheti in a homestay-sleepover type of setting. Their homestays were each paid a small stipend per girl and were expected to feed the girls breakfast and dinner each day. The camp itself was held from 9:00am--10:00pm at the school in Apeni. We bought lunch and had it at the school each day. The initial grant would have covered housing the campers and counselors in a campground facility that would have taken care of food and everything else needed. It would have also allowed us to include girls from a wider portion of the country. As it stood though, the grant the they finally received was about a tenth of that originally requested, so homestays were necessary. In order to keep the camp completely free for the campers, we could only accept girls from Kakheti region (otherwise, transportation costs for bringing the girls would have spiraled out of control and above budget). The grant that ended up funding GLOW was a real life saver and allowed the camp to happen, but was more limited than the ones originally hoped for.

Lots of talented girls performed during the talent show

The PCVs working at the camp stayed with Kelsey at her host family's house, a half mile walk from the school. That doesn't seem too far away until you deal with walking back and forth several times over the course of the day in 90-degree+ heat carrying odds and ends of camp equipment. We weren't allowed to use any of the grant money we received to pay for anything for ourselves, so our transportation to Apeni, our food, and anything we needed for the week we funded ourselves. We were also sad that we couldn't use funds from this particular grant to get the girls t-shirts or some other giveaways (and really we wouldn't have had enough money for it anyway). But even though we had to pay to work at the camp, the girls (and our fantastic Georgian counterparts) all got to attend for free. Also, the main goal to restart this excellent girls' leadership camp in Georgia after a 3-year hiatus has been achieved, which is the most important thing for now.

GLOW was a huge success, even with its budget constraints, slashed numbers and shortened program. Right now we all are taking a big deep breath and sigh of relief that it's all wrapped up and finished for this year, but soon we'll start planning again for next year's event. Hopefully the base we've built this year will make it possible to go bigger and grander next year!