Author Archives: Erin Berman

Barcelona

On Novemeber 21st I got to go to Barcelona. It was my first time visiting the EU and was an incredible trip. Wish that I could have stayed a lot longer!

First had to go down to Tbilisi where I caught one of the last buses to the airport which leaves downtown at 9:30pm. This was on the 20th. My flight didn’t leave until the next morning around 7am. As most of you know I’m pretty damn cheap, so I couldn’t bring myself to pay $30 for a taxi when it would only cost me $.50 to take the bus. I’d seen people sleeping at the airport before so didn’t think it was that big of a deal. However, when I got there I didn’t see anyone sleeping and felt a bit apprehensive. So, I found a little nook behind the elevator and curled up on the tile. My gawd, tile is cold. That didn’t work out so well. My next perch was on some chairs which were far too short and narrow to be comfortable. Finally, around 3am I made my way over to the astroturf. Much better! Managed to get a few hours of lite sleep there before boarding the plane.

The plane ride to Riga was nice. The sun was coming up and it created a rainbow of clouds across the sky. Since we were heading west it almost seemed as if we were racing the dawn. Through one of the plane windows it was barely twilight and through the next dawn was breaking through.

When we took off from Latvia the sky was an endless sea of clouds, not a single speck of ground remaining. Reminded me of Langoliers. Started wondering if the whole world had disappeared below. I tried to catch a few winks on this flight into Barcelona, but it just wasn’t happening. I looked out the window at one point and gasped. The Swiss Alps were below, extending on forever. There were these crisp snow covered peaks where you know no human has ever set foot. Every now and again a town would pop up at the base of the mountains. Wonder what it must be like to live at the bottom of these giants. Some areas has mist handing in the mountains, shielding their bottoms from sight like they were swimming in a murky grey ocean. Clouds hung on the top dotting the mountains like bits of cream. At points the mountains formed bowls where the mist created a cloud soup. These mountains lost in the mist were brown and gave way to their blindingly white cousins on the horizon.

I was sitting on the wing and it was a striking juxtaposition of the airplane wing with one of nature’s most glorious achievements. Man cutting through nature, obscuring part of the beauty whilst making it possible to see. I wished that I could be set down upon one of those snow bank to sit in frigid silence. Have to admit that I cried a little.

Arrived in Barcelona where I met up with Rob and Aleta. Was so great to be with friends again. To be honest the whole trip went by in a kind of blur. I look back on everything that happened and can’t seem to quite piece together when each event took place. Just seems to run together. I blame this on lack of sleep and awesome company.

There seems to be a unique rhythm to life in Spain that I didn’t quite get accustomed to. Stores opened around 10, then would close again around 1 or 2. They stayed closed for a couple of hours, reopened and were closed again around 8pm. Seemed to me like everything was always in the middle of being closed. When things do close it changes the way the city looks completely. There’s not really any such thing as window shopping. All the businesses have big metal shutters which the roll down in front of the shops. We discovered you can easily miss a closed business if you’re walking on the same side of the street and can’t see the sign above it.

They really love their meat

They really love their meat

 

My favorite graffiti piece

My favorite graffiti piece

So many beautiful fruits and veggies.

So many beautiful fruits and veggies.

Just one of the many parks.

Just one of the many parks.

Lots of street performers. These two serenaded us on the subway.

Lots of street performers. These two serenaded us on the subway.

We ate so much delicious food while I was there. Nice to have a break from the monotony of Georgia. Sooooo many tapas! I also found that I enjoyed the seafood there. Not a big fan and have pretty much always been let down by what I’ve tried in the US. There were a couple of times that I wouldn’t have even known I was eating fish if Rob hadn’t told me. I’ll just list a few of the things we had: Deep fried brie with raspberry puree, potatoes bravas, bombas, soy and sesame chicken skewers, various croquettes, lots and lots of gelato, the best fried calamari ever, so much Iberian ham, cheese plates, black pudding, and more.

O.M.G. Tapas

O.M.G. Tapas

Black pudding

Black pudding

One of the most fabulous deserts I've ever had. That's cottage cheese, honey, walnut, and ice cream.

One of the most fabulous deserts I’ve ever had. That’s cottage cheese, honey, walnut, and ice cream.

We stayed really close to the beach.

We stayed really close to the beach.

The Mediterranean Sea

The Mediterranean Sea

On Friday a couple more friends came into town. I was thoroughly blissed out! We went and saw a lot of Gaudi’s work together including a trip to Park Guell. The park was probably one of my favorite parts of the trip. It’s fantastic. You never know what’s coming around the corner. There is one space with these huge columns drawing your head up. The ceiling is a mosaic giving you the feeling of being under the sea. I spun around in the room, making myself dizzy, and filling my vision entirely with the tiles. That REALLY made you feel like you were under water.

One of the Gaudi houses. We went inside this one.

One of the Gaudi houses. We went inside this one.

On my last day we went to see La Sagrada Familia. For sure the most amazing church I’ve ever been in. The church architecture in Barcelona is very different from here in Georgia or Armenia. The Catholic’s sure do like their ostentatious decorations.

Killing babies.

Killing babies.

Breathtaking view inside La Sagrada

Breathtaking view inside La Sagrada

Jesus just hanging out

Jesus just hanging out

You can't help but look up

You can’t help but look up

Trip back to Georgia was uneventful and tiring. I’m here for another 16 days before flying to Amsterdam. Then I’m off to Berlin and then back to California on Jan 4th 🙂

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Library

Before leaving Tbilisi in September I stopped by Prospero’s Books. Thanks to all the people who donated funds for the school library I was able to make a sizable purchase of new books. Since Prospero’s has a large selection of English books I thought it would be the perfect place to go. I found a ton of picture books and beginning readers. Most of my students are still just beginning to learn English so these are the perfect books for them to start with.  I also purchased picture encyclopedias and dictionaries, and other non-fiction books which had a lot of big pictures. Many kids here don’t have access to the Internet and I wanted them to still be able to learn about the world around them.

Lots of English non-fiction and some more advanced chapter books

It was important to me that I not only provided the students with English books, but also some popular Georgian texts. So, when I returned home I made a trip to a bookstore in Kutaisi where I purchased Harry Potter, The Golden Compass, Twilight, other assorted fiction books and several science books. Overall I ended up spending one third of the money raised on books in Georgian. Again, I wanted my students to feel more connected to the world around them. Getting the chance to read books which are popular around the world helps to bridge the gap.

Georgian section

The Georgian science books

When I arrived at school with all the new books in tow I was met with a pleasant surprise, a package from Darien Book Aid. Darien Book Aid is a non-profit located in Connecticut which ships packages of books to needy libraries around the world, for free. I had requested a box from them early in the summer and was excited to go through the materials. It was much more than I imagined. They sent everything I had requested, picture books, beginning readers, and simple chapter books.

Picture books galore!

Beginning readers and chapter books

Altogether the library now has 116 new books. The librarian and I cleared off four shelves full of old Russian books to make room for the new materials. I cataloged them all by hand and set them out for the students. The response has been overwhelmingly positive. Most of these kids have never even seen a picture book and no one ever reads to them. I now read a story at the beginning of my classes in grades 1-3. All of the third graders have checked out books and bring them to class every day eagerly anticipating me reading one of them. In my first grade class we’ve been reading Chicka Chicka Boom Boom and they laugh so hard throughout. One of the little boys spent most of the last class giggling while repeating “Chicka Chicka Boom Boom” to himself while practicing writing the alphabet.

Four shelves with new books

I can’t thank everyone who donated enough for their generous gift. You’ve given these kids a chance to live beyond the boundaries of their village and explore new worlds. Know that we’ve sowed the seed and these children are on the path to becoming life long fans of the written word! Love you guys, thanks for being so awesome.

Back to School

Schools in Georgia began on September 17th. I woke up early that morning, donned my finest back to school outfit and headed out. The school I teach out is a whole two minutes away from my house. On my short walk I saw students dressed in suits and dresses, many accompanied by their parents. I made sure to get there early seeing as I had been out of town and had not been able to prep with my teachers before hand.

The Tskaltubo Village School

Getting to school early proved a pointless venture. My school hadn’t even decided on a class schedule yet. That day we would not be conducting any classes. Instead there was a school assembly in front of the building where students were given awards, I was introduced, and the first graders were all given laptops. Yup you read that right. Laptops. Georgia has a partnership with One Laptop per Child and now every incoming first grader gets their very own XO mini laptop to keep.

While I think it’s awesome that these children are getting access to computers I would really like it if there was a program to ensure that all the children in the schools had books. See here in Georgia students have to purchase all their books. This means that poor students often have hand-me-down books that they have to go through and erase or nothing at all. Students do have access to the text books in the library, but that doesn’t help them during class. Most of them are just left behind.

After the assembly I was shuffled into a car and told we were going to another school. When I asked why, my co-teacher just said “I do not know.” So off we went further into the village to a poor school with only 13 students. I sat in the office for five minutes and then was ushered back into the car to head back to our school. Mysterious I know. Come to find out later that they wanted me to teach at this other school as well. TLG stepped in and shut that down though as there was no transportation being provided.

When I arrived back at my school I was informed that I should go home and have a rest. It only being noon I was a bit confused. I asked about classes the next day and was given a tentative schedule. Seeing that there was still time left before the end of the school day (they go from 9-2) I asked about lesson planning. My co-teacher told me that none of the students would have books yet. So of course I asked what we were planning on doing and she just shrugged.

During this first week of school things were very chaotic. My schedule was changed four times and I sometimes missed class because no one bothered to inform me of the changes until I arrived at school. In typical Georgian style there is no real planning for class. It’s pretty much the opposite of American classrooms. I tried to do some planning of my own the first few classes, but found that this had only minimal success. Neither of my co-teachers speak English very well and so explaining the plan to them before class proved difficult.

Instead of following a set plan I try to read my co-teachers during class and flow with them. So far I think it’s working pretty well. It can be frustrating in the classroom though. Many of my students have text books that are way too advanced for them. The student’s English levels are scattered across the board. Some students are labeled as being “bad, lazy, or stupid” at the beginning of their school careers and are just ignored or yelled at; never having anything expected of them. This means while some of my students can write sentences others barely know the alphabet.

I’ve been doing my best to ensure all students are getting a chance to participate and that no one just slacks off in class. While my co-teacher is in the front of the class I’ll wander around helping students who are behind. Not having a book is also no longer an excuse for not doing anything. Instead I have students share texts and when they have writing exercises I just have them do it on plain paper. If they don’t bring paper or pens to class, no problem, I’ve got that too.

It’s been exciting to see some of the students getting a grasp of the language. This is especially true in my first and second grade classrooms. The first graders have never been to school before. In fact most of them have been with their mothers 24/7/365 for six years. Our first days of class were hard on some of them. Tears were shed and occasionally a mom had to sit in on the class. We pressed forward though teaching them the first few letters of the alphabet.

During the first week my co-teacher wrote A, B, and C in their notebooks and asked them to write each letter themselves at home. The next time we had class we found that only two of the students had attempted this. Later my co-teacher informed me that the parents had approached her and said that it was very difficult and so they told their children not to do the homework. I was livid. I informed her that school is challenging, it’s sometimes hard, but we don’t just give up, we try. Let her know that we would go slow, but weren’t just going to stop. Apparently these children don’t even know the Georgian alphabet yet. Most of them have never written a letter in their lives! Parents aren’t spending time outside of class teaching their students how to learn and it shows. I’m proud to say after being in school three weeks most of my first graders can write at least A and B, they can recognize A-E, and most know the words, “Hello, teacher, goodbye, stand up, sit down, apple, bag, cat, dog, egg, and fish”.

There are many things about the education system here that need to change. I think having the TLG volunteers here is a great thing, but almost think that the money would be better spent giving their own teachers more training on how to teach or English lessons. Having a teacher giving lessons and not understanding the language well herself is a problem. I’ve had to correct one of my co-teachers on many occasions and I hear her students repeating her mistakes. Since I’m only here for a short amount of time I’m just trying to do what I can and not expect miracles.

Now back to the first day of class… after everyone was done for the day the teachers invited me out to have dinner with them. We took a taxi to the Prometheus Restaurant. This place was gigantic and filled with teenagers. Pretty sure everyone in Tskaltubo from 16-19 was there. Most of the upper level students from our school were there and I even saw some of the students that I taught in Kutaisi over the summer. It was a blast.  Lots of eating, drinking, and dancing. Our students kept on coming over and grabbing all the teachers out of their chairs and dragging them onto the dance floor. They even tried teaching me some Georgian dance moves. Teachers and students were drinking together and my host sister even did a toast with the headmaster. Very different than the relationship most students and teachers have back home.

My co-teachers, Tamuna and Khatuna

Teachers and students dancing

My host sister and the headmaster doing a toast

 

Haven’t been doing much else besides hanging out at home and going to school. Did manage to get the new books into the library and will be updating everyone about it in the next post.

Adventures in the Caucasus with Pierre

At the end of August I left my village and went to Tbilisi. That night I met up with my friend from SLO who had flown out here to visit. We spent the next three weeks galavanting around Georgia, Turkey, and Armenia. I think each of us took around 1,000 photos during the trip so I thought it would be  fun to create a sort of photo essay style blog post this time. So, I’ll be guiding you through our journeys with photos and short descriptions. Enjoy!

Our first day was spent exploring Tbilisi. We went up to Narkala Fortress and just wandered around town. While here we discovered hazelnut Snickers bars which were fantastic!

After Tbilisi we headed over to Sighnaghi in the Kakheti region. It is about 2 hours east of Tbilisi in wine country.

The city had an old fortress wall that seemed to weave in and out of the new and old parts. Most of the city has been completely rebuilt in recent years to draw in tourists. It now has a very Prauge type feel to it.

Our first night in Signaghi we ate dinner at this little hut overlooking rolling green hills.

During one of our explorations through the city we found a secret little path off one of the main roads. It just had a little gate which we went through. One path led to another and another. We walked around picking figs, apples, blackberries, and grapes.

Since Sighnaghi is in Georgia’s renowned wine region we figured wine tasting was in order. We found this place which was strangely enough owned by an American and was really overpriced. They did teach us a lot about the process of making wine though.

Georgian wine is made in these large containers called qvevri. Pierre discovered if you stick your head into one and make noise it sounds really cool.

Our homestay offered a trip to the David Gareja monastery complex which was about 1.5 hours from where we were staying. The monastery is located in a desert region with very little around in any direction and is located right on the border with Azerbaijan. The landscape was very different than anything I’d seen previously in Georgia.

The monastery was founded in the 6th century and has been worked on off and on since then. This is the area where the monks currently live and most of it was blocked off to visitors. You can see their cells are built into the mountain.

There was an old cart rail that I of course had to surf.

The older part of the complex includes an 11th century cave church. There were multiple rooms like this adorned in stunning frescoes.

Another fresco

We then went back to Tbilisi where we hopped on a plane to Mestia.

We got lucky and were the only people on the plane.

View of Tbilisi from above.

The Svaneti towers.

The plane ride was a lot of fun! We managed to get a bottle of wine on board and ran back and forth to look out the windows. Was great to have the plane all to ourselves.

Since we were missing BM this year we decided to have our own burn. Our first attempt was this little man didn’t work so well. It wouldn’t have been BM without some initial frustration and let down.

We gave up on our first man and made another one which burned quite well.

We held hands and danced around the embers. We talked about our friend who passed away and it was great to have a friend’s shoulder to cry on for a little bit.

While in Mestia we hiked out to Chaaladi Glacier.

It was beautiful up there.

There was a shaky cable bridge over the river.

Pierre told me that I looked like a hippie here. Felt that it was important to do a little balancing act on the log here. Walking through the path waves of pine smell kept on smashing into my face.

These huge mushrooms were all over the trail.

The glacier finally in sight.

We drank water that was melting off glacier.

At first we thought that by glacier they actually meant “mountain with snow on it”. But no, it was an actual glacier.

After hiking back from the glacier we of course decided that ice cream was needed. I got the biggest block of chocolate ice cream I’ve ever seen. No cookie crust, just chunk of ice cream.

I was on a constant search for pizza on this trip. Apparently sauce is just not an option for pizza in the Caucasus’. This pizza had slices of tomato and shredded chicken.

From Mestia we took a harrowing marsh ride down the mountain to Batumi. Once there we had to try the Adjaran Khachapuri. It has an egg and stick of butter on top of a pile of cheese. Nom.

This was the amazing Lebanese food we had in Batumi at a restaurant called Crispys.

Our next stop was Trabzon in Turkey. It was a fast paced city with lots to see and do. We spent most of our time just wandering up and down the streets.

At our first meal in Trabzon they brought us hazelnut baklava. Omg.

The view from our hotel room. There was a mosque right next door to us. The speakers blared the call to prayer into our room every morning at 5am.

Doner spit first thing in the morning. This whole thing will be gone sometime in the middle of the night. They keep on serving until it runs out.

Just one of the many mosques in Turkey.

We found the biggest cabbages in the whole world!! I’m not even sure what I would do with that much cabbage.

Another city with an old wall around it. Pierre did a good job holding it up.

In Turkey you can get Burger King delivered to you.

One of the traditional Turkish outfits.

There were lots of sultan statues around Turkey. I’ve decided that I really want to be a Sultan when I grow up 😉

We visited a mall and saw some of the latest Muslim women’s fashion.

The librarian nerd in me jumped for joy when we visited the local public branch and I saw this Dewey Decimal system sign in Turkish on the wall.

There was a sand beach right outside of Trabzon that we took advantage of. The water was shallow for a long way out and crystal clear; you could see right down to your feet.

The beach was fantastic and I had fun playing in the sand. It was a nice break from the rocky beaches in Georgia.

Of course while we were in Turkey we had to go smoke hookah. I got sick while I was there, but ‘suffered’ through smoking. It was delicious and incredibly cheap.

After Trabzon we made our way to Yerevan in Armenia. Of course the border between Turkey and Armenia is closed so we had to go back up through Georgia. This was quite the process. Pierre had some trouble getting across the border, the Georgian authorities scrutinized his passport, and when we finally got across our bus had left without us. Luckily we were able to catch a marsh back to Batumi. Our plans didn’t quite work out like we thought and we ended up buying tickets to take an overnight bus to Yerevan from Kobuleti. We went to Koueleti were we discovered it wasn’t a bus, but a marsh. The trip was 12 hours long, the driver blasted music the whole time, there was no room to lay down, and it was freezing cold. We arrived in Yerevan at 5am with no money, no place to stay, and not speaking a word of Armenian. A bit of poor planning on our part. We were saved from sleeping in the park by this guy named Eddie who was from Yerevan but had been living in Los Angeles for like 3 years. He took us to his place and let us crash on the pull out bed until a reasonable hour. In the morning he took us out for coffee and apple pie and helped find us a hostel.
Later that morning we walked around town, getting our bearings. This is the opera house.

There is a large park in town called Cascade. It’s full of sculptures, fountains, gardens. The whole thing looks like a large set of stairs. Inside it’s filled with art galleries. Very awesome. This guy you see here was referred to as the DJ of Armenia.

My favorite statue. She’s got so much character. There was a big fuss when it was put up being that she’s very naked.

View of the city from the top of Cascade.

One of the many fountain/garden/sculpture areas on one of Cascade levels.

This lion was made out of what appeared to be recycled tires.

Our first meal in Armenia was at Dolmama. It was incredibly delicious. These dolma had slices of steak in them.

On our way to meet up with a local CouchSurfer downtown we were greeted by crowds of people and fireworks. They were so loud they rattled our rib cages and echoed off the buildings all around us. We then saw guys in convertibles wrapped in Armenian flags with people cheering. When we asked what was going on we were informed that their chess team had just won the global championship. I’m thinking that this would never happen in the US.

It wasn’t just fireworks though. They also had a stage set up with live music. People were singing and dancing all around us. It was a great welcome to the city.

We met up with Ana who is from Yerevan but was well traveled and spoke great English. Her and Pierre had fruity drinks at dinner. It was here we learned that french toast in Armenia is not the same as in the US. In Yerevan it is slices of bread with cheese melted on top.

While doing laundry at the hostel I discovered the best cleaning product, Barf.

We met up with another CouchSurfer the next day and visited the only mosque in Armenia.

We also visited the first of what would be many churches during our time in Armenia. It was the first country in the world to adopt Christianity as a national religion and there are lots of churches. In this photo you see cross stones which appear everywhere! They are unique to Armenia and were initially used to identify locations where churches would be built. Fun fact: Armenians walk backwards out of churches so as to not turn their back on god.

Later that night we went back to Cascade for a jam session. There was lots of Beatles being played.

Then we took a tour up to Lake Sevan. It was quite overcast, but still beautiful. The lake takes up 5% of Armenia.

Of course while at the lake we visited another church.

Pretending not to be freezing cold at the lake.

This church had an entire courtyard filled with cross stones.

You could apparently do next to nothing inside the church besides wear a scarf on your head, have a simple haircut and pray.

There were lots of people selling crafts. This man was hard at word on his next carving.

After the church at the lake the tour group we were with headed to another church 🙂

You could read about this church in multiple languages as long as you were blind.

I know it probably comes as a big surprise to everyone, but our last stop on the tour (before lunch that is) was another church.

This church had a Jesus bathmat.

After our tour we went out with Ana again, this time it was for karaoke. She was an incredible singer. Pierre and I felt that we should dive bar it up true American style and we sang Queen’s “Fat Bottomed Girls”, badly.

We met up with our new CS friend Artyom and his guest in from London, Mary, to go brandy tasting.

We toured the storage facility where hundreds of barrels were stacked. The room smelled so strongly you thought you might get drunk from the smell alone.

The Yerevan Brandy Company has been making booze since 1887. Apparently Winston Churchill loved the stuff so much that Stalin sent him 400 bottles a year. The barrels you see us standing in front of are about half the size of the largest ones they had.

This is the root of a walnut tree and a warning that this is what you will look like if you drink too much brandy.

After the tour it was time to drink. We had brandy that was 5, 10, and 20 years old. We were told that when you toast you clink your glasses in order to knock off the small devils that are always sitting on the edge. You are also supposed to hold the glass in your left hand so that it’s closer to your heart.

Once we were all sufficiently boozed up it was time to visit the last pagan temple in Armenia, Garni. It is thought to have been built in the 1st century AD.

I’m fairly certain this is the oldest thing I’ve ever been to see.

As we were leaving we saw this big pool of stagnant water. Gorgeous view of the mountains all around. Suddenly these young boys appeared, stripped down to their underwear and went swimming.

Feeling the need to balance things out a little bit, after the Garni temple we went to another church. This one also had some cave dwellings, spying holes in the floor, and rooms that were prime echo locations. We all decided there should be more rooms in our lives that echo.

At the entrance to the church was this little wishing well of sorts. The object of the game was to throw a rock and have it stay in one of the little shelves. If it stays then your wish will come true.

I kind of wanted one of these to wear around.

We decided to hitchhike from the church back to Yerevan. We had just about given up hope and were going to call a taxi when a van started to drive by. We stuck out our thumbs and he pulled over. He was a priest and a taxi driver. He already had two paying passengers, but there was plenty of room for us and he warmly welcomed us. His other passengers were less than thrilled though. The lady complained about us being in there the whole way back. She did this in Russian not realizing that Mary spoke Russian and could understand everything she said.

The last stop in Yerevan was the Matenadaran. It’s an ancient manuscript archive and is one of the largest in the world. Totally amazing!

That was the best ‘brief’ synopsis of my trip that I could give everyone. Just a small sampling of all the photos that we took. Have a ton of stories that I’m happy to share with people via skype or the next time I see you in person. If I tried to type it all out I’d only be writing about this trip until I came home!

Sorry this one took so long to get up, the next one will be posted sometime next week and will cover the return to school. Till then 🙂

Kobuleti

This past week has been my most difficult here by far. On Saturday evening I got online and was messaged by a friend back home. She was breaking the bad news that our friend Greg had lost his battle with cancer a few hours before. Greg was a truly amazing person, someone who in his short time here on Earth touched a great many lives. No matter what he was going through in his own life he was always there with a smile, a hug, and words of wisdom.

I wish that I had gotten to know Greg better while he was here. When I met him he had already been diagnosed with the illness that would claim his life. I never got to know pre-cancer Greg. Yet, I will always cherish the times that I did get to spend with him. He was one of those people that had the ability to leave a lasting impression on you, even if you only met him once.

While Greg and I only knew each other for a short time he has known many of my nearest and dearest for the better part of 25 years. He introduced people to Burning Man for the first time, officiated at their weddings, and generally stoked the world anyway that he knew how. I hate knowing how much pain my chosen family has been in the last week. Hard not to be there to give them hugs, a shoulder to cry on, and to share our memories. Wish I could be there with you all right now, that I could watch the temple burn in the desert, or that I could attend the Greg memorial party. Just know that I’m thinking about you all everyday and am with you in spirit.

I’m pretty much just staying sane knowing that one of my best friends will be here in a little less than two weeks and that I can finally hug someone from back home. When I get back to the states there’s going to be a major hugfest with you all, just sayin’ 😉

After finding out the news I pretty much barricaded myself in my room, watching funny movies, eating chocolate, and crying. Wasn’t really in the mood to be around anyone here. On Sunday my host grandma asked me if I wanted to go swimming the next day. Knowing it would probably be good for me to get out of the house I agreed. Didn’t know any details about the trip though. Figured there might be a watering hole around here somewhere.

The next morning I asked my host sister to explain what was going on. She told me that we were going to Kobuleti to swim. Her and her brother would be staying there for 10 days, but grandma and I would return that night. In the early afternoon we crammed into a car and headed off to Kobuleti which is near Batumi on the Black Sea.

We arrived 2.5hrs later, had lunch, and changed into our swimsuits. Kobuleti was really quaint. The main street is lined with outdoor cafes, pool tables, shops, and places to dance. The beach is this long narrow strip of rocks lined with giant stone stadium style seats/steps. Towels were laid down and we took to the sea.

I would love to have one of these amazing tree house cabin things.

Landing strip of beach.

I spent quite a bit of time floating on my back, letting the waves move me around. It was a great time to reflect on life and death. I read somewhere that one thing that can help in the grieving process is to talk to the person who died. Actually started doing this a few weeks ago when we were told that Greg’s condition was worsening. Before his death my thoughts were less conversation like though and more sending positive energy style, but since his passing I actually have little ‘conversations’ with him. Maybe this is really weird, but seems to help me. Told him about the sea and how beautiful it was. Felt good to think that I could kind of bring a part of him across the world.

I continued this meditation of sorts later as I sat next to my host grandma on the rocky beach. We sat so that the waves would come crashing into us. Sometimes they were so strong that they knocked us over. We’d fall down laughing and help one another back up. I just closed my eyes and let the power of nature consume me, running my fingers through the pebbles. It was just what I needed.

People walked up and down the beach selling different things. This guy was my favorite. My host family laughed and said, “You don’t have anything like this in America, huh?”

A very attentive lifeguard.

After the waves had slammed me around for awhile I went to dry off and lay in the sun. You know how when you go to the beach you get sand inside your swimsuit and stuck in all sorts of places? Well, here it’s like that, but with rocks. Swear every time I thought I’d gotten rid of them all I’d find more stuffed in my suit. Also, I thought that since everything I read stressed how conservative this country was that I needed to wear a one-piece suit. How wrong I was. Even my host grandma was wearing a bikini. I was one of the only people there wearing a full bathing suit.

My host grandma and me.

Host brother burying himself in rocks.

As I laid on the beach I heard English being spoken next to me. My host grandma pointed and asked if they were Americans (they were actually Canadian). I watched for a little bit thinking that the woman looked really familiar, but still not sure. Then, as I looked a little closer I saw that there were two women there, both from my training group. Soon one more person from the group showed up. How random! Out of all the places they could have set up shop on the beach they just happened to be right next to us. I spent a bit of time hanging out with them, and took another dip in the sea.

Random meeting of TLG teachers… and some French guy one of them met in Batumi.

This time while we were swimming someone yelled, “Bear!”. Not something you normally hear while in the water. I looked where they were pointing and lo and behold there was a guy walking a bear. Like on a leash. Was in the water so I couldn’t get a photo, but it was a small bear on a leash. First time seeing that. Also saw a man trying very hard to walk his Caucasian Shepherd dog. These dogs are native to the region and it was bigger than the bear. They are seriously gigantic. Look like they would be the perfect animal to sleep with on a cold winter night.

Doing my best to stay positive and keep Greg’s spirit alive. Know that so many people will continue to spread his love around making the world a better place. When faced with life’s challenges we’ll ask ourselves, WWGD? ❤

Gelati and Massage

In an effort to not just hang out with Americans while here in Georgia I contacted a few people on CouchSurfing who live in Kutaisi. One of them offered to take me to Gelati Monastery near Kutaisi. Thought it would be a great opportunity to speak with a local whom I could actually communicate with. He and I met up on Sunday and headed over to the Monastery.

Gelati is a pretty amazing place. It was founded by King David the Builder in 1106. It was finished in 1130, but buildings were added in the 13th and 14th centuries. When the Turks invaded in 1510 the church was destroyed, but reconstruction began soon after. Much like Bagrati Cathedral the current government here in Georgia has been putting money into restoring the complex to its former glory.

Cathedral at Gelati

There are many important people buried at the Monastery including David the Builder. He is buried at the complex’s front gates. Before he died he insisted that he be buried there so as that every person coming into the Monastery would have to walk over him. David is thought to be one of the greatest rulers in all of Georgian history. His rule is still talked about by many people today. When the current president, Mikheil Saakashvili was inaugurated he took his oath at David’s tomb.

David the Builder’s tomb

In addition to the church, Gelati was known as the main cultural and intellectual center of Georgia. There was an Academy where people could study science, philosophy, or theology. The Academy was in a state of ruin until very recently when underwent a complete restoration. It now has a beautiful new roof and keeping tourists in mind, they even made a cut out in the floor where you can peer down into the old wine cellars.

The Academy

The inside of the church was quite stunning. Every surface was covered in murals. You could walk by several tombs of Kings, monks, and other important figures. There were several podiums set up which contained valuable artifacts which people came and prayed over them. One of the more morbid ones included the bones of some saint.

Even the ceiling is ornate

Just one of the many mosaics on the wall

Some of the tombs inside the cathedral

We stood inside watching people come and pray, talking about the state of religion in Georgia and atheism. Think that just like in many other places people here pay a lot of lip service to religion. It’s something that you just believe in because you’re supposed to. You’re not supposed to question this. So people put up shrines and wear crosses, but probably couldn’t define their faith in any significant terms. As I talk to people from around the world they seem to all tell me the same thing, the younger generation doesn’t view religion in the same light as those who came before them. Even the people I met from Israel told me that most of the younger people they know view themselves more as cultural Jews rather than religious ones. I can only hope that this is actually a growing trend everywhere.

Woman praying

Besides socializing with the gentleman from CouchSurfing, I also got the chance to hang out with some of the neighborhood kids. Came downstairs the other night to find a group of about 10 teenagers hanging out in our courtyard area. They were excited about trying out their English with me. I showed them pictures of everyone back home, they were quite blown away by our clown crawls, costumes, and multi-colored hair. We got up and danced a little bit together and then I grabbed my hoop from upstairs. Each of them got the chance to try it out. Watching them hoop for the first time was quite fun. Lots of laughing.

As everyone was having a good time outside, I heard this blood curdling scream coming from inside the house. The great grandma was screaming and sobbing. Quickly one of the adults ushered everyone out through the front gates. I still have no clue what the hell was wrong with her. This is a common theme here in Georgia, me not knowing why people do things. Just kinda nod my head and roll with the punches. The other thing I can’t quite figure out is why the grandma and boy have started sleeping on the couch in the living room. Ever since I returned from Svaneti they’ve been sleeping there. Thought it was maybe because it has been hot out, but the last few nights have been quite cool and yet they’re still sleeping downstairs.

The other day three teachers from my training group came up to Tskaltubo. I had heard that you could get massages at one of the bath houses, but hadn’t tried it yet. We figured between the four of us we should be able to figure it out. I met their marsh in the center of town and led them to the huge white columned building where I was fairly certain one could get a massage.

Walking inside the grand building we found a lot of people waiting, Russian writing everywhere, and a table at the far end of the room with lots of papers and a few older women sitting behind it. We walked up to the desk, asking about massage using our handy mime techniques. One of the women pointed us to the doctor’s office. Unsure if she understood us we decided to try again with the doctors. We finally got our message across and they gave us a brochure in English listing all of the treatments available.

At the Tskaltubo Sanatorium and Spa one can have a mineral water bath, a classical treatment massage, under water (hydro) massage, speleotherapy, a Sharko Shower (which apparently was used by the KGB to extract information), a gynecologic irrigation with mineral water, and a whole host of other treatments. Since Tskaltubo is known for its healing waters, and wanting to try something new, I opted for the hydro massage.

After paying my 10GEL ($6) I was led down a long door lined hallway. I gave my paperwork to the person who proceeded to hand me off to several other people along the way. Navigating down several other long hallways we finally arrived at the hydro therapy room. I was led inside where I found a large long blue tub filled with water. Hospital curtains cut the room into sections where I guessed other tubs resided. A woman gestured at the tub. I did my best to make sure I was supposed to take off all my clothes, she nodded in agreement. A little chair was placed next to the tub. I set my bag down and stripped.

Tub time!

Climbing up these old rickety stairs I plopped myself down into the tub. The water was the perfect temperature. Cool and refreshing I relaxed in the tub for about 5-10 minutes. Still not entirely sure what to expect from this whole thing I was feeling a little bit anxious. Soon the woman came back into the room. She grabbed a hose from the side of the tub and told me to lay back. This hose shot out an intense stream of water. She started to run the water jet across my body. It felt pretty good albeit slightly strange. After massaging my front she told me to turn over. I did so and she pushed my shoulders down. At this point I really could have used a snorkel. I’m trying to float low enough so that most of my body is under the water and my nose is still above it allowing me to stay alive. The massage felt good until she got to my shoulders. Here the water jet came out of the tub slightly and without the resistance of the water in the tub it was quite painful. Felt like the water was slicing into my skin. After she was done with the water massage she left me to soak for a bit longer.

I did some more relaxing till they told me to get out. I climbed down the stairs and stood there naked looking around for a minute. No towel to be found anywhere. So, I did the little squeegee thing with my hands trying to get off as much water as I could and then just threw on my clothes. Figured it was hot and humid outside anyway so wet clothes might not be so bad.

When we finished with our massages I offered to show the other teachers the bath house ruins. As we’re walking to the first one I’m telling them that this is the one where I saw the man pooping in the corner. We’re all laughing about that as we walk into the building. Right as we do we hear the shuffle of some newspaper. I look to my right and WTF? There is a guy taking a dump… I, yeah just have no words.

And with that lovely mental image I leave you until next time 😉

Svaneti

First things first, there are going to be some graphic pictures in this post of an animal sacrifice. They’re not too bad, but if that sort of thing is too much for you, you might want to skip this one.

This last weekend I got to travel up to Svaneti which is one of the more remote regions of Georgia. It’s in the northwestern part of the country and borders Russia. I had been hoping that this retreat to the mountains would allow me to escape the heat/humidity in Tskaltubo, but alas I was not that lucky. Somehow it still managed to be quite warm even though I could see snow on the mountains nearby.

The Svans were isolated from the rest of Georgia and have maintained a somewhat separate cultural identity. They’re known as fierce warriors, have their own unwritten language, and hold onto many pagan rituals. The region is probably best known for its distinctive defensive towers which were mainly built between the 9th-12th centuries. These towers are owned by different families and are not really to defend against outsiders, but rather other Svan families.

One of the defensive towers.

In order to travel up to Mestia, the main town in Svaneti, I had to take three marshrutkas. Total travel time was six or seven hours. When I got to Kutaisi I took the very last seat on the marsh to Zugdidi. As I went to sit down the gentleman next to me said “Hello!”. I looked up and lo and behold there were the three English speakers sitting next to me. There was a couple from Korea and a woman from Japan who were also planning on going to Svaneti. We talked on the way to Zugdidi and they invited me to join them at their guesthouse in Mestia. Seeing as I didn’t have any plans yet I jumped at the opportunity.

Once in Zugdidi we got to the Mestia marsh where they proceeded to try and rip us off. They told us that the trip would cost 20GEL. My new friends said that sounded too high and started bargaining. Very soon we found that the real price was 15GEL. Glad they were around or I probably would have just paid the 20. We all grabbed a bite to eat and then got ready for the long drive up to Mestia. I’ve generally found it’s important to know how much something costs here before buying it. They see you’re a foreigner and the price jumps up. Have discovered recently that I’m thankful for regular stores in the US which have prices clearly marked and are the same for everyone.

The road to Mestia is, from what I hear, in much better condition than it has been in previous years. What used to take 5-6 hours now only takes 3.5. We made frequent stops along the way to get water and use the bushes. On one of these water breaks we were led down to a river and a hole in the ground next to it. Apparently the hole in the ground was for drinking water. I filled up my bottle and the driver made some hand gestures which seemed to me like he wanted me to splash the refreshingly cool water on my face. So I bent down, dipping my hands into the bubbling pool. He immediately started screaming at me. Apparently you are not supposed to put your hands in the water. Took me a little bit before I got him to calm down. As much as I enjoy being scolded like a child it was really uncomfortable. He just kept going on about it and I finally just walked away. Ah, the wonders of miscommunication!

Even the tongue lashing from the driver and the packed to capacity marsh couldn’t take away from the beauty of the drive. We inched our way up winding roads which ran through tree covered mountains. At one turn in the road we glimpsed a pristine lake peeking out from between the trees. It looked completely untouched by humans and I couldn’t even see a way down to break its glass like surface.

We were soon in Mestia and found the guesthouse. It was attached to one of the defensive towers. As we approached it the girl who lived there proudly exclaimed that this was “her tower”. Shortly after we arrived a group of teachers I was in training with got there and I guided them to our accommodations. While we waited for dinner to be cooked our host took us up into the tower.

Climbing through a small opening in the side of the tower I stood on top of a pile of rubble. Propped against the wall was a rickety handmade ladder. I climbed up and found a small landing made of an assortment of boards. When I walked across the boards they shifted a bit and wobbled under my feet. There were three or four levels like this. As I waited for my turn to climb the next ladder I could feel sawdust falling into my hair. I quickly suggested that no one look up else they might get a big splinter in their eye. Several of the people got too scared to make it all the way up to the top. Yet again my burner trai
ning kicked in and I found climbing to the top was no big deal. The climb was well worth the safety risk. As I pulled myself up through the hole in roof I got an amazing view of all Mestia from the top of a tower built in the 10th century.

Climbing into the tower.

Standing on the tower looking out.

View of Mestia.

Another of Mestia.

Sitting on top of our guesthouse tower.

After our family fed us a great Georgian feast we headed to one of the only bars in town. It was packed with tourists. I haven’t seen this many foreigners in one place since arriving. There weren’t even any seats available. Hearing a group of people speaking English I decided to insert myself into their conversation. The group was composed of a man from Montreal, another from Holland, and a brother and sister from Israel. Plopping myself down on the ground next to them we started talking politics and a range of other topics. I got a whole new perspective on Israel and gave them a new view of the United States. The sister told me that I was one of most interesting Americans she’d ever met, not just waving my national pride around in their faces.

In the middle of the night I woke up from a bad dream feeling sick to my stomach. Laying there I tried to calm myself down and not throw up, but that didn’t happen. I had to run down to the lovely Turkish toilet and vomit for a while. My body was aching and I was running a fever. Ended up tossing and turning for the rest of the night. The next morning I got up and managed to eat a piece of bread and some of a peach, but didn’t feel that I could manage to keep down anything else. Our group was planning on going for a hike up one of the mountains where they heard there was a lake. Not wanting to miss out I threw on my backpack and attempted the hike with them. Got about 30 minutes into it and had to turn around. Felt awful. Ended up back in bed at the guesthouse where I got a few more hours of sleep.

When I woke up I attempted to go out and wander around a bit more. Made my way down to the river where I sat on a rock and wrote in my journal for a bit. Starting to feel bad again I began the 20 minute walk back. Seriously didn’t think I was going to make it. Was running a fever again and every step I took felt like I ran a mile. Was just exhausted with no strength. Spent the rest of the day/night in bed reading and sleeping. Still not really sure what the problem was. Decided to only drink bottled water for the rest of the trip though. Regardless I felt much better in the morning.

The bridge in Mestia.

After breakfast on Saturday our group went down to the information center to find out about getting a ride up to the Kvirikoba festival at the Kala Church. This festival is the largest religious festival of the year and the only day that this church is open. We came to find out that it was not a cheap adventure at 200GEL round trip. Several of the people in my party didn’t seem to have the money to make the journey. Seeing as this was the whole reason I spent all the time and money to get there I was not about to just go home. Luckily just then a group of six Polish tourists came up and asked me if I was going to the festival. I said yes and that I was looking for someone to go with. They invited me along. The taxi was right there so I said farewell to the other English teachers and jumped in the car with my new traveling partners.

Turns out this was the best decision I could have possibly made. This group of friends was amazing. They welcomed me as one of their own, were smart, funny, and just all around good people. While the drive up was a bit crammed, hot (we had one more random traveler from the United States who also joined on the way up but not back), and long, it was still enjoyable. The views were stunning and the company wonderful.

When we got to Kala, about two hours later, we had to climb up a steep hill to get to the church. Floods of people were descending, not many going up. Were a bit worried that we had missed the festivities, but began the long trek up anyway. People of all ages were coming down and I saw several women without shoes on. More hardcore than myself that’s for sure lol. There were several times where I feared falling as so many people were pushing their way down the mountain and there was little room left to pass.

So many people waiting to get in and out.

Mountains in the distance at the Kala Church.

Alas we made it to the church, but again had to push our way inside through the steady stream of people leaving. The first thing that I saw when I entered was a man with a large skewer filled with cooked organ meat. People were coming by and tearing off chunks of flesh to eat. In another part of the church was a long room where women were lighting candles and sticking them on the walls. Hundreds of candles lined the walls giving off a warm yellow color. Next to this room men were trying to lift and ring a large heavy bell. I didn’t see it, but apparently there are also strength trails involving large rocks.

Organ meat anyone?

Trying to ring the bell.

So many candles lining the walls.

Lighting candles.

Making my way to the back of the church I saw an opening. Curious as to where it led I walked through. What sounded like a small child crying rang out into this open space where lots of men were gathered. Looking down I saw that it was not a child, but a small goat. Two men and a young boy were holding it down on the ground. It was bleating like crazy. One of the men cut its neck with a small knife, the others keeping the animal from flailing wildly around. The man with the knife kept on cutting and soon had the head completely removed. He held it up and then tossed it behind him. I followed the head and found that it had joined a small pile of other severed heads. They lay there with eyes open, tongues hanging out in the hot summer sun. The men took their headless goat and strung it up by one foot where they proceeded to skin it.

Cutting it’s throat.

Heads.

Stringing it up.

This is the first time that I’ve ever seen an animal being killed like this. Was not anything like having to put a pet down. Actually a lot less traumatic even through the killing was more brutal. Think that if you eat meat you should be able to at least watch an animal being butchered. Am glad that I was able to do so without being horrified. It was defiantly not a situation I’d ever found myself in before. This was also obviously a man’s place and I was the only woman there. They were intrigued by me as well and I caught a couple of them taking pictures of my star tattoos.

After they skinned the goat I followed the meat to a room near the entrance. Inside was a gigantic cauldron with a fire burning brightly below. Several men were gathered around stirring the contents with a pitch fork. Inside were several goat and lamb carcasses. I arrived just as they were pulling one of them out. Using my limited Georgian I asked if I could try some. They cut off one of the legs and went to hand it to me, warning me that it was hot. I took hold of the bone wondering what in the hell I Was going to do with this huge piece of goat. A man came over with a piece of metal which he twisted around the leg acting like a handle. I brought it outside to my group and asked if anyone wanted some. Only two people did. So we tried some of it. The meat was hard to get off the bone, very rubbery and slimy. It tasted okay though. After we had our sample I was still left with a huge chunk of meat. I started asking other people around if they wanted it. No one did, so I went back into the “kitchen” and gave it back to them, just telling them it was too much for me. My hands were coated in this quite awful sticky goat grease film. I have never been more thankful for wet wipes.

Carrying the meat to be cooked.

Look at how big that cauldron is.

My goat leg!

We then made the hike back down the mountain, found our driver and kept the adventure going by driving to Ushguli. This little village of about 300 people is the highest year round occupied village in the Caucasus. Some say it’s the highest in all of Europe, but I’ve seen several conflicting sources on that. Either way it was jaw dropping. I wish that we had had more time there to hike all the way to the base of the snow covered peaks. Alas we only had time to grab a beer and then head back to Mestia. However, here’s an interesting little factoid for you… Georgia is a popular spot for Poles. Here we are at this little bar in the middle of nowhere and there were probably 20 Poles sitting around relaxing. Who’d have know I’d be sitting in a tiny village in Georgia hearing Polish all around me. It’s not anything I really thought about before, but the two countries are fairly close to each other and have a good relationship.

My new friends and I in Ushguli.

It’s just a little picturesque in Ushguli.

The drive back was full of singing and stopping at picture spots. It was really great. My new friends invited me to visit them in Warsaw and I’m going to see if I can make that happen this winter after Berlin. The next morning we hopped on a marsh at 6am to head back home. Being back home has been a little bit depressing as I still don’t really have much to occupy my time with. Just counting down the days till Pierre gets here and school starts. Think the time will really start to fly by then.

Krishna kept asking me what a marshrutka looks like, so here ya go 😉

Ghaniri

First, thank you so much to everyone who donated to my fundraiser. I’ve reached my goal of $500 quicker than I could have imagined and will be able to purchase new books for the students at the Tskaltubo Village School. There is still several weeks before the fundraiser ends if anyone would still like to donate. You’re all helping to ensure that the children here have access to a world of knowledge they as of right now don’t know about. I hope that many of them will become lifelong readers and that the new materials available to them will open up a whole host of new opportunities for them. They will have the chance to read books that are popular around the world in their own language and also be able to read books in English, improving their communication skills. So, thank you again!!

The past week I’ve mainly just been hanging out at home. My job teaching in Kutiasi ended on the 13th and I’ve been trying to be as conservative as I can with my money. I’ve had the chance to devour lots of books, I’m up to 15 since arriving, and watch some new movies. Was feeling a bit of cabin fever by the end of the week though and called up a fellow teacher who lives in a somewhat nearby village. Asked him if I could come and hang out and see his digs.
Left Kutaisi on Friday afternoon on a marshrutka headed to Samtredia town. The ride took about 30 minutes. Saw a couple of interesting things on the way. One house we passed by had a giant missile in the front yard. It was painted white and propped up on this tall stand (almost two stories). Really, really random. Kind of wishing that I could get up and straddle the monstrosity Dr. Strangelove style because really when else am I going to find a giant missile in someone’s front yard.

The other thing I noticed was cemeteries. I had yet to come across any since arriving and I need to see if I can find one nearby to walk around in. The graves appeared to be above ground with gardens planted on the top. The headstones were large with people’s pictures painted on them. Was driving by so I didn’t get to see much more than that, but they didn’t look like any cemetery I’ve seen in the US.

From Samtredia I had to get on another marshrutka to Ghaniri (you pronounce this with a French ‘r’ at the beginning). I found that I’ve been slightly spoiled living here in Tskaltubo. There are three marshrutkas that go to Kutaisi and there is always one available from 8:30am – 7:00pm. You might have to sit on one for like 5 minutes before it leaves, but never longer than that. Since I was on my way to a much smaller village I found myself waiting for about 30 minutes before a marshrutka arrived. It was another 15 minutes before getting to Ghaniri.

Now I didn’t really expect there to be much of a difference between my village and Scott’s* as we’re not very far from each other. However, there were a couple of things I noticed right away. Lots of people were riding bikes around the village. I’ve seen a couple of kids with bikes here in Tskaltubo, but never an adult. Ghaniri is very flat and so bikes make an excellent transportation device. Several times I even saw multiple people riding the same bike.

Another difference was the number of horses I saw. Some were drawing buggies or carts, others were just free range. I’ve seen a person riding a horse once in Tskaltubo and while we have lots of cows, pigs, and chickens wandering about there are no horses.

Free range horses.

Scott met me in front of his house and we sat on the porch waiting for the father of one of his English students to come pick us up. Scott has a student he’s started giving private lessons to and I accompanied him to this one. The father is the captain of a shipping vessel and spoke very good English. We went to their home where we all sat around a big table. Scott gave his lesson, the father helped translate and chained smoked, and his wife kept the food coming out. We got melon, cornbread, cold vegetable soup, bread, cheese, chicken, and this delicious red fruit which is similar to plums. Of course coffee and Georgian white wine was brought out too. I told them I didn’t drink, but I was still given a glass. I took a sip to be polite, but the father questioned me as to if I was going to drink it. I again told him that I didn’t really drink and he looked at me and said, “But this is Georgian wine, it doesn’t count. We usually drink a liter an hour. One glass is nothing.” Even after Scott finished my glass we were both poured another. This isn’t the first time that this has happened to me. Telling someone no here doesn’t really mean no.

I wish my house had swings out front.

It was nice to speak in English with a Georgian. Haven’t had as many opportunities to do this as I would like. At one point we somehow got onto the subject of race. The father informed us that he didn’t like black people. Or more specifically he didn’t like black people from Africa. He actually compared them to monkeys. This was quite difficult for both Scott and I to digest as we discussed later that evening. Think a lot of this mindset is simple ignorance and lack of exposure. There are really not a lot of black people here in Georgia. While many of the people here are darker, they tend towards a more Middle Eastern complexion. The people I know here who are black get stopped by Georgians to have their picture taken and are stared at even more than I am. This doesn’t really excuse the racism expressed by this man, but I hope as more people visit Georgia this narrow view of the world will start to change. For thousands of years Georgia has been essentially isolated from the rest of the world. It’ll take time before the majority begin accepting those who are different from them. Living within a group of people who are so tolerant of others back home it was uncomfortable to hear racism like this being thrown about so casually.

After the lesson Scott took me around the village. Behind his house there was a large field filled with rubble. Apparently there was once a large auto factory there during the Soviet era. When the Russians left they destroyed the building. This seems to be a common theme in places I’ve been to so far. While there is a ton of new construction happening, there is a lot more buildings in ruins. We walked past the rubble, across a little bridge and to a huge open field where horses and cows can graze. I was pretty elated to see all the horses, including their babies. What can I say; I’m a city girl and get pretty giddy when I see animals that aren’t behind a fence. As we ventured closer to the horses Scott pointed out that the field was lined with blackberry bushes. Oh.My.Gawd! Again, as a city girl I’ve never had the chance to pick wild berries. We grabbed ripe ones off the bushes and just popped them into our watering mouths. Berries seemed to be everywhere and you could just stop and pluck a few off whenever you wanted to. I’m so jealous of his immediate access to the sweet fruit.

Field of rubble.

Quite a picturesque little village.

Blackberries! They were sooo good.

We walked around for a little bit and then joined “the corner boys”. Scott has coined this affectionate term for the group of men/boys you see in villages who sit around all day and do nothing. A group of about 10 people were gathered under a tree by a little store. They ranged in age from 16 to probably 50. One of the boys who spoke a decent amount of English asked Scott if he liked chacha. When he said sure the boy left for a few minutes, returning with an unmarked bottle and several plastic cups. He poured the clear liquid into cups; the very intense smell of rubbing alcohol permeated my nostrils.

The smell seemed to fit the surroundings perfectly. The grass had all been killed, from people walking over it for years, leaving a dirt floor to stand on. This floor was covered with trash. These boys sit here all day, every day, dropping their wrappers, bottle, cigarettes, and whatever else on the ground. Scott told me that there is no garbage pickup in his village; instead all the trash has to be burned. If the women don’t pick it up and burn it than it just stays where it is thrown.

As if this wasn’t depressing enough, a filthy dog was laying on the ground eating a plastic sausage wrapper. I guess just the smell of meat was enough for the dog. He looked up at me and there were rings of puss around his eyes. At one point someone tried giving the dog a lit cigarette and Scott and I quite vocally stopped him from doing so. Made me quite sick to my stomach. Scott told me later that when he asked someone about dogs here they told him that they didn’t have souls so you could do whatever you wanted to them and it didn’t matter. His response was, “Well you’ve obviously never loved a dog.”
The pet culture here is really different from back home. A lot of the dogs I see around my village belong to people, but are free to wander around. We have two dogs at my home who I’ve named Munchkin and Prancer. I’m not really sure if they even have names. They live outside, don’t have collars, and I’m 100% sure they’ve never had a bath. I haven’t actually seen anyone pet the dogs, besides an occasional rub with a foot. They’re cared for, but not in the same way most people’s pets are in the US. The great-grandmother has a bamboo cane/stick thing that she likes to chase them off with. They literally run away cowering anytime she comes near them. The dogs are fed table scraps which are thrown out every morning for them to fight over.

Being an animal lover I’ve started to pay attention to my dogs, giving them pets and love. However, since they never get attention like this they are untrained. Been working on teaching them not to jump up on me and behave a bit better. They’ve identified me as a sucker and follow me around, jumping up and getting under my feet at every opportunity. Prancer has decided he’s brave enough to start sneaking inside now too, I sometimes find him lying by the foot of my bed. Of course none of these animals are spayed or neutered and the population of stray animals just keeps increasing. It’s sad. Know there are some organizations in Tbilisi which are trying to educate and help the animals. I’ve seen a couple of pet stores and here and there a dog is on a leash. Think the mindset on pet ownership is slowly changing.

We sat with the corner boys for a bit before they started to disperse. One of them invited us over to his home which was across the street from Scott’s place. He spoke a little bit of English, but not much. We sat at a table in his front yard and were of course given wine right away. A large 2.5 liter beer bottle filled with homemade sweet red wine was brought out and the toasting began. Many hours were spent by both parties trying to figure out what the other was saying. Gender roles have never been more obvious to me. This Georgian man had a wife at home, a new baby, and a little boy about 5 or 6 years old. His wife brought out food for us, took care of the children, and whenever her husband didn’t know something in English he would yell for her to stop what she was doing and translate for him. While I sat next to him for about four hours he only spoke to me once or twice. Instead when he had a question about me he asked Scott.

It seems to me that the male volunteers here probably have a vastly different experience than the women. You don’t ever see groups of “corner girls”. The women are all busy and don’t have time to sit around talking, drinking beer, and smoking all day. Occasionally I’ll see a group of old grandmothers gathered together, but they’re not exactly who I’m dying to spend my time with. The women my age are pretty much all married and taking care of their young children. It’s really not socially acceptable for women to hang out with men. Even when you do it’s been my experience that many subjects are taboo or they just won’t address you at all. It’s frustrating. Back home I often hang out with my boys and they’ll talk to me about anything, not the case here.

Anyway, over the course of the night Scott and his Georgian neighbor managed to knock back a little over 2.5L of wine. The drunker they got the more crazy the toasts became. I believe we determined that his neighbor fought and killed Russians, that he played goalie for a soccer team in Tbilisi, and that he considered Scott to be his brother and would take care of any problem for him. Oh and that he’d slept with like nine Russian women. While it was fun to sit and watch them toast I was glad to leave when we did as the neighbor kept on reaching over to pet my head and kiss my cheek.

I helped Scott stumble back home where he made us a delicious midnight snack of fried chicken. The chicken had been killed a few hours before. Probably the freshest chicken I’ve ever eaten. We sat on the porch talking and then fell asleep nerding it up The Fifth Element. The next day we lazed around, he showed me their baby pigs, and I caught the marshrutka back home. It was a most welcome venture outside of my village. This weekend I’m heading up to Svaneti for the largest religious festival of the year. It’s one of the hardest places to get to in the country and I’m really excited to see it!

Baby horse getting milk from mama. Cuteness!

They even had three piglets.

*Name has been changed

Georgia’s Creepy Hug

This last week has had a lot of ups and downs. I’ve been struggling with homesickness, culture shock, language barriers, and unruly classrooms. On the other hand I’ve met some great people, had interesting conversations with locals, and acquired taco seasoning; all wins in my book. This tumultuous week started last Friday after school…

Upon leaving school for the day I followed my usual routine and headed over to McDonalds. I often sit there to use their free wifi and just not be at home for an hour or two. My marshrutka home leaves from the back anyway, so it’s a convenient enough spot to relax after work. On this day a fellow TLG’r from my training group, Sally*, met up with me and we made our way to the ‘ex-pat’ grocery store, Populi. I’ve wanted to cook something for my family and was planning on checking out their selection. I quickly realized that I would need to speak Russian to buy anything other the obviously familiar products. Gathering up the essentials, which means I got chocolate and cookies, we left to meet up with a Peace Corps Volunteer, Fran*, who worked with me at Progress.

Chocolate covered mushrooms. These things are slightly addictive.

On Friday nights Fran hosts a happy hour somewhere in Kutaisi. Georgians from one of her English classes come and meet with native English speakers, giving them a chance listen and speak in English in a social setting. Sally and I found the park where we were supposed to meet, deciding to take one of the gondolas up instead of climbing the stairs. We were ushered into a very cramped yellow box and took the quick ride up to Kutaisi’s amusement park. Stepping out of the swaying car I saw a carousel just begging to be ridden. I was however lacking my usual partner in crime (I miss you Morgan) and instead resisted the temptation to be silly. There were many rides at the park, though it was pretty empty. Apparently business doesn’t pick up until the sun goes down. It did seem like the perfect tween hangout spot.

Going up and coming down.

Ferris wheel at the amusement park.

We sat eating ice cream in the shade, waiting for Fran and the rest of the crew to show up. She arrived and several Georgians soon thereafter. We talked about a lot of things and soon went to get dinner at a nearby restaurant. While waiting for our food someone suggested we try and find the bear in the cage.

You heard right, bear in a cage. In the back of the restaurant we came across a very lonely looking creature. A cage about 8′ x 8′ was perched on a small hill. An almost overwhelming smell of excrement gave me pause, but I kept moving forward. Inside the tiny enclosure was a brown bear with two chewed tires and trash. The bear turned its head giving us a lackadaisical stare.

I really had to resist trying to pet this bear. I wanted to so bad.

It was obvious this bear was used to humans and showed nearly no interest in us. I snapped some pictures, but it was really sad and didn’t stay there too long. The bear played with its tires and looked depressed. Wouldn’t you be? Made me glad that we have animal rights laws in the United States, no creature should ever be allowed to live like that.

Little bear trying to amuse itself.

Our dinner was pretty tasty and also really expensive. We had mtsvadi which was huge chunks of juicy pork on a two foot long metal skewer, kebabi, a Turkish inspired minced meat dish, and yet another kind of khachapuri. I keep being surprised at just how many varieties of khachapuri there are. Just when you think there can’t possibly be another way to do bread and cheese someone whips out something new. The other night for dinner my host family had Abkhazian khachapuri which was essentially lasagna without the meat or sauce.

Kebabi. I didn’t think this was all that great.

This khatchapuri was filled with an ungodly amount of cheese.

Mtsvadi. Look at all that meat!

After dinner Sally and I spent the night at Fran’s apartment. Staying the night at a non-Georgian residence was a welcome relief. We got a chance to just relax and pretend we were back in the states for a little bit. Fran showed us her amazing spice collection and even gave me two packages of taco seasoning. I was elated and nearly brought to tears and the prospect of eating some Mexican food in the near future. My hope is to cook some up on Friday for my family.

We rode the red cable car on the way back down.

Over the past couple of weeks I haven’t been doing a whole lot more than teaching and reading. Some of my classes have tried my patience while others have been a lot of fun. Part of me is really happy that school is over tomorrow, though I’m sure after a few days of having nothing to do I’ll be longing for a class full of rambunctious youngsters.

Though my days have been fairly routine I did have a most interesting experience yesterday. I got on my marshrutka to go home after school, like I do every day, and sat their reading on my Kindle. This old gentleman, probably in his 70s, sitting across from me was staring at the device. Considering he’d probably never seen anything like it before I showed it to him and told him it was a book. A young man sitting behind me spoke a little English and with my limited Georgian I started having a conversation with this man.

My first thought was that he had kindly eyes. They were a bright blue, unusual here in Georgia. Thought he seemed like a nice old grandpa. He patted me on the hands smiling and even gave my cheeks a little pinch, you know like old people do in the movies. He asked if I would take a walk with him in the Tskaltubo park before I went home. Part of me really wanted to say no. I was tired from working and wanted to go home and lay down. The adventurous part of me starting arguing with my boring self. I starting thinking about why I was here and how I haven’t really hung out with many Georgians. The language barrier makes me a bit hesitant as there isn’t a whole lot to do/say after covering the basics. Thought to myself, “This old man probably wants to buy you a lemonade or take you to meet his family. What a great experience this could be. Stop being such a ninny and go do something other than watch Game of Thrones in your bedroom.”

So, I decided to walk with this grandpa in the park. Figured, what’s the worst that can happen? He’s old. If nothing else I can run from him or knock him down no problem. We got out of the marshrutka, I retrieved my Georgian-English phrase book out and set out with every intention of trying to have a conversation with this old man. When we began walking he wanted to put his arm in mine or hold my hand. My uncomfortable meter started rising. However, I know Georgians are very physical people. Often this is only between the same sex though. It’s not uncommon to see two men or two women walking down the street holding hands or with arms linked. You do see opposite sexes being close though too. My host brother will often sit in my grandmother’s lap or sleep with his head on her shoulder.

So, again I’m here to push my boundaries and go with the flow of another culture. His hand starts to go a little lower though and I push him away firmly saying “ara!” or “no!”. He smiles at me saying “puli” pointing to himself and then to me. Puli means money. He then starts making kissing noises and a few gestures and tries to grab me again. At this point I scream “ARA!!!” at him, push him away and then very quickly walk away.

Now, when we were in training they advised the women to not even look at Georgian men. In fact they told us to ignore them. I’ve been trying to do this, keeping my head down when I pass by. Those of you who know me know I smile at everyone when I walk down the street and it’s been challenging not to do this here. People don’t smile a whole lot in Georgia and I’ll stand out even more if I do it all the time. Our trainers told us that smiling at a Georgian man may be interpreted as saying that the woman is interested in having sex with them. I knew all of this, but guess I just didn’t really apply it to grandpas. Thank you life, lesson learned. I know that not all Georgian men think or will act this way, but I’m going to have to put my guard up a little bit more from now on.

Some random information:

– The concept of lines does not exist here. People will just hold their money out and kind of push their way to the counter. When I was on the bus the other day some lady tried to elbow her way in front of me to get off first. Coming from the states where cutting is a serious offence this is hard to get used to.

– I’ve had several students pay for my bus/marshrutka fare. Other volunteers have told me that people in their village do this all the time for them. Think I’ve mentioned it before, but for a place where most people have very little they are extremely generous.

– Talked with several of my classes about gender roles here in Georgia. All of the girls want things to change here and for men to treat them like equals. Almost all of the boys thought that a woman’s place is barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen. Think that this way of thinking one of the big things that is going to have to change if Georgia wants to enter the Western world. This isn’t to say there aren’t plenty of men who think this way in the US, but it’s not the norm anymore.

– Got my first book donations for my library project from some Peace Corps Response Volunteers who were leaving the country. Will have my donation page set up tomorrow! Hoping to raise at least $500 which will allow me to buy around 50 new books in Georgian and English for the library. Would make a huge difference for the kids going to school in my village, giving them access to a world they don’t have a chance to see right now.

– Lemonade here is nothing like lemonade in the states and the same goes for pizza. Here lemonade is basically a type of soda and comes in many flavors. Pizza has the same base, but the toppings are different. I had some the other night at home which was onions, chopped tomatoes, cilantro, meat, and mayonnaise. Pretty sure something got lost in translation there.

*Not real name

Batumi

I wish that I had brought my camera with me last Wednesday. A Peace Corps Response Volunteer living in Tskaltubo invited me to see the Italian opera La traviata in Kutaisi. The opera house was grand for a small city, with golden Atlas’s bearing the weight of the roof on their shoulders, and a gigantic chandelier hanging above the audience waiting for the Phantom of the Opera to come swinging in. Tickets were only 5GEL or around $3. Don’t believe I’ve ever gotten the opportunity to see a show for that little money in the US. While I wouldn’t call it a high budget production by any means, it was fairly well done. The sets were minimal, but there was a live orchestra (something many theatres back home have done away with). The female lead had a lovely voice which reverberated throughout the opera house. It didn’t really matter that I couldn’t understand what they were singing about; it was like their voices were a finely tuned musical instrument playing a piece of classical music. With tickets being so inexpensive the place was nearly full, including many families. Really wish that you could go out and see a show for that price back home.

Friday was my first day teaching at the Georgian-American School, Progress, a private school in Kutaisi. I’ll be at the school for two weeks teaching English as part of their summer camp. My students range in age from 5-22 and have just as big of a gap in their English skills. I am teaching by myself, unlike at the public school where I have a Georgian co-teacher. While I enjoy the freedom this affords me it can be quite challenging when the students speak very little English. The younger classrooms can be chaotic and I’ve been exploring different methods of dealing with it. In one of my classrooms I sent one of the most disruptive students to the office, the next time I had their class they were much better and that student barely spoke out of turn at all. I’ve also just stood at the front of the class not saying anything, just waiting for the students to listen. Students who want me to continue with the lesson will begin getting their fellow students to be quiet and listen. Since I only have the students for about six classes I doubt that I’ll ever really have them under control. Will just have to get to an okay point and try my best to ignore the students causing problems. A lot of the behavior would never fly in an American school. Students yelling over one another, lots of hitting and pushing, throwing things, etc.

I do have one class in particular that is really great. They are the oldest and most advanced speakers. We’re reading a detective novel together, basically having a book club. For the most part everyone is engaged and wants to be there. After my last class they told me how much fun they had during the lesson and that they though it was great. That alone was worth dealing with the other classes. I’ve had a wonderful time in their class and actually feel like I’m teaching them something. Nice to have at least one class to look forward to. It’s also been good to have something to fill my time with.

After school on Friday I met up with a fellow volunteer from my training group, Troy*. He came to Kutaisi were I showed him the big market place. We hopped on the bus to the train station where we took the train to Batumi. It was a steal at 2GEL. I’ve never ridden on a train for any length of time and thought that it was pretty comfy, especially for the price! The seats were wide and there was plenty of leg room. People walked up and down the aisles selling a wide assortment of goods; everything from wet wipes to bread. As we approached Batumi the sun began to set. It was one of the more beautiful sunsets I’ve seen. An enormous golden orange sphere sank behind the trees, dim enough to look at without hurting your eyes. Reminded me of watching the sunrise at the last 4th of Juplaya.

The journey took us about four hours, double the time for a fifth of the price of taking a marshrutka. We arrived just before 10pm and set out to find the hostel. While I had directions, they didn’t really seem to matter and we were fairly lost. Troy thought fast and called up another volunteer who directed us to the ex-pat bar, Vinyl. There we were given a map and directions to the hostel by a friendly TLG volunteer who has lived in Batumi for the last two years.

We found the hostel without incident, though once there we couldn’t figure out how the heck to get inside. There was a sign on one side of the building with the hostel’s name on it, but no recognizable door, just a rusty old gate with no markings. Luckily two guys were hanging out on the balcony and we called out to them for assistance. Apparently that gate which appeared to lead into someone’s backyard was indeed the right place to go inside. We got our bunks, changed out of our sweaty clothes, and headed back out to Vinyl. There we met up with some more TLG people and spent time getting to know one another. I’ve been impressed by the diversity of the TLG volunteers that I’ve met so far. This group included one person from the US, one from Ireland, and another from the Ivory Coast. Before I came I was afraid it was going to just be Americans, I’m happy to see I was wrong in that assumption.

The Batumi Hostel

Towards the end of the night we were famished and got taken to the Turkish district of town for a late night feast. While I enjoy Georgian food I was so stoked to get the chance to eat something different. Turkish food might not be too far removed, but it’s good enough. I devoured my food and then headed back to the hostel. One of the young men working there greeted us at the door asking, “Are you drunk? ‘Cause I am!” They apparently were having a little drinking party and were quite loud on the balcony near the room we were sleeping in. Here’s the part where I use my burner skill set and whipped out my eye mask, ear plugs, and Ambien. Slept like a baby.

The next morning Troy and I went out, grabbed some delicious and cheap pastries, and did a bit of exploring. Mainly we were waiting till it was warm enough to head over to the beach. Batumi has a much different vibe than the other parts of Georgia I’ve seen so far. It is a prime vacation spot and a lot of improvements have been made over the last few years to make it an even more successful tourist spot. It’s not just the shiny new buildings, fancy stores, and casinos that make it different; I also saw dogs on leashes. In fact I saw more dogs on leashes than I saw running around wild. There were also restaurants serving more than just Georgian food. Little things like this show the outside influence on the city and also their desire to serve a large customer base. I could see this place becoming the Las Vegas of Georgia. It had that kind of kitschy, glossy feel to it. That and there are lots of casinos and strip clubs.

Church in Batumi

The Golden Fleece

That is one big grape vine.

The most sexual fountain I’ve ever seen

Up close and personal

Little kid wearing a Georgia flag as a cape.

Anyway, we made it to the beach a little later in the afternoon. You could tell they were getting ready for tourist season to begin (which is apparently mid-July to August). Beach chairs, umbrellas, and even large comfy pillows were all over the place. Yet, they were mostly empty. Families lounged around, trying to look like the rock beach was really comfortable. I had been forewarned about the rock beach, another first for me. Here I had gone my whole life believing that beaches had sand. Boy was I wrong. This beach was all stones, yet as we walked to the water we saw kids enjoying things just like at a sand beach. While you couldn’t build a sand castle you can apparently still bury your friend under rocks.

Rockin’ out at the beach.

A grandmother dressed in her beach attire.

We got into the water, which felt a bit chilly at first, but as you all know once I dunked my head I was acclimated. Upon plunging my head into the Black Sea I got some of the water in my mouth. It was salty. Now, I’m not really sure why, but I didn’t expect this at all. Suppose I just never really thought about it. So, now you know, the Black Sea is just as salty as everything else in Georgia. Troy and I floated in the water till we were shriveled and I was feeling a bit sea sick. Went back to our beach chairs to dry off. Here we noticed the locals taking the rocks and pressing them against their skin. Curious about this custom we tried it out. Wow, how nice! After you come out of the water it is a little cold, the rocks have been sitting out in the sun and feel warm on your skin. When in Rome…

Batumi is a port city.

While catching some rays I got a phone call from another volunteer who was in our training group, Sonja. She was in Batumi too and wanted to meet up with us. Troy directed her to our location on the beach and she headed on over. The three of us went to grab some shawarma in the Turkish district where we were joined by yet another volunteer from our training group. The four of us ate and then just kicked it around town for a bit, checking out some other bars. As the hour got later we decided it was time to smoke hookah and went over to an Iranian restaurant. Here I had my third non-Georgian meal and enjoyed a nice smoke. The food was tasty, though none of us actually got what we ordered. None of our Georgian was good enough and there wasn’t an Arabic speaker among us. After the waitress took our order we were all pretty sure it was going to be wrong, but also didn’t care all that much.

Beautiful statue near the beach

This woman decided to just use some foliage for shade.

Dinner came and went and Sonja suggested we go to the Dancing Fountain on the other side of town. We hailed a taxi driver who had no clue where the hell to go. We even showed him a map. It’s been my experience thus far that if a driver doesn’t know where to go he’ll pull over and ask another driver. This guy did no such thing. After driving around in a sort of confused jumble, we finally made it to a close enough point and gave him some money, which he proceeded to grumble about. Think it might be some time before that guy decides to give a ride to a group of foreigners again.

The Dancing Fountain was pretty cool. We walked up to this really smelly lake and proceeded to the area in front of this huge fountain. Basically think Bellagio in Vegas, a light+water+music show. We sat watching for a while, getting sprayed in the face more often than I’d like. Having had enough and thinking that we’d seen it all Sonja cried out, “Do you see the dancing woman?” I had no idea what the hell she was talking about and looked around for a woman dancing. My three companions were oohing and aahing, I look up to see an Indian woman projected in the middle of the fountain dancing. This was followed by a Native American man dancing, and then Shiva, it was incredible. Instead of heading home we grabbed a bench and watched for a while longer. Next to us men had little carts where they sold light-up rave toys, this was definitely a must see destination in the city.

Honestly, not a whole lot more to say about Batumi. After the fountain we went back into town and sat at the bar for a little while before Sonja and I went to the hostel. The next morning I woke up and grabbed a marshrutka back to Tskaltubo. Wish that I could have stayed longer, but I had to prepare for classes on Monday.

Believe this is an event hall.

Rickshaw!

Loved the architecture here.

Sonja and I taking a photo-op.

Another great building.

Now here are some random little tidbits from my time here:

– A man on the bus struck up a conversation with me one day. We talked on my way to school. Well, I did my best to talk with him as he only spoke Georgian. He insisted I put my money away and he paid for my bus fare.

– I had churchkela for the first time. It’s a string of nuts that have been dipped into a thickened grape juice. Wasn’t too fond of it, but might give another kind a try sometime.

– A commonly used phrase here seems to be “kai gogo” which means “good girl”. People tell me that I’m a good girl all the time. This feels quite strange.

– Sometimes the cheese squeaks on my teeth when I chew it. I’m not saying the cheese is bad or anything, just a little weird to have your food squeak.

– I’ve learned that life is fine without a microwave.

– One of the things I miss the most is my sewing machine and by extension crafting and costumes. Think when I come back I’m going to put some effort into actually learning how to make quality costumes.

-And finally, Battlestar Galactica provided me with a quote I’ve found myself returning to quite often the last few weeks, “It may feel like hell but sometimes lost is where you need to be. Just because you don’t know your direction doesn’t mean you don’t have one. ”

*Not his real name