1. Wine And Body
At first I thought it was just a jab thrown out to try and persuade me to drink with a total stranger at the gym. I later find out a vast majority of people believe wine makes your body "strong." I will say it's probably kept my illnesses to a minimum—at least the "strong" village variety, that is.
2. Allergy Allegories
What's an allergy? Whatever it is, it certainly isn't caused by any vegetation blossoming in the spring or the factory plume down the road. If it ain't a cold or the flu you've probably just not been eating enough bread and cheese.
There's nothing better than a nice glass of cold water on a hot, sunny day. There's also no better way to enhance sickness. Cold water in this country not only weakens your immune system, it also removes the tissue in your throat (hence the sore throat).
4. Vitamin F
Since I've been here I've been taking a multi-vitamin every day to try and keep my health above par. But I was not aware until a couple months ago that vitamins make you fat. I guess the kinkhali wasn't the real kicker for my fat ass.
5. Wet Feet
I'm really surprised people even get in the bathtub here without proper leg protection. Dampness is the worst enemy to feet (and hair as well) and will cause all kinds of medical ailments if meshed together. You'd better run and hide if you come home with wet feet and your grandmother notices.
6. Living the High Life
Despite the typical walks through mud-lined roads and unbalanced sidewalks, women should always wear high heels when going out. And make sure they are clean, Madam.
7. Take Out The Trash
River banks make perfect spots for cows and goats to roam and eat...town leftovers. It's OK to throw your plethora of garbage anywhere you like, just as long as it isn't near a church or historic religious site. Picnic anyone?
I believe the game was invented by a Georgian man sometime around the dawn of Russian automobiles, as drivers here have no other objective than to run you (the pedestrian) the F off the road. Horns are an afterthought used to let you know you were almost hit by a vehicle traveling much faster than your guardian angel.
9. Boys and Girls
In Georgia you're either a bad boy, a good boy, a good girl, a bad girl or just flat-out crazy. My family says I'm a kargi (good) beechi, but I still contend that I'm just a young man with patchy facial hair and a 3-lari haircut.
10. A Shared Tradition
If the salt and the carbohydrates don't wear your down, make sure to hitch a ride for all short distances. Why walk 300 meters when there are motor vehicles that can keep your legs fresh and your blood pressure high?
Saltwater began to fill my face, trickling from my head like a leaky faucet. I gripped the shovel with my grimy, blister-laced hands and took one last stab into the mud.
It was the first time my entire body had felt physically tired since I had been here—and I kind of liked it.
People in this part of the world work hard for their land because, for all practical purposes, need it to survive. If the land is fertile this summer, the grapes and the beans will supply rewards for Mamuka's family in the fall.
But it wasn't until I worked in the field did I appreciate the life of those who live there.
Half of me is quite sad that I won't be able to see the benefits of the hard work this fall. The other part is tangled in the mystery and imagination of it all and would be disappointed I wouldn't be able to create my own "field of dreams."
Switching topics. Today was a bit of a shitshow at school.
I had just entered the teachers' lounge when a mysterious man made his way to the nearby couch.
Dressed in slacks, a button-down shirt and a bright green jacket, he didn't fit the profile of a village parent, nor a friend of any of the staff.
I gazed across the room to see if I could find approval, but all I found were blank stares. Several teachers looked at me in bewilderment and some looked away, hoping to avoid any unwanted discussions.
Eka entered the room and soon things became much more clear. As the banter became more vivid, Tomriko, who was sitting not far from me in a corner, explained that he was the ex school director and was claiming that "the school was mine."
For nearly an hour the man paced around the school grounds. The teachers were on high guard for the increasingly obvious bi-polar, skitzo; until the po po showed to settle the dispute.
I was removed from my 3rd period class to sit in on the questioning. I'm not exactly sure why (maybe because the guy talked to me?) since my Georgian is about as broken as the lighting system in the school, but I was there—taking pictures of the "show."
The man of the hour getting an earful.
wacks. I'm currently typing this on my phone while sitting in the
teachers' lounge at school.
The building is a chaotic today as the seniors are rounding up their
final day as students and the elementary tots have been parading the
halls, awaiting their spring production.
This morning I attended a small ceremony in which the outgoing class
was presented champagne, cake and farewell wishes from the teachers. I
was asked to present them some words in English and all I could really
think to say---besides congrats, of course---was that "it will only
get better from here."
I thought back to my graduation ceremony and remembered how excited
and scared I was about the unknown and how I never wanted to get old.
I wondered what was going through their heads and if they thought I
was just being nice when I said what I did.
But I was quickly presented with a shirt to sign. In Georgia it is a
custom to have your classmates (and possibly teachers) sign your shirt
with marker. It is in a lot of ways like our yearbook tradition, only
a lot more personal.
Soon all 8 wanted me to sign and take a group picture, even though I
had never taught or spoken with any of them before.
It was a bit flattering, but more so humbling. Kids here appreciate
tradition, customs,family and guests a bit more than at home---at
least at an earlier age.
And I may not necessarily miss trying to teach them English, I will in
fact miss the interaction.
Sent from my mobile device
Just outside of the furthest reaches of Tskhratskaro and Kvaliti is a place in which few know...and likely, few go.
A few shots from a recent trip to Tbilisi. We walked around the riverfront market and found some pretty interesting things, including an old Soviet Army hat that I purchased for 8 lari.
It was the first prayer of the day, but not the first time I had been caught off guard by the Muslim call to worship.
The Kayseri bus station was undoubtedly speaker linked to a nearby Mosque and gave Crystal, Bradley and me our first taste of the outside-Christian world at…you guessed it…5 a.m.
We arrived at the station around 9 p.m. after a nearly 12-hour trek from Trabzon, a city we decided to skip over due to its unpromising weather and relatively boring layout.
Because the next bus to Goreme—our next travel stop—was not until 7 a.m., we decided to bite the bullet and crash in a small cafe on the opposite end of the station.
When the prayer started, I was in mid stride to the lavatory, (as I had suffered a bit of food poisoning from some Turkish doner sandwich that had probably been sitting on a shelf for the better part of the day) and literally almost had the shit scared out of me—for real.
The second 5 a.m.-er hit me (with less bowl-erly force) while I was sound asleep inside a cave hostel, yet it woke me with a smile on my face.
I was in a cave. I was in Turkey. I was in culture bliss.
Despite the touristy aspects of Goreme, the small Cappedocian town carries a lot of charm, as well as a lot of historical marks that can only be described fully by pictures. The plateaus, rock formations and BC-dated caves that outline numerous valleys of lush vegetation are in fact like many locales in Star Wars—only without vicious Tuscian raiders or jawas.
For three days we roamed the landscape and explored Pigeon and Love Valleys, as well as nearby towns and rocky cliffs that hid ancient churches and religious relics. We also ran into numerous TLG friends and also had an awkward animal experience.
Now, I can’t say Turkish people are anymore overbearing salesmen/women than Georgians, but they certainly are a lot better at swindling camel rides.
After Crystal showed interest in taking a picture of a couple humpbacks we discovered parked behind a shop just outside of the city, we were quickly (forcefully) thrown onto the beasts and dragged around a small perimeter for about…hmm..I dunno…five minutes.
Five unwanted camel minutes= 30 lira (or 18 bucks).
I told the guy “No way, no how.” And split like a camel jockey fleeing from a sandstorm.
After exploring a nearby ridge on our first day in Goreme that was roughly 3 km or so from the Panoramic hostel where we were staying at, we decided to pitch the tent we brought and give it a go for the second night.
We had a fire. We had a stray dog. We had food and drinks. But we had no clothing preparations for the elements.
And if there was some consolation for the busted experience, daybreak exemplified one of the prettiest scapes in the world; with hot air balloons draped over a rising sun and Mt. Erciyes peaking above a layer of clouds.
It was cold…but perfect.
Despite the beauty and history lessons provided in the Gorematic experience, the ultimate goal of our trip to Turkey was to find some better weather than what we left with—preferably on the water.
Not far from our town-stay in Old Town was a large bazaar, and a harbor that sat on water as clean as that of Nassau or St. Thomas. Near the waters' edge of the public beach, Crystal made friends with some Turk kids, who were quick to relocate to our towels and request pictures and our Facebook contacts.
Besides doners and the westernized fast food (that the country surprisingly has a lot of), Antalya's choice for nom included boiled eggs, tomatoes, cucumbers, sesame bread, spiced meats and lots and lots of yogurt.
The Turks as a whole drink mostly tea—lots of tea. If you are in a café you drink tea. If you are walking on the street you drink tea. And much like the South, sugar is a big part of that drinking.
After a day on the coast, we headed further west to the ancient Greek town of Olympos to stay in what we thought would be a tree house hostel. It wasn’t exactly a tree house, but I believe the buildings were made out of some type of wood (at least they looked like it).
Our housemates included an Australian/Swiss (it’s a weird story) and a German named Mathias Burger, who we became hiking buddies with. Like us, Mathias is a teacher in a foreign country (Bulgaria) working for he government and came down on holiday to basically do exactly what we were doing—whatever he wanted.
Most of the guests in the town were westerners, with a large concentration of Brits and Aussies camping at our “tree house.”
The trails around Olympos are quite exotic, littered with ancient Greek stadiums, bathhouses and ruins. The Med is also a five-minute walk from the main road.
I made it about 15-feet up the side of one of the less straight edges before deciding to jump and save my feet for another day.
It was probably a good idea since the long walks from bus stations and hikes in one pair of damp Sauconys provided plenty of blisters without any help from me purposely being an idiot.
So instead of no sleep, we were able to scrounge up four hours—a pure lifesaver for a group too tired to even argue. I don’t remember the guy’s name we stayed with but I do remember his hair, which was different than most of the younger males in the country.
I don’t know how to describe the hairstyle other than a mullet with Turkish flair. Some guys even had a bit of a rattail that fell just below the last bit of the horrifically awesome do (I totally wanted one but dreaded explaining to my host family what the hell I was thinking).
For me, there’s nothing better than starting a workday with an onslaught of sunlight. Despite not moving the clock ahead, the days are significantly longer (sun setting around 9 p.m.) than they were just a couple weeks ago, providing an extra spark of Georgian teaching significance that was undoubtedly missing from my life.
I guess you could call it a “Mid-Summer Night’s Dream” for a Western Florida boy.
The daily spark has been vital, as my classes have been manageable, but not dzalian kargi (very good). As my relationships with my students have grown in time, so has my impatience with their laziness. Lately I’ve been bringing my laptop to class to assist with listening exercises as I've found that just pulling it out and putting it on the table grabs their attention (they rarely listen to Tamrico reading from the book).
“Play music” and “Let me see your games” are typical responses I get from the older kids. The younger tots just wait for my next move, like skittish animals waiting to see if it’s OK to come a little closer for the kill.
I use the glamour to bait them and an old Macintosh trick to pull them in.
Think back to the mid ‘90s Disney movie “Blank Check,” where a young chap uses a voice over on his computer to create a different identity known as Mr. Macintosh so that he can cash a blank check he acquired from a crime lord.
Well, I’ve begun using the same formula in the classroom—only with a text document. For all practical purposes I do not need any mode of assistance to teach English pronunciations, but a computer voice is just so much cooler and makes more sense to a bunch of undisciplined 13-year-olds. The little shits in class are still gonna be little shits in class. But at least they give pause when the phantom English teacher enters the room.
Friday I went on an unexpected field trip to Kutaisi with the highschoolers to visit an army base. As I've explained before, I live on the seat of my pants around these here parts—delightfully unprepared for my next foolish mistake.
When we reached the base, I still had no idea what we were doing and looked like a complete asshole when an officer had to confiscate my Swiss Army Knife at the gate.
Although they scoured my pockets with a medal detector, they let me keep my 10-lb backpack without checking it. I guess they figured the Russians couldn’t buy out an American for another Kutaisi bomb plot.
For the boys, the guns, tanks and all the sophisticated military equipment on display was like a real-life Candyland. The girls and I had were over the recruiting hoopla in 10 minutes and enjoying the dziani amindi (sunny weather) with ara skola (no school).
The trip on base truly brought out the gayness in the boys. And when I say gay, I mean gay.
It’s still quite strange to me how a country controlled by Catholicism and 1950s male-dominated behavior is so touchy feely. The older boys (and even men sometimes) are constantly holding and practically fondling one another in the classroom and in public.
Gay-a-phobs is what I call them.
But hey, whatever gives you that spark, I guess. I’ll stick to the Georgian sunlight…and to myself.
The most recent example of my detachment of communication resulted in the indefinite loss of Mr. Nokia. I can't even make up a great excuse for losing "him" besides the fact that I was crammed between a railing and a window.
This was the second time (within a month) I've dropped the phone while in transit. The first time was in a teacher's car on the way home from school. This time I dropped it in a crack between my seat and the sliding door on my way to Kutaisi last weekend.
It's not as though I hate the phone, although it's pretty much dated in the "Saved by the Bell" era, I just don't have the awareness of it like I do with my Blackberry—that used to live on my hand.
But the problem of phone-loss syndrome isn't a problem for me in a communication sense. No, no, I'm quite OK without my phonebook of three people. The problem lies within my host family.
You see, when a Georgian has a problem, everybody has a problem.
Families here are very close and always up in ya biznis...and everybody elses'. And as much as I like the close bonds and togetherness, I also hate them.
If my family knew my Liberty Bank card got eaten by an ATM in Armenia or I carelessly dropped my phone on a bus in another city, it would be an all-out embarrassing production of trying to help and would involve getting others involved that have no business getting involved (evident with anything the dumb American loses or does wrong).
I mistakenly told Goga about my problem after I inquired his help about unlocking my Blackberry from T-Mobile. Since then, he has questioned me extensively about finding it and even threatened to tell his mother about the loss.
The culture apparently hasn't really caught up with the once-thought-normal concept of having personal problems and/or realizing when a problem should be handled solo.
It was actually a topic of conversation I had with an English-speaking girl who works at the Zestafoni Police Dept. After failing to get anywhere with marshultka drivers and reporting my loss to TLG, I went to the hot fuzz to help track it down since they seemingly are never doing in this town.
I was referred to (nameless) since the five men in blue smoking cigarettes and watching Telemundo inside the main office weren't exactly making progress in explaining my steps on filing a report.
(Nameless), who carried a perky smile and easy-going demeanor, was more than willing to help me cut through red tape with the department, block the sim card at Geocell and talk about my frustration of independence.
"In this country you are always a child," she told me. "It doesn't matter how old you are. I am ready to be on my own. I want to move to England."
The fact that she was one of the only 20-somethings from this town I've met who speaks English knocked me back a few steps. The fact she was ready to be on her own in another country almost knocked me to the ground.
Bravo to you, young lady. Maybe the "Leave it to Beaver" mindset of Georgia isn't as strong as I thought.
Or maybe I'm losing more than just my telephone.
The feel of a plump, circular bruise on my shin has subsequently signified the start of spring. After a week of brilliant sunshine, warm weather and football games involving me running for my life from 10-year-olds, I think the transition is complete.
Despite one of my students being expelled last week (he's a little shit) classes have settled down a bit. Tomriko and I have been able to reach a similar teaching page, which has resulted in me playing more games and instructing more activities with the better classes.
One of which was a listening exercise with English music from my laptop. For the first time since
I've been here, all of the classes were attentive and ready to participate. The song game spawned interest from my 7th graders (best class) to sing the ABC song. I'm not exactly sure why, but they wanted to sing it—even though they didn't really know it.
I even tried throwing in "Old McDonald" at the end of the lesson, but they were more interested in me singing Michael Jackson.
Not a chance.
I've come to terms with the fact that close to half of the Tskhratskaro kids (particularly the boys) are unteachable. That sounds a bit cynical, but classes range from 4 to 12 students, so the odds are not in favor of any idealist notion that the majority will one day leave the country and put their mark on Hallmark or The New York Times .
That's not to say they aren't smart. I just figure if you're used to drawing and making paper objects in the back of class and automatically passing, you probably don't really need to give a damn about past participles or how to pronounce "brilliant."
Speaking of brilliant, I lost my TLG phone—again. I'll talk more about that at a later date.
The main convenient store, which I basically consider the Zestafoni town center, began selling ice cream outside last Monday and even added another cell phone money machine. Either the town just upped its anti or they've discovered my western weaknesses.
Spirli or Spiliri. I'm not exactly sure how to spell it or say it, but I was a guest of it on Saturday. It's a village about 20 minutes away where Lollie (I still can't spell her name correctly) Bebia has a home.
Initial plans were to stay for the night. Of course I had no idea what kind of conditions I would be facing and had not prepared for an all-out camping trip inside brick walls. There wasn't enough heat or booze in that place to keep a 600 lb bear warm, so I was thankful Eka pulled the plug on the idea around dark.
So even though I feel the sting of spring, it's still Georgia—not Florida. And although there are days in March in which the thermometer will break the 60-degree mark, you must still wear a coat to appease the "sick" gods that watch over this country.
Or at least the mortals that cook you lobio.
In other news, there are new options in the documentary plan. I met an education coordinator in Kuitasi that is from the northern Caucus region. His family is now living in Poti due to the conflict in the region.
I'm hoping to get the ball rolling on the project in the next few weeks.
It was a relief to be in a room with other people who shared similar teaching problems, yet I was a bit perplexed as to why we had to make the trek to Kutaisi to hear about them.
Because TLG is a young program, it has many wrinkles to iron out—one being its communication system. Unless I'm friends with a fellow teacher on FB or see them in Zestafoni, I really have no idea what they are experiencing or how they are teaching their kids.
So much hearsay and misunderstanding seems to float in this country, yet I'm amazed at how well things seem to work themselves out in this country.
Despite the setbacks with infrastructure, power, internet and books, the Ministry is optimistic on creating an overall of the entire education system. It plans on bringing in thousands of more Western teachers in the next few years (including German and Italian) to create a population of more than one half that can speak English by 2013.
It's ambitious. It's bold. It's progressive for a country that has a constitution that states it can't fail its students—despite how far behind they are.
Getting passed the Soviet hump is certainly the biggest challenge as most of the teachers in schools outside of new schools in Tbilisi are old and ingrained with the doctrine of "bad students and good students," which pens one side of the room with unmotivated outcasts against one side of those who are more than willing to participate in lessons.
After nearly two months, I'm still struggling with connecting with my teacher, Tamrico. Teaching in the village at a small school, Tamrico is the only English instructor I share a classroom with. My comrades in Zestaponi have at least three they see on a daily basis.
Today, Tamrico and I met with other teachers/co-teaching volunteers for a workshop discussing the problem of lesson planning. I'm hoping the light on the issue will make her want to work as a team in the coming weeks and develop collaborative lesson plans that share the teaching roles and in turn create a more constructive environment that isn't so damn boring.
It's pretty frustrating when you spend more than half of a lesson correcting book mistakes and answering teacher questions instead of actually doing something of relevance.
Most of the kids are pretty comfortable with me now and even give me daps (fist pounds) when I walk in the door, which is why it's quite embarrassing that I'm uncomfortable with them on a classroom level.
I know things take time. But time, money, and bright students/teachers are things the country would be foolish to waste on old habits.
It's the kind of feeling you can never prepare for, but you know you have to deal with at some point down the road. I had never couch surfed before, which was not unlike several in our group visiting Yerevan. But nonetheless, I was a newbie—in limbo.
It wasn't so much the uneasiness of being in some stranger's house or encountering weird foreigners that were sharing the living space, it was the pure anxiety that came with the notion I was not going to sleep at all.
And I was right.
Reza is an early 20-something Iranian going to school at the American University. Besides the fact that the house rules state you must take your shoes off, everything else was very westernized. If I didn't already know I was 12,000 km from home, I would have guessed I was shacking at a frat house back home.
After two nights of being on the floor with fellow TLGers, random backpackers from Eastern Europe and Asia and Peace Corps kids, levels of exhaustion reached great heights—forcing the four of us from our group who hadn't already abandoned ship to do so. We retreated to another surfer's home a few blocks away, an Indian student named Sumit, who was equally as hospitable and entertaining but provided a much quieter setting.
Our days were mostly spent zigzagging the countryside; visiting old churches, graveyards, lakes and pagan sites built nearly a thousand years ago. It's always mind-numbing for me to think about how old stuff is in this part of the world but its everywhere, making it a delightful continuity since you see it on every turn.
Instead of relying on taxis or tour buses to get us to where we wanted to go outside of Yerevan, we decided to rent a marshultka, which was actually cheaper in the long run and also allowed us to catch up on the sleep we lost on the cold floor since we had room to spread out. Our driver's name was Roman, who actually preferred to be called Rafael for some reason and enjoyed playing us a mixture of Armenian and English pop songs...over and over again.
For three days Rafael drove us everywhere, including his home, where he fed us fresh fruit and coffee and even offered to let someone milk a cow (but no one did...thank God).
The second day we headed southwest to visit a church built on a well that housed the first supporter of Christianity in the country. For 13 years the "well guy" was forced by the king to live in the dark hole, where he survived only on the food that some village women provided him out of pity. It was said that years later he converted the country over to form the first state of Christianity...but don't ask me how.
I didn't climb all the way down the main well, as I was more intrigued by the mountainous landscape in the distance. From a ridge not far from the church, Mt. Ararat stood gallantly in a light blue backdrop of Turkey—flaunting its beauty to all who held a camera.
Ararat is in fact the mountain most religions believe Noah's Ark sits on. Looking at the white, ridged outlines on its side, all I could think of is R.E.M.'s "Man on the Moon."
"If you believe they put a man on the moon. If you believe there's nothing out there to see."
I'd like to believe there's something up there worth looking for. It kind of adds to the whole intrigue of a 16,000+ foot mountain.
It's interesting to note that every historical site we visited sported a U.S. Aid sticker somewhere in the vicinity. America is of course known for providing the service to countries across the world, but Armenia has an interesting relationship with the west since it holds great ties with Russia and Iran.
The added pressure of keeping a wedge between the two rocky states somehow obligates our government to fork up some extra dough to support its tourism. So, the next time you hear some politician ranting about social programs to cut, just remember Armenian churches and museums...and KFC/Pizza Huts.
Yerevan was the most cosmopolitan city I've seen thus far in the caucus states. The modern architecture and mixture of cultures has created an beautiful array of restaurants, night clubs and department stores in its centre.
Tbilisi may have more color, but Yerevan certainly has more trees...in a metaphorical sense of course.
Yer-e even has a few karaoke bars, which of course was one of my highlights of the trip (Kenny Rogers, The Beatles, Queen and George Michael if you were wondering).
I skipped out on the inevitably depressing Genocide Museum (remembering the 1915 Ottoman Empire onslaught on the Armenian people) tour and wandered the streets, finding another museum of manuscripts and a bookstore that housed a copy of Hemmingway's "The Old Man in the Sea" for 600 dram ($1.50) that I for some reason felt obligated to buy.
I thought about buying a present for my host family, but then I remembered where I heard Armenians had gold teeth, stole and were basically liars and I thought better of it.
I'm not exactly sure why all the caucus states hate each other. Maybe it's kind of like America's fascination of blaming Canada for being so passively perfect or Mexico for having such cheap workers.
I think I'll just hate Turkey and call it a day.
I've also got a new habit of commenting on people's articles of clothing while walking by. "Nice hat" and "Look at dem sneakers" are two of my favs.
Last Thursday, one of my students was pants-ed in class...causing a roaring applause from the other students and even a laughing breakdown from my teacher. I was almost tempted to comment on his shoes, but I figured it might push the fun limit for a cold, dark classroom.
On that particular day, I took a hike deep into the village to try to get a few pics of the surrounding peaks. For a mere five minutes I stood on a path dividing two feet of snow and listened to nothing but sparrows, turkeys and the occasional cow moo. But then it came—as expected—like a cue from the heavens to end any sense of loneliness or mountain euphoria.
Of course I had to respond to the elder gentleman tending to the chickens in his gated yard. Of course in doing this, I would blow my cover.
Before I could explain (in my broken Georgian) that I was teaching at the school down the hill, a young man came running up to greet me. I was stuck—in Georgian Standard Time.
Besides taking me to all the best spots for views and letting me use some longer boots to tread the powder, he also wanted to eat and take shots with the grandfolks and play around with the rifle out back.
If I knew the exact words for "I'd love to get drunk and shoot all afternoon with you, man," I likely would have stayed. Instead I made the unpopular decision and proceeded out the door with a bag of vashlees (apples) and typical 10-minute coaxing of goodbyes before making the long trek down the icy terrain.
That's Georgia for ya. One of the hospitable and scenic countries in the world—that you'll never see by yourself.
My weekend was spent nestled in the ski resort mecca of Eastern Europe, Bakuriani. It's about an hours drive from Zestaponi if you were to take a straight shot by car. But in the land of marshutkas, bad roads and weather, it takes more like four.
Crystal, Brennan and me left town somewhere around 3 p.m. and were on pace to reach the top of the mountain by 6. But, like I said before, it's a different land of transportation. After reaching Bajormi (the closest real town), we faced a predicament: take a taxi for 20 lari or wait on a possible marshutka to show up, which would be cheaper.
We took the suggestion of one of the other TLG folks who had met up with us at the fork (now making the group 4) and took the safe bet—from hell.
Looking at it in hindsight, it was a lot like fjording the river on Oregon Trail and having your wagon sink to the bottom and killing everyone because you were too lazy and impatient to wait on the ferry.
About halfway up the hill, the smell of smoke began to fill the old Russian "wagon." I was beginning to ignore it in an effort to ease my anxiety until I noticed where it was coming from—the center console.
A mountain is a radiator's worst enemy. But for this Russian piece of shit, it was the grim reaper.
After a 30-minute wait in the freezing cold and snow for the vehicle to cool down, it cranked and we made it into town. Or so we thought.
The next breakdown put us in sight of civilization, but it also left us on an icy road that made it very difficult for the stopped car to gain traction.
"Modi, modi! (come here)!" the driver shouted as he opened his door, signaling Brennan and I to push from the rear.
This is where my wagon hit the bottom.
After a quick push and slip and slide session, the driver took off...speeding down the road. I stood in disbelief as I watched the brake lights fade into the night sky.
Where the hell am I? Who the hell is going to pay this guy? And more importantly, who the hell is going to get my luggage out of that paddy wagon before it bursts into flames.
The questions of reason quickly transformed into cursing murmurs beneath my breath and a fake smile to keep my good mood intact.
I was here. I had made it to the most magical place in the country in one piece. I guess I'll count my lucky oxen on that one.
Oh yea, the snowboarding and all that other jazz was good, too.
It was only 25 lari to join the Zestafoni fitness club, but I would have likely paid double since they offer hot showers and a place of majestic comfort that I can actually process thoughts.
Well, since it was another skola-less day, I trekked through the snow to the fitness club as the sun was first poking its head out (8:30). The lady who runs the facility now knows me and my habitual ways and immediately drops her cigarette and paper when I walk in the door to plug in one of the only power-needed pieces of equipment in the three-room building.
Don't get me wrong, I very much enjoy learning Georgian (one of the 14 original languages in the world) and feeling as though I'm actually teaching people English. But just like with any situation or location you live in, it's sometimes nice to remain quiet and fly under the radar.
Today, while reveling in the quiet, aerobic time, I began to think about the displaced people in this country. The other night I had a dream about the refugees from the Russian-occupied regions who are now living on the outskirts of Tbilisi.
I have this yearning to know more about them. How are they coping after three years? What do they do? And more importantly, were they forced to live in the miles of slum-like buildings on a desolate hillside?
As I ventured out of the capitol nearly a month ago to the unknown teaching adventure, I really didn't question what I saw on the roadside. I was sick, tired and a bit over thinking about any Georgian history or culture.
Now that I live here, I feel it is almost my job to get to the bottom of my surroundings. My family is not far from the Soviet tree so I don't pry too far into the relationship between the two countries or bring up current political affairs with the president without being prompted.
Altogether, there really isn't much said about the 2008 August conflict. Everyone here is aware that things are on the up and end (and credit the revolution of the current president), but besides a few "F*&ck Russia" graffiti tats on overpasses, no one in my region seems concerned or bothered with the giant to the East.
War is war. The aftermath is always hard to recover from on all fronts; particularly when you've still got a power that has a hand on the other country's affairs—or land.
In many ways, Georgia is a lot like a kid who just got in a bike for the first time without training wheels. It still doesn't know how to function without a Soviet hand on its back for support.
When it gets warmer, I hope to venture into the Tblisi temp housing and investigate what is going on there. All I need is a bit of financial backing and a decent camera and I've got the next Sundance winner. Right? Any offers?
I’m kind of getting used to three…four…or five-day weekends. Teaching in a mountainous village has its advantages and disadvantages—depending on how you view them.
Today it wouldn’t matter where you were in the Zestaponi metropolis, as the previous night of winter weather undoubtedly shut down just about everything—including the power.
Snowball wars filled the sidewalks and yards and spinning tires spun chunks of ice and mud throughout the streets.
I partook in several snow fights that reveled the smaller kids against the big kid. I did get my revenge in an organized fight on the No. 2 School basketball court. It was there we made snow “walls” that divided two teams of crafty competitors.
The fight was short-lived, but I got to show off the ol’ gun. I can really start to feel my age when dodging ice bullets from 15-year-olds. Just as the young kids at school never call a ceasefire when throwing pens and popping plastic bags, the teenagers don’t let an old man catch his breath on the playground.
Tonight I was hoping for a little Telemundo or Late Night Comedy Club on the Georgian channel to relax with, but a presidential candidate debate has clogged the airwaves.
It’s interesting watching a political debacle in a foreign land with foreigners who care about it.
Bebia Lily is glued to the screen like her next batch of puri is dependent on it. Maybe it is…It’s not like I know what they are spewing into the mic.
Much like our debates, opponents have a certain amount of time to answer a question or spill their beans about how they will save the world and cut taxes or what have you. Only in Georgia, opponents and many in the audience are talking, laughing or turned around doing something else besides giving attention to the man on stage.
The people here would give you the shirt off your back if you asked, but they’d also cut you in line at the supermarket or throw a paper airplane during your State of The Union address.
It’s just a different way of thinking, I guess.
A few of us TLG folk were supposed to hit the mountain tomorrow to go boarding, but our driver looks to have a sick car. No transportation to mountain equates to me taking a marshutka to Kutasi to get a McFlurry and bum high-speed Internet.
Over and Out.
My TLG friends who have been in the area since last September have the scavenger process down to a science and are pretty good at getting the nonessential items that I'd never even think to look for.
On Wednesday, Julene hosted another dinner party. It was the second one in the past two weeks and the second time I discovered new food outside of Georgian cuisine (not that I hate the food here)
Fajitas aren't exactly fajitas from home. But they are close enough to create a sense of Mexican-ia in a land that doesn't have the word "salsa" in its dictionary.
This week I wised up and got a pair of rain boots at the bazar after realizing my other shoes were likely going to remain sveli (wet) for the rest of the winter without the change.
I'm not sure if I mentioned this before but the weather here is a lot like a washing machine's spin cycle—of shittiness. We had a near hurricane last weekend with gale force winds and power outages across town.
Watch out Pacific Northwest...you may soon lose your copywritten weather charm.
I did eat crow on Thursday as it finally warmed up and the sun peaked its unfamiliar head out for a few hours. My kids at school were relatively cooperative and building was for once not an icebox.
As soon as my marshutka dropped me off at my stop, I knew what I had to do...find my running shorts...and pray to God Lily bebia wasn't home to see me do so.
Georgians seem to have a rule of thumb about seasonal dressing: if it's winter, it's cold and if it's summer, it's warm. There is no, "Oh, it's warm on this particular February day so maybe I'll wear something a bit lighter."
I managed to sneak outside of my flat with little backlash besides a deafening laugh from Goga. I'll take it as a win and chalk it up to my price to pay for a sunny day in the Imeriti region.
On the third floor, a dim light led us down a cold and vacant hallway. We heard a bit of rustling from one of doors, so we entered. A pair of beady, black eyes gazed at us, cautiously following our movement to the back of the room. Goga quickly introduced himself and told the disgruntle man I was an American. The man stood up and smiled and told me (in English) to sit down.
For nearly 45 minutes we sat in this small room, watching a stranger play internet poker. I was freezing and quickly losing patience with both of them. Goga had high hopes that the patience would be rewarded with a box of internet bliss. Wrong.
I asked numerous times who the hell the guy was before I was told he was the town ISP master. A man...in a small room...inside the post office...with one computer and a pack of cigarettes...controlled the town's internet.
One thing I've learned about the town of Zestaponi and Georgian culture in general is that you should never expect anything. You may see a vacant building. They may see a bank, town center or mail delivery depot...or internet hub. You should also never plan on set times at school or with family outings...the people run on Georgian Standard Time (which is about 3 hours behind whatever time you are on)
I'm still searching for my set of perceptive eyes and GST clock.
Thursday and Friday were a wash for me. Because of the snow, my school shut its doors. I ran a lot of errands with my family and even visited a friend's host sister (who lives next door to me in my complex) in the hospital, who had just had kidney stones removed.
Yeah, that's right. Kidney stones.
Think 1950s doctors meets abandoned building of cold and darkness. Terrifying.
I could only sit in her room for about 10 minutes before I needed to get out. For a short moment, I realized why everyone in this country smokes and drives like assholes. Everything is stressful and completely unexpected. I'm oddly starting to like it.
This week's snowfall created a blanket of beauty across the area and made Zestaponi the most beautiful place in the entire world (to my eyes). Yesterday I ran across the river and hiked to the large temple, which sits on a hillside and faces the heart of the town's infrastructure.
I imagine it was built in that location because it was a vacant area that could be seen for miles away. But I like to think it was built in that exact spot because of the beauty that encompasses it on a late winter day. And despite whatever stress or deconstructive elements I have, I feel at peace on that hillside...like nothing else matters.
Unfortunately, I heard the drip of water falling from the rooftop hitting my window and screeching tires splashing puddles to the curb. Oh well.
Today is cold and dreary, meaning the school children were clumped inside the school building without any outdoor physical activity--equating to a shitshow of hyperactivity.
If only it had snowed...if only.
But today was not a total wash of negativity. I attended my first "English Club" at the Zestaponi learning center. The club is designed as an afterschool activity where TLG teachers can interact with children through games (such as Jenga and Uno) to help them learn English.
The weather forecast calls for snow tomorrow and Wednesday. We shall see. I told my friend Crystal that if we don't get any of the white stuff this week, I'm resorting to building a snowman out of the stockpiles of trash lining the river bank.
Who knows, maybe I could sell my trashy piece of abstract brilliance?
Me Skola (my school) has been OK thus far. On Thursday, I kicked around the football with some of the kids. It was of course better than sitting in the cold, cement building, hoping to help teach them something and inadvertently allowed me to gain a bit of trust with some of the older ones.
One of my students, Georgi (gor-gi), always approaches me in the hallway now to say hello. He never really pays attention in the classroom or gets any attention from his primary English teacher, so maybe I'll be able to help him at some point down the line.
My deida has been terribly ill the past few days and has not moved much from the living room. According to Goga (my English go-to source for information in the family), the doctor told her she'd be fine in a few days. I'm not sure if she caught some type of 15th-century plague or her immune system is shot, but I'm trying to get my distance.
Yesterday, I went into Kutaisi (K'ut'aisi) since it is just a short marshutka (mini-bus) ride up the highway and promised new sights and sounds outside of my gloomy, trash-laden home of Zestaponi.
I could blab about the cobblestone old town, pristine waterfront and statues of people I've never heard of, but the truth is...I relished in the beauty of its McDonald's.
At home I rarely ever eat the fast-food burger chain, but after more weeks of living of non-American food, it looked like a piece of heaven in a piece of cardboard. Cheers to being a fat American!
Speaking of food, tonight I ate some very good bean soup, barley and some type of meat dish. Of course, a side of bread was a must. It was the first time in a few days (outside of my McDonald's stint) that I really was hungry. I guess a 4-mile run around the city (looking like a crazy man) and nabbing only an orange and apple from a street vendor for lunch can build that type of food craze.
I'll blog later this week about my new fruit stand business.
Over and Out,
I had no real expectations of the area—or my host family for that matter—and was completely riding adrenaline induced by anxiety and lack of sleep from the past week in Tbilisi. As we pulled onto a road behind a large, older, apartment building, I began to feel my legs shake (more so than they normally do).
There were chickens and stray dogs running through the muddy potholes surrounding the complex. Kids stood against a wall, lighting Black Cat firecrackers, and a few men worked on starting an older Volkswagen. It was like the movie depictions of Eastern Europe, yet it was now my home. Cool.
My host mother (deida) and father (mama) greeted me at the steps with the casual Gamarjobat (hell0) and a few other basic Georgian words. Once I replied, they began speaking fluently as they thought I knew the language.
It took me less than five minutes to realize they spoke no English whatsoever, which made me want to roll into a ball and hide for a few days until I could reassess the situation. Fortunately, their 16-year-old son Goga appeared soon thereafter. A quick hello and kiss on the cheek and I felt like a new man—or one who could at least sleep that evening.
The mother and grandmother (bebia) had prepared a Suphra (feast) of traditional Georgian food. Unfortunately, our group had stopped on the way over and ate, which made me feel like a total ass. "Chame! Chame!" they would say, so I forced down as much as I could and did roughly five toasts of wine before I just couldn't put anymore in my body without splitting a seam.
The apartment as a whole is quite small, comprised of two bedrooms, a half-kitchen and bath, and a living area. Because I'm the guest, I have one of the bedrooms (which has made me feel like a bigger ass). There is no running water, making the bathroom a tricky situation. There is a drain in the middle of the floor, so you heat your water and just let it rain when you want to shower off. I actually don't really mind it (I've caught myself singing).
After a great night's sleep on Saturday, I woke up with a strong desire to go for a run. Well, running in Georgia is a lot like playing field hockey in the South—it just doesn't happen. Roughly 20 minutes of explaining my intentions (Google translate is a godsend) and my father finally understood what I wanted to do. He escorted me a few kilometers on a roadside stretch near the river before saying "go...go" and pointed back to home.
Evenings at home consist primarily of TV time, where everyone sits around near a space heater and watches either the news or some type of either American or American-knock-off programming. They do happen to have Telemundo and some other Mexicali programming. I can't remember what show it is that they love, but it some comedy hour skit they can't get enough of.
Yesterday was my TLG group's first day teaching. I happen to have been placed at a small school in the village of Ckhrackaro—about a 20 minute mini-van (packed with teachers) ride up the mountainside—and I couldn't be happier with the selection. Eta is the "direct'or" or principal of the school of roughly 150 kids. The only way I can describe my out-of-place aura at the school is "unicorn-like." The kids stare, point, smile and pretty much want to be around you as much as they can.
I only have 3 classes to teach, leaving plethora of free time to do other stuff (like explore the terrible outhouse, take pictures of kids outside playing dice and make flashcards for other teachers who want to learn English).
Today I'm home sick. I've been fighting a headcold/mild flu virus the last few days and it finally caught up to me enough that my host family (who is unbelievably caring and overly protective) would not let me go to work today. Last night they called a doctor for a house visit once they found out I had a temperature. They really are great people despite throwing scary doctor visits on me.
The grandma, who basically speaks Russian, is the only other person home right now. I think she was a bit leery of me at first since I'm American, but she's really started to try and communicate more and more and has been as nice as can be. She just put a blanket on my back and told me to drink some more ch'ai (tea).
Hopefully I'll be up to par in a few days and can provide some interesting updates on Zestaponi (I love saying that word).
Last night (it's currently Friday, 8:18 a.m.), we were able to visit with current TLG teachers and hear their stories about the host families and the schools in which we'll teach.
Things I've learned thus far about Georgian people as a whole: They like to drink, eat, and be merry at any chance they can. They are a lot like the Turks in that they will always negotiate prices with market and mall vendors; even taxi drivers.
They are also a very proud people, comprised of primarily orthodox religious cultural beliefs and go to church frequently. They believe women should be virgins before marriage (not men...still curious how that works?) and find homosexuality appalling (except in a few progressive pockets of Tbilisi). Although the people are really friendly, they don't smile. Although, I'm told they once did before the economy tanked and the Russians started ruining things again.
On Wednesday, my hotel roommate Logan and I met up with our friend Monica to eat dinner and check out the casino at the 5-star Raddison hotel in Tbilisi's uptown. The food was amazing, particularly the egg pastries and the eggplant and bread we ordered, which I'm still feeling today.
While in the restaurant, a group of Georgian men at a table adjacent to us ordered us a bottle of red wine. It was my first experience with local wine (which is relatively sweet if red) and local hospitality.
After chatting with the gentlemen for a few minutes in broken Georgian, we learned that one of the three had been stationed in North Carolina as a marine. I suppose he immediately recognized we were Americans and since it was a holiday (don't ask me which one) he wanted to make us feel at home..."just because."
"Just because" is kind of the attitude people have here. Why not buy a bottle of wine for someone at a random table or kiss a stranger? Why not celebrate with a Supra (huge party) for a villager's birthday down the road that you don't have any relation with. It's just how things are.
And for the casino....yeah, let's just say that James Bond would have been a bit sketched out by the number of Russian big wigs running the show.
I touched down in Tbilisi roughly 60 hours ago, yet I'm pretty sure I just mentally landed a few minutes ago. With a 30-hour initial airport trek—including a 13-hour layover in cold and rainy Warsaw—and extensive training sessions the past two days, I've had very little time to grasp the fact that I'm now residing in some distant, foreign land.
Talk about a head rush.
There are about 75 of us in the Teach and Learn in Georgia program being placed next week in various villages and towns across the country. The program is relatively new, initiated last March by the President and overseen by the State's Ministry of Education. In a sense, we are the fourth guinea pig class to come through; evident by the many unknowns (i.e. where I'm teaching at) we've had to endure. But hey, life's an adventure, right?
Most of my group landed Sunday at 5 a.m. We were transported to a pretty posh (for Georgian standards) hotel called the Bazaleti about 10 minutes from downtown Tbilisi. Although the building is relatively old, quite possibly a former Soviet hospital by the look of its layout, renovation has created a western atmosphere that would give any fine Holiday Inn a serious run for its money.
After getting settled in to our rooms, a few of us that bonded during our long day in Poland cabbed down to an area called "Old Town" and ventured the streets before hiking a ridge overlooking the northern fringe of one of the oldest cities in Eastern Europe. Towering over our hike was the "Woman of Georgia", a large monument erected as a symbol of strength and compassion of Georgian women. I'm not exactly sure the background of the Woman, but that's just what I was told by a few teachers who read a book or two on the area. (I'll take their word for it, I guess) We ended the outing with some delicious khachapuri and local beer before cabbing back to our week-long home.
Oh, and let me give you a brief synopsis of "cabbing" in this part of the world. Think car chase in Terminator on a crowded street from Grand Theft Auto IV...then add an admission fee. A f&*king unreal adventure worth every lari.
My stay in Tbilisi has mostly been crammed with cultural intercommunication and language classes—hopefully preparing us for what's ahead. Our days have started at 9 a.m. and ended somewhere around 9:30 p.m. Although mentally and physically draining, the classes and perspectives from the up-and-coming teachers from across the world have been very satisfying and a bit of relief to my anxiety.
It's nearly midnight and my head is in a fog-like state. A hotel worker finished his night shift with a few piano ballads on the lobby Grand across from where I type, signifying the release of the last drop of energy in my body. Tomorrow we finish our training session early and I hope to explore the city night life.
Stay tuned for more updates.