Those Russian Fires

It started with gamarjoba (hello). It progressed into gamarjos (cheers). Now I regularly just say Grandpa Joe's to the old men walking about the town. They are the only ones that mumble something that depicts rubbish that can be translated into my play on words.

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.



Georgia On My Mind

The language barrier now collapses for a good two hours of my day. As the humming of the conveyor belt starts, I feel at ease. I'm in my own world. A world in which I'm actually exhausted by physical endurance rather than a streak of "lost in translations."

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?



Big Weekends

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.

Oh kids.

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.



It's Always Sunny In Imereti...

I've learned that you can pretty much get anything you need in Zestaponi—just as long as you know the right person or place that can provide it.

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.



Building Deconstruction

Up and down the steps we went. It was like a dark and sadistic version of one of those Suzanne Summers workout tapes from the 80s. Goga was on a quest to replace a modem and I was on a quest to figure out just what in God's name he was trying to do.

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.