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Archive for the ‘Travels’ Category

This Christmas was unlike any I’ve ever had before. No presents. No family. No Christmas Music unless I was singing it (and I must admit to a little bit of Rudolph as I was walking the streets of Jerusalem).

My family sent me a video of Santa Claus and his elves…it was before I left for Israel. It showed elves working a machine to guess what presents children wanted for Christmas. I watched it with Nathan sitting beside me. After spending six months in this country, I couldn’t help but laugh. It’s focus on morality and material rewards both seem so foreign to me now. In this country, a child can commit the most serious offence, but as long as s/he were penitent, the family and community would accept her/him back instantly. Living in Gldani, a present maybe consisted of a token bought on the side of the street, but one was all that could be afforded. I was traveling with Nathan during the holiday season, and we did not bother with such extraneous symbols. We wished each other a happy holiday, gave toasts to what the day meant, and that was more than enough. This was the first Christmas that I felt completely satisfied…probably because I wasn’t expecting anything.

On Christmas Eve Nathan and I made our way to St. George’s Episcopal Cathedral in Jerusalem, wandering through the Orthodox and Arabic neighborhoods to find our way. Before we even left, Nathan had researched a place to celebrate a Christmas Eve Mass. While spending time at our couchsurfing host’s, we found on the interwebs that they were hosting a bus tour to the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem for a Lessons and Carol service, the first I had ever heard of. It was too late to register online, but we figured we’d stop by during the day of the 24th to see what was happening.

We found the church, stepped through the electronic gates a second before they closed, and then feared we were locked in. After a bit of wandering through the grounds and gardens, we doubled back to look inside the chapel (they were setting up for the service) and then found a priest. Nathan began to say that we had heard of the service online, and knew that the application date had passed, and in the middle of the build up to the question if they had any places left, the priest interrupted and said: “come on! Let’s do it.” He brought us into the office and we were written onto the bottom of the list. “You see, we always leave a few open spaces on the bus, just in case things like this happen,” he informed us. “Come back at seven, and we’ll be leaving.”

Across the street from St. George's Cathedral

We returned at the appointed time to find many British, American, and many other nationalities standing around waiting for the bus. We met one Priest, who studied in Cambridge, who happened to know two professors at Nathan’s Alma Matter. I met one neat young man named Phil who was planning on studying aviation near Pittsburgh the following year, so I told him to look me up. A nice group. Then we stepped on the bus, and as we circulated Jerusalem for thirty minutes, Nathan and I made “ak gamicheret!” jokes…

St. George's Cathedral, home to a mixed and English and Arabic speaking congregation

Finally, we made our way out of the city…and got stuck in traffic. It was a short highway to the checkpoint in the wall separating Israel proper and the West Bank of Palestine; once we got through, the world changed. Christmas light, shop fronts run down but swamped with customers and men sitting around laughing spilling into the streets. The ran started.

By the time we reached the end of the main street, the rain was coming down in sheets. A smooth wind pulled it into our hats and boots. Some of the churchgoers had no protection against the sky’s gift as we made our way to Manger Square, the large square filled with year-long Christmas shops devoted to tourists and the Church of the Nativity. We found our place in line, the church not opening for us for another hour and a half, alongside a rigid row of Palestinian army men, equipped with AK-47s.

Nathan and I were quite equipped for such weather, used to traveling this time and adorning ourselves in wool and synthetics, but even so the rain started to soak in as the square was packed with people wanting to play with the tourists. At various points, the soldiers tried to move the crowd as motorcades of black SUVs roared through our line onto the main road. At this point, we realized that something else must be going on; there couldn’t be all of this security for the tourists wanting to see the church of the manger on Christmas Eve.

Church of the Nativity

After a long hour or so, during which the group was separated and reformed several times, we were allowed in. Part of what made this entire process difficult were the Crusades. Originally, when the Church was commissioned in 327AD (one of the oldest continuing functioning church in the world), it had a magnificent stone doorway, but during the following two Crusades, it was reduced in size twice to defend against invaders. Currently, although both original outlines can still be seen, on man must crouch to fit through. The perfect bottleneck situation.

Everyone must be humble to step into this church

We made our way through the main chapel, up some stairs, and out into an interior courtyard with another humility dour leading into St. George’s Chapel (St. George and the five patterned cross…constant themes leading me to think of Georgia…). Half of us made our way in, including Nathan, when we were told there was no more room until the delegation came out. Uhhh, what?? It was at this point, me standing in the end of the line with some of the ministers, rain pouring down, that I discovered that this was a particularly special service. Not only was the Anglican Archbishop of Jerusalem and the Middle East in attendance, but so was the Patriarch of the Greek Orthodox Church in Jordan, the crown princes of Belgium and Jordan, and the President of the Palestinian Authority. Nathan was inside and heard the explanation of the first reading, in which the Archbishop of Jerusalem dedicated the church’s support to the peace process. Eventually, as I chatted with the Jordanian and Palestinian Authority bodyguards, the delegation made there way out. The Pres. of the PA was so close I could have easily touched him. They made there way out of the door, stooping low as was necessary for any man in this place, and we made our way in as the service was started again.

This small group of the faithful, singing carols and listening to readings in an absolutely beautiful cathedral, adorned with ancient artifacts, listening to the Patriarch read in Greek, rain dripping off of us…surely, this was Christmas. Eventually, we began to make our way out after the service. I hung back, and saw in the original cathedral steps leading beneath the Alter. I broke off—this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity was well worth the possibility of being left behind in the West Bank—and made may way down the ancient stone steps weaving between nuns praying rosaries and waiting for the magic hour, when Christ would be born again in the eternal mystery. And there it was, the star that marked the spot of the manger. Many tourists were lining up and taking pictures in front of it. That not being quite my style, I paid my respects, and walked out amoungst the faithful and the frivolous. I walked down the street away from the church and tried to find our buses; as I walked, I thought of the time of the year, where I had just been, and what it meant to so many who believed, and so many who wanted to see it because others believed.

We made it back to the church in Jerusalem, a bit late for the midnight service, but we had the priests with us. It was a beautiful service, and afterwards we stepped once more into the rain to head home, or rather, to a traveler’s home.

The day afterwards, my mom emailed me to ask if I had seen/ gotten caught up in the fight between Orthodox and Armenian Clerics at the Church. Luckily, I got to walk away with the impression of people of multiple faiths coming together to find their commonalities and a path to peace, especially in such a politically disputed area, and did not witness squabbling amoung men of the cloth.

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Traveling. A style of living I’ve been exploring since I set off from the outskirts of Philadelphia six months ago. I’ve been a long-term guest, living out of a suitcase. I’ve settled into a home amongst strangers and have made them family. I have traveled for extended weekends in the same one set of clothing on trains, buses, and on foot everywhere from the pebbly beaches of the Black Sea through the snowstorm of a ski resort to the rain and mists of mountains almost forgotten by time. But for the first time ever in my life, on the reluctant edge of the holiday season, my friend Nathan and I shouldered our backpacker’s packs and we set off to fly into a foreign country with maybe plans, no reservations, and only a return ticket as a sense of definition.

We had decided while we were in this part of the world, we should take advantage of our one-month holiday from school, so Nathan and I chose to travel through Israel and Jordan. The Lonely Planet was our best friend. Advice from other friends who had traveled through the region led us to expect time consuming, forceful security checks everywhere in Israel, and we weren’t disappointed. Stepping off the plane in Tel Aviv, immediately after walking through the corridor to the building, before even entering Passport Control or Customs, we were stopped by two security officers who aggressively questioned us: where are you from? What are you doing here? Who are you staying with? (ummm…some guy we met on couchsurfing who we’ve never met before, and I can’t remember where he lives right now, but if you give me a second I’ll look up his address in my book) We made it through a few rounds of questioning like this in the airport. I really think it helped that the guys we were going to stay with and meet were named Goldfarb and Kotel.

We landed in Tel Aviv, an incredibly modern, gritty in some places, city that reminded me instantly of New York. Crashed in a hostel, enjoyed the best latte and chocolate pastry in recent memory on the beach of the Mediterranean, and departed straight to Jerusalem, planning on spending some time in Tel Aviv before our return flight.

Israel is an incredibly small country. Driving from North to South is a chore of less than half a day through mountains and the lowest points on earth. It took us only about an hour and a half to reach Jerusalem. I spent the ride admiring the infrastructure. It was the first time I had seen such beautiful roads (I never thought I would describe charging highways of concrete as lovely) since departing the states. I once again understood how smooth a bus ride could be. But the Western wonders didn’t end there; people carrying coffee in the streets? Many women driving? Families sitting in parks as their children romp with dogs? Frisbee? Bicycles everywhere? Extreme racial diversity? I had not realized just how non-European Georgia felt until I stepped into a “westernized” country again. The change in culture was palpable. But I must say, Georgia still has more beautiful McDonalds than Israel. One point Tbilisi.

The kosher McDonalds were blue and called McDavids

The Orthodox currently are pushing to re-segregate buses based on gender. These people didn't want that.

I can't believe I missed my chance

Landing in Jerusalem, we started our walk through what would soon become familiar streets to the home of the man I had contacted on couch surfing who had invited to let us stay for several days at his apartment. He lived on the south side of the city, so Nathan and I enjoyed quite a relaxing walk through an outdoor market, past many bagel shops (I never got around to eating a bagel because food was so expensive!!! We subsisted mainly on pita, hummus, and khalva bought from grocery stores), and through a street protest. Our host lived in a beautiful part of town; the sun was shinning on gardens in full bloom and the most domestic feral cats were wandering the streets. We settled in his living room, were generously given a key, and now had a home base to operate from.

Alright, now the lead-up is finished, I will leap immediately into descriptions and stories to carry through the fortuitous encounters and happenstance meetings that were these beautiful three weeks.

A place, with women and men as its body and buildings as its memories, has a massively strong influence on all who enter it, whether they be citizens or visitors. Jerusalem retains its core, the Old City — with its 16th century walls and remnants of the Second Temple era lying under every layered street – insulated by a modern city all around, niched and cliqued into quite different neighborhoods: the ultra-orthodox live in semi-poverty, men walking the streets in their full regalia –long black coats, heeled shoes, side curls and cylindrical fur hats –past piles of trash in yards reminiscent of West Phily, young orthodox boys in sweaters and dress pants wrestling in the yards of schools; the Arabic-speaking population with lively markets and bars filled with smoke from the hookahs smoking men; American English from immigrants mixing with the scattered English of tourists on every walkway. A walk through a down-sloping park fills your vision with the spires of Churches, domes of synagogues, and minarets of mosques orienting the heavens above to rest upon this city on a hill. You enter the gates, and are almost crushed in the throng of tourists, stallsmen, faithful, and locals peddling and bargaining and cheating on the narrow stone streets. Market fronts hung with all bits of marketable nicks and nacks line each passageway in the covered winding maze. Here is where the city converges. Despite being quartered, the old city is the heart where each of these populations, scattered the world over, come to worship, come to tour, come to marvel and pray.

Nathan and I stood amoungst the chosen at the Western Wall at the beginning of the Shabat, the chanting and the praying immersing us as we paid our respects to this, the foundation of millennial hopes and supplications. The sun set, and the families reunited from their gender-separated prayers, and wove there way home. We climbed the Mount of Olives, and watched the lights of the city as the last call to prayer rang out.

Western Wall

Two things amazed me about this city; the Sabbath and the proximity of major sites. On that Saturday Nathan and I wandered through the deserted center streets; all public transportation ceases. Roads are closed off in the Orthodox areas. Most all shops rest as their owners respect a day of leisure, a day of family, a day for appreciating the busy week just had. The city slept as we footed our way through the churches marking many of the most important sites of Christianity. Within a thirty-minute hilly walk lie the Church of the Ascension, the Garden of Gethsemane, Mary’s tomb and location of her Assumption into Heaven, the Via Dolorosa (the way of the cross Christ walked to his Crucifixion), the location of the Last Super, and the Church of the Holy Sepulchre believed to contain Golgotha and the tomb of Christ. Hearing Bible stories throughout my American childhood, I believed the sites of these historic happenings to be quite far from each other. Walking the ancient streets where these events actually transpired, I was touched by a reality of the Bible I had never before imagined.

Jerusalem changes lives. Whether it’s the Jerusalem Syndrome (a documented psychological condition in which people become convinced they are the second coming), or, more typically, the sense of faith which permeates every community populating this crux of a city. Place, land, is more important than opinion, and all politics are birthed from the control of the land, holy to such diversities of faith groups. As a pilgrim on foot, carrying with me each day the beesewax candles to light and a list of names, living and passed, to pray for from my Georgian mother, it was impossible not to be alternated as a paced from Church to Church.

And then Christmas came.

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There are plenty of more stories that could be told from when we woke up on Sunday morning in Borjomi: we traveled through Axaltsixe to the cave city of Vardzia, and learned the history of this ancient region from a friendly marshutka driver on the way; Alex and I enjoyed a pristine snowfall in Borjomi park and Fairy Land before returning to Tbilisi; we then traveled to Mtsxeta and Gori to visit some of Georgia’s most famous and beautiful churches and the Stalin museum. But do to a shortage of pictures from the previous two posts, I will let the pictures of these days tell the stories themselves. Use your imagination, and please ask me about these places whenever we are together again.

And now it is time for Nathan and I to set off for Israel. I promise we will weave many trails and tales through this holy time in the Holy Land.

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Trains ran by our window in the early hours of the morning. We rose to a scent of winter gently floating through a curtain obscured balcony, not noticed in the excitement of the previous night. The morning light, filtering through with a purity brought only by fresh snow fall, called us to step out, we were greeted by an image of winter wonder, snow covered tracks and cotton covered pines dotting the mountains hemming our little city in.

The previous night at the beginning of dinner, our friend Ren had told us: “I’m just waiting for you to fall in love with Batumi. It has a magic; things happen here that don’t happen anywhere else. Don’t worry, soon enough you’ll feel the Borjomi Magic.” The fresh feeling on that morning was a silent omen, sitting quietly on the corner chair of our room waiting to be taken with us, waiting to introduce us to the beauty and joys to come over the next two days.

We set out of the hotel, were joined by another TLG friend, James, bought some tonis puri and borjomi mineral water, and began walking to the main area of town, debating wether we’d be able to make it to the train supposedly running to Bakuriani before it left. Bakuriani is a small resort town known for its ski slopes. None of us had been there before, and it was close enough that Nathan had decided it would make a fun day-trip. Nathan made good use of his Russian, and we found quickly that there would be no more trains for the day. As is ritual for us foreign travelers in this small country, we headed to the local marshutka station and began asking about in a mixed jumble of Russian, Georgian, and English for the next marshutka to Bakuriani. Soon, the six of us, Nathan, Ren, Adam, James, Alex, and myself, hopped on a larger marshutka with two reclusive Georgian men, and began an ascent into the mountains of Borjomi.

As we began the steep climb up a twisting mountain road, the gentle morning snowfall quickly indulged itself into letting go of its restraint, and brought out its best  decor for us, its winter guests; I’ll just say, it’s hospitality was more than generous. The white-furred pines, showing coy glances of their green skin, seeped the only fresh color into the landscape. The road quickly became two inches of hard-packed snow. Beautiful, but treacherous, and our laughter in the marshutka over miscellaneous remarks and shared jokes quickly moved to irony at our situation as the vehicle began to fishtail around several hairpin turns. “See, that’s the wonderful thing about Georgia,” James quipped: “You think you’re going to die; but you usually don’t.”

A few cars dotted our paths, unable to follow the slippery slope. One laid in a ditch. Cars sledding down raced the snowflakes past us into the valley. Eventually, we came across a stopped marshutka. We pulled over, and our driver, assumably a friend of the other driver, got out to help. After a few minutes, the other marshutka began again up the mountain, and we followed closely behind. If I haven’t mentioned it before, Georgian drivers love to play leapfrog on the highway; it figured, friends or not, that it was only a matter of time before we passed the more slowly moving marsh in front of us. Lo and behold, around a particularly sharp, blind turn, we pulled into the left lane, and revved to pass. We were just past the other marshutka, when turning the corner, we saw a small, soviet-era car hurtling towards us. He swerved towards the mountain as we turned out of his lane, and Nathan and Alex braced against their rear-end driver’s side windows as the car collided with our tail-end, gashing the rear taillight and siding with it, and sending us sliding towards the cliff-side. We came to a quick stop, and everyone got out.

The damage to our marshutka was little; enough that our driver could pick the two biggest chunks up in his hands as he went to shout down the other fuming traveler for…apparently being in the appropriate lane in such dangerous weather. The ill-fated car had continued out of sight around the curve; I was thankful to be able to passively avoid its carnage. I followed the ensuing argument as best as I could over the two hours it lasted. The car’s operator had valid, sensible points: “What were you doing passing in the other lane around such a curve!!!! Especially in weather like this where it’s dangerous enough to be driving carefully!!!!! It was a blind curve!!!! How could you be so stupid!!!!!” Our driver, in true Georgian fashion (sorry to the Georgians reading this blog, but you know it’s an acceptable generalization to say that Georgian men often yell at each other about everything from the mundane to the seriously insulting; when we first arrived in the country, my one friend concluded they were like mismanaged three year-olds at times; throwing a temper-tantrum about anything, and then forgetting about it in five minutes) shouted back, claiming it was not his fault, and saying that the other man should have been driving more carefully. The other marshutka had stopped with us, and a few old women emerged from it, took part in the argument, argued about it amoung themselves, and then tried to pull me into the argument; even when I told them quite clearly I didn’t speak enough Georgian, they still thought I could help. When calls for the patrol police began to be requested, we figured we had some time to goof around.

Adam emerged from the marshutka into the fresh snow-fall in much the same way that a four-year old steps into a snow drift for the first-time, eyes and mouth wide sparkling in wonder and a smile as genuine as a small child’s kiss. As an Australian, he had only been in some small snow once before, and had never been  in a storm. He began prancing, laughing, and singing, throwing snow into the air just to watch it as it fell on his head. Nathan, of course, walked over to the mountain wall: “wow, check out these stratifications!” I burst out laughing. Adam picked up some snow to through at Nathan; three inches out of his hand, it burst into powder. “Adam, were you trying to throw a snowball?” I asked. “I thought they flew!” “You have to pack it first my friend.” I picked up some snow to teach him how. “Hey Nathan!” I launched it towards the back of his head as he turned around. Of course (I use that phrase a lot with Nathan, because he beats me in most things), he whips around, catches it in front of his face with his left hand, and throws it right back at me. James, from up-state New York, began making a snowman on the side of the road. “Woah guys!!!” Adam shouted, “you can actually see the snowflakes! Like, the crystals!!” He wondered at the caught stars on his scarf. “I thought that was only in drawings!!”  Alex, turned to me, “and now I wonder what the Georgians are thinking of us crazy foreigners…” James turned to hop on the marshutka, “I’m just wondering what they’ll think of my pagan statue on the side of the road.”

We gathered in the marshutka, shielding ourselves from the wind. Nathan and Ren produced a bottle of home-made vodka, and began passing it around as we toasted to our safety, the snow, and our travels together; taking the moment to enjoy our company and the secretly beautiful times life gives us when we surrender to its accidental collisions.

The rest of the marshutka ride (“oh man! We were only ten minutes away?? We could have just walked!!”) was uneventful. We pulled into the center of town past the main Bakuriani hotel, tovlis babuas sastumro (grandfather of snow, having the dual meaning of snowman and Santa Claus in Georgian) and departed through the snowy streets to try to find the local train station, hoping that we could enjoy a train ride back down the mountain to Borjomi later that day. Strolling through this picturesque winter town was a pleasure in itself; icicles hung from every roof (Adam climbed and perched on a few fences to harvest them), and laundry hung out to dry had become ice, providing splashes of color amoung the mounds of snow. At one intersection, Adam decided to make his first-ever snow angel. With slightly sound logic, he decided that he didn’t want to get his clothes wet, so he took off his jacket and all of his shirts, laid down in the snow, and made a perfect snow angel. I’m still not sure which was more entertaining, his afterwords comment “Wow, it really does look like an angel,” or the faces of the few Georgians driving by who saw him lying bare-chested in the snow.

We made it to the train station, and could have sworn it was abandoned. Aside from the strange mural designs and a poor freezing puppy lying on the steps, we couldn’t find any sign of life. Eventually, I opened one door to find a room full of Georgian men sitting around and chatting. I asked if another train would be coming that day. Nope. But the one man did open the main room of the train station for us to get out of the wind for a time. Nothing interesting there, except for old hilarious safety signs, and a room filled with buckets of tar, cogs, railroad switches, and various heavy tools.

Don't Try to Headbutt a Moving Train

Back in town, we stopped at a Teremok to warm up and finally eat our first meal of the day. Each of us stripped off either wet gloves or socks and laid them on the space heater to dry. Oh blinis, how wonderful you taste, sweet or savory, as the heavy snow continues to blanket the windows.

Stomaches satiated, we left planning to take a chair-lift to the top of one of the surrounding mountains; but first, we wanted to insure that we would have a ride down the mountain later in the day. A marshutka was passing us, so I flagged it down and asked the driver when the last marshutka of the day would be heading to Borjomi. He must’ve not understood, because he only said “come with us.” No, no…I want the next one. “There will be no next marshutka. The roads are too bad so  I am the last one driving down today. No one else is crazy enough.” Well, we decided to cut our plans short for the day and head back down to Borjomi rather than get snowed in indefinitely in Bakuriani. Tovlis babua hotel sure did look nice though…

The drive down was inconsequential compared to the drive up; we only started fish-tailing a few times. The snow had calmed down to a pattering when we pulled onto the main street of Borjomi. The next step in necessary travel plans was to find a place to sleep for the night. We did not feel like shelling out a lot of money, so Ren pulled out her guide book, and we found the address for a good-sounding homestay.  For those of you not familiar, a homestay is just a house where the family has an extra room or two and is willing to take guests. It’s usually cheaper and more exciting. Of course, the directions read something like: “off the mainstreet across from the tourist information center, up a steep staircase, and over the side street with the slippery wooden steps. The house has a big dog, but it’s nice to visitors.” After climbing a few wrong steep staircases, we assumed we had found the correct house because we stumbled across a house with a large German Shepherd sitting in the yard. We tried calling both numbers provided in the guide book…and neither went through. Out of other typically American distanced options of first communication, we had no other choice but to walk into a stranger’s yard. Half of us played with the dog while the other half shouted gamarjobat? and knocked on the door. A man came out, and we asked for the name of the owner mentioned in the guidebook. He told me that she was no longer taking any other guests; she had either moved or run out of space. I asked if he knew of anyone else who could take us. He asked me inside as he started asking his other two friends if they knew anyone. A typical Georgian conversation ensued: “Do you know anyone?” “Lika might still be taking guests.” “I’ll call her, do you have her number?” “She’s your cousin!! Don’t you have her number??” Several phone calls later, he told us to come with him. We followed him up the stairs and onto another side street, under the stares of every neighborhood, many who had probably been called for advice and wanted to come watch the strange group of foreigners, James and I in long trenchcoats with gray hats, Nathan and Alex with their long, unruly hair, Adam with his snow-awed smile, and Ren carrying her hole-y rain boots rather than wearing them.

A gate was opened, and we were welcomed in by a smiling Georgian man and his wife. We walked through a small driveway behind their two story house, snow-covered firewood lining the entire rap-around porch, to the broken steps leading up their hill of a backyard. A separate building was revealed, with a small kitchen, bathroom and bedroom downstairs, and a larger room with kitchenette and fireplace upstairs. Behind were bee-hives, a decrepit shack, an abandoned dog house, and broken qvevries scattered throughout the yard. The man introduced himself, I’ll call him Misha, and his wife, who I’ll call Gvantsa. “The room downstairs for the girls and the room upstairs for the boys, don’t worry, we’ll bring more beds.” I didn’t mind sharing two double beds with the boys; I knew it was going to be a cold night, considering the inside was no different in temperature than the outside. We settled a price, and immediately Misha stoked a fire.

As we were getting settled, Nathan and Adam set off for a guliat in the woods. I ran downstairs to ask Misha if we could borrow some more firewood. He said of course, and then invited me into the house, where he was seated around a table with three of his friends, ya know, supra-ing. Of course, I was invited to sit down, and began giving toasts with them. After a few really good toasts, when they were starting to really become interested in this strange foreigner who happened across their home by chance today, but knew a significant amount of their language and culture, they brought out the wooden horns. After one, I decided I should finally take the firewood upstairs, Misha asked where Alex was, so I asked if I could invite them all down to the supra (thinking of course, that the meal really wasn’t part of the price negotiations, and I didn’t want to invade). He said he would be delighted.

The four of us descended on the table, new fried potatoes were brought, and Alex and I laughed at how fortuitous the entire two days had been. I was just as incredulous as she; how could so much beauty and luck fall within such a short period? It was James’s turn for the horns. I jokingly picked up a vase and asked if we should use it for him. Instead, a carved wooden horn with the figure of the father from the Georgian film “Father of A Soldier” (ჯარისკაცის მამა) was brought for him. We drank Vakhtanguri; what we did not realize though was that the figure was hollow. James’s eyes burst wide with shock when the wine kept flowing from the mouth of the q’ants’i, which was at least thrice the size of mine.

Having had much to drink that day, I quickly became tired, so retired to the open room to sleep off a bit. At one point in my nap, I hear Nathan say, “don’t worry, I’ll take Misha to get toilet paper.” Later, there’s a knock on the door; the others have returned to the room. Gvantca opens the door and asks if we know where Misha is. I think I responded before falling asleep again. Apparently, while I was sleeping Misha, started getting a little too friendly, so Nathan took him on a long walk. Meanwhile, his wife kept getting more and more upset with him. By the time I woke up, Misha and Gvantsa had retired to the house.

I woke up to the sound of a harmonica. I rolled over to see a young bearded man I partially recognize simultaneously playing a harmonica and guitar, as a stranger and Nathan are gathered around him singing. I look around the room, we are all gathered, along with four newcomers, three of whom I vaguely recognized having seen them on the Kakheti trip. It turns out that other TLGers had arrived in Batumi. I rustled myself and journeyed out with Alex into the icy streets to procure some sausage and bread. She quickly revealed her Eastern European roots as she kicked us all out of the tiny kitchenette as she whirled dull knives in a fury, determined to make us the best snacks possible given the circumstances. We could still see our breaths in the room, despite the fire having been roaring for hours. We spent the next hours hudled together, singing, talking of religion and politics and what, exactly, our lives had become since coming to Georgia. The night wore on, and tired. Our new friends took leave of us in the early hours of the morning, and we, cold and contented, all snuggled under duvets on the two pushed-together beds as James (AVS to the max!!!) recited Shakespearean sonnets as we succumbed to our exhaustion.

And Alex still had four full days left in her trip. (You know what that means…more to come!)

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As a Guest (Part 1)

This will be a long one.

I apologize for the lapse in writings, but I have had quite the busy November. Now that life has assumed some pace of regularity, I plan to catch up on some stories before leaving on December 22 to spend the holiday season with my good friend, Nathan, in Israel and possibly Turkey.

A main reason for my absence is due to the fact that I was able to host my friend Alex on a visit from her studies in Scotland. She and I are good old friends from high school, and she decided to take some time (thankfully plane tickets are much cheaper to here from Scotland than from America) to see this beautiful country I live in.

I could not have been more excited for her visit. Part of the enjoyment of living in a new place, especially a place as different and exciting as a foreign country, is being able to show your favorite haunts, foods, and cultural idiosyncrasies to fresh eyes. I have taken other friends I’ve made through this program around the city, but having an old friend, who knew me before I began my life here, journey with me presented a chance to exhibit how my old tastes and joys have found homes in this new home. Even more important, returning home from such an irreplicatable (I really feel there should be an English word for “not being able to be replicated” but living here for so long I do not trust my vocabulary any longer) experience as life in a foreign nation, it is nigh impossible to communicate exactly how life there feels; stories and memories and pictures and habits approximate it, but it is not the same as showing the familiar faces I pass everyday on my walk to work. In coming, I knew Alex would be able to share these impressions with me in a way no one back home would be able to.

“სტუმარი ღვთის საჩუქარია” or, stumari ghvtis sachukaria, is a Georgian saying meaning “a guest is a gift from God.” A strong cultural tradition of hospitality leads Georgians to gladly welcome friends and even strangers into their home, despite their level of material well-being, to share with them whatever they have. Countless times I have been taken to a home and given food, drink, and warmth for nothing more than a greeting on the street. When fellow teacher-friends visit my home in Gldani, either for a night or a quick drop in, my family pulls out all the stops, ladening the table with jams and cakes and sitting with them for hours in conversation, sincerely wanting to meet them as a person. Having received such graces, I was overly excited to finally be able to play the host, and to care for a dear friend.

Alex, like all arrivals in Georgia, landed in the bleary early morning. One of Shota’s friends drove us to pick her up at the airport and took us on a chillingly bright tour of the city. As Alex pressed her nose against the window, trying to take it all in at first glance, I was reminded of my arrival at the same terminal a year prior, and my similar drive through such a strange land riddled with spaghetti letters on every store-front and strange mixtures of architecture–wooden balconies and modern monuments–dotting the dark, deep river.

Walking through our front door at 6 in the morning, Alex was immediately greeted and sat at the kitchen table by Natela. For two hours we introduced ourselves, ate, and joked as ways to connect these new people to each other. Alex spoke the words of Georgian she learned before arriving, and Shota shared some of the jewels of the English language I’ve shared with him, including “What are you looking at?” when he and I were imitating Georgian mobsters squatting on the ground. Part of the thrill of the meeting was the gifts Alex brought along for my host family, a bottle of Jack’s each for Shota and Tamta, and vanilla extract for Natela. I had to go into Tamta’s room to wake her up, but when she saw the bottle of Jack’s, she literally hopped up and down and thanked Alex in the way a five-year old thanks Santa for a new lego. Jack’s is incredibly expensive in this country, so we usually rely on chacha to brush our teeth with. Eventually, Alex retired her jet-lagged self and I set off from work.

I shouldn’t have been surprised, but upon my return from work I found that Alex had not only spent the entire day chatting with Natela in the kitchen, but had managed to learn more words for food and kitchenware in Georgian than I know and had managed to understand the legend of Tbilisi’s founding. Having spent most of my time in this country striving to learn the language and middling about in grammar to be able to better communicate with the people I’m living with and learning from, I was shocked to be so simply reminded just how much can be communicated between two willing and caring souls without a mutual understanding of words. After my absolutely favorite guest-meal of Natela’s, adjaruli khachapuri, I took Alex on a walking tour of the city I’ve come to call home. We began at Sameba, and ended standing on Narikala, looking out at the lights of the city and finding some words to catch up on the months and years that had separated us.

The next evening, after an unsettling day of work for me (truly, the only off-day I’ve had at school so far) I came home to find that Alex had not worked as much on her Georgian-Russian conflict paper as she had wanted, but had rather spent another good day making khachapuri with Natela. Alex and I took the few hours before dinner to walk to Gldani’s lake and enjoy the cloudy sunset and chilling water-breeze. Upon coming back into the house, Natela greeted us with a verb I had never heard before: “gaiyinet?” After Natela’s repeating it two or three times in different conjugations, and referencing Alex, I caught the root of the verb. “She’s asking if I made you ice.” Alex burst out laughing, and it soon became a recurring joke on our snowy adventures.

That night, my good friend Megan happened to be in town for an American Embassy party, and decided to drop by in the middle of our supra. Megan and Alex got along splendidly, and as we continued to toast and share stories and lead the dulling sky into it’s quiet night, someone had the idea to put on music. What happened next can always be expected at a supra: Shota and the three of us had a dance party in true party rocker fashion until four in the morning. We quickly finished off Shota’s bottle of Jack.

Shota preparing for the supra

The following morning was the start of the weekend, and Alex and I had plans to meet up with Nathan and his good friend Ren out in the national park, Borjomi. We had originally planned for an early start, but we decided to take our time collecting ourselves after such a late night. As the girls were getting ready, I was trying to nurse Shota out of his paxmelia-ed state, he was really rough from the previous night. He and I wandered out to the street market to buy some foodstuff with the power to cure his hangover. We decided on xinkali. I should have taken his purchase of thirty xinkali as the first sign, but I didn’t recognize it at the time.

Coming back up to the apartment, Natela and Tamta had left, and a friend of the families had come over (I forget his name now). A grizzled man in his mid-forties, silver-streaked hair and only enough teeth left to make the remaining several skyrocket in relative value, this neighbor, who I will henceforth refer to as Zura, began canvasing me about myself. When I began to go through the whole schpiel of my background, he quickly interrupted me with a “of course I know all that already.” “Oh that’s right,” I thought to myself, “I’m sure every neighbor I’ve never met already knows everything about me. Who else does Natela talk to every night on the phone?” Part of the symptoms of a collectivist society, no information is private.

He began inviting me to travel to Mtsxeta and his village with him, as I tried to explain to him multiple times that Alex and I already had plans for the day. By this point, I realized our conceived “early start” was far from happening; Shota was boiling the xinkali, running to the store to buy more bread and sausage, and asking the girls to help him lay out a mini-supra. I sighed, resigned myself to the fate of the Georgian table, and began pouring shots of vodka for Shota, Zura, and myself.

This will be the only negative chapter in this winding story. As we sat at the supra, trying our best to make it a short one, Zura revealed more and more of the darker side of the Georgian male mentality. First, he kept insisting that the girls drink vodka, no matter how many times they refused. Megan counted 17 separate asks. Then, when he wanted coffee, he asked Meghan, being one of the only women in the house, regardless of the fact that she too was a guest, to get up and make him some. When she refused, saying that she was also a guest, he mocked her as being too good to serve a man. This was one of the only contacts I’ve had with a truly negative Georgian mentality, and it was quite a relief when he left, and we were able to pack up and head out. We kissed Megan goodbye, and Alex and I hoped on a marshutka heading West.

To get to Borjomi, we had to switch marshutkas in the rain at xashuri. Walking to find the next ride, we passed what could only be described as a trictor, a tractor with only three wheels; even better was the fact that the front single wheel was not positioned in the middle of the vehicle, but rather to the right side. Just one of the many jerry-rigged vehicles encountered on the roads of Georgia. As we traveled closer to Borjomi, rain turned to snow, and we pulled through the mountains into the downtown of Borjomi in a sprinkling of crystals. It was late evening, and we quickly found Nathan, Ren, and their friend Adam, registered and dropped our packs at their hotel, and set off to one of Ren’s preferred Borjomian restaurants.

The building itself looked like an old banquet hall; only one wing was open and functioning as a restaurant. Upon entering, we saw one side lined with over six tables put together to host a rather large supra. We took a table on the other side, and ordered. As the night wore on, the lights dimmed, and colored dance lights replaced the glow from the gathering snow outside. It was time for Georgian dancing. Five pre-teen boys jumped up from the party and immediately began exhibiting their quite impressive skills. Luckily for me, after a few songs, my favorite song (and the only dance I knew moves to at the time), adjaruli, was played. I hoped up and quickly began dancing with the boys. They were amazed that one of the English-speaking foreigners knew any Georgian dance; it was not long before we exchanged names and I convinced them to teach me different dances.

Of course, once that connection was made, our small table quickly merged with the larger supra. We were invited to a separate man’s table and asked to drink horns of wine with them. American music came on, and we showed the Georgians some of our moves. In conversation, we came to realize that the supra was a combined feast for three birthdays, and maybe a celebration over one woman’s divorce? That’s at least what Alex made out.

Highlights from the ensuing thrilling evening at the restaurant: The table of men called one of their friends who spoke great English and said “we have english-speaking foreigners here!! Come!” Of course, he quickly came to join the party. Nathan, Adam, and I were taught at least ten different Georgian dances. For some dance, people went up on shoulders, and so I picked Ren up and sat her on mine and danced around the floor. At one point, a reluctant Adam was lifted on a chair by Nathan, a Georgian boy, and I, and dumped onto the dance floor. I managed to find a few rock and roll songs on the dj’s computer that Alex, Ren and I swing danced to. The Georgian boys pulled out a number of spectacular Georgian dance moves, including one in which four boys made themselves into a human staircase and a younger boy ran up them to stand on the shoulders of the tallest. Their acrobatics included two boys lifting another by the legs above their heads and parading him around the floor in a super-man like pose, arms outstretched and triumphant. As I was watching, Adam and Nathan ran up behind me, and lifted me in the same manner and carried me around, much to the delight of the Georgians. A younger boy, named Giorgi, fell in love with me and followed me around the whole night. He and I did the Georgian dance move where you horizontally split and drink from a glass of wine placed on the floor without using your hands. After running out of cartwheels and handstands and flips to show the Georgians, I decided to try my hand at silly moves like the worm; of course, I smashed my chin on the floor. It was Giorgi who a short time later pointed to my shirt in absolute shock. I looked down, my white shirt was stained red down the front. I felt my chin. Apparently, I had managed to worm-cut a gash on my chin that bled for the rest of the night, no matter how much vodka babushka-Alex applied to it. The birthday-song came on, and a giant cake came out, out of which a woman popped with flowers for the eldest celebrator. Apparently, once one person leaps out of a wooden cake in Georgia, the fun isn’t over yet, because four or five more people preceded to climb-in (some at the same time, pretty much the same as a car ride with seven people) and hop out. Adam and I tried to get in, but as I was debating the proper Georgian for: “can we go into your wooden cake please?” it was taken away. Having run out of most of my dance tricks (one Georgian boy and I had a great time dancing to Billie Jean) I took the chair Adam was sitting on, put another chair next to it and asked Giorgi to sit on it, and managed to do a handstand off the backs of the chairs. First successful time ever!! Hava Nagila came on, but apparently our Georgians had no idea that it was typically used as a Bar/Bat Mitzvah song…they just danced as the did for Shakira; so Alex and I polkaed to it. Finally, Party Rock Anthem came on, and we shuffled our way back to the hotel.

We had planned to catch a train to Bakuriani at seven the next morning. A message from Adam at 6:35 the next morning perfectly summed it up: “Are we really meeting in five minutes?” We didn’t.

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I forget at this point exactly how the idea came about. I think it was because we had the Friday off of school for a holiday. I only remember calling my friend Nathan and asking what he was up to; he told me he was entertaining ideas of heading up to Svaneti, a north-western region close to the borders with Abkhazia and Russia, before the weather chilled to the point of snow preventing all travel through the mountains. It had been a long time since I had seen my good mountain-man friend, and after the crazy weekend that was Tbilisoba (a weekend-long celebration of the city, including enough mtsvade to cover the Mtkvari River with barbeque smoke and surprise fireworks over Sameba while standing with friends on Narikala fortress, during which I was only home from Friday morning to Sunday night for about two hours on Saturday), I was looking forward to getting away from the city and relaxing. As most good adventures here in Georgia start, I left school on Saturday, packed quickly at home, and then hopped on a Marshutka out to Zugdidi.

When most of my Georgian friends ask me how my trip to Svaneti was, I explain to them that my good friend and I slept outside, under a (then I hold my hands in a triangle over my head until they understand tent), and that the following morning we climbed to the top of a დიდი ნაყინი….or big ice-cream. I’m pretty sure Georgian doesn’t have a separate word for glacier, other than ice, and I can’t seem to ever remember the word for ice.

I arrived in Zugdidi, a larger city close to the Abkhazian border, late at night in the rain, and rendezvoused with Nathan, who had managed to run into two other groups of TLGers who were also taking advantage of the extended weekend to travel to the same Svanetian city, Mestia. With them, Nathan had found us a hostel to stay in and a privately rented Marshutka to take all of us to Mestia the following morning. Zugdidi Hostel, if anyone is planning on heading to Zugdidi, is a typical two-story house turned into a hostel. It has a wonderful feel, reasonable price, and has every amenity you may need, including tents and sleeping bags to rent. It’s just a bit difficult to find, especially in the rain.

The next morning we hoped on the marshutka and begin our 5 hour trip through the mountains to Mestia; although Mestia was only about 200 km away, the drive takes forever because of the mountains. The road, recently rebuilt, had boulders and rockslides covering most of its surface. I was quite terrified that a rockslide would carry us down the cliff (quite a real possibility) while Nathan couldn’t help commenting that it wouldn’t have taken anything more than a semi-competent geologist to have predicted potential problem areas and to have directed the engineers to take necessary precautions.

Rest stop through the mountains

The morning sky lingered as a soggy blanket until we neared our destination. There, the clouds sought higher homes and the trees caught fire.

 

Nathan laughed. I said "what?" He said, "it means flammable."

 

Before we hit the main area of town, we pulled off on a steep, gravel side street, and waited as the driver took three attempts to jettison us up the slope. He parked at a guest house and we hopped off. Nathan and I were a bit confused as to why he took us straight to one particular guest house (maybe they were friends and he was trying to give his buddy business?) but then I heard that one of the other TLGers had looked up this house on the internet, and the woman at Zugdidi hostel probably asked the driver to take us there. The owner of the house was a small, grizzled man with longer stubble on his face than his head.  He spoke great Russian and comically few words in English (like: “come on, let’s go) but had a daughter who spoke tourist-trained English. Trying to speak to him a bit in Georgian, I soon came to realize what would be reinforced for the rest of my time in Svaneti: I understood his dialect of Georgian about as much as I understood his Russian. The Svanetian pronunciation was much too rough for a city-slicker like me to grasp. There was mass confusion as the large group of TLGers tried to negotiate who was staying where, what was a good price, did they want food at the guest house, etc. At one point, the proprietor threw a full-fledged Georgian fit, saying we were trying to leach him dry with all of our haggling. Finally, after a meal with the group, Nathan and I managed to extract ourselves, rent the best sleeping bag and tent we could (which involved trekking through the town a few times to search for the best quality and haggle over prices, all the while squishing through mud, rain underneath the gorgeous Svan towers) and head out to the mountains. We bought bread, honey, and sausage for the hike, and two pomegranates to fill our stomachs as we began.

Like stopping at the General Store in the Oregon Trail

Thus began our trek to the glacier. The details aren’t interesting enough to go into, except for the fact that I had a heavy bag NOT suited for hiking, and the cough I had developed earlier in the week began to become aggravated. I made the hike slow going, and was incredibly sore and pretty miserable by the time we reached an old soviet extension bridge. Despite my state, I was still able to enjoy some of the scenery and villagers galloping on horses across the sides of the mountains above us.

 

When we were crossing the extension bridge, we saw a man in cammoflauged pants waiting for us on the other side. I couldn’t tell if he was a villager who just happened to be chillin by the river, or if he was some sort of guard. Nathan and I just inhaled and crossed. It turned out (one of the countless times I am thankful for Nathan and his command of the Russian language) that he some sort of part ranger and we needed to register with him, so we followed him on a short hike to a miniature wooden lodge which served as the home to three rangers. Registering took a while; I would have sworn he was hardly literate in his own language, so you can just imagine how slowly he wrote the Latin alphabet when it came to our names. He called us crazy for wanting to sleep outside, and said that if we got too cold in the night we could go and sleep in their lodge.

Extension bridge

One of the rangers, on duty

 

Nathan and I set up camp right by the extension bridge. Being cold, tired, and having really bad chest and back pains, along with a semi-regular cough, I crawled into our pitched tent and promptly fell asleep while Nathan went to explore the path to the glacier we would take the next day.

It rained. In the middle of the night I woke up to a few gruff voices outside of the tent. The park rangers. Feeling miserable, I prayed that Nathan was outside to take care of it, the two voices came closer, and just when I thought they were about to bang on or open the tent, Nathan’s Russian popped up. Reassured, I fell back asleep. In the morning, I asked Nathan what had happened. He said that he had been outside reading with his headlamp, and he assumed the rangers came over to check out the light. Nathan first saw one ranger and talked to him in Russian for a bit. When he shined his light on the second ranger, Nathan saw he was holding an AK-47 in his hands. “Don’t worry yourself,” was all the second ranger said to reassure Nathan.

The next morning, we ascended, climbed until we couldn’t climb more without sliding back down, and had lunch on the glacier. The heavy sky focused us on our feet and the path ahead, but did clear up for a few pictures.

And now, with this post, I believe I am finally caught up to present day. I might not have a new post for some time due to the fact that my friend Alex is visiting for 10 days starting this Wednesday. After her departure, I will be sure to have a few tales to tell.

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Excursions

Written last week, posted now. The beauty of having one family computer.

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The last week of September, I entered my school for the first time on a Thursday morning. I saw a graying man in a subdued forest-green tweed jacket standing at the door ushering students in; I assumed he was the director, so I stepped up to introduce myself in my best Georgian. “Oh! You’re our American!! Come in come in, how are you?” Luckily, one of my English co-teachers who I had met at an orientation the previous week met me and led me up to the teacher’s lounge. As I expected, I stepped into a room full of Soviet-era women, most dressed in black, who were thrilled at my Georgian and immediately sat me down and asked if I wanted coffee. I was surprised when one woman turned to me and said, “so you’re coming on our excursion to Kazbegi with us this weekend, yes?”

Georgia is mountainous; fact. Traveling in marshutkas East and West I’ve been amazed by the hills and valleys that frame the village-speckled landscapes. Even Tbilisi itself, nestled in the mountains, affords me surprising breathtaking views when I least expect it. However, I was not prepared for what I would find on a drive to Stepantsminda, a town nestled in the northern region of Kazbegi to the East of Ossetia and close to Russia. I have not yet been more awed by any piece of this green earth as I was on this trip.

We spent the day visiting churches, heckling with cab drivers, climbing mountains, eating, eating, and eating. My fellow teachers know how to have a proper excursion. Each woman cooked some aspect of a full meal and loaded into the marshutka laden with bags, plastic containers, and bottles. I sampled everything from rose vodka to homemade cakes. At one point on the ride, I turned to the woman next to me and jokingly said, “I’m so tired; I wish I had coffee.” “Me too,” was the reply, and before we knew it a thermos was being passed forward and we had a small coffee break. I should have known they would be prepared.

The best adventure of the day: after several hours of riding, I was ready to get out and hike in the beautiful mountains surrounding us. We unloaded from the marshutka to ascend to Gergeti Sameba Eklesia, an ancient church on one of the peaks of Stepantsminda. Many of the teachers wanted to take a taxi up—and by taxi, I mean a Lada 4×4 with heavy-duty shocks to handle the eroded dirt and rock roads to the top of the mountain—but the drivers were asking for too much money. After arguing for about a half an hour, climbing into and jumping out of three different taxis as part of negotiations, finally, prices were settled. Throughout this frustrating process, two of the teachers’ daughters and I talked about how we wanted to walk up the mountain. We managed to convince the one mother, my co-teacher, Natia, and another teacher to hike up with us. The taxis set off, and we started hiking.

At the foot of the mountain, a man sitting on a fence told us that there was a shorter foot path leading up the mountain we should seek, instead of following the road. The one teacher spotted a path and started leading us up the mountain. It was only wide enough for one person at a time, and winded around the other side of the mountain. My suspicions were validated when I stepped over my third pile of cow droppings; we had taken an old cow path. Although hiking on the wrong mountain, in the wrong direction on precipitous paths for almost forty minutes, the hike did afford some spectacular views.

On the correct path we languidly made our way through the fresh mountain air and falling yellowed leaves (my first breath of fall) to the peak. We joined a few remaining teachers in a taxi down, and then spread out blankets and stoked a fire in a park for our post-hike feast. The food and the air were cold, but the company and conversation were warm. As my co-teacher Natia explained: “we Georgians must party. We must gather and talk and eat. We cannot live without this!” And they know how to enjoy each other. I’m heading on another excursion with the teachers to the wine-making region of Kakheti this Sunday and cannot wait to spend the day exploring the holy sights of their country with them.

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