For all of you who have enjoyed this blog about my experiences in Georgia, please continue reading as I speak to you about my findings and adventures in the world of music at my new blog here!
I was having a thoroughly enjoyable evening with my friends, some of the other English teachers in the Zugdidi area. We were at a restaraunt eating and drinking when my phone rang. “Paul! Paul! Sad khar?” Where are you? It was Laura, one of the teachers from my school. I responded, in Georgian, then walked the short distance to where teachers and students from the 9th-12th grades were waiting in the marshutka. It was 11:30 pm.
From there we made the 7 hour journey to Sighnaghi, in the province of Kakheti in east Georgia. A long marshutka ride in the middle of night, with Russian, Georgian and the occasional English pop song blaring out of the speakers in the vehicle. That, along with the bumpy road, the constant laughter and yells of teachers and students alike, and the horribly dusty, dirty air circulating around the marshutka and in and out of my lungs, made for a ridiculously unfavorable sleeping environment.
And so, at a little before 7 in the morning, we arrived in Sighnaghi, exhausted and freezing in the nighttime semi-mountainous air.
We walked around a little bit on the main streets of the city, which were lit up in orange glow and quite beautiful. Afterwards, and after another quick and also unsuccessful attempt at sleep in the marshutka, we ventured back out into the city in the early dawn light. We wandered around the silent streets, eventually arriving at the main attraction of the city: St. George’s Church.
From there, atop the building which also sits atop a hill, we could see all of the city and the old fortress wall which borders one side of the town. On a clear day, we could have even seen the nearby mountains, but alas it was a cold, dreary, foggy morning.
From Sighnaghi we continued on, after countless photos with me demanded by some of the teachers.
Our next stop was St. Nino’s Nunery, where we quickly explored the grounds and the church within. From there we made a short hike, all downhill, to where the well of St. Nino’s “holy water” is located.
It was a longer trek than anticipated, but still we arrived, we drank the water (there is also a place to bathe in the water but it was locked up at the time) then made the arduous hike back up the hill to where the nunery and our marshukta were waiting.
After this we had a small roadside supra, set out on some picnic tables which used to be rented out but which now sit in a state of unkempt disrepair. There were no chairs or benches so we ate standing up. The tables staggered with khachapuri, kupdari, baked chicken, and so much more. Along with some wine, although we drank a suprisingly small amount. That may have stemmed from the chilly weather and everyone’s desire to return to the slightly warmer marshutka.
Next we made our way to Telavi, the capital of the region, along the way stopping to buy churchkhela, a Georgian snack made by covering strings of nuts in a sort of grape jam. In Telavi, despite tiredness and the biting cold which had lingered all day, we visited the palace and museum of Georgia’s King Erekle II. Also in Telavi we saw an ancient, 700-year old tree, a famous landmark of the city.
We moved on from there to Tbilisi. By the time we arrived it was dark out again, and we traipsed out in the city a bit, taking in the beautiful, romantic Christmas lights which had been put up along the main streets and in Freedom Square.
Our final stop on this dizzyingly quick trip was Mtskheta. By the time we arrived, after getting lost and driving backwards about a quarter of a mile on a one-way road and across a bridge which ran over the highway outside of Tbilisi, I had had it. It had been a fun trip, but the lack of sleep, the cold, the bad air in the marshutka, the dozens of stop, all of it made me want to get back to my comfortable bed and sleep, sleep, sleep.
Still, I wanted to see Mtskheta, so I bumbled out of the marshutka along with the rest of our group and zombied towards the main attraction of the city: yet another church. It was of course still night time, but the place was lit up majestically.
We parked there for a few hours and I actually managed to get a bit of shut-eye, before we started along the road back towards Zeda Etseri. Still half-sleeping, half-just sitting and trying to drown out the bad music coming from the car with my own headphones. Finally at nearly 10 am, we arrived at my house. I walked inside, had a bit of breakfast with the host family, then went up to my room and fell blissfully into unconsciousness.
It started bright and early, at 6:30am, after a fitful night of only short bursts of sleep. I was staying at the apartment of my friend and fellow English teacher, Tom, who was hosting myself and another teacher/friend, Ian, for the night. Ian and I both live outside of Zugdidi, which is where a group of us teacher/friends were meeting at 7 am that Saturday for a trip to Borjomi and Vardzia, located in central-southern Georgia.
Unsurprisingly, we didn’t leave Zugdidi until nearly 8, after waiting for all 15 of our group to show and after a rummage through a local supermarket for snacks/breakfast. I sat on the marshutka, munching on raisin cookie-ish pastries and sipping on an apple juicebox, watching the sun rise over Georgia as we headed south, the strenghtening light shining on the beech trees lining the road and on the hills and Caucasus mountains behind them.
After hours of driving and several stops, including one for gas, an unneccessarily long coffee break, and a number of bladder-related interruptions, we eventually made it to Borjomi. The beauty of the surrounding countryside, especially in the hours of driving between Kutaisi and Borjomi, almost made up for the length of the trip. Our marshutka driver, who everyone called “Z” and whose actual name I don’t remember, helped us find a hostel, which was under renovation but still had beds available for 4 lari a night (which translates to less than 2 USD). Of course, you get what you pay for, AKA a lack of running water, graffitied walls, and no sort of heating which made the night a chilly experience. Borjomi, is after all, in the heart of the lower Caucasus range, so the weather was much cooler there than in the unseasonably warm Zugdidi.
But more on the night later. For now it was still early afternoon, and we had a lot of miles (or I should say kilometres; when in Rome…) to go until Vardzia.
We did finally make it to Vardzia, after several more hours in the marshutka, in the late afternoon. There, carved into the sheer rock face of the canyon which framed one side of the Mtkvari River valley we had been following for most of the trip, sat a gathering of what must have been hundreds of caves. We had seen other similar caves along the road, but this was by far the largest concentration in one place.
After paying the minimal 3 lari entrance fee, we hiked about halfway up the hill to where the cliff and caves began. Once there, we spent several hours exploring the cave city. Originally established in the 12th century as a monastery, most of the now-abandoned holes are relatively small, about the size of an average living room or kitchen. Some are slightly bigger with 2 or 3 “rooms” carved into the rockface, and there is one much larger cavern that houses an ancient church, still in use by the few monks who habitate a handful of the caves as the monastic tradition survives in the 21st century. Unfortunately we were not allowed to view the monks living quarters.
Leading back into the earth from the church is a deep tunnel, narrow and back-achingly dwarfish, which connects to several other large, no longer used caverns, and circles along several sets of steep, worn-smooth stairs to emerge far above the church.
There is also a precariously steep and unrailed staircase out in the open air which leads to the precipice of the clifface into which the cave city is carved. Ian, Tom and I braved the climb and were rewarded with a magnificent view of the surrounding hills and valleys, bathed in a warm orange glow by the declining sun.
Yet another lengthy journey back to Borjomi, which included a quick, twilit stop at a castle, Khertvisi Fortress, which literally butts up against the road. We had not had a legitimate meal all day, and grumpiness was beginning to prevail despite the endless stream of cheery tunes ranging from Semi-Charmed Life to One Way Ticket To The Moon. And so in Borjomi we immediately hit up a restarant and ordered a smorgasboard of food: bread, salad, khatchapuri, baked chicken, fries, pork cutlets and mushrooms. After what felt like an infinity of waiting, our courses finally began to arrive.
We joyously feasted, and when we had finished, with stomachs too heavy and wallets too light, we wearily made our way back to the hostel in frozen night (and that’s no exaggeration). Inside the hostel, which provided only minimal shelter from the frosty air, I ended up sleeping in all my clothes, both to provide some extra warmth and out of fear for the creepy crawlers that were likely infesting all of our beds and blankets. (I should mention here that I didn’t end up getting any sort of bites, so that’s a plus.)
The next morning, after a breakfast of fresh bread, cold sausage and hot tea, we headed out to Borjomi’s park, where the famous, salty-sour Borjomi mineral water is located. The warm spring-fed water is not the only attraction of the park. It also contains a large fantasy-themed children’s playground called “Fairyland”, as well as several amusement park rides, none of which were in operation (I assume they are only open in the summer). The path of the park follows the little Borjomula river, and is surrounded on both sides by rather steep, tree-gilded inclines.
At the end of the paved path the trail turns to dirt, and I, along with friends Tony and Yev, decided to jog the 2km to a bathing pool of the warm spring water. The natural surroundings were peaceful, with fiery autumn leaves lining the hills between which we jogged.
After reaching our destination and dipping our heads in the tepid water, we jogged back to rejoin the rest of the group. They had opted out of the little trek in favor of filling up jugs with the free, supposedly health-giving Borjomi water (although the jugs cost 2 lari if, like us, you don’t think to bring your own).
Finally, we loaded back into the marshutka for our endless ride back to Zugdidi, which included a pull over at McDonalds in Kutaisi. I got some fries and a McFlurry (tried to order Butterfinger, got Crunch Bar), which were, ashamedly, tasty if only as a reminder of home.
Back in Zugdidi around 6 pm, I caught the last marshutka to my village, exhausted from a weekend of marshutka riding, cave exploring, food feasting, shivery sleeping, nature jogging and head dunking. But what a good weekend it was.
Wow! So much has happened since the last time I updated you!
First off, we took another step in the wine making process:
This is transferring the processing wine from the giant wooden barrel into the bucket, sifting out the grape pulp, and then into a big blue plastic barrel to continue the fermentation. It was rather repetitive work, but nonetheless interesting to see and I enjoyed helping out.
Next, there was the excursion I took a week ago Sunday to Sachkhere with the 8th grade class from my school:
We visited the home of a famous Georgian poet, Akaki Tsereteli (1840-1915). The tour was conducted in Georgian, so I didn’t really understand a whole of it. But the surrounding countryside was quite lovely:
We also had a feast/picnic/supra on a hill on the side of the road on the way back to Zugdidi, including (of course) khatchapuri, eggplant, chicken, bread and shots of chacha, always accompanied by toasts.
Finally, I’ll tell you about my whirlwind trip to Svaneti, which was one of the most tiring and awesome days I’ve had in Georgia so far.
It started as I woke up around 7am to arrive at school by 8am to meet up with several of the teachers at my school. We didn’t actually end up leaving until 8:30 or so, and then made several stops initially to pick up other teachers who lived along the road to Svaneti.
Then we began to truly start the trip. We made pit stops along the way at various sights of interest, including the Enguri Dam (which I’ve visited before) and a waterfall. Finally we arrived at our first major stop in Svaneti, after about 3-4 hours along the extremely bumpy, pothole strewn road that curved precariously along cliffs with no sort of railing. That first stop was the village of Etseri (not to be confused with my own village of Zeda Etseri), where several of the teachers at my school hail from, and where there relatives still reside.
Here, from left to right, is Nika (a student in my 12th grade class whose family lives in Svaneti), myself, and teachers Nora, Lorisa, Nana (my co-teacher), and off to the side is Soso, our marshutka driver. We are standing on a hill overlooking Etseri and the beautiful surroundings, about to eat kupdari, a dish like khatchapuri but filled with minced meat instead of cheese, which is wonderful.
Next, we journeyed onward to Mestia, which we wandered around in for several hours, including a visit to the National Ethnographic Museum, which houses some very interesting artifacts pertaining to the history of Svaneti and all of Georgia.
As you can see above, Mestia is set in a very picturesque place, situated in a valley with astounding beautiful mountains surrounding it on all sides.
Also got to taste this little guy, probably the smallest apple I’ve ever seen in my life, picked straight from the tree and quite sweet and tasty.
After Mestia, we travelled to the base of Mt. Ushba,which towers gloriously 4690 metres above sea level:
Our final stop was at Nika’s family’s house where we had a lovely supra. Feast with your eyes as I feasted with my mouth:
Then we headed back towards our village, again along the painfully bumpy road for 4 hours, arriving at my host family’s house around 12:30am.
It was exhausting and exhilarating all at the same time, and I wouldn’t trade that day for the world.
Oh also, I went to Borjomi and Vardzia this weekend, but more on that later (this post is long enough already!)
That’s it from me!
So a week and a half ago, I got to make wine for the first time in my life! Basically it went like this:
I put on those giant Wellington boots and went to work on crushing grapes with my feet. Once each cauldron-full was trampled into pulp and juices, it was poured into that giant wooden barrel standing behind Vasiko and I. We destroyed an entire of those blue plastic barrels which was filled with grapes. Then we went on to the next step:
Basically it entailed boiling that huge pot of water and pouring that entire bag of sugar into the water, stirring it and then transferring the hot sugar water to the wooden barrel of grape pulp. And that was the entire process. Now it is sitting and fermenting, and I have no idea when it will be ready. But I’m excited for that day.
Oh also, the day after we made the wine, we went to this wedding supra for someone somehow related to my host family (I never figured out exactly how):
It was a very festive, happy event, 4 long tables filled with plates and plates of food, jugs and jugs of wine, and people crammed in elbow to elbow. We ate, drank and were merry. Lots of toasts to the bride and the groom and their family and everything else imaginable. Lots of dancing and music and singing. It was definitely an unforgettable experience.
To start things off, here (finally) is a picture of my house in Zeda Etseri in Georgia. See the balcony on the second story on the right hand side? That’s where my room is:
Now then, to tell you about a few of the things that have been happening around here lately.
A few weeks ago, on a Friday afternoon, everyone in my school walked north along the main road in our village, to our “football stadium” (pictured below) for the first annual inter-village football tournament, held in honor of the one-year anniversary of the death of a 2nd grade student in our school.
Two other English teachers came with their village schools to watch their own teams compete as well. Tony, who hails from New Jersey, came in support of his village Chkaduashi, and Danny, from Australia, came with the Chkhoria school. All the teams played each other, but some schools (including mine) had an older team and a younger team, and some only had one team. So I don’t quite understand how the rankings were determined, but in any case, my team won! And I even got to hold the trophy! (below) while posing with several teachers from my school:
Ah, the sweetness of victory! The father of the child who died, presenting one my students with our trophy:
And after the tournament, we moseyed back to my school, to the teacher’s room, where this spread (below) was set out, a supra also held in honor of the child and his family.
Among those present for the event were a few teachers and headmasters from the participating schools, the three English teachers and some other random villagers.The food was great, the toasts were heartfelt, and us English teachers were made to give toasts as well on every subject: in memory of the child, in honor of his family, to Zeda Etseri’s school, to all schools and all teachers and all children. I attempted parts of the toasts in Georgian, other parts in English which were translated by Nana, one of the English teachers with whom I co-teach every day.
But that was just the start of the weekend.
The next morning, a group of us hopped onto an overcrowded marshutka bound for Batumi, Georgia’s city by the sea and summer fun zone. Of course, it’s October now so the weather was mostly raining or overcast and the Black Sea turbulent and cold. Still, it was really fun.
Mostly because of this:
This is a pirate ship. And our hotel in Batumi. It’s called “Hotel Old Ship”. How legit is that?
Almost as legit as this:
That, my friends, is Coolio, of the 1995 hit rap single “Gangster’s Paradise”. Performing in Batumi, Georgia. Quite possibly one of the most random things I have ever done in my life…besides coming to Georgia, of course.
Another photo update for you (by the way you can see full-sized versions of the images by clicking on them):
Another photo of the Inguri Dam. This angle better captures the massiveness.
Samegrelo and Svaneti mountains
On our pirate-ship hotel in Batumi. My English teacher friends Paul (from Germany) and Tony (from New Jersey).
Also on the pirate-ship. My English teacher friends Damon (from New Mexico), Tony, Paul and Lukas (from Newcastle in England)