Churches, Monasteries and Museums: A Georgian Field Trip

Hello Loyal Readers!
For my American readers, I wish you and yours a happy Father’s Day. My gift from afar to my own father will be to finally update my blog! I started slacking on the blog in the last month or so, mostly because the reality of returning home set in and I was trying to spend as much time with my friends and host family, experiencing as much of Georgia as possible. That is how I ended up saying yes to an invitation on a 3 day excursion to Kakheti, the wine region on the opposite end of Georgia, with my school’s graduating seniors.

Reminder: My village is near Ozurgeti, the drive to Telavi took roughly 7 hours

Reminder: My village is near Ozurgeti, the drive to Telavi, the capital of Kakheti, took roughly 7 hours

The drive was above average, since the marshrutka was hired and therefore actually stopped when passengers had to pee, get something to eat, or saw something that they wanted to take pictures of. And, on top of that, all of the passengers were students and teachers from my school, so when they fall asleep on you it’s not as creepy.

I was told to meet at the school at 10 am, and I don’t know why I bothered showing up on time. At this point, the lack of urgency, planning, and punctuality in Georgia is no longer a surprise to me. I staked out a good seat on the marshrutka, and read my book for 2 hours before the rest of the passengers arrived. Then, it somehow took another hour of buying coca cola, visiting the ATM, and dawdling needlessly before we managed to leave Chokhatauri region. Beyond the slow start, the first day ran pretty smoothly overall, with a reasonable number of bathroom breaks and one long stop for lunch in Surami, a pretty wooded area on the main highway in Georgia.

Lunch appeared out of nowhere, a feast of khachapuri (cheese bread), roast chicken, pizza, and cake.

Lunch appeared out of nowhere, a feast of khachapuri (cheese bread), roast chicken, pizza, and cake.

We arrived in Sighnaghi, known in Georgia as “the love city” and advertised to tourists as the most European city in Georgia around 7 pm. Assuming we had a hotel, guesthouse, or campsite lined up was also a mistake on my part. Instead, we drove into the center of town where a bidding war for our patronage took place. There were 19 of us total, and our best offer was a guesthouse just outside the center for 7 lari a night each, equivalent to about $5 USD.

After choosing beds and setting down our luggage, we yet again produced a mystery meal of boiled eggs and cucumber salad out of nowhere. By 8pm we headed into the city center.

Sighnaghi by night

Sighnaghi by night

I can definitely understand how Sighnaghi got the European label. The entire city rests on a hilltop, with narrow, winding cobblestone streets lit by lanterns. It was quiet and calm after dark, allowing us to wander the streets and enjoy it’s beauty. The kids were all very intrigued by my Nikon, and designated me their photoshoot photographer for the trip, which was fun at first but quickly got on my nerves toward the end, but more on that later.

Eventually, the marshrutka parked near a park, and the kids blasted music from its speakers, doing dance routines from various concerts and performances throughout their high school career. It was one of those moments that felt so very Georgian, because it was.

The new graduates dancing to "Gangnam Style" because, of course

The new graduates dancing to “Gangnam Style,” because, of course

By midnight we returned to the guest house, where I almost immediately hit the sack. I slept for 2 amazing hours before the celebrating children, who had been sipping wine and beer and vodka out on the patio, charged the dorm giggling and chatting. It was 4:3o am before they finally shut up and I was able to go back to sleep. It was a cruel 8 am awakening on day 2.

Day 2 started with coffee, khachapuri, and cake. We packed and said goodbye to our host and loaded up the marshrutka for what would end up being a 13 hour tour of the many churches and monasteries of Kakheti.

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Morning view of Sighnaghi while driving away

The day began not 5 kilometers from Sighnaghi, in a monastery complex that included a natural spring which was supposed to bring health and spiritual rebirth. I did not feel like stripping down naked, even if only in the company of a nun, to step into freezing cold water, and the spring didn’t look like much on the outside, so I managed a nap on a shady bench to work off some of the tired from a shitty night of sleep.

After that, we had a bit of a longer drive, so I was able to break free from that feeling I often get in Georgia, where you don’t really feel like you’re getting anywhere. Georgian churches are beautiful, sparse in their decor, lit by memorial candles, etc, but they all sort of look the same after a while. I think we saw 7 or 8 total on day 2.

Well, they definitely have a type

Well, they definitely have a type

Some of the churches stood out more than others, some had frescoes inside, some had monasteries attached, some were surrounded by sweeping views of the unarguably beautiful Kakheti countryside, but I grew fatigued by the sheer volume of churches at a certain point. Georgia is something like 93% Orthodox Christian, which included everyone but me on this excursion. Each stop would have the girls pulling on full length skirts and tying on head scarves, buying and lighting candles, kissing entryways and crossing themselves. I felt, out of place. Georgians see a bit of tourism, evidenced by the wrap skirts provided outside most churches for the under-dressed, but it was still a bit awkward to be the only person in a party of 19 who was not participating in the many rituals of the church.

Toward the end of the day we visited a church that doubled as an archaeological dig site, complete with tarped off areas and scattered tools. I saw many clay pots, pieces of simple metal jewelry, and a human skull!

I kept myself occupied with the creepiness

I kept myself occupied with the creepiness

I don’t know if it was lack of sleep, exhaustion, or what, but throughout the day I could feel myself getting pissy. I tried really hard to fight it, but little things were adding up to make me quite angry. The camera issue is one of them. Ever since the villagers first noticed my Nikon, I have felt kind of used. Every invitation to concerts, picnics, and Birthday parties is attached to the addendum “and you will bring your camera and take pictures.” It’s never a question. On this trip, I was being instructed by the other travelers to “take photo of this hill” or “Kacie, I want a picture in front of this.” As the day progressed, I got more and more annoyed as I was lining up a shot and was interrupted by a request to photograph something else that I don’t even care about.

When we finally got to Telavi, where we would be spending the night, my photographer status was hitting an ultimate high when I was saved by a freak storm, complete with thunder, lightning and heavy rain. We hopped into the marshrutka and searched for a budget hotel.

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My final commissioned photo before the storm hit

After 45 minutes of driving in circles in the rain, we found a cheap hotel (again 7 lari each, this time with double rooms so I could actually sleep.) We ate a late dinner where we were joined by a stray Polish traveler who thankfully spoke English. He asked me a lot of questions about Georgia and it was nice to feel like an authority on the matter.

I slept well that night, stirring only when Shorena, my co-teacher, came into the room for her own sleep. We woke at 8:30, had breakfast and coffee, and embarked on what I thought would be the drive home, yet turned into ANOTHER FULL DAY OF SIGHTSEEING. Mostly, it was more churches, monasteries and museums, but the final site of the day, a monastery called Davit Gareji, made the whole journey worthwhile.

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A cave monastery surrounded by some of the most beautiful landscape in Georgia and beyond

I was entirely aware of the time when we started driving toward Davit Gareji, a much talked about and well known “place to see” for TLG volunteers like myself. It was already 5 pm when we left the main road, still in Kakheti, 7 hours from home. But I no longer cared what time it was on the hour long journey through rough terrain that led us to the monastery.It was beyond gorgeous!

When we arrived, we hiked far above the monastery and easily killed another hour. The scenery was amazing, and it took all of our energy to admit that we should probably head home. We reached the main road as the sun was going down, and I remembered once again how far we were from home. I clocked our ETA at 1:30 am, which wouldn’t be too bad.

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Sunset through the obligatory cracked marshrutka windshield

We were right on schedule when we got to Tbilisi around 9 pm, but then I heard a teacher tell the marshrutka driver to go to Sameba. Sameba is the Holy Trinity Church in Tbilisi, and literally everyone has been there. Every student, teacher, and myself on the marshrutka had been there. I asked my co-teacher how long, and she said 30 minutes. I found a bathroom and bought a soda, and stayed in the marsh reading, I was ready to be moving toward my bed.

9:30 quickly became 9:50, and we were finally on our way out of Tbilisi. We made it a few kilometers before the boys complained of hunger and we stopped for some “fast food.” When 7 boys order Shaurma, it is no longer fast food. At 11:00 we were finally on the move, when we got, I kid you not, PULLED OVER. Cops are half myth in Georgia, but I guess in the summer they’re more likely to check for marshrutka driver’s papers. As we pulled away from the policeman after 10 minutes, I saw the “You are now leaving Tbilisi” sign ahead.

We got back to the village at 4:00 am.

A moment of genuine laughter after climbing off a ledge

A moment of genuine laughter after climbing off a ledge

Overall, the excursion was more good than bad. I got to see a lot of Georgian landmarks and scenery that I never would have made it to on my own, spend some time with the students I don’t get to teach, and my co-teacher. My annoyances at time management and being the camera bitch were largely outweighed by the fun times. I might be going on another school excursion later this week, so clearly it didn’t destroy me!

In other news, SCHOOL IS OUT. Now that I’m not teaching, I should be able to catch up on blogging a bit. Coming soon: A post about teaching/my school/students and a post about Georgian food!

Thanks for your patience,

Kacie Riann

Chemi Dabadebis Dghe

Dear readers,

Don’t get too overwhelmed, the title just means “my Birthday.” Yes, today, December 7th, a day that will live in infamy, is my Birthday. I have only a few hours of Birthday left in Sakartvelo, but in America it has barely begun! It’s hard to imagine, because I feel like I have been celebrating nonstop for the last 30 hours!

I had my Birthday party last night because a few of my friends are in Yerevan, Armenia this weekend and I really wanted them to attend. It was perfect.

I am making a stupid face because how can I be bothered to take photos with all of this food on the table?

I am making a stupid face because how can I be bothered to take photos with all of this food on the table?

My host mother really went all out! She made all of my favorite Georgian foods, like vinagreti (which despite the name is really just potato salad) and katleti (a ground meat and onion and garlic and cilantro thing wrapped in flour and cooked) among others. I will try not to go into to much detail because I have a food only post planned for the near future. I just need a few more pictures! But I will tell you this, she made me a pizza with no mayonnaise, which is blasphemy in Georgia, because she knows that I don’t like it. There was also the familar Coca Cola, my Georgian addiction of Nabeghlavi (a mineral water native to my district that I swear cures all ailments), and as usual, wine. The grand finale was an amazing cake that I insisted on eating despite how full I was because it was beyond delicious.

You can tell from my goofy grin that I am super happy. My host family spoiled me beyond what I could have imagined and as is customary at a supra, made a series of toasts to my health, family, time in Georgia, and future. I may not know much Georgian, but I know the smiles and love they give me are genuine. They have been so welcoming and accepting of me, despite the fact that I am completely clueless as to how to function in this country. In addition, I was told by my fellow TLGvs that my host mother made the best food out of all of their families, and reminded me how lucky I am to have such a nice bathroom. Seriously folks, never take for granted your sittable toilet, access to hot water, and shower curtain.

My entire family at my party. Sister Salome, Brother Mirza, Mother Irma, and Father Misha

My entire family at my party. Sister Salome, Brother Mirza, the new daughter, Mother Irma, and Father Misha

The party was a great success. My friends left happy, my belly was full, and my host family felt satisfied  that they managed to fill the void of being away from home on such a day. After doing about 1oo dishes, no joke, and sweeping the floor I was off to bed just in time to watch the clock strike midnight. My real Birthday had only just begun!

This morning, I went to school feeling stressed and overwhelmed after hearing that one of my friends never made it to his host family after my party. His phone was turned off and the entire district was in a panic looking for him. Eventually, I remembered that his Georgian friend, Beka,  knew my co-teacher and that she likely had his phone number. She called to see if Beka had seen him, and sure enough he had found him walking home the night before and brought him to his house. He was supposed to call the host family, but forgot, causing a lot of unnecessary drama, but at least we knew he was okay now!

Once that was sorted, the teachers room wasted no time surprising me!

Once that was sorted, the teachers room wasted no time surprising me!

I honestly did not expect such a production at school. Besides my co-teachers, Shorena (pictured above) and Tsitsi, none of the faculty speaks English and besides the occasional translated question, seemed like they had lost interest in me over a month ago. But they all pitched in and bought me that beautiful cake, along with a tchatcha (moonshine) fountain with matching shotglasses, and a “Me Miqkhvars Sakartvelo” (‘I love Georgia”) coffee mug. They sang the Birthday song to me in both languages, and made me blush the whole time.

The Gut'uri teachers and me, proudly displaying my mug!

The Gut’uri teachers and me, proudly displaying my mug!

After all of the excitement in the teacher’s room, I sort of forgot about the fact that I still had teaching to do! I went to teach my 5th and 6th grade classes, and was sung to two more times, as well as given cards and artwork!

Natia, and the gifted artwork!

One of my 6th graders, Natia, and the gifted artwork!

It was really sweet to realize that my students actually cared about me beyond being a foreign spectacle. Natia drew those for me because I once caught her doodling in class and told her how jealous I was that she could draw so well. When she gave them to me she said, “Happy Birthday, I hope these inspire you to draw.” Um, what? Did I teach her the word inspire? Or even better, did she look it up or ask Shorena because she really wanted to tell me that in English? I was overtaken with cute. Then I went to my 5th grade class and got four handmade cards!

Ok, so I still have some work to do, but at least she spelled my name right!

Ok, so I still have some work to do, but at least she spelled my name right!

It is really humbling to know that in a country where the teachers make unbelievably low salaries, the schools have very limited resources, and the students rarely have school supplies beyond the bare minimum, that gifts and cards for my Birthday were a priority. Georgia is world famous for its hospitality; I read all about it on various blogs and the official TLG website during my application process. Today, as I turned 23, I saw that hospitality in full force.

Me miqkhvars Sakartvelo!

-Kacie Riann

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