Samkheti (Armenia): The Place Below

Hello dear friends!

I write today’s post in a bit of a haze. I have been sleeping at odd hours of the day, unable to really adjust to real life after my trip to Armenia. The Easter holiday gave us Thursday, Friday, Monday and Tuesday off. Yesterday, I went to school bright and early only to find that no children had bothered to show up. I ate some Easter cake with the faculty and returned home. Today is another holiday, Victory of Fascism Day, so once again we had no school. Tomorrow, a Friday, I will wake up early and teach one full day before another weekend.

Nevertheless, I wish to tell you about my fabulous journey to “the place below” (the literal translation of the Georgian word for Armenia, “Samkheti.”)

The capital city of Yerevan by night

The capital city of Yerevan by night

Armenia is a very interesting place, even for someone who has lived in Georgia for nearly a year. They border Turkey to the West, Azerbaijan to the East, Georgia to the North, and Iran to the South. They are currently at war with Azerbaijan, whose ally, Turkey, have closed the border, leaving Armenia halfway locked in. Our shared cab back to Tbilisi took a different route than the one we took south. We were adjacent to the Azerbaijani border and told by the driver that people are still shooting each other on the disputed lands, despite being in an official ceasefire.

armenia2

A piece of an old tank on a hill overlooking the border

Now, Georgians understand having issues with our neighbors (as you may remember, Russia invaded in 2008 and still controls two major territories of Georgia) but 3 of the 4 borders are open and friendly. Though Armenians are able to go to Iran, the Irani youths tend to retreat into Armenia instead. This relationship with Georgia allowed for a lot of jokes directed at Georgia. In the words of our tour guide, Arpine, “We like to make fun of Georgia because it is too dangerous to make fun of any of our other neighbors.” Also worth mentioning is that Russia has offered support to Armenia, so the relationship with Georgia is more symbolic than explicitly stated.

Here's the whole bunch at Lake Sevan

Here’s the whole bunch at Lake Sevan

This weekend, twelve Americans volunteering in Georgia (some TLG, some Peace Corps) visited our friendly neighbors to see how much a border truly affects a culture. We all signed up for a tour offered by our hostel, and the tour guide offered a lot of insight to the war, the Soviet Days (like Georgia, Armenia was part of the U.S.S.R.), and the current lifestyle. Here are a few fun facts:

The Kingdom of Armenia was the first state to officially adopt Christianity in the 301 A.D.

armenian-alphabet_picture

The Armenian alphabet was invented by the same man who invented the Georgian alphabet, an Armenian saint named Mesrop Mashtots. It has 36 letters. (Our tour guide, in one her jokes-about-Georgia, insisted that Armenia chose all of the most beautiful letters and gave the rest to Georgia.)

The Armenian flag is three stripes: Red, Blue and Orange. The red represents the blood shed in the past, the blue stands for a bright future, and interestingly, the orange stands for apricots, the pride and joy of the country.

armenia4

Armenian tombstones traditionally feature carvings that describe the person’s death. The one above depicts a wedding (bride and groom top left, food and guests on the right) where a Mongolian invader (bottom left, the hat helps identify him as a Mongol) murdered everyone present.

The tour wasn’t all about history, though. There was a meal, eaten with a local family, lots of churches with views of the incredible Lake Sevan, and even a pagan temple, the last one standing in Christian Armenia.

armenia5

Our tour guide, Arpine, our lunch host, and her son.

Later in the weekend, we were able to meet some Peace Corps volunteers in Armenia, who offered the expat perspective on the country. They talked about how Georgia is their only option, with Iran being closed to American visitors, but they seemed less antsy than us to leave the country anyway.

I LOVE GEORGIA, but sometimes, I hate how hard it is to find places where I can go and feel “American” for a minute. Even in the cities, expat retreats are limited and grocery stores don’t stock a lot of my favorites. In Armenia, we found an amazing cafe called The Green Bean which had bagels, peanut butter, and fresh squeezed juices. There were pizza places, Mexican food, Chinese, etc. I found ginger ale, Oreos, bottled Frappuccinos, and Pop Tarts at the market. It may seem shallow, but cut me a break. We also went and had a traditional Armenian meal with our new friends.

The Armenian PCVs and the local Armenians converse about how awesome Armenia is at dinner

The Armenian PCVs and the local Armenians converse about how awesome Armenia is at dinner. Also, apricot vodka.

Armenia was amazing. It far exceeded my expectations, which to be fair largely stemmed from the knowledge that the Kardashians were Armenian. Though I was reminded by our tour guide that System of a Down is also Armenian, and they’re awesome. The locals love them too. If you’re ever in the area, I advise that you pay Armenia a visit. I was so happy to see a lake that the rest of the trip could have sucked and I would have come out happy, but it did not suck. It was awesome.

-Kacie Riann

Added note: I received a few angry posts from random Georgians that I don’t even know questioning the validity of my fun facts. The thing is, I used the internet to back up ALL of the facts taught to me on the tour. I will not post comments attacking the truth, which anyone with an internet browser can backup, nor will I be bullied into changing my words.

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2 Holidays, 2 Currencies, 7 Countries, 31 Days

Hello Readers,

I have been back in Georgia for about a week now, and am settling back into village life pretty rapidly. The culture shock returned when I did, but with my grasp on the language and idiosyncrasies of the country, I was able to adjust much more quickly than the first time.

Because my Eurotrip was a month long, I cannot give the detailed play-by-play that I can give about my weekend trips in Georgia, so I am going to post a quick recap of my trip and then get back to what this blog is really about in my next post, which is Sakartvelo!

Barcelona:

Spain, the seaside, and severe financial issues

Spain, the seaside, Sangria, and severe financial issues

The journey started and ended in Barcelona, a city full of interesting architecture, pushy souvenir salesmen, and tapas. My journey did not start smoothly, to say the least. When Amy and I arrived at the airport it was midnight. Neither of us had any Euros to our name, so I decided to pull money out of the first ATM I saw. We were literally in Europe for ten minutes when the bank machine swallowed my debit card without producing any money. I first reacted by falling onto the floor and crying; this went on for a fair amount of time. A nice Spanish girl called the number on the ATM machine for me, but they pretty much told me to cancel my card and that there was nothing they could do. I called Chase, who after encouraging me to update my mailing address informed me that they could not send a new card to me until 30 days after updating a mailing address. Eventually, I managed to get 40 euros from a different ATM with my Georgian debit card, and Amy and I made it to our hostel, where I called my parents on Skype and cried some more. Mom ended up getting me a new debit card in her name, which she mailed to my friend Tina in Austria, where I would eventually end up. Until then, I was being supported by Amy, who I thanked about 5,000 times!

Me and my sugar mama in the Gothic District

Me and my sugar mama in the Gothic District

Once we got over that drama, I was able to really enjoy Barcelona, which had kind of a negative connotation in my family after Jenna survived a particularly traumatic event there. It’s a good city for poor travelers, with about 20 hostels under 10 euros a night, an impressive Bazaar for grocery shopping, and a lot of really cool buildings that you can look at from the outside, for free. The city is famous for places like Park Guell and the Sagrada Familia, both designed by resident architect Gaudi, which were especially cool at night, when they light up and you can’t see the cranes and scaffolding surrounding their perpetual refurbishing.

Barcelona4

One of Gaudi’s most iconic buildings. He was a pretty quirky guy.

 

I was really exhausted by the time we hopped on our 22 hour ferry to Cvitivecchia, Italy, the closest coastal city to Rome. I was happy to have literally nowhere to go during that time. The view was nice too!

Barcelona3

Goodbye Spain, hello Italy!

Rome:

Christmas capitol of the world, perhaps?

Christmas capitol of the world, perhaps?

When deciding where we would spend Christmas, Drew suggested Rome. The city would provide plenty of historical sites to fill our time, and a visit to the Vatican on Christmas day would offer us a rare sight: the Pope! Rome was the first time I really felt like it was Christmas time. Barcelona was too warm, and Georgians celebrate Christmas on the 7th of January, so they had no decorations by the time I left. The high point was definitely Christmas in St. Peter’s Square, surrounded by thousands of people, being blessed by the Pope.

I do wish I could have seen the Popemobile, though

I do wish I could have seen the Popemobile, though

The hardest thing about Rome was probably how expensive everything was. The B&B we stayed at the first night and promptly left the next morning left us on the street buzzing for over an hour, before sleepily letting us in and arguing that we came too late. Too bad their website said “24 hour reception.” I felt like we were overpaying for our next “Bed and Breakfast,” who gave vouchers to a nearby cafe as the “breakfast” which was closed the entire time we were there. On top of that, they provided no guest kitchen for us to fend for ourselves. Each meal seemed like an assault on my (or in this case Amy’s) wallet. I splurged only on a tour of the Colosseum and Roman Forum, but I chose not to buy any souvenirs to help make up some of the costs.

I kept wanting to watch "Gladiator" and "Ben Hur"

I kept wanting to watch “Gladiator”…. and okay, also “The Lizzie McGuire Movie”

Luckily, Rome is a beautiful city, and many of it’s greatest attractions (The Trevi Fountain, the Spanish Steps, etc.) are free, if not a bit overcrowded. My fondest memory is the amazing, if fleeting sunset we saw as we crossed the river looking back on St. Peter’s Basilica. The timing was just right to get the sky, reflecting on the water, with a silhouette of the church.

I mean... wow

I mean… wow

Slovenia:

Sunrise over Trieste, Italy from just over the border in Slovenia

Sunrise over Trieste, Italy from just over the border in Slovenia

So this first anecdote actually takes place in Italy, in the border town of Trieste, but as it was part of the journey to Slovenia I lumped it in here. Amy and I departed from Drew in Rome, and continued on towards Slovenia. We took the cheapest train to Trieste, knowing there would be connections from there to Ljubljana. However, when we got to Trieste it was midnight and there were no trains going anywhere, nor was anything in the station open, including the bathrooms. With six hours until the opening of the station, we wandered outside in search of a hostel or internet cafe. We found nothing and the weight of our backpacks inspired us to go back to the train station and try to sleep. The next 5.5 hours were some of the worst of my life. The train station was full of homeless people, stretched out on egg crate foam pads with flannel blankets over them. Amy and I were wearing several layers and “sleeping” on either the cold tile floor or the cold metal bench. I couldn’t sleep for fear that my valuables would be stolen, and I was shivering like my chihuahua during a blizzard. The homeless people literally had it better than we did. Also, I really needed to pee and the bathrooms were closed, and it was far too cold to consider squatting in the alley and thus partially disrobing. We got the hell out of there immediately at 6 am and finally made our way to Ljubljana, where we promptly slept away most of our first day.

We did make it to the holiday festival that night, and saw some of the most amazing Christmas lights I have ever seen

We did make it to the holiday festival that night, and saw some of the most amazing Christmas lights I have ever seen

From Ljubljana we took a day trip to a place I have been itching to visit ever since I first saw a picture of it on The Lonely Planet: Lake Bled. Lake Bled is a fairly small lake nestled in the alps and features a cliffside castle, an island with a church on it, and some of the most beautiful mountains you could ever imagine. The scenery totally lived up to my expectations and I took about 1000 pictures. As you walk the perimeter of the lake, a new view comes into your vision every few feet or so, and it’s hard not to just be in awe of it.

It might be a Chelan thing, but I am kind of a sucker for lakes and mountains

It might be a Chelan thing, but I am kind of a sucker for lakes and mountains

We spent one more day in Ljubljana, a fairly small city with a strange obsession for graffiti and horrifying sculptures. Right next to our hostel, a former prison, there was an outdoor music club that stretched on for several blocks, and it was covered pavement to roof with artistic graffiti and tons of statues and sculptures and weird mannequins. We spent our last day just slowly walking through the complex, an art gallery of sorts, taking in all of the crazy imagery.

I told you they were horrifying

I told you they were horrifying

Graz:

Less about sightseeing and more about partying, NYE in Austria

Less about sightseeing and more about partying, NYE in Austria

Graz was the start of a new game for our Eurotrip. I finally got my debit card, which meant that I would start working off my some 500 euro debt to Amy by playing the sugar mama while she had bank issues of her own (being flagged for fraud because she was in a foreign country.) Instead of hosteling and wearing smelly clothes, we were able to stay with my sister’s best friend Tina and use her washing machine. Also, Graz was quite small, so our instincts to run around trying to “see everything” were replaced with the luxury of going to the clubs until 4 am and then staying in our pajamas the next day. It’s always good to see a friend from home when you’re abroad, and Tina was an excellent host and provided for a memorable New Year’s.

That's her in the shopping cart, and her friend Kaitlyn next to me.

That’s her in the shopping cart, and her friend Kaitlyn next to me.

Don’t worry, we saw all of the four sights in Graz too, which includes 2 castles (Schlossburg and Eggenburg) , a weird architectural sea creature looking thing (the Kuntzhaus), and a big yellow church (Maria Trost). But at almost the halfway mark of our trip, the slower pace of Graz was a welcome treat. Tina knew where all of the good food was and her apartment sits right on the main square downtown, so we could easily access everything without having to wake up at the crack of dawn or run ourselves ragged.

Amy approaches an oddly perched peacock at the Eggenburg Castle

Amy approaches an oddly perched peacock at the Eggenburg Castle

I have previously traveled to Vienna, and I have always found Austria to be a very pleasant country. The people are nice, the language sounds funny, and despite being a euro country, it’s fairly affordable. I was actually able to eat out, even at the gimmicky bridge cafe resting on the river and the famous Sacher Cafe with it’s even more famous cake. I shopped at H&M and Zara. Maybe it was the return of my debit card, but for the first time on the trip I didn’t feel like I was ripping up euros by the hundred, and that was a nice change.

Walking into the gimmicky bridge cafe

Walking into the gimmicky bridge cafe

Prague:

We convinced Tina to come to Prague with us for 24 hours!

We convinced Tina to come to Prague with us for 24 hours!

As you may or may not know, I spent my semester abroad in Prague, so it holds a very special place in my heart. When we were already in Austria and Prague was so close, I knew I could convince Amy to go there, and Tina even joined us for the first night! Prague is a special place, because its definitely European without the poshness that goes along with being European. Still holding onto their currency, the crown, the Czech Republic is quite affordable and the city is so walkable that you can easily explore it aimlessly. I love traveling aimlessly, but as the expert I got to play tour guide this time.

Charles' Bridge and Prague Castle at dawn

Charles’ Bridge and Prague Castle at dawn

Our overnight train came in nice and early and our hostel wasn’t ready for us, so we got the unique experience of seeing Prague in the early morning hours. This worked out well because Tina only had one day, so we really got to maximize our wandering. We saw the lesser quarter, the bridge, and Old Town, took a nap, then saw New Town and the Dancing House. I fed them Smazeny Syr and we covered a lot of ground. Then we decided to do a pub crawl to cap off our partying ways with Tina. The pub crawl ended at Karlovy Lazne, a famous club in Prague that has 5 stories with 5 distinct atmospheres and music styles. It was a great night, and a late night!

A blurry photo in our pub crawl shirts, that seems fitting!

A blurry photo in our pub crawl shirts, that seems fitting!

The next day Amy and I dropped Tina off at the train station. We continued our sightseeing, visiting some of my favorite spots, walking through the castle, paying homage to my old dorm and my school, and going to my favorite English speaking cafe (The Globe) for Happy Hour and trivia night with some of our friends from Georgia who were coincidentally in Prague at the same time. It was really great to share some of our weirder Georgia experiences with people who understood us, rather than trying to explain this country to hostelers who think we live in Atlanta. Also, we lost horribly at trivia but I did win a bonus round and a copy of Dirty Dancing because I knew the names of the actors in Breaking Bad. So, hooray Breaking Bad!

Mitch, Amy, Heather, Brett and I at trivia, repping Sakartvelo!

Mitch, Amy, Heather, Brett and I at trivia, repping Sakartvelo!

Paris:

This was one of about 200 pictures I took featuring the Eiffel Tower

This was one of about 200 pictures I took featuring the Eiffel Tower

Paris was our final destination, besides the two days we spent in Barcelona en route to Tbilisi, doing nothing but buying gifts for our host families and eating the last of our variety of cheeses before returning to Georgia. I was trying not to let my exhaustion show, but I was nursing a cold and we had been backpacking for 25 days at this point, so I was a bit tired. Our first day was spent in the Montmartre District, near our hostel and the Sacre Ceour. I was elated to see a “Monsieur Chat” graffiti, as Paris was the birthplace of M. Chat. I was less elated about the amount of stairs we climbed to get to the Sacre Ceour, perched high above the city. That’s not to say it wasn’t worth the climb!

I'm trying not to look like I'm panting...

I’m trying not to look like I’m panting…

The next day we took a tour of the Eiffel district, which started in Concorde Square and ended, you guessed it, at the Eiffel Tower. The tour was really well done, the tour guide was easy on the eyes, and the weather was decent for mid January. However, there was a bit of a downside: we chose to do the tour on the day of a massive protest against gay marriage. Not only was it difficult to walk without either moving against a crowd of hundreds of thousands of people, or looking like you’re one of them (I’m not), but a lot of our views were obstructed by the many giant buses that brought people from the provinces for the protest. It was also just disheartening to see so many people on the wrong side of history. I don’t want to get political here, but suffice it to say I was not cheering along with them.

Here is the amassed crowd from the second floor of the Eiffel Tower

Here is the amassed crowd from the second floor of the Eiffel Tower

On our final day we explored the other main sights: Notre Dame, The Louvre, The Arc de Triomphe. I definitely thought Paris was beautiful, but I failed to grasp the obsession that seems to come from Paris. I mean books, movies, and TV shows would have you believe that it’s the greatest city of all time and that nobody can resist its charms, but I found the waiters rude and pretentious, the hostels overpriced and the food to be average for a European city. Maybe I am missing something, or maybe Prague is just a tough act to follow.

Although I do have a desire to re-read "The Da Vinci Code"

Although I do have a desire to re-read “The Da Vinci Code”

Back in Georgia:

So, I made it back to my village and honestly, it really does feel like I came home. I mean, two of the highlights of my vacation were trivia with the fellow English teachers and recognizing Georgian on the metro in Paris, so obviously this country has a place in my heart. I had an amazing trip, but it feels good to be back.

-Kacie Riann

P.S. Sorry this is so long! If you made it this far, I applaud you!

A Weekend in Bizarre Batumi

Hello Readers!

Last weekend I took a little vacation to a city called Batumi, the third largest city in Georgia and the most popular seaside destination.

Only a two hour marshutka ride from my town, which is too small for this map!

In a way, Batumi can compare to Tbilisi, in that it is an odd mashup of historic old buildings and futuristic new architecture. However, the location and climate add a tropical element to the already confused atmosphere. Batumi has been called “The Vegas of the Black Sea” and this is a fairly accurate depiction. Yes, there are casinos in every hotel, but there is also a flashiness in the buildings and an anything goes attitude.

The building on the left is called “The alphabet tower” and has a nightclub inside the disco ball looking thing. The building on the right actually has a 5 capsule ferris wheel built into the “hole” on the opposite side.

I spent three days in Batumi, and save for a day trip to the botanical gardens (which is worth it just to get some of the best views of the city and sea) I was perfectly content to just walk the boardwalk, plop down on the rocky beach with a beverage, or bar hop around the city center. It’s a fairly small city, and it’s so visually bizarre that you never feel like you are missing out on any “sights.”

City skyline from the botanical gardens. Do you recognize those two shapes between the trees?

The best part of the trip was reconnecting with some of my fellow volunteers who I haven’t seen since orientation. I was able to start some serious planning on my Christmas vacation destination as well as swap stories with volunteers in villages, cities, and various locations within Georgia. I felt lucky to have ended up in a rural location, where all my food is fresh and my family and community is thrilled to have me. I may feel a little trapped or bored sometimes, but it could definitely be worse. I haven’t even gotten food poisoning yet!

Swimming in the Black Sea. I look freaked out because I just narrowly avoided a giant jellyfish

Possibly the strangest thing was that despite the weather being a humid 75 degrees F and clear, everyone kept insisting that summer was over. My host sister told me Batumi wouldn’t be as good since it is not summer, and lots of things were closed for the “off-season.” I know summer technically ends in September, but it was so beautiful! I swam without cringing and everything!

All in all, I loved Batumi and will most definitely be back. Even in the winter!

-Kacie Riann

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