Monthly Archives: October 2015

Georgia Sojourner

My last two blog posts have been all about traveling elsewhere. Today I’m going to focus on traveling in Georgia, which I’ve been doing a lot of over the last few months. After I returned from Yerevan, I went to a conference that we call MST – mid-service training. It was at a really luxurious hotel in Borjomi. There were a lot of classes, a lot of meetings, a lot of lectures, and a lot of eating a drinking. I did have to take the mid-service LPI, um, language proficiency … something. Too many acronyms! Anyway, even though I had not spoken a word of Georgian in about 6 weeks, I achieved my goal, which was – just, please god, please, don’t let me regress. And I did not.  That is all I have to say about that!

We took a few fun photos at Borjomi, which I’ll share here:

 

The view from my hotel room balcony

The view from my hotel room balcony

The 3 Sara(h)'s - Sara Scholtz, Sara Feldman, and Sarah Vanderbok

The 3 Sara(h)’s – Sara Scholtz, Sara Feldman, and Sarah Vanderbok

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I left Borjomi a little early to trek into Tbilisi to meet my friends visiting from Dhaka, Bangladesh (Malcolm), Tokyo, Japan (Ric) and West Meon, UK (Helena). They all converged at an Airbnb apartment off the main drag in Tbilisi. That night we climbed an unbelievably steep hill and ate at the fancy Funicular Restaurant, where my non-regressed Georgian skills came in very handy. In fact, I spoke a lot of Georgian over the next week. Broken, incorrect, barely intelligible Georgian that was greeted with delight and amazement by nearly everyone I (tried) to communicate with. It was an interesting contrast to Gori, where the same efforts are often greeted with English as broken as my Georgian (or worse), Russian, a blank stare, or, less commonly, straightforward Georgian, with no extravagant praise whatsoever. I really like the last one, btw!

The next week was filled with excursions to Tbilisi (National Museum, Old Tbilisi walking tour, parks, restaurants and shops), Kazbegi, Mtskheta, Gori (Uplisitkhe, Stalin Museum, Gori Castle) Borjomi (again), Akhalsitkhe and Vardzia. Rather than write reams about all these places, I’m going to try and give a contained presentation of the highlights in captioned photos below.

The one place I will write a little about, because it was my favorite, was Vardzia. An interesting history of the site can be found here: http://www.atlasobscura.com/places/vardzia. Suffice it to say that it is an extraordinary cave city built in the late 1100’s by Queen Tamar (see my earlier post on her bridge). There’s a church with beautiful wall paintings (no photos allowed), windy tunnels, hundreds of uneven stairs cut into the rock, all different size and configuration of caves, and unbelievable views. There’s a feeling there, especially in the church, a feeling of the people who once created and then lived in these caves. They are present, in some way. I’ve experienced this before, once in Japan in a Samurai castle; in India, at a Jain temple … not that I feel there are ghosts, or real spirits, nothing like that. It’s just that some essence of them lingers, somehow. You can imagine them there. These special places are more than historic monuments, as much as I like those. They’re more alive. We spent several highly enjoyable hours there; it was the highlight of the trip for me.

So, here are a few of the photos. Please feel free to click on them to see them full-sized – they are a lot better that way.

There was more, of course – much more – but in the interest of brevity and not overwhelming my myriad of readers, I’ll leave it at this for Mal’s visit.

But wait! There’s more, because just a few weeks ago, I took yet another little excursion, this time to Kakheti and the lovely city of Telavi. The purpose of the trip was to do a tour of the countryside surrounding Telavi, including visiting some wineries, monasteries, churches, fortresses – the usual. 🙂 A good time was had by all.

 

Well, that’s the end of my sojourning in Georgia – for now. I’m back home in Gori, back to work, back in the routine. Next month – Thanksgiving. We have two celebrations planned, one here in Gori, and for one I’ll be traveling west to visit the village of a fellow volunteer. In the meantime, plenty going on at work – redesigning the web page, working on an “evergreen” video, grants, projects and events. CHCA had its 20th Anniversary Celebration bash a few weeks ago, and I’ll leave this post with a few shots from the big night – it was a lot of fun, actually! ‘Till next time …

 

Vacations

I am determined not to write a post that’s mere travelogue – I went here, I went there, here are hundreds of photos, etc. I kinda did that when I went to London over New Year’s – I said it would be short, but then it wasn’t! On the other hand, I did go to some very cool places this summer (outside of Georgia) and it seems worth at least a little bit of attention. So I hope I hit the right balance here. I’m going to cover two places – France, and Armenia.

So, first, France. In August, I took a short, and remarkably inexpensive (I’m talking airfare here – Paris is not cheap) trip to meet my friend Michele and her family there. Michele and I have been friends for over 30 years and it was really great to see her. We shared an Airbnb flat in the 1st Arrondissement, right in the center of Paris. It was ever so posh, and splitting it between all of us made it affordable. We were near Les Halles Metro stop, and boy did we use that Metro! I thought the Tube in London was the best ever, but I have to give credit where credit is due – Paris is a strong contender. I will say that sometimes transferring from one station to another underground could be just a bit … arduous. Lots of stairs and very long walks, while lugging a heavy backpack. Still … pretty wonderful transportation, along with fantastic food, great museums and surprisingly friendly people. Because I don’t speak French, perhaps I couldn’t hear the nasty ridicule they were heaping on my pathetic American head, but what can I say? They were really nice, polite and friendly, and I appreciated it. A lot.

Favorites were the Pompidou Center, which had a wondrous sculpture pool that completely entranced me, and a collection of modern art that introduced me to some artists I hadn’t previously known; in particular, František Kupka, whose intense use of color and texture in portraits was thrilling. The Musée Rodin gardens, which were orderly but not fussy, filled with sculpture. Breakfasts, which always consisted of a soft croissant and a chewy baguette, smeared with butter, some little dishes of jam, a latte and an orange juice. I mean, what more could one possibly need? I noticed that all the thousands of cafes (I’m not exaggerating) had seating outdoors, with chairs oriented toward the street for optimum people-watching. Last, without question, the Monet gardens. For a flower photographer/hobbyist like me, it was simply heaven. But it wasn’t just the garden. The house was so evocative; I could just see the artist sitting by the window, sipping coffee, or entertaining friends in his yellow dining room. The walls were covered with Japanese prints. And in walking the path around the gardens, to suddenly come around a turn and have the lily pond revealed – I was, honestly, a little teary. I mean, there it was, the real thing, where he actually sat and painted. And just as beautiful. So, that was good, very good indeed. I was worried about being overcome by hoards of fellow tourists, so I went the night before and stayed at a friendly B&B – very worth it, got there early and had several hours of relatively peaceful strolling. But even as the hoards descended, it wasn’t that bad. People were pretty respectful!

I went a lot of other places – the Jewish Museum, the Musée d’Orsay, not just one but two delectable Moroccan restaurants, Notre Dame, Sacré-Cœur Basilica (which involved a climb of about 500 stairs, followed immediately thereafter by the discovery of a funicular right nearby – chagrin), and a river cruise on the Seine. All great. Here are the inevitable photos. For anyone who wants to see the full set, you can find them here: https://goo.gl/photos/PFdpb196rFbDoauVA. A lot of flowers, not just from Monet’s gardens, but all over Paris.

A word on less-than-favorite things … not much, to be honest. I was completely underwhelmed by the Eiffel Tower, which was just way, way too crowded. No way was I going to stand in that line! As usual, I got lost a few times, but luckily it wasn’t too bad and gave me a chance to explore. The Champs Elysee was just like every other big shopping boulevard I’ve ever seen. I also really didn’t appreciate how expensive it was to get a SIM card/data plan for my phone – over 25 EU, which seems excessive to me. Last, and this one really bugged me, in the museums the vast majority of people were just moving from painting to painting with their camera (or phone) to their eye, snapping photos. They never looked directly at a painting, or paused to enjoy it; they viewed everything through a lens. They even took selfies over their shoulders to document their presence in front of one painting or another.I wanted to really enjoy the art, and this behavior was so irritating and distracting – it was like being in a paparazzi crowd, with all the snapping. In particular, in the Musee D’Orsay there was a stunning Van Gogh,  Thatched Cottages at Cordeville, Auvers-Sur-Oise, c.1890, that was so vibrant it seemed almost alive. All I wanted to do was stand and look at it, and people kept standing right in front of it (not to the side the way my mother taught me!) snapping, snapping – it was infuriating. They ought to ban cameras from museums.

vincent-van-gogh-thatched-cottages-at-cordeville-auvers-sur-oise-c-1890

From the internet!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I came home for 2 or 3 days, did a bunch of laundry and caught up on a little sleep, and then left again for a trip to Armenia. A completely different experience. I went with 3 PCV’s – BFF’s Jenny and Caitlin, whose sites are close to each other in the west of Georgia – both are close to Ozurgeti, where the 3rd PCV is stationed, Carmen. Also along for the ride was my Georgian counterpart, Marta, whose Russian was pretty indispensable, since none of us speak even one word of Armenian.

We stayed at a Airbnb flat again, in the center of Yerevan, not quite as posh as Paris but very nice indeed. The ride there in a shared taxi wove through densely-wooded mountains that descended to a vast brown and dusty plain, interrupted only by a huge lake – Serevan. Going through border control was a little challenging for me, because my passport photo looks nothing like my current (white-haired/no make-up vs dark haired bob, make-up and different glasses) incarnation. Thank goodness for my Georgian residency card. Strangely enough, in Europe they just wave me through – only in Georgia is it an issue. I have no explanation for this.

Yerevan is a very walkable (read, flat), reasonably-sized city, with a lot of trees and sculpture. People were pretty friendly and nice. Favorites include the Vernisage open air market, the National Museum on Republic Square, and the Cascade, a long set of steps at the foot of a public square that incorporates art and is surrounded by cafes shops. The best thing there was the dancing event that took place the evening we visited – hundreds of young Armenians enthusiastically dancing to traditional tunes. Armenian dance involves a lot of synchronized shouting, which I really loved. The spectacle was made even more exciting by the torrential downpour, thunder and lightening we were experiencing at the time. I made a little video, take a look!

And here are some photos of our adventures in Yerevan:

The next day, we took a 12-hour tour run by the Envoy, a hostel in Yerevan. It was really excellent. We went to a host of monasteries, churches and temples, along with an odd cemetery, a pagan temple, and a delicious supra-like lunch in a village that lacked only khachapuri, which in book was just fine. The tour guide was a former FLEX (future leaders of … something … I forget. It’s a State Dept exchange student program, quite prestigious and sought-after both here and in Armenia) student who spoke flawless English. She was very kind to a quite tightly-wound German woman who said she was sick and kept making us stop the bus so she could lie down by the side of the road, but who then somehow managed to perk up and eat a full lunch. I think she was just carsick. It would take too long to describe all of these sites here, so I will defer to some of my photos and hope they paint a good picture overall:

Geghard was my absolute favorite, so I’ll talk about it just a little. Geghard was a long drive down a beautiful gorge. It’s set deep in the valley, with sheer mountain walls rising all around it. The church is beautiful, but the really special things are the church chambers set into the cave walls. Some have peepholes into caves below; others have springs with holy water flowing. One chamber is famous for its acoustics and it was there that I had my favorite experience of the whole trip. PCV Caitlin has a tremendous singing voice, and she has learned traditional Georgian folk music; Marta also has a lovely voice, and a passion for traditional Georgian music bred in her bones. The two of them sang in the cave, and I captured it on video. As I listened, I was keenly aware of the experience, my luck in being able to be there, and to witness this. This is why I came, why I traveled so far and risked so much – for experiences like this, which could never be had in my old life. At the moment, I knew it was all worth it.

For all the photos, see here: https://goo.gl/photos/ZcvHxXkebzP69yGu5

And for a final word, this picture was taken after I came back, but I cannot resist – my Georgian host sisters, Salome and Nutsa, in their berets. Are they not cuties?

IMG_20150824_191052156

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Next time, I’ll be posting about a week-long trip through Georgia with my Brit friends, and then, just like my travels, I’ll be done. ‘Till next time.