Moving Forward

Some of my legion of followers may have noticed that I have changed my tagline. I have read this quote of Elie Wiesel many times, and at no time have I ever agreed with it more than now. My blog posts have become infrequent the last few months, for a few different reasons, and I’ve been thinking about how to revitalize things now that I’m no longer a Peace Corps Volunteer, but still living overseas. I’ve decided that I’m going to focus on national/international matters a bit more, because right now that is really what I care about the most. I will link to articles that I find particularly insightful or helpful, and cover news and reactions to what’s going on back home from a different perspective, that of an expatriate who still cares and is deeply worried about the direction her country is taking.

I’ll still fill people in on how I’m doing, and I will from time to time return to my original storytelling approach – I mean, there are always good stories to tell! But you can expect less of that, and more of this, as it were. I hope it interests you!

Thanksgiving in Tbilisi … not

When I was a Peace Corps Volunteer here in Georgia, I felt something of an obligation to present a positive face. I knew people who were considering the PC, or who had been invited to Georgia, might be looking at it, and I didn’t want to discourage anyone. Also, I knew someone at the PC office was vetting my posts, because from time-to-time I got feedback from them. It was always good feedback, but I certainly was aware of their eyes on me. So I was honest, within certain parameters. Now, as just another expat living in Georgia, I can say whatever I please. However, even without my prior constraints, it’s hard to know what I should be posting here … or not. Even as transparent as I am, emotionally, I am not enamored of writing about my private feelings – especially when they are sad, or angry, or frustrated. I like to keep that stuff for my good friends and family, who know me and know that even if I’m feeling down, it’s not ever the whole of who I am.

But the problem is – I haven’t got any friends or family here. I’ve only lived in Tbilisi for 5 months, and most of my friends left in June, when our PC service ended. I have Georgian friends – some very good friends, actually – but we don’t share a common cultural understanding or background. All of my admittedly very small family is in the U.S. Most of the time, this isn’t a problem. I’m in good touch with my family, and I’ve met a lot of nice people here. I’m hopeful that some of them will develop into friends eventually. But when it comes to a quintessentially American holiday like Thanksgiving … it’s a little hard.

In 2014 and 2015, I was living in Gori and just as far away from home as I am now. But with my fellow PCVs, we threw huge, festive Thanksgiving supras each year. It was fun, and I felt good, and I didn’t miss home at all. I really felt I was just where I wanted to be.

So … 2016. Yeah, a little different. A promised invitation never came, and I found myself alone, and not happy about it. I guess the person who promised the invitation forgot, or went somewhere else … but I gotta admit, a message, at least, would have been nice. Facebook was not much help – most of the posts showed happy families celebrating together. I even saw a number of photos of Thanksgiving celebrations here in Georgia. Peace Corps had a huge Thanksgiving dinner. I understand that it’s only for current volunteers, but, still …

Well, you see the direction this is going. So I’ll stop now, and just say, sometimes being so far away can be tough. This is the price you pay, I guess. Next year, maybe I’ll make my own Thanksgiving and invite other strays such as myself! Sadly I don’t have an oven, so it might require some serious improvisation – but I’ll worry about that later. In the meantime, I am going to a belated Thanksgiving dinner on Sunday with some people I know, not friends, but nice people. It’s at a restaurant I’ve heard is quite good. I have to pay 50 lari to cover the cost, which is entirely reasonable, but somehow kinda kills the feeling a little bit. Maybe I’m just being cranky. The election is still weighing heavily on me. Tomorrow night I’m meeting some people to talk about we, as American expats, can do here in Georgia to have some impact on the situation. I have some ideas. We’ll see what happens.

For now – happy Thanksgiving to all of you back in America, and hold those friends and family close, especially right now.

Update: On Sunday, as planned, I went to a very nice dinner at Rosemary, a new restaurant here in Tbilisi run by an American guy who combines traditional Georgian cooking with down-South culinary techniques and recipes from “the other Georgia” – the one that has Atlanta located in it. We got a very nice dinner indeed, with all the traditional fixins’, and a good time was had by all.

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That means, Georgian language, and this is planned to be a short blog post about my ongoing struggles and today’s final surrender to the absurdity of it all.

So, as I’ve written here before, my Georgian is not very good. My (former) office mate Nodar has characterized it as babytalk. I can’t really argue with that. Nonetheless, I manage. I actually manage pretty well in day-to-day activities, if I am speaking with someone personally. Telephone conversations are definitely more challenging. As are handwritten menus, taxi drivers speaking Russian, marshutka drivers with heavy regional accents, fancy script and other monkey wrenches thrown in my way.

Today was a pretty good example. I negotiated my way along a new marshutka route (winding through very beautiful areas of Tbilsi btw), talking with a woman waiting with me on the corner (jer ara, not yet, accompanied by a resigned shrug from both of us, and then, finally, modis! it’s coming!), the marshutka driver, whose gravelly voice rivaled Leonard Cohen’s, the one guy left at the printing place I went to get a business card made who was telling they closed 15 minutes ago, and to call on Monday (ok, there was a little English in that conversation), then a conversation at the excellent Turkish restaurant where I went to console myself (in Georgian, not Turkish!), and the cleaning woman in my building who I told, madame, I have your money! To which she replied, your Georgian is getting very good. To which I replied, nah, it isn’t, accompanied by a rueful shake of the head.

And then, the final surrender. Off I go to the vegetable stand on the corner. I saw a woman on the marshutka eating the tiny winter tangerines we call mandarini (მანდარინი – the letter “ი” in Georgian is written as “i” in English characters, but pronounced as “ee”) and I thought, yeah, that looks really good, I’m going to buy some of those. So, in I went, and I asked the friendly guy, in Georgian, do you have mandarinis? Are they sweet? He kind of wagged his hand and said, not really. I chuckled and said – again, in Georgian – not yet, I think! I said, I want a few, and I took four, and a few other things. He rang me up and then said IN ENGLISH, 2 lari. Holding up 2 fingers. Usually this behavior, which is incredibly common, drives me into a rage. I complain about it all the time. I mean – we just had a whole little conversation in Georgian. I used non-tourist words and the future tense. Come on! But I dunno … for some reason it didn’t trigger the usual reaction. Instead, I laughed, I said, in Georgian, yeah, 2 lari, I understand, yeah! He laughed too.

I think it’s finally happened – I’ve finally surrendered to the absurdity of it all. Either people are insisting on speaking Russian to me, or they want to speak English, even when they clearly don’t know how, or – and this totally happens – I’m imploring them to speak English and they refuse, even when they know how. This mainly happens at government offices. I’m not gonna get mad about it anymore. I’m just going to accept it. If this means my Georgian doesn’t improve very much because I don’t get to practice, so be it. I’m tired of getting mad about it.

მე მიყვარს საქართველო. Look it up.

 

 

 

 

 

Kiev, or Kyiv?

Last weekend I took a short trip to Kiev … or Kyiv … however you spell it. I was attending a conference, so as is customary at such events, I spent most of my time at a hotel. This particular hotel was well outside city limits and as a result, I didn’t see too much of the city until the last day, when I took a tour. I did have a few interesting experiences, though!

I think the best part was a dinner where I sat with a handsome French guy who lived and worked in Riga, having fallen in love with a Latvian girl, an Italian guy in a wheelchair with a giant white beard, and a young, rather exuberant Ukrainian guy wearing large, neon yellow glasses. Our conversation mainly focused on modern literature. French guy: Celine is my favorite author, although he was a misogynist and rabid anti-Semite, but he writes so lyrically. Italian guy: Mishima was a neo-facist nut, but I love his writing, it’s so strange. Me: Murakami’s “Kafka On The Shore” changed my life, you guys are nuts. We all agreed, however, that Elena Ferrante (whoever she really is) was brilliant and “The Neapolitan Tales” should be read by everyone alive. We also talked about politics, travel, food, and a number of other intriguing topics.

On a slightly more serious note – it was, in fact, a great conversation. These guys were smart, well-read, highly-educated, and had opinions they did not hesitate to express. I think for them, it was a pretty normal discussion, but for me, it was a natural high. It’s been a long, long time since I had an erudite conversation with someone, to be honest. I’ve had some meaningful, personal conversations, and some really funny conversations, and even some educational conversations, but I cannot remember the last time I talked about modern fiction or art of any kind, with anyone. So – I enjoyed myself more than I probably should have, and will treasure the memory of that evening’s conversation as something I really should find a way to have more of, because it’s important to me. I’m grateful for being reminded of that.

On the last day, I took a tour of Kiev … Kyiv … whatever. The tour guide was excellent, though she may have cast a bit of a pall over the crowd in starting the tour by pointing out Babi Yar as we passed the turn-off. For those of you who don’t know, Babi Yar is a ravine in Kiev … Kyiv … and a site of massacres carried out by German forces and local collaborators during their campaign against the Soviet Union. The most notorious and the best documented of these massacres took place from 29–30 September 1941, wherein 33,771 Jews were killed. Nearly 34,000 people, in 2 days. According to a Wikipedia article, “The massacre was the largest mass killing for which the Nazi regime and its collaborators were responsible during its campaign against the Soviet Union[2] and is considered to be “the largest single massacre in the history of the Holocaust” to that particular date, surpassed only by Aktion Erntefest of November 1943 in occupied Poland with 42,000–43,000 victims and the 1941 Odessa massacre of more than 50,000 Jews in October 1941, committed by Romanian troops.”

This information, which was shared by the tour guide, did not put me in a happy mood. Nonetheless I was impressed that she acknowledged the place, and the deed, when she could have so easily let it pass by.

We continued on to Kiev … Kyiv … where we went to several churches and old fortresses, looking at 11th century wall ruins and the like. At one church, the Kiev … Kyiv … Eastern Orthodox Patriarch was in the church for the service, which really excited our tour guide. I watched the service, which seemed to consist mainly of dressing the Patriarch in beautiful blue and gold robes and a crown. A choir was singing in the balcony. It was a bit surreal, but perhaps a little less so to me, being accustomed to Eastern Orthodox pageantry. It didn’t really feel right to be snapping away inside the church, so I haven’t got much to show, but here are a few images I captured:

We went to a number of squares, including Maidan. A reminder of what Maidan Square is, again from Wikipedia: “The Ukrainian revolution of 2014 (also known as the Euromaidan Revolution or Revolution of Dignity; Ukrainian: Революція гідності, Revoliutsiya hidnosti) took place in Ukraine in February 2014, when a series of violent events involving protesters, riot police, and unknown shooters in the capital, Kiev, culminated in the ousting of Ukrainian President, Viktor Yanukovych (who had won the 2010 Ukrainian presidential election. This was immediately followed by a series of changes in Ukraine’s sociopolitical system, including the formation of a new interim government, the restoration of the previous constitution, and a call to hold impromptu presidential elections within months.” There are a lot of conflicting reports, but it appears around 75 people, including police, were killed. There are also a lot of conflicting reports on the identity and source of the snipers who shot so many demonstrators, ranging from the CIA to the Russians. According to our tour guide, “we all know who did it but no one will say it.” Apparently she didn’t want to say it, either. This picture of me is not at Maidan Square, but another one, called Khmelnytsky – it was a very misty, cold day.

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Me at Khmelnytsky Monument

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On a much nicer day, with a much nicer camera!

 

 

 

 

 

The architecture in Kiev … Kyiv … was very nice. Many boulevards had walkways down the median, with benches and landscaping, and overall the city was very green. However, the mist became so heavy that my photos are just terrible, so here are a few pulled off the web, just to give you a feel for it:

I’ve been to a lot of cities that just called my name. Kyoto was one: I ended up living there. Budapest was another; I didn’t live there, but I could have, and who knows, maybe I will one day. Kiev … Kyiv … didn’t even whisper. Maybe it was the grey clouds hanging over everything, maybe it was the sad and tragic history, maybe I was just in a bad mood. But all I can say now is, I visited, it was mildly interesting, and I don’t think I will yearn to go back for more. Though, if the right opportunity arose … you never know!

 

A Different Home

For the first time since April 2014, I went home for a visit. It was a really great trip, with lots of eating, talking and spending time with family and friends. I’ll put some photos up below, but in keeping with my general aversion to travelogue-style entries, I’ll spare you the details. Instead, I want to write in a more general vein, about the idea of going home when home isn’t exactly home anymore.

The minute I stepped out of the airport into the barely controlled chaos of LAX, I felt that everything was completely familiar. Like I went to San Diego or somewhere close by for the weekend, and was just heading back to my little house in the hills to sleep in my own bed again. Except I sold that little house over 2 years ago, and the bed is sitting in a storage unit in Montebello. The feeling, though, was in my bones and in spite of certain realities could not be shaken off. I drove my rental car without even thinking about directions – just went where I needed to go. And boy, did I enjoy driving again!

There were some dissonant moments, though. For instance, I was staying in the house of a very generous friend who happens to live 2 houses down from my sister’s house. So every time I drove there, I felt like I was going to visit Mimi, my sister. But Mimi sold that house a year ago and now lives on a farm in southern Washington. Another example – I was in Burbank, and automatically drove to where I had gotten on the 134 freeway literally hundreds of times before, all those times I came home from working in San Francisco or Sacramento via Burbank Airport, and … it wasn’t there any more! Instead, there was a huge wall, and I had to drive a few miles more (back to where I came from) to get on the freeway.

But generally, I fell back into all of the easy relationships I have always had with the city, and with my network of friends who live there. L.A. seemed very much the same, though I’ve been told that Hollywood has exploded with new development, which doesn’t surprise me in the least, considering Mayor Garcetti’s cozy relationship with developers when he represented the district. I didn’t see it though – no reason to go there, though I drove through a few times. It looked pretty much the same to me, as did the rest of the city. So it felt to me like coming home, except that I have no home there anymore.

So, this begs the question – is Georgia home now? I think I have to say … no. It’s still a foreign country, not my own. There are many things (and people) that I love here, and I feel very comfortable here, but it doesn’t feel like home, really. L.A. feels like home, but it isn’t really, and probably never will be again. So this leaves me strangely stranded in the middle somewhere. It’s not necessarily a bad feeling, but it’s very different from being a visitor – or the opposite, a native, or at least grounded in a particular culture and place.

Interesting. We’ll see where it all leads, if anywhere. In the meantime, here are some of the people I saw and spent time with and really felt loved by back in L.A. – home, or whatever it is.

My weekend

As is my habit, I want to go deeper into one specific topic or story. In this case, it will be my weekend, which was a study in contrasts.

Saturday was the dark side of the picture. A day arrived that I had been dreading for a week, ever since I found out that my CHCA colleague and friend, Nana Sharia, had died unexpectedly last Saturday morning. She was 44 years old. Nana had multiple, serious physical disabilities; I believe she had muscular dystrophy, as she exhibited all the symptoms, but that’s just my non-medical opinion. Whatever it was … she was a tiny dynamo on crutches. She spoke perfect English (and Russian, and of course Georgian), and always greeted me with huge enthusiasm and warmth whenever I was in the Tbilisi office. She had been a Muskie fellow and studied Public Administration at the University of Louisville, where she later worked in the Center for Environmental Policy and Management. When she returned to Georgia, she worked for several major international NGOs, focusing on homeowners and tenant associations, as she did at CHCA.  She was smart as a whip, and I was so looking forward to being her friend here in Tbilisi. We spoke often of meeting at Prospero’s, a local expat bookstore hangout, and I was planning to call her in mid-August when I got back from my visit home to set a weekend brunch date. She even sent me some Skype messages as recently as June 22nd … and then, on July 17th she passed away from a blood infection.

I went to the funeral with all of my former colleagues from CHCA. We stopped on the way to get flowers, and stood around chatting in the hot sun while waiting for others to arrive. When the Gori contingent pulled up, they were really pleased to see me -especially our driver, Tengo. I was really happy to see him, too, but sad it had to be on such a somber occasion. We walked a distance to the flat where Nana lay in her coffin. The Georgian custom is to enter the room, and circle the coffin. We did that, and it was hard for me. I am unaccustomed to open coffins, and in this case, Nana looked so very small that it was heartbreaking. Four elderly ladies sat along one side, weeping and calling out “sad midixar, Nana?” (where did you go, Nana?). About 5 of us stood in a corner afterwards, crying. Eventually I left the room and sat down on some nearby stairs, just to get a breath of air.

We were there about 2 hours. They eventually brought Nana down to the parking lot, where an elderly man – possibly her uncle – started speaking over the coffin, and then weeping. It’s unusual to see a Georgian man crying in public; in fact, I’ve never seen it. But then I haven’t been to a funeral before, either. The whole crowd, maybe about 150 people, followed the pall bearers as they brought her to the hearse. At this point, I had to leave, as the graveyard was very far out of the city, with no public transportation, and I would have no way to get home, since all of my colleagues lived in different directions or out of town. Eka assured me that the important thing was that I went to family home, but I still felt badly. In fact, I was sad all afternoon and just sort of lay around my flat taking short naps and staring out the window. It was a hard day.

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Sunday morning I got up and decided to spend the day shopping for gifts for my upcoming trip to the U.S. I had a leisurely breakfast and then made my way by marshutka to the Freedom Square area of Tbilisi. I wandered about, looking for a tea shop I knew was in the area (it was not, but it was nice walking around), and then met a PCV friend to look a jewelry from the IDP settlement of Tserovani. This was the very settlement where over 2 years ago I left training on my own for the very first time to job shadow a (I now can say it) highly unfriendly PCV, now back in the U.S., who made it clear that I was only there because the PC office had specifically requested it. She did not house me with or near her host family, whom I never met although I had brought chocolates for them; instead, I was put in the house of a friend of her Director. My host was very nice, but she left during the second night for Tbilisi without telling me, so when I woke up in the morning, I was alone in the house, and very confused! The PCV showed up 2 hours late, and then that evening told me I was on my own for dinner in a place where I knew no one, and where there were no restaurants. Hmmmmm … that was not such a good experience. Luckily my host’s neighbors were having a supra for a visiting friend, and invited me to join them. Given that my Georgian at the time was virtually non-existent, it was an awkward evening, but that was my first supra! You can see my judiciously edited blog entry from that visit here: https://saraweaves.wordpress.com/2014/06/03/idp-settlement-visit/.

Though I never did become friendly with that particular PCV, I did become quite friendly with her Director, the lovely Nana Chkareuili. I also become a big admirer of the gorgeous enamel jewelry created by her NGO’s social enterprise, called Ikorta. See here: http://www.ikorta.com.  Here are a few examples of their work:

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A new PCV, by the name of Melody – much friendlier! – came to Tserovani over a year ago, and it was her that I met on Sunday. I picked out some beautiful pieces, and when she proposed that we go see the new Star Trek” movie at the spanking new Eastpoint Mall right outside of town, I jumped at the opportunity. After a quick visit to a very nice shop selling tea, spices and delicious cheese (for anyone who is interested, https://www.reinisfischer.com/aristaeus-boutique-shop-georgian-spices-and-cheese), off we went, via subway and marshutka.

Well, the mall was as snazzy and upscale as any L.A. mall – and nicer than some! The movie was fun, and helped me put aside my sad mood. After the film, we wandered a bit; there was an interesting mix of shops, many extremely upscale and well beyond my price range, but others with a nice array of affordable stuff. Well, affordable now that I actually have a salary, anyway. I’ll go back there one of these days and do a bit of shopping.

So this was a really nice day. I enjoyed seeing Melody, I enjoyed shopping, I enjoyed the movie. I just wish I had the ability to do some of that stuff with Nana. But this is life – and death. It comes to us all, but for some, too soon.

One of the best trips ever – Khevsureti

So, on the spur of the moment, last weekend I joined a large group of Georgians and Americans, including the original 4 PCVs who started off together here in Gori 2 years ago, on a trip to Khevsureti. I’d been in the general area before, when visiting friends and I went to Kazbegi. Mt. Kazbegi and the town below it, Stepantsminda, are about 3 hours or so due north of Tbilisi, almost up to the Russian border – Chechnya, actually. It’s stunningly beautiful, but to my amazement, Khevsureti, which is the mountainous area lying to the east of Kazbegi, is even more beautiful and mysterious.

We started out in our rented marshutka along the same route we took last September to Stepantsminda, but at the turn off to the Zhinvali Reservoir, we turned right and started a 5-hour climb up to the tiny village of Shatili. The road up to Kazbegi was smooth and paved; this road was dirt or decomposed asphalt, rocky and rough the whole way. We speculated that it was to stop hoards of tourists from ruining the ancient sites we were headed to see, but really, I think it’s just lack of funding to repave.

As we drove by Zhinvali, which I had so admired from the Ananuri Church on the north side of the reservoir last September, it was smooth as a mirror and reflected the surrounding landscape without even a ripple.

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We traveled up and up, through leafy, gladed forests with streams and rivers running through them, and eventually began to climb up to higher altitudes where snow still lay on the mountains in June.

 

Eventually we reached the summit, where we stopped for a lunch laid out on a snow bank consisting of fried chicken, lobiani (bean pie), sausages, bread and … some other things. It was delicious, that’s what I remember, and cold – especially when a few of us ladies snuck down the road to have a pee. Chilly! We snapped a few pics to document our presence there and on we went, down and down, to Shatili.

We reached Shatili in the late afternoon. The owner of the homestay/house where we were staying wasn’t there yet, so we wandered about the tiny village onto a large meadow, where I enthusiastically began my usual obsessive flower photography activities.

Luckily the owner finally arrived just as it began to pour. We piled into the house, where a very complicated discussion ensued about who was going to sleep where. The Georgian contingent was very concerned that someone would have to sleep alone on a bed located on the stair landing; the American contingent was fighting over who got the lonely bed. A cultural divide, for sure. It finally all worked out, we stowed our stuff and started drinking coffee, eating kada (a kind of hard, sugary role, one of my favorites) and playing nardi (backgammon) and spelling games, which resulted in humiliation for me as one of our Georgian friends bested me several times.

Eventually the rain let up, and we hiked off to the ancient ruins of Shatili. Here’s some background. With thanks to Wikipedia: “Located in the deep Arghuni gorge at approximate 1,400 meters, the village is actually a unique complex of medieval-to-early modern fortresses and fortified dwellings of stone and mortar which functioned both as a residential area and a fortress guarding the northeastern outskirts of the country. The fortress consists of the terraced structures dominated by flat-roofed dwellings and some 60 towers which cluster together to create a single chain of fortifications.”

This description, while entirely accurate, fails to convey the beauty and strangeness of this place. We climbed down into it, through narrow, stony passages, between stacked structures built without concrete, but standing since the 1100’s, to a river flowing right below the complex.

Back to the house, where a lavish supra ensued, complete with mtsvadi (shishlik/roasted meat), tomato/cucumber salad, bread, cheese, eggs, onions, mchadi (a type of cornbread, often eaten with cheese), all sorts of pickles, and copious amounts of wine.

And then the toasting ensued. I sometimes don’t enjoy the Georgian toasting tradition too much, because it’s harder for women. Traditionally, women do not join in toasting. They sit, while men stand. They sip, while men gulp. And they most definitely do not speak – they just sit and listen, and listen, and listen … but this night was a bit different. Everyone was young, or American, and tradition was honored but just a little more flexible. I recorded some of these toasts, and named the subject of the toast in the title. It’s pretty dark, sorry, the lighting was not good, but I think the feeling is palpable.

One of my few regrets here is that I never was able to master Georgian to the extent necessary to make toasts on occasions like this. I can shout “gilostav” (congratulations/best wishes – sort of like mazeltov) and “jost!” (as in gamarjost, the most common toast, meaning victory – when people are really enthusiastic, the tamada/toastmaster yells gamar! and the table yells jost! three times, it’s really a lot of fun) with the best of them, but my language skills never approached Russell and Rachel’s. Kudos to them.

Here’s a few more pictures capturing the spirit of the evening.

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The next morning, up early to drive further east, right up against the border, about an hour on a crazy bad road to an extraordinary place – Mutso. Again, from Wikipedia: “The village, almost completely abandoned more than a century ago, is a home to approximately 30 medieval fortified dwelling units arranged on vertical terraces above the Mutso-Ardoti gorge, four combat towers and ruins of several old structures and buildings. Difficult to access, the village retains original architecture, and is a popular destination for tourists and mountain trekkers. Listed, however, among the most endangered historic monuments of Georgia, a project of the rehabilitation of Mutso has been developed since 2004.  A legend has it that the villagers worshiped the Broliskalo Icon of Archangel. They were renowned as fighters and hunters, and considered themselves permanent members of the army of the sacred flags and guardians of fabulous treasury donated to the Icon over the centuries. The legends say the treasury that is still kept in the high mountains around Mutso waiting for the chosen one to come.”

The journey was as fantastic as Mutso once we arrived. We drove through the most dramatic gorges I’ve ever seen, with a rushing, cold river, high vertical stone cliffs, surrounded by high, snowy mountains and verdant, green meadows. On a few occasions, we had to disembark from the marshutka and clear rockfalls off the road. We snuck below a small waterfall. We saw a gate warning drivers not to enter because on the other side – Russia. And, most extraordinarily, we stopped at a “plague house.” This is a small stone structure, with a tiny window, overlooking the gorge. Inside are ancient skulls and skeletons of adults and children.  These are medieval communal tombs  wherein times of plague infected villagers would voluntarily enter these tombs and wait for death, looking down on the river. It was a haunting spot, all the more so for being so gorgeous.

Arrival at Mutso, I have to admit, filled me with a certain degree of dread. It was a very long, steep climb, and I’m no hiker! I was actually as worried about going down as up, since my arthritis really acts up under those circumstances. But I was really determined that, having come so far, I was not going to just bail and wait at the bottom. So off we went, straight up a trail that ultimately led … nowhere. We then all had to climb straight up the side of a nearly vertical hill covered in slippery, slate rocks to pick up the proper trail above. I did it, but man -that was kind of scary. At one point I just sat down, while Rachel patiently waited above, trying to decide which was worse – to continue up, or go back down. I went up, but when I finally reached a verandah viewing point, I decided that had to be enough for me on that day. I really enjoyed the view, rested a little, drank some water, and then very slowly and carefully made my way back down.  I’ve been paying a pretty high price in terms of hip and knee pain for the last week for that decision, but I don’t care – it was worth it.

We then all got back on the marshutka for the long ride home. It was as beautiful returning as it had been going, and we made a few stops along the way for lunch (best khinkali in Georgia was the word) and photos. Below are the final snaps from what was, really, pretty much a perfect weekend, and a fitting and wonderful way to approach COS. Special thanks to David Poppick, fellow Gori PCV, for sharing some of his photos with me.

Now, a week later, Russell and Rachel are already gone, and I’m due to leave in about a week. That will be another post …  but for now: