Friday, September 30, 2011

Racha, Part 1: You Will Have A Good Time

"Mother Georgia."


Some Georgian women are very strong.

"Strong" is a Georgian euphemism for "I know what you should want, and the sooner you accept that, the sooner I'll be back smiling and we all know what happens when I'm not smiling, don't we ....?"

A few weeks earlier

A colleague called me and asked if I'd like to participate in a trip to Svaneti. Would I?! Hell, yes!! She explained we'd take the night train from Tbilisi to point A, then a six-hour marshrutka ride to Svaneti, and stay at a lodge. We'd go the end of September to beat the snow because once the snow flew, the roads might be closed until spring.

Several days later

My colleague called me again. Great news! A Georgian colleague had a connection with a tour company and she was excited to arrange everything for us! Marshrutka from Tbilisi to Svaneti! Lodging! Meals! English guide up into the mountains! A picnic lunch alongside a lake! Svardi cooked over an open fire up in the mountain pass! All for 150 lari for the weekend!

Wow. My cup runneth over. The legendary Svaneti!

A day or so later
My colleague called again. By the way, it wasn't a problem, was it, that our destination wasn't quite Svaneti ... it was actually Svaneti-Racha?  We'd be visiting the highest village in all of Europe. The area was just as beautiful as Svaneti, really, and was unfairly ignored by tourists.

Sure! Sounds fantastic! Svaneti-Racha is almost like Svaneti!

A few days before the trip

The village "Oni" will be rainy and cold, so dress accordingly. Oni? I didn't remember seeing the name of that village when I googled on highest village in Europe. I was thinking Ushguli. Oh well, no mind. Svaneti-Racha!

The big day

We met at 7:00 a.m. in Tbilisi in front of the Radisson Hotel near Rustaveli Square. And that's where I met my colleague's colleague. Mariami. A strong Georgian woman.
And somewhere along the way on this Friday, I learned that Svaneti did not enter the equation at all. Racha was our destination.

It was rainy. Cold. Cloudy. Gray.

The marshrutka seats were jammed together so tightly that even though I have short legs, my knees scrunched against the seat in front of me.

Another colleague, Sandy, lives in Gori. Mariami and the tour company had kindly agreed to pick her up "outside" of Gori, saving Sandy a one-hour trip to Tbilisi the night before. The only catch was - where exactly was "outside" Gori?

Sandy and I had been told the answer would be revealed the morning of our departure, thus when, on the marshrutka, I asked Mariami about picking up Sandy, she said, "Yes, we will now call Sandy to let her know we are leaving Tbilisi."

"But she doesn't know where you will be picking her up yet."

"Don't worry, we have been doing this for a very long time. We have done this many times."

"Yes, but Sandy has never done this and she doesn't know where to go."

With some exasperation, Mariami had our learned tour guide, David (degrees in physics, history, and music - a former violinist in the symphony) call Sandy to let her know we'd pick her up "on the highway by Gori" in about an hour. Sandy and I were given to understand that somehow the precise location would become known to Sandy.

I surrendered to the higher power upon the marshrutka, at least for a time. But as the kilometers ticked under us, I began to look for a sign about the upcoming distance to Gori, figuring to give Sandy a heads-up. When some distance passed and I didn't see any signage, I asked David how much farther to Gori, so I could give Sandy a call.

"Oh, I will call her when we are 15 minutes away. Then I'll talk to the taxi driver who will take her to the pick-up point."

"Taxi driver? What taxi driver?"

It all ended up quite beautifully - we swung by and picked Sandy up at her flat in Gori. Georgian hospitality triumphed. 

So on we went on this dreary day in which there were no mountains to be seen due to oppressive cloud cover.

Mariami, that strong Georgian woman, was valiant in her determination for us to enjoy this gray day. No sun? No lake to picnic by? Not a problem! We "picnicked" at a roadside picnic table under a blue tarp, all of us standing, shivering with cold and wetness, while Mariami and her colleagues unpacked lunch from boxes. And you know what? Mariami had made everything herself - the potato latkes, the khachapuri, the sweet cakes, and even the cognac. And they were good, dammit, even through the wretched conditions.

After some of us revolted at the idea of slip-sliding down a rocky, wet path to the outhouse (myself included), we got back on the bus after lunch, and were delivered to a nicer service-station WC.

We continued our journey to the most-beautiful-place-in-Georgia-that-is-not-Svaneti-goddamit-it, which looked not undifferent from Colorado in mining-town regions, by which I mean to say, I felt a little discouraged, despite the good company on the marshrutka.

We stopped at a couple of churches. Georgian churches are nice. They look especially picturesque from a distance. Close up, most are less prepossessing. Almost all have the same architectural design.

The really old churches have had their iconography stripped by various tides of invading barbarians.

What entrances me the most right now are the Georgian cemeteries. Must explore more of these.

The photos below show a collection from two churches, one cemetery, and one synagogue in Racha. 

Thursday, September 29, 2011

Rustavi: A Funeral

Last week, the husband of my former neighbor, Mary 2, died.

Today I joined family, friends, and neighbors on his burial day, the 7th day after his death.

The Georgian Christian Orthodox death tradition is similar to the Ethiopian Christian Orthodox tradition.

Important ritual dates are the 3rd or 4th day, 7th day, 40th day, and one-year anniversaries of a loved one's death. Nely, my hostess, explained to me that until the 3rd or 4th day, the deceased's spirit is still close by his body. By the 7th day, the spirit has moved farther away, but is still near. By the 40th day, it moves on to join the other world.

At the house

I arrived about 1:45 to pay my respects. Outside the apartment building were small clusters of mourners. Several empty marshrutkas stood by.

Over the entrance to the apartment building was a photo of Mary's husband. 
Tia saw me from her 6th floor window and called Nino, my former hostess, to alert her to my arrival. A conscientious cultural guide, Nino came downstairs from Mary's flat, and led me by the hand back up to Mary's flat. We passed a stream of family and friends descending the stairs. We went inside the flat, where Mary's husband was laid out in a casket in the dining room. Mourners, including Mary, sat in chairs that ringed the small room. A woman was draped over the coffin, sobbing. Mary sat, tiny, in silence. She wore a black kerchief that covered her forehead and hair.

I expressed my condolences to Mary and her son, then went down the stairs and back into the yard. As Nino and I walked down the stairs, a new line of mourners ascended them.

I joined a cluster of former neighbors outside the apartment building.

A hearse waited in the yard. A man brought two stools down from inside Mary's flat and placed them in the yard about four feet apart from each other.

Mary, her daughter and son, other family members and friends came downstairs and into the yard. Then some men carried down her deceased husband in his open casket. They layed the casket on the stools. His daughter and son gave him additional goodbyes. Mary stood a short distance away.

In a few minutes, men carried Mary's husband, still uncovered as if to provide the last bit of sunlight onto his face, to the hearse and put him inside. Flower bouquets were atop the hearse. Once loaded, the hearse pulled into the road and began its way to the cemetery. We mourners followed on foot to the nearest intersection. Every few feet, I saw a rose on the pavement, in our path.

Then we got into waiting vehicles and marshrutkas and we, too, made our way to Rustavi's cemetery.

At the cemetery

We drove from New Rustavi to Old Rustavi, then into the outskirts of Old Rustavi, then up and up and up into the hillocks, where began the enormous community of the dead. I say it this way because it is customary for Georgians to have the images of their loved ones etched into stone. Some are life size figures. Standing. One young deceased woman is captured for the coming centuries in a ball gown, smiling, with her hands on her hips. (Note: I didn't take photos at the Rustavi cemetery, but will return and to so in the future.)

Example of tombstones in Georgia, these from Racha

There are stone tables and benches everywhere. Wrought iron fences outline small grave groups. It is designed for surviving family and friends to spend time with those who have moved to this city of the dead. 

The cemetery inhabitants in one area have a magnificent view of New Rustavi, the nearby Azerbaijan village, the plain that surrounds Rustavi, the River Mtkvari, and the foothills.

We went to a newer area of the cemetery, which lines both sides of the main road. A grave had already been dug. The wood casket, open, laid alongside the grave. The man's daughter wept over him. When it came time to lower the man into his grave, women led Mary and her daughter a distance away. Men installed the casket lid over Mary's husband. 

Four men used two ropes, threaded through loops in the casket, to lower it into the grave.

Male family and friends began to toss handfuls of dirt atop Mary's husband's casket. Then they picked up shovels, which had been left nearby, and went about the business of covering the casket in earnest. One man might do a token two or three shovelfuls; other men did more.

Once the dirt not only covered the grave, but peaked into a mound to allow for future settling, some men drank small glasses of (probably) chacha, which they shared with Mary's husband by spilling same on his grave.

While we were still by the grave, another mourning family appeared. I saw the deceased in his open casket, taking in that last bit of sun on his face.

As we returned to our vehicles, yet another funeral entourage arrived. Rustavi has somewhere abouts 150,000 (living) residents. With one main cemetery, it stands to reason there is a lot of funeral traffic.

At the reception hall

We went to the reception hall across from Mary's (and my former) apartment building. Same place where I attended the wedding reception a few weeks ago. In the vestibule, a man and woman sat at a table. They collected and logged funeral donations from friends and distant family members. 

Inside the main room were three long lines of tables laden with Georgian funeral food. After some milling about, men sat at one of the lengths of tables and mostly women sat at the middle line of tables. A handful of others, both men and women, sat at the front of the third line of tables. I estimate about 125 people there.

The men dug right in. The women, for some reason, waited for something before beginning to eat. I don't know what.

Lots of wine. Mineral water. Limonati. Bread. Cheese. Fried fish from the sea. Silvery, minnow-like fish from the river. A special dill-spiced flower stem dish. Various mayonnaised salads. Several courses. Boiled meat. A sweetened rice. The final dish, which lets guests know the meal is over: A special rice dish made with meat.

The funeral tamada made toasts to the deceased (and, I assume, to his family). The men stood in honor of the toasts. Women did not.

Mary, the man's widow, was decidedly not a focus of solicitous attention. This was so at odds with American funeral culture that I asked my new hostess, Nely, about it. She said that in the earlier days after her husband's death, Mary would have received the bulk of attention.

Here is a fine description of a Georgian funeral from the 1890s.

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Tsalaskuri: An Evening

Onions and hay in Tsalaskuri

My hostess, Nely; her son; and I took a little field trip to the small village of Tsalaskuri. This was Nely's family's home. Nely's cousin runs an impressive agricultural and manufacturing enterprise, employing dozens of Georgians in this very depressed economy.

Tsalaskuri is just outside the Tbilisi city limits, which continues to grow and subsume what used to be independent villages.

In addition to visiting, Nely's aim was to bring back tomatoes and onions from the village farm, which she will prepare for winter consumption in the form of tomato sauce, stewed tomatoes, etc.

En route to Tsalaskuri, we took a different road out of Rustavi than I knew. I liked the panoramic view of the plain and the mountain foothills.

Near Rustavi, Georgia

Near Rustavi, Georgia

Nely's cousin lives in a large house within a compound, with his wife, mother, and two sons. We looked at what I'll call the farm kitchen, in an outbuilding, which included a large storage room and various food projects underway.

Cheese-making, Tsalaskuri, Georgia

Cheese-making, Tsalaskuri, Georgia

Cheese-making, Tsalaskuri, Georgia

Canning, Tsalaskuri, Georgia

Drying, Tsalaskuri, Georgia

My hostess noticed an old lamp used by her mother when Nely was a little girl:

Tsalaskuri, Georgia

When we went back outside, we noticed a cow peeking into the courtyard entry: 
Tsalaskuri, Georgia

She, along with her colleagues, were coming home from a day in the pasture, ready to be let into their respective side yards for the night. 

We also went to look at Nely's cousins fields. His sons and a friend of theirs were there, loading bags of onions onto a truck. 

Tsalaskuri, Georgia

Nely's cousin has installed two ponds on his land, which he will use to raise fish for the market.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Rustavi: A Tour of Old Rustavi

Here is a video tour of Old Rustavi from my hostess' house to her son's house.

In looking at the architecture, you might think Old Rustavi is .... old. But it's only about 65 years old. (New Rustavi emerged in the late 1970s).

I think Old Rustavi is beautiful, but many Georgians from Tbilisi (half an hour away) and Rustavians disrespect the city. They disdainfully call it a "factory town" or the city in the Sahara.


Monday, September 26, 2011

Kachreti: Wine

Kachreti, Georgia

"The vintage" is the grape harvest in Georgia.

Kakheti, an administrative region in Georgia, proudly claims ownership of the best wines in Georgia.

In Georgia, there is white wine, red wine, and black wine. There's also a wine that I don't know how to categorize that is the color of iced-tea.

Saturday, TLG took us volunteers to a vocational college in Kachreti, a village in Kakheti. The students learn how to make wine in the traditional way, allowing the grape juice to ferment in clay pots buried in the ground. The pots are called qvevri.

We volunteers took a token turn at harvesting grapes, placing them into buckets, which were then placed in a gigantic basket, which was on a donkey cart.

We accompanied the donkey and wagon to the stone and wood wine house, where there was a little ribbon-cutting ceremony marking the opening of this year's vintage.

In Georgia, males stomp the grapes. I don't know if they must be virgins.

Kachreti, Georgia
Kachreti, Georgia
Kachreti, Georgia
Kachreti, Georgia
Kachreti, Georgia
Kachreti, Georgia
Kachreti, Georgia
Kachreti, Georgia
Kachreti, Georgia
Kachreti, Georgia
Kachreti, Georgia
Kachreti, Georgia

Kachreti, Georgia
Kachreti, Georgia

Georgians, like other wine-makers, do use casks for aging the wine. But they have another tradition in which they place the future wine in clay jugs (kvevri) and bury them in the ground to ferment.

Sunday, September 25, 2011

Kachreti: Beekeeping

Kachreti, Georgia

A group of us TLG volunteers spent Saturday at the Kachreti vocational college, which teaches students about traditional agricultural crafts.

Yesterday, I talked about making churchkhela. Today is a pictorial about beekeeping at the college.

Kachreti, Georgia

Kachreti, Georgia

Kachreti, Georgia

Kachreti, Georgia

Kachreti, Georgia

Kachreti, Georgia

Kachreti, Georgia

Kachreti, Georgia

Kachreti, Georgia

Kachreti, Georgia

Kachreti, Georgia

Kachreti, Georgia
Kachreti, Georgia

My hostess, Nely, told me the honey in the Georgian regions have their own distinctive flavors. In one area, the bees tend to feast on the citrus orchards. In another area, the bees go to the fields. And in the area Nely believes produces the best honey, the bees go to the forests and harvest the nectar of chestnut blossoms. 

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Kachreti: The Vocational College

TLG took us today to a vocational college in Kachreti, a village in Georgia's premier wine region, Kakheti. (My former hostess, Nino, is from Gurjaani, another village in Kakheti. My current hostess' village is Kardanakhi, also in Kakheti.)

The college teaches students about Georgia's traditional methods of agricultural life. How to use the old ways to make:
  • Wine 
  • Chacha
  • Bread
  • Svardi (the beloved Georgian barbecue, cooked on metal skewers over a wood fire)
  • Khinkali, the Georgian dumpling
  • Churchkhela
  • Buildings
  • ... and so on
Go here for excellent photos of the college by Georgina Anderson, who spent time here as part of a Georgian-USA agricultural program.

This college - a great idea. I like when communities invest resources to preserve traditional knowledge and practices.

We saw a number of traditional activities exhibited for us at the college. Today I'll focus on churchkhela.


Churchkhela represents a Georgian gestalt: A food item that embraces beauty and sweetness, that is portable and stores well, and is high-calorie to get citizens and soldiers through long marches and harsh winters.

Sausage-shaped, it has a skin made of boiled-down grape juice, a little flour, and perhaps some spices. Some regions prefer a thinner or thicker consistency of the skin. Here at the college, the consistency was very thick, almost to the point of stiffness, but still malleable.

 Inside are nutmeats (such as walnuts or hazelnuts) threaded on a string.

You dip the threaded nuts into the reduced grape juice mixture, spoon some of it on top, to make sure all of the nuts are covered, then lift the covered nuts from the pot. You hang the churchkhela on a nail to begin its curing process. 

One can eat the churchkhela immediately after being made, but it is not considered fully ripe until weeks later when it takes on a white crust, which comes from the sugar crystals emerging from the skin. If dried properly (in the fall), a churchkhela can be good to eat until spring.

Along the main road in Kakheti, there are many roadside stands with churchkela hanging from wooden racks.

Here is a modern-day recipe for churchkhela.

Friday, September 23, 2011

Georgia: The Legend We Help Write

I continue to admire the brains behind the TLG program, which has the stated purpose of bringing native English speakers (and more recently, French and Italian [and German?] speakers) to Georgia for the education of Georgia's schoolchildren and native-speaker practice for the Georgian teachers.

This stated purpose is brilliant, of course. But consider the side benefits. The Georgian and U.S. governments pay the volunteer teachers 600 lari per month, and this is the bang Georgia gets for its bucks:

  • The Georgian government retains more than 100 lari of same in taxes per month (that we volunteers don't even see); 
  • The host families receive 100 lari per month from the volunteers, which gets redistributed to the families' local economies; 
  • The volunteers spend most of their remaining 400 lari in Georgia; and 
  • The volunteers tell their friends and family about Georgia, creating positive buzz for the country, which helps it (and the U.S.) garner positive political street cred; and
  • The volunteers' stories encourage tourism and investment, bringing dollars and euros to this financially-strapped country.


The same dynamic applies to the excursions paid for by TLG (ahem, the Georgian and U.S. governments). We volunteer teachers get to go on all-expenses paid field trips to interesting places.

(Tomorrow, we will go to a vocational college in Kachreti, a village in Georgia's premier wine region, Kakheti.)

We take photos. We write blogs, write Facebook posts, send emails to families and friends. We help put Georgia on the map.

We are complicit in an ingenious public relations scheme where we add pages to The Legend that is Georgia.

As with all legends, there is the glory - the traditions, the food, the dance, the song, the beauty, the wine, the warrior spirit, the neighbor-for-neighbor ethic.  But glory has a constant companion: tragedies, troubled times, and the dark sides of traditions. Georgia has it all.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Georgia: Untethered!

Like my previous host family, my new host family has a dsl connection. Yay!

The host family also has a sweet adolescent. So far there's been no conflict for online access, but to take that completely out of the equation ...

I bought a router. I installed it. I'm untethered but connected in my new, Old Rustavi home!

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Rustavi: Neighbors and Pomegranates

My school is spitting distance from my old host family.

I walked to my old building after school so I could say hello to Nino.

As I approached the yard, I heard my name being called. Tia and her little one called out to me from their 6th floor window, waving. Then Eka called out and waved from her 7th floor window. Mary (of the garden), just emerging from the orchard/chicken yard, gave me a great hello and hug. She then pressed a just-picked tomato into my hand.

Mary gestured for me to follow her back into the chicken yard, whereupon she began plucking pomegranates from one of her trees. We put them in my bag.

When I arrived home, my hostess was in the kitchen. I pulled out the tomato and the pomegranates one by one. She exclaimed, "Why did you go to the market when we've already got all this food here [that she brought back from her village after a relative's funeral]?"

I explained: "One of my neighbors gave them to me!"

About 15 minutes later, when I entered my bedroom, I saw that my hostess had placed the pomegranates in a basket and put it on my windowsill. Beautiful.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Rustavi: The Second-Hand Shop

Down the street, a second-hand clothes shop.

Fashion is much admired here.

Even so, one sees an awful lot of black on the streets.

Recently, the Patriarch exhorted Georgian women to stop wearing mourning black beyond the 40th day of a loved one's death.

And I understand that the designs in this year's Georgian Fashion Week showed more color than usual.