Monday, May 19, 2014

Z-Arts Annual Writing Contest Winning Entry

While traveling to Norway earlier this month, I received an email saying that I won 1st place in the adult non-fiction category for the annual Z-Arts writing contest. Z-Arts is the local arts and humanities organization serving the Zion Canyon communities of Springdale, Rockville, and Virgin, Utah.

The Nefarious Passport of Bliss

               International travel is one of those things which can easily take a person from her comfort zone to something far from it in an instant. It is a crucible of intense growth and understanding of personal capacity, especially when one is actively involved in the process. In the moment a situation may be the worst thing imaginable, but as time passes one may be able to realize the humor in the situation. Moreover, based on the individuals involved in a situation, the same event could be viewed as great or just plain awful.
               Many times during my time traveling abroad and living abroad, I cursed my situation and often holding an American passport because of the ideas people held about Americans based largely on whatever American TV show was currently being dubbed and played there. Sadly, many of these shows are from TLC, which shows perhaps the worst of what America has to offer. However, many times my passport got me to the front of a border crossing, especially on days when it was so humid that it would start to suck any remnant of life from you.
               For two years I lived in a post-Soviet country where my marital status, or I should say lack there-of, was a constant source of concern and distress for people. I was in my early thirties –gasp!- not married. Having lived in Utah for most of the 11 years prior I was accustom to this, but I was not accustom to serious offers of men or potential engagements minutes (literally) after meeting someone.
               For the first few weeks this concern held a sort of endearing quality, but quickly it became downright obnoxious. Soon I learned all the proper responses in the local language, and played along. It was hard to articulate, however, that 1) I know they felt I was a failure because I wasn’t married and 2) that I would never marry a man from that country because I knew how men there treated women.
               My time abroad also introduced me to many new and exciting forms of “transportation,” a term I use loosely. Most modes were levels of hell that not even Dante could have conceived of. Being American, trains are a mode of transport most people have not experienced much beyond the commuter realm. Moreover, my idea of train travel had been highly influenced by Wes Anderson’s The Darjeeling Limited, which conjured images of train travel in its heyday. (Adrian Brody was an added bonus.) Sadly, trains in a post-Soviet country are leftovers from the past and held together with something intangible like hopes and dreams. Consequently, the prospect of travel within the country lost a lot of  appeal quickly based on simply getting there. The lesser of two evils didn’t exist.
               Considering my increasing displeasure over the constant discussion of getting me married off to a “kai bitchi” (a nice local man), and the fact I grew to loathe in-country travel, it is ironic that one of my favorite memories eventually came out of a combination of the two. Years later I smile when I reminisce about it, but in the moment I did anything but.
               One cold February, my host brother, a government official, and I both had business trips to attend to in the capital at the same time. I was meeting with the Minister of Education who became mesmerized when I said I lived in a little mountain village outside of Las Vegas, which is true in a sense, but mainly I said it that way because I actually knew those words in the local language. For reasons I never fully understood, Las Vegas holds some mystical power over the local population. Our return trip involved the infamous night train. Because our employers were footing the bill for the transportation, we were able to stay in a cabin. Most of the other passengers could only afford the seats that only imperceptibly reclined for a long 9 hour train ride to the coast.
               For several days my host brother could think of only one thing, and discussed it excitedly, perhaps too excitedly, to the point where I was becoming concerned.
               “Chemi da (My sister)…I hope that our cabin mate on the train is a hot woman…that would be great.”
               My host brother was 38.
I looked at him with a considerable amount of skepticism, and slowly replied, “Really? That is all you want?” I had half expected him to say he wanted our cabin mate to be a guy that I could marry as that answer would have not been unusual in the least.
As our 10 p.m. departure time grew closer Zviadi became increasingly giddy at the prospect of the fourth person in our cabin, with the third being his work colleague. The stars did not align for Zviadi that night. Perhaps things would have worked out better if he had lit some candles at one of the Orthodox churches before our departure.
Instead, we got Marcel.
Marcel spoke no English, which made conversing with him difficult, as my language abilities were limited and I spoke with the coastal region accent. Marcel had two notable qualities. First, he was single and looking…hard. Two, he was from Dmanisi. Dmanisi is the site where one of the oldest humanoid skeletons has been unearthed. Judging from his size and stature, I would venture a guess that Marcel was a direct descendent of that man.
We quickly learned that Marcel was going on vacation to the coast, though later admitted to be moving there. Within minutes he was entranced by me, despite the fact I felt I could not look any worse than I did right then. Hair askew. Dark circles under my eyes. Old work shirt made to look even worse by poor local washing powders and washing machines. Zviadi would translate Marcel’s earnest inquires about me. He went from “Would she like to go get dinner?” to “Would she like to get married?” with a furious speed that I was even unaccustomed to and I was from Utah the move quick to marriage capital of the United States! Apparently, answering affirmatively to whether I liked certain local cuisine made me a more than sufficient prospect for marriage. My host brother and his colleague reveled at my situation. At one point, I realized he said he was going to live on Chavchavadze Street, which meant down the street from my host brother and me.
“Do not tell him where we live,” I said through almost clenched teeth while wearing a smile so as not to arouse suspicion on Marcel’s part. As we disembarked from the train I fervently prayed not to run into Marcel. I didn’t want the family to know I had turned down a serious marriage proposal from someone who might provide my children with very ancient DNA. They would be crushed, and I would bring them a great shame.

I never ran into Marcel after alighting from the train. I’m okay with not knowing what bliss might have come of that.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014

496 Things in 31 Days: A Possession Purge

496 Things in 31 Days: A Possession Purge

For some time I've been following a couple of guys and their website. The Minimalists, to put it simply, promote living with less to live more, an idea that seems almost un-American in today’s society. Fortunately, an increasing number of people are realizing that less can truly be more.

On March 1st they posted a challenge to their readers to get rid of things in their lives. It didn't matter how (whether trash, recycling, donations, etc.), it just mattered to get rid of things that were weighing you down. The caveat to this was how to go about getting rid of things. On March 1st it was 1 thing. On March 2nd it was two things. You get the idea, so that by March 31st you would get rid of 31 things on that day. In total you would get rid of 496 things in 31 days.

I found this challenge intriguing to say the least. I've always thought that I had so little compared to others, a fact I took pride in. I was a little concerned that I had dropped a significant amount of stuff at DI (the Utah equivalent of Goodwill) just the week prior, and initially I thought that would negatively impact my ability to get rid of close to 500 things in 31 days. (Spoiler alert: it didn't).

Living in a national park makes any living situation different. I live in a 15’ x 15’ dorm room with small attached closet/dressing area and a much coveted private bathroom. As I began to go through my things, it shocked me. I had way more than I thought I did. I kept questioning why I had initially thought keeping something would be a good idea or why I even got it in the first place. During the process I felt like such a hypocrite. I thought I lived simply, but I really didn’t.

With the project I was rather ambitious, and finished on March 22nd. Every day I looked forward to spending some time getting rid of things. Moreover, some things that I still valued at the beginning of the month I did not value the same by the end of the month. Moreover, there were several times I had to get creative with what I was getting rid of, like with the emails. Even though they are intangible, holding on to them for no good reason was just as much a burden as something physical.

On day 2, I began keeping a list of everything I got rid of for this project.

March 1st
● 1 bag of recycling

March 2nd
● 1 bag of plastic bags ● 1 non-BPA free Camelbak waterbottle

March 3rd
● 1 empty metal Carmex container ● 1 nearly empty Tommy Bahama perfume I stopped using ● 1 thing I absolutely cannot remember

March 4th
● 2 Shape magazines ● 1 empty plastic container ● 1 crappy pedometer

March 5th
● 2 necklace chains ● 2 dish towels ● 1 spatula

March 6th
● 2 necklaces ● 2 pairs of pants ● 2 blouses

March 7th
● 1 hideous matted picture of Zion ● 1 miniature whisk ● 1 knife sharpener ● 4 knives

March 8th
● 2 books ● 1 lavender sachet that no longer smells ● 1 black camisole ● 1 package of chopsticks from Hong Kong ● 1 pair of old glasses ● 1 glasses case

March 9th
● 1 HP computer media player remote for my old laptop ● 1 Old Navy jean jacket ● 6 crappy plastic hangars ● 1 used battery

March 10th
● 1 mostly empty bottle of red puffy paint ● 5 old Aleve pills ● 1 stretched out hair elastic ● 1 old eyeglass lens cleaning cloth ● 1 old pair of glasses with clip-on sunglasses ● 1 empty shampoo bottle

March 11th
● 1 old foot powder I never used ● 1 bottle of expired allergy medicine from Target ● 1 shoe box liner ● 4 formally white tank tops ● 3 exfoliating bath gloves ● 1 St. George area coupon book

March 12th
● 12 crappy panty liners

March 13th
● 2 turquoise hair clips ● 1 Self magazine ● 2 seasons of Psych on DVD ● 1 yoga mat holder ● 1 eyeglass case ● 1 cracked and failing Saturn windshield screen ● 1 old laundry bag ● 1 copy of The Lord of the Rings trilogy ● 1 pair of glasses ● 2 pairs of black Gap trousers

March 14th
● 2 pairs of jeans ● 2 soda bottle caps ● 2 plastic plates ● 1 plastic bowl ● 1 plastic toothbrush holder ● 1 empty Cheerwine glass soda bottle ● 2 purple plastic pocket-sized combs ● 1 big bag of shredding ● 1 Velvet & Vine blood orange and hibiscus body butter ● 1 empty Altoids container

March 15th
● 1 obsolete bent key ● 1 Michael Graves computer bag ● 1 Bath & Body Works hand sanitizer ● 1 less than accurate tire pressure gauge ● 1 envelope of St. George area coupons ● 1 Christmas card ● 1 map of France & the Benelux countries ● 1 wine cork ● 1 plastic allegedly unbreakable comb ● 1 Walgreens March 2014 coupon book ● 1 Walgreens vitamin supplement booklet ● 4 Zions Bank deposit slips

March 16th
● 8 Zions Bank deposit slips ● 1 expired AAA membership card ● 1 Women’s Health magazine ● 1 envelope of shredding ● 1 2012 work ID ● 4 books

March 17th
● 4 books ● 2 People magazines ● 4 PETA stickers ● 2 Protect Zion stickers ● 1 3M bubble mailer ● 1 2013 health insurance open enrollment brochure ● 1 metal tin ● 2 expire coupons

March 18th
● 2 expired coupons ● 1 Wells Fargo 401K re-enrollment letter ● 1 Happy 30th Birthday card I forgot to give 2 different people ● 1 Blue Cross Blue Shield health insurance newsletter ● 1 wedding announcement for a wedding I didn’t attend ● 1 Minnesota DMV vehicle registration renewal letter ● 1 Wells Fargo 401K booklet ● 1 plastic sheet protector ● 2 Wells Fargo ATM cards ● 1 Walgreens Balance Rewards card ● 2 ticket stubs from The Hobbit Part I ● 1 brochure about Columbus, Indiana’s Zaharakos Ice Cream Parlor ● 1 2011 NPS National Parks Pass ● 1 Barnes & Noble plastic bag ● 1 2013 calendar

March 19th
● 217 Zion Adventure Company business cards

March 20th
● 1 paper bag from the Springdale Candy Company ● 2 business cards ● 1 plastic bag ● 1 dicey adapter bought from a ghetto back-alley street market in Batumi, Republic of Georgia ● 1 dead travel alarm clock from Israel ● 2 pieces of glass from picture frames ● 1 pair of ripped tights ● 2 horrible bras ● 5 magnets ● 1 non-BPA free Nalgene water bottle ● 3 priority mail envelopes

March 21st
● 9 priority mail envelopes ● 1 pair of black leggings ● 2 healing balms for muscle pain ● 1 container of aspirin ● 1 Bath & Body Works face mask ● 1 foot spray ● 2 books ● 4 crappy hangers

March 22nd
● 2 hangers ● 1 cardboard box ● 1 box of pastel chalks ● 1 stack of Z-Arts paperwork ● 1 expired coupon ● 1 postcard ● 2 ugly pieces of cardstock ● 1 pair of broken earrings ● 1 Altoids container ● 1 empty Ziploc gallon size bag ● 1 dress ● 10 Crayola markers

March 23rd
● 8 Crayola markers ● 1 ball point pen ● 14 crappy pictures of Zion and Georgia

March 24th
●13 crappy pictures of Zion and Georgia ● 1 Christmas card from 2012 ● 1 Zion National Park Map and Guide ● 1 copy of my resume ● 1 empty Radisson Blu Batumi sugar packet ● 7 random paper scraps from my travel journal box

March 25th
● 6 sheets of tissue paper ● 1 cracked Ziploc plastic container ● 1 empty plastic bag from under the car seat ● 1 bin of recycling ● 1 pedometer fitness guide ● 1 stretched out hair elastic ● 1 Grand Circle postcard ● 12 gross caramels ● 1 almost empty bag of trail mix

March 26th
● 2 expired containers of plan Greek yogurt ● 1 Trader Joe’s Creamy Peanut Butter that froze in the fridge ● 1 box of fridge baking soda ● 11 credit card receipts from the car ● 1 2003 Utah Driver Handbook ● 2 napkins ● 1 empty Carmex lip balm ● 1 damaged U2 cd ● 1 expired Utah vehicle registration ● 1 2011 Road Runner oil change document ● 3 expired Progressive insurance cards

March 27th
● 1 expired Minnesota vehicle registration document ● 3 more expired Progressive insurance cards ● 1 BYU Cougar cookbook ● 3 receipts ● 1 empty box ●18 more Zion Adventure Company business cards

March 28th
● 1 temporary Utah driver’s license ● 2 obsolete Wells Fargo account cards ● 7 random business cards ● 1 used Verizon Wireless rebate card ● 2 Walgreens receipts ● 2 plastic boxes ● 1 empty cardboard box ● 2 ticket stubs to The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug ● 1 Crayola marker ● 1 postcard from Café Diablo ● 1 Kierkegaard quote from a British Christmas cracker ● 2 sheets of paper with friends’ contact info ● 6 random scraps of paper from the travel journal box

March 29th
● 1 empty bottle of lotion ● 1 book ● 1 bath body brush ● 1 bottle of terrible apricot facial scrub ● 1 friend’s return address label ● 1 bottle of expire SPF30 sunscreen (girls from Minnesota need something much stronger) ● 1 old emery board ● 1 empty Springdale Candy Company bag ● 1 plastic plate ● 1 plastic bowl ● 1 nail clipper ● 12 email drafts ● 230 messages in my email inbox

March 30th
● 31 emails in my Gmail promotions box ● 6 gardenia-lotus fragrance packets that did not smell ● 1 ball point pen ● 7 earrings without a matching pair ● 1 nail buffer ● 2 random business cards ● 3 random CDs ● 3 crappy Jack Johnson CDs from my embarrassing Jack Johnson phase circa 2005 ● 2 expired Greek yogurts ● 3 sticks of butter left over from housesitting ● 1 broken necklace ● 1 coffee mug

March 31st
● 7 unusable wine corks ● 1 plastic food storage container ● 1 notepad ● 6 Starbucks Refreshers packets which were WAY too sweet ● 3 packets of sodium laden instant soup ● 1 random plastic lid ● 6 plastic combs ● 1 book ● 2 toe separators for pedicures ● 1 Turkish Airlines goody bag for economy class ● 1 obsolete day planner ● 1 unused journal ● 1 copy of A Walk in the Woods by Bill Bryson

Looking back on the experience, it is curious to consider the item I got rid of that brought the greatest release. Getting rid of literally hundreds of my left over business cards from Zion Adventure Company removed this huge weight from me. I've not worked there in 4 years, yet I still had all these cards. Looking back I’m not sure why I kept them, perhaps as a tangible reminder that I was a part of that organization. But I have other, better reminders of that time such a as my Marmot fleece jacket that has been to 9 countries with me and international airports in 3 others. When I put those in the trash I finally was able to let go of whatever it was I still held on to. In all honesty, I did keep 2 which are in my journal.

Getting rid of so much was liberating. I've been in that situation before when I got rid of an immense amount of stuff before I went to Georgia. I’d forgotten what that can feel like. Now that I don’t have these things in my life I feel like I have the ability to do so much more because I’m not distracted by things of no significance. Some of the things I got rid of actually caused me anxiety because of their presence in my life; consequently, the feeling of being overwhelmed by these things is gone now. Moreover, it has helped me to rediscover the value of the old adage “you get what you pay for.” I’d rather pay more up front for something that will last then to buy the same thing 5 times. Also, initially I struggled with how to address things that had been gifts. Some of those gifts I cannot part with like the autographed copy actually dedicated to me of The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle my brother got for me by the author, Avi. With other gifts I decided if it had served its purpose, such as the Tommy Bahama perfume from day 3, that I could easily get rid of it without feeling guilty. Finally, I believe getting rid of these things that were weighing me down is the first step to helping me get rid of the weight that I carry so needlessly. Unfortunately, my physically weight can’t be gotten rid of as easily as the other things can.

My next big project is to deal with that one specific thing.

Monday, December 10, 2012

How Georgia Prepared Me to Live in the United States

When I arrived in Georgia as part of the now legendary TLG Group 1, there was no precedent and little information to go on to prepare for life there, simply a lot of misconstrued assumptions. I remember thinking how short the Wikipedia entry was on Batumi, and the possible implications that could bring. However, in the short time I had to prepare for my initial departure to Georgia, I didn’t have much time to contemplate the content of Wikipedia entries or the images of Batumi and Adjara on Google Images. Had more information existed then as it does for recent TLG arrivals I probably would have easily talked myself out of going at all.

Perhaps the best preparation for my life in Batumi and Georgia came from the most unlikely of sources: canyoneering. Canyoneering involves rappelling into slot canyons then slowly crawling, climbing, or swimming your way out. The life and work I left behind involved the red rock slot canyons and sandstone cliffs of Zion National Park in Southern Utah, one of the premier destinations in the world for this sport,. At the end of my first year in Georgia, I wrote a blog post titled How Canyoneering Prepared Me to Live in a Post-Soviet Country ( As I reflected on the lessons I learned canyoneering in Zion and the surrounding area, it was curious how the experiences prepared me to live on the Black Sea Coast and in Georgia. For example, canyoneering requires a lot of route finding around obstacles which can include debris and dead animal filled waterholes, boulders, logs, etc. In Batumi, route finding is required to navigate the streets to successfully avoid marshutkas, puddles that rival Minnesota lakes in size, Gypsy children, etc.

Though I left Georgia six months ago today, it has taken me this long to begin process my time there. This was the second year where my flight was changed at the last minute, forcing me to leave without proper good-byes. (In the future I will expound upon this.) As I write this from the shadows of Deer Trap Mountain in Zion National Park, part of me feels that my time in Georgia is incomplete, that my time there is unfinished. My original plan was to return in January, but a promotion to a rare year-round employment position in Zion will have me in the United States instead. Also the recent "elections" (the quotes are intentional) leave some serious concerns about the political stability of the country and the future of the TLG program. Apparently I would have a job to return to at the University, but who knows how likely that is. However, as canyoneering prepared me to live in Georgia, Georgia has prepared me to better live in the United States.

The life lessons learned in Georgia that have improved and impacted my way of life in the United States include:

Elliptical machines are our friends. Before I joined the gym at the Radisson Batumi, I would have never considered the elliptical machine as a friend, yet it became my go-to piece of workout equipment. I was overjoyed to discover the employee gym in Zion had two, though right now after a 6 month elliptical hiatus, the elliptical machines seems to be a little more like a foe than a friend considering the pain I am in.

Buy ingredients, make food. This was a lesson I first learned in Israel, but it was reiterated every day for two years in Georgia. I love how the shopping was done almost daily to buy fresh ingredients that were used to create food. I struggle grocery shopping now because there are so few ingredients. Or the most commonly used ingredients is high-fructose corn syrup. The weekly visits to the local farmer’s market for produce and locally produced goat cheese were a highlight this summer in Springdale. Shopping there afforded me the opportunity to buy locally produced and fresh products like the ones I became accustom to in Georgia. How sad it is that so many Americans don’t understand what food should really taste like because they buy an engineered version of it.

Be prepared to drop plans at any time. This was something I have always struggled with regardless of where I am. I am a planner, and dislike surprises to ruin my schedule. When I first arrived in Georgia, I hated the lack of planning, and it took a lot of time for me to work past that. However, by saying “დიახ” (yes) I was afforded some of my most treasured memories and relationships from my time in Georgia. Too often I find myself saying; “Well, let me check my calendar…”back in the United States. A sad fact indeed.

Use cash, not credit. For years I was set on maximizing my frequent flier miles from my American Express card, and felt that cash was an outdated and cumbersome method of payment. Then I read an article about how many millionaires and billionaires use cash exclusively. Curious, I thought. After two years in Georgia, my life is cash based with a couple of exceptions (gas and cell phone). I spend only what I have on me, and I spend much less than I did before, which happily means more money for travel. However, I do appreciate how businesses here have change on hand, though I wish more Springdale businesses would take Amex. (Sol Foods and ZO I am thinking in your directions).

Always be as hospitable to people as people were to you in Georgia. Living in a major tourist destination I have the opportunity every day to meet people from around the world and share with them the place I was blessed to live in. As I learned in Georgia it doesn't take much to increase the level of hospitality shown. Here recommending a hike or a restaurant or simply engaging people in conversation can truly change the course of someone’s time here. Recently I randomly met a guy here who had been to Georgia. And to Batumi no less! And we were both there at the same time. Because of the Georgia connection we were able to start a great friendship. He, too, remembered with great fondness the warmth and hospitality shown to him during his time in Georgia. Using the lessons of hospitality I learned from being the recipient of it daily in Georgia, I helped in a small way to make Zion a memorable part of the trip for him and his friend from France. It was humbling to realize just how little it took on my part to do that. I was almost embarrassed by the sincere gratitude they displayed. Even though I was teaching tourism students in Batumi when I completed my time with TLG, I think I was the one who learned the most about how hospitality and tourism work together.

When I Skype with my host family the first question is always when am I returning to Batumi and followed by if I am married yet. While I am unsure as to when I will return, Georgia is and will always be a part of me. Two years there shaped me in countless ways, and I cannot easily forget the time I spent there, the things I experienced, or the lessons learned as they have been ingrained within me.

Monday, April 2, 2012

My! Don't You Look Clean!

Bathing in Georgia for teachers varies widely. Depending on the location, whether or not there is water, the weather, and a myriad of other factors, most Westerners here don't bathe nearly the amount they do at home. Some people bathe perhaps once a week. Last fall I heard tales of teachers having to trek into Tbilisi to bathe as their villages were to be without water for 5 to 6 weeks. Considering the hysteria I experienced after 31 hours without water, I cannot fathom what weeks would be like.Reading the blogs of other volunteers makes me grateful that I do not fall into this category.

However, recent comments by other teachers make me wonder if they do not view me as committed to cultural integration because of how frequently I get to shower. Over the weekend I saw someone for the first time in quite a while. He exclaimed, "My! Don't you look all shiny and clean!" Why, yes. Thank you for noticing. I've just come from the Radisson where I enjoyed the gym, the yoga room, and a hot shower.

Apparently, word is getting out that I shower everyday. In the United States word would only get out if you didn't shower every day.Part of me feels guilty, and readily acknowledges that yes it is decadent and Western. But part of me isn't ashamed either. I manage my money well, and not drinking allows for a lot of laris in the bank. The ability to shower is just a benefit that comes with working out. (It should be noticed I only get to shower if I work out first; consequently, there is a considerable amount of incentive to work out).

Moreover, and perhaps more importantly, me being clean is something I can control. Living in Georgia, there is little I feel I can directly control about my life here. For example, things constantly change at the University and I don't even get to choose what I often have for my meals at home. Life here can be quite chaotic, and so much of how I live or what happens to me is dictated by forces beyond my control, like culture and historical precedent. My level of cleanliness is something I can control in Batumi, and being clean helps to create some semblance of normalcy for me.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Tbilisi: The Business Trip

In my years in the business world, I have only taken business trips to places the vast majority of people 1) will never go on a business trip to or 2) will never visit period. The 3 places that come to mind first are: Death Valley National Park, California; Lake Powell, Arizona/Utah; and Tbilisi, Republic of Georgia.

My host brother arranged his business trip for the Government of Adjara for the same days I would be gone; consequently, we got to road trip (actually train trip) together. The ride was uneventful, and in that this would only happen in Georgia way, we ended up seated across from his best friend's wife. Good times. It was mildly horrifying to wake up from my nap to seeing a Jon Malkovich movie being watched by my host brother on his laptop. Jon, along with Willem DaFoe and Christopher Walken, really unnerve me.

Back to Tbilisi. Tbilisi is the capital of Georgia, a city that has over 25% of the entire country's residents and is built along a river in a valley, making it only 5 km wide, but 45 km long. It is a maze of streets built onto hillsides with beautiful and distinctive architecture in some areas to the cold, utilitarian apartments from Soviet times for the proletariat in others. This trip finally made me a fan of Tbilisi. If the Soviets got one thing right in 70 years of rule, it was putting in a subway system. It remains unclear to me why my host brother hates it so much.Until now Tbilisi was just a burden for me, as I am only allowed to fly in and out of that airport for work, despite the fact there is an international airport 3 km down the road from my house. Not like I am bitter about this or anything. Also, the prospect of a long train ride or a mini-bus ride just to visit was less then appealing as well. It is much more appealing to ride for 30 minutes to the boarder and visit Turkey because that means passport stamps and a visit to Burger King. Plus I can do that in less time then it takes to get half-way to Tbilisi.

The visit to Tbilisi was to discuss and meet with the other bloggers involved with the recently begun Guest Blogger project for the official TLG blog. It was interesting to meet the other bloggers, as many of them had only been in the country a few weeks. As a veteran of Group #1, I can honestly (and quite proudly) say that only 2 people have been with TLG longer than me. The recent arrivals have come to a much differ TLG than I knew at the start. They have precedent and others to turn to for advice besides the program; my group just had a lot of faith and not much else. We quickly learned to fend for ourselves out in the wilds of Adjara and Batumi, as TLG was 6-9 hours away depending on the mode of transportation. Moreover, part of me hopes I never came off to others the way some of the recently arrived teachers did yesterday at a bookstore in Tbilisi. I have no idea who they were, but all they did was complain about everything. It was obnoxious and disheartening, as by doing so they were setting themselves up on missing out on a lot. Unfortunately, I probably did the same in 2010 as well.

The highlight of the meetings was having breakfast with Dmitri Shaskini, Minister of Education, yesterday at the Marriott. He was impressed that I lived in the mountains outside of Las Vegas. Here Las Vegas has some sort of mythic quality, like it isn't real, something more akin to Middle Earth. Then the program director told him I had been here since the beginning, which won me more points it seemed. Finally, I think I shocked him and several others when I asked him the question I had been wanting to ask since he came to Batumi last year for a discussion:

"Do you think stronger management or stronger leadership is needed to create sustainable change in the education system?"

Or something like that. The example he gave was good, and as one is liable to argue, illustrates how both are needed to be successful. It is a balancing act that must be carefully orchestrated.

The breakfast buffet spread at the Marriott was amazing! When seeing the selection of Kellogg's breakfast cereals available to choose from, I was momentarily left speechless. Ironically, the Marriott breakfast buffet also had the worst khatchpuri I had ever had. Good khatchpuri has to be made in some little shack on the street with questionable levels of cleanliness or lovingly in a home. Not in an industrial kitchen. Also, the French toast was an epic fail.

After breakfast, I met with a couple from California I've gotten to know. We spent the day seeing sights that I had never seen before. After, I met up with my good friend Tom, who is also from Group #1. He used to live nearby, but sadly is in Tbilisi now. We chatted and walked up and down Rustaveli Street, until it was time to meet with Dato Turashvili. Back in November 2010, I wrote a post about accidentally meeting the famous and best-selling author (after JK Rowling) in Georgia. After that chance meeting, he made my friend and I promise that we would meet up with him whenever we were in Tbilisi. Tom had read Dato's most famous book, and was excited to be able to tell his 12th grade class about actually meeting him, as the students are currently studying the book at school. My freshman English class will soon be doing the same. Upon leaving the coffee shop we always meet at, Dato hurried a head. It was fun to see Georgians recognize him, and to see their faces light up at seeing someone so famous, by Georgian standards.

The last portion of the trip was perhaps the most trying of the 3 days: the night train back to Batumi. Until Georgia, my whole idea about train travel had come from Wes Anderson's The Darjeeling Limited, a movie about train travel in India. (Highly idealized train travel it should be noted). Georgian Railways doesn't even come close to this, and any trip involving train travel in Georgian is a huge adventure. On Sunday afternoon, my host brother, his work colleague and I were finally able to buy our return tickets. For the following several hours, my host brother kept talking excitedly about who the 4th person in our small compartment might be. He wanted, in his words, "a hot woman." Sadly, that was not meant to be for him.

Instead, we got Marcel from Dmanisi. (Dmanisi may sound familiar as it is the place where the really old humanoid skeleton was found, Dmanisi Man.) Marcel was at least 4 inches shorter then me, appeared to be mid-fifties, but was really only 34, and almost instantly began telling my host brother and his colleague about his intense liking of me and how he wanted to marry me. This was hilarious for my host brother, who kept winking at me, however, it was awkward/horrifying for me. It remained unclear as to why Marcel was going to Batumi. At times it was translated as he was going on vacation. At others, more disturbingly, it was translated that he was moving here and working on Chavchavadze Street, which is the street merges into my street. I'm hoping for the first option.

The Radisson Blu Hotel Spa

Not drinking in Georgia allows one to save loads of lari, the local currency. Consequently, I decided to splurge on something for myself to make this winter more bearable: A membership at the Radisson Blu Hotel Spa. To put it mildly it is one of the best things I could have done for myself and perhaps more importantly, my sanity.

Winter in Batumi can be a rather trying time. Days of incessent rain can easily bring the most upbeat people into a funk that never seems to end. Loyal readers will know that I struggle with this, especially coming from a desert, where rain is seldom, humidity rarer, and the sun is almost always shining. However, this year knowing that every morning my day starts with a visit to the Radisson has dramatically changed my life. People have noticed and commented. Well, it does do wonders to have access to endless amounts of hot water on a daily basis, a rarity in Georgia. Decadent, true, but totally worth it. As I post on Facebook last week in a post-soviet country the only motivation you need to work out is the prospect of being warm and having hot water. If it were only so simple in the USA.

My time at the spa is divided among swimming and the gym. I recently made the discovery that I like, no love, the elliptical machine, of all things. It is shocking to me as well. I put my headphones on, watch CNN or Al-Jezera and try daily to beat my distance and calories burned for the prior day. After a month of visiting the Radisson, I had been feeling bad that the scale said a loss of only 6 pounds. It seemed odd that it would be that low considering how loose my clothes are getting. Yet, in the past two days 3 different people have commented. Tonight host brother #2 said that "'re kilos are flying away." Thanks Lasha. I appreciate that. But there are still many more kilos to make fly away in the next 2 months.

As it is the off-season for tourism in Batumi, rarely are there other people there. However, on last Saturday there were approximately 6 people using the facilities. I must admit it felt rather crowded. Most days it is empty save for me, my host brother, and our university colleague. At times this can be awkward, very awkward. Case in point, a couple of weeks ago I ran into my host brother in the steam room. Um...yeah. I was greeted warmly with "Charlottenburg!" (My nickname, which I've noticed that he has started introducing me with to people and these people think that it is my real name. Charlottenburg is a part of Berlin, his dream city.) My heart sank, as this was one person I never wanted to see at the Radisson ever. "Oh...hey there." I hate being seen in my bathing suit unless I know I will never see those people again in my life. My host brother I see on a daily basis. Despite being wrapped in a thick terry cloth towel, I felt woefully under dressed. It got more awkward when our colleague shows up and invites us for a visit to the sauna. There I sat between two partially clothed men I see on a daily basis, and know well. Fortunately, the sauna looks out at the Batumi skyline. Enough said.

Until that "encounter" my host brother and I had set up a schedule of using the Radisson. We actually told one another that since so much of our lives are spent together, we need time apart. It was agreed that I would go in the mornings, and him in the evenings. This worked for awhile. Now we both go in the mornings, with the unspoken understanding that we don't really talk to each other. It works well. But, I will say that the day of the steam room encounter I was there at my scheduled time; my host brother wasn't.

A lot of the initial awkwardness of seeing my host brother and colleague at the spa has gone away. Today for example we had a discussion about work outside the sauna. No one seemed to care that we were not even dressed in business casual, and that we all had flip flops on. I'm sure that after my swim this morning, I looked awesome.