Friday, December 17, 2010

The Vacation Begins!

After 4.5 months in Georgia, tomorrow, well in 12 hours and 2 minutes to be exact, I leave for Tbilisi to start the multi-day travel odyssey that will bring me home. If all goes well I will arrive at the Minneapolis/St. Paul International Airport, Monday evening at 9:05 PM CST. Then I still have an hour car ride to my parent's town, with an obligatory stop at Target on the way. My mom already has plans for my on Tuesday, which begin much earlier than I would have liked, but oh well. I just hope my aunt won't be offended if I fall asleep on her insanely comfortable leather sofas. Moreover, considering the amount of time I will be spending at the Tbilisi, Istanbul, and Chicago-O'Hare airports, I will have ample time to write and ponder on the past four months of my life. Thankfully those places have free WiFi! And Istanbul has Burger Kings that open at 7 a.m. I think I will have a milkshake for breakfast.

However, I am curious about what life will be like when I return in a month. Will the taste of America make life in Georgia that much more difficult? My mom and her friends are already discussing this. Among my friends and I this is something we have been discussing since about day 2 of our time here.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Two Weeks and Counting...

Halloween 2010 with homemade brownies. The cocoa here is really dark, hence, the color.

Two weeks from right now I will be on an airplane somewhere over Europe headed from Istanbul to Chicago, and then on to Minneapolis. I am having a hard time waiting for my departure to arrive, but I have little choice in that regard. As half of my time in Georgia is over and with many of my friends leaving for good after this term, I've been doing a lot of reflecting on the past 4.5 months. There definitely is a lot to think about and to learn from to help make the next 5 months a learning and growing experience.


I think my major regret is that I have not learned more Georgian since I arrived. I understand a lot but trying to put together cohesive sentences or phrases is near impossible. Plus my Georgian comes out with a heavy French accent, so I doubt people understand anything that I am saying. Moreover, part of this I can attribute to the fact that speaking English is better for the host family than Georgian. Them knowing English is much better than me knowing Georgian, as the practical applications of that language in the United States and elsewhere in the world are limited. English, however, always comes in handy.

I also regret bringing my Roman glass necklace I bought in Jerusalem to Tbilisi, as I lost it. I had a feeling I would too.


Many of my friends have had some bad experiences here, such as attacks in stairwells, attempted robberies, actual robberies, no food, no internet (gasp!), weeks without running water, food poisoning, etc. I feel blessed that my time here has been overwhelming positive. While struggles have occurred, namely with my "English" teachers, there has nothing that has totally beat me, though many times I thought that things would beat me. Even that situation is improving. They are actually using English in their English classes! Can you imagine! They are starting to give tests! Huzzah! I now hope that this just continues until the end of the school year.

Furthermore, I think the host family has played a huge part in my happiness here. We have the four things necessary for life here:
  • Food (too much)
  • Water (hot water, sometimes too hot as the water heater seems to have only 3 temperatures: cold, scalding, and nuclear)
  • Electricity (power outages have occurred, but not with any regularity)
  • WiFi (having a WiFi connection here at the house has rocked my world)
The family includes me, but also lets me do my own thing. Considering how I have not lived with this many people in over a decade, allowing me to have my space is great. And then there is Jaba. Jaba is my 4 year old host brother. Recently, my friend commented on how lucky I am to have him. He seriously is a lot of fun, however, I am very tired of watching YouTube videos from Shakira (Waka Waka), Thomas the Tank Engine, and now Elmo Visits Santa. I had never heard the Shakira song before I arrived in Georgia, then again the World Cup is a non-event as far as America is concerned. Once my friend Evan and I were discussing the song, and the obscene number of plays on YouTube it had. (At that point it was about 205 million). He said 200 million of those were by Georgians, to which I added, 50 million of those were by my 4 year-old host brother. However, Jaba's English has really come along since I arrived. If I could only get him to say zee instead of zed for the alphabet, that would be great. He always tells me that I am a "dzalian kai gogo." (A very good girl). Except sometimes I am a "dzalian tsudi gogo" (a very bad girl), usually when I tell him not to touch my computer. Him touching the computer has bad written all over it. Or when I will not let him have chocolate.

Another thing that had made the experience great has been friends. My core group of American friends has been key in making life here good, as we can experience it together, share successes, discuss failures and dislikes, etc. Saying good bye to many of them later this week and next week will be especially hard. For me saying good-bye to Wes will be the worst. From the second I met him at Washington Dulles, I hoped we could be friends, and we were! He is amazing, as are the rest of my friends. We joke about taking a cross-country marshrut'ka trip in a Ford Transit Van with no air-conditioning to see everyone. But having Georgian friends and acquaintances has helped greatly as well. Those people will be key in the having a life department during the long, cold, dark months of February and March. Thanks to my author friend, I have met several interesting people right here in Batumi. However, living in the village (or Villagio as we have begun calling it, as the Bellagio in Las Vegas it is not), makes socializing after 7 p.m. a difficult task due to my reliance on marshrut'kas and being unwilling to pay for taxis too often.

What will the next 5 months in Georgia hold? As this is Georgia, one can only guess. Khatchapuri for sure. I've been asked to assist in program and curriculum development at Batumi State University for their new hospitality management program. Who knows where that will end up going? Plus I will be tutoring the local police officers and host mom Nato in English. That should be fun.

I came to Georgia ultimately as a test to see if I liked teaching as much as I thought I did. It was a big leap of faith with no certain outcomes. I do enjoy teaching very much, and because of the time there I am going to receive my Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages (TESOL) certificate. With that more options to teach and live elsewhere in the world open up. I cannot wait to see what experiences await me now. I hope to spend a significant time in the Middle East teaching. Why I am so drawn there, I am not sure, but something about Qatar of all places feels right.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

The LDS Church in Georgia

As many of my readers are located in Utah, every time I live abroad they seem to be interested in what the LDS Church is like the country where I currently am. Consequently, this post is more for them. Just this morning while chatting with one of them on Facebook, after asking how I was the next question was, "So do you go to Church in Georgia?"

Answer: No.

Before my departure to Georgia, I dutifully checked where the nearest LDS congregation was. According to the Meetinghouse Locator on the nearest congregation was in a different country: Armenia. I was surprised by this in some regards considering the growth rate of the Church in other parts of the former Soviet Union, especially in the Ukraine and Russia. Yet at the same time it sort of made sense considering the long religious history tied to the area. With such a history, people probably would not be very receptive. Consequently, I arrived in Georgia fully thinking I was one of the only, if not the only member, in the entire country.

In October I discovered that there are indeed LDS congregations in Georgia. Two, in fact. There are about 190 members and 12 missionaries. They seemed surprised to find out I was here. I guess someone in the Springdale Ward never bothered to send my records to Armenia and the mission offices there. The congregations are both in Tbilisi, and I am guessing largely comprised of expatriates, diplomats for the US Embassy, much like was the case in Tel Aviv. I am literally the only member for hundreds of kilometers in any direction (more when you head south into Turkey). Because of the distance to Church, I do not go. I am going to try to just before I leave for the United States, just to say that I went while here. While in Israel I had to go halfway across the country to get to Church, now I have to go pretty much across an entire country to get to Church. Before when I thought the nearest congregation was in Yerevan, I was excited at the prospect of being able to tell people back home that "Yeah, I had to get passport stamps and a visa just to go to Church." That would have impressed them greatly.

While in Tbilisi a couple of weeks ago, I actually saw missionaries on Rustaveli Street. It was weird. Earlier that morning I had thought that it was a possibility, but considering the size of Tbilisi and the small number of missionaries, it was extremely unlikely. While sitting in the Marco Polo Restaurant waiting for our lunch, I see them walk by. Of everything to notice first, it was the black and white name tags. Much to my friend's surprise I quickly ran out of the restaurant to talk to them. It was odd that they didn't pick up on the fact that I was LDS when I first said, "I'm from Utah!" They only got it when I said that I went to BYU. (Those four years are a time I am trying hard to forget. As my friend Rob says, "Provo is the Heart of Darkness." It truly is. It's only redeeming quality is that the Provo Bakery is there.) We chatted briefly, and from them I learned that there are at least 4 other teachers in Georgia who are LDS. But I still remain the sole one in the Western half of the entire country.

Georgian Weather

To most people any mention of weather in any part of the former Soviet Union would/still does conjure up images of a bleak, barren, snow-covered Siberian wasteland that exists 365 days a year. While those areas do exist, the Batumi area is not one of least for now. Lately my friends in the US have been asking me about the weather a lot, fully expecting that I will respond with conditions reminiscent of Siberia, and are shocked when I tell them it is the complete opposite. It has been nothing short of amazing for weeks on end, though it is raining at the moment.

Despite being raised in the frozen tundra that is Minnesota, I've become rather soft when it comes to dealing with weather. In high school, walking to school when it was -26 F with a -76 F windchill was no big deal. After years in the desert I've discovered that cold temps (basically anything below 50 F) and I are not friends. It got to the point while living in Southern Utah that I struggled if I even had to scrape ice from the wind shield of my car. For me the hotter, the better. But I will not take hot mixed with humid. When I first arrived in Georgia I thought my death was imminent because of the high temps and higher humidity. During our training in Kutaisi (Georgian for "depressing" and "soul crushing," I believe), the air conditioners could barely keep up the heat and humidity were so bad. But happily I survived...barely.

Curiously, Minneapolis/St. Paul and Batumi are nearly the same distance north of the equator (about 44 degrees versus 41 degrees). However, the weather could not be more different. Presently Minneapolis and a great deal of Minnesota have snow advisories in effect, with temps of 18 F currently according to Here it is in the 60s, and yesterday it was close to 80, if not more. It was AWESOME, and the great weather has been a constant topic of discussion amongst my friends and I. If one had to guess the current weather based on what Georgians are wearing, one would not think of sunshine and balmy temperatures. Georgians all are wearing thick coats, hats, scarfs, gloves, fur-lined boots, and layers of clothing underneath. It is as though they feel we live north of the Arctic Circle! It is no wonder then why I get looks for still wearing Chaco sandals, capri pants, and t-shirts.

Unfortunately, I am not sure how long the great weather will last. Supposedly, it does nothing but rain for the months of January, February, March, and April. Great; I can't wait! Two weeks from today I return to Minnesota, and I am praying for temps to be at least above freezing, which is wishful thinking on my part. My cold weather wardrobe is severely lacking after years in the desert. My only jackets are Marmot and Mammut fleeces from my years at Zion Adventure Company. I have a wool hat here, and I bought gloves in Turkey on Saturday, but it will not be enough to survive Minnesota in December and January. I've also been warned that it is thoroughly in adequate for Chicago in the winter as well, which I will also be visiting. Then again, Chicago is the Windy City.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Yes, my hair is blonde. No, you do not need to stare.

My hair is very blonde by Georgian standards, though my sister would say that it is not blonde at all. (It is.) Consequently, it makes me stand out...a lot. It makes my desire to blend into the local community much harder than it would be otherwise. It quickly becomes apparent to people that I am not from around here. But it is curious to hear where they think I am from. Often America is not their first guess. Here I am mistaken for being from continental Europe (Germany is popular) or even more bizarrely from Turkey or Azerbaijan. I have never met anyone form Azerbaijan, but judging from the Azeris I have seen getting out of cars by the Sheraton, they do not seem to have blonde hair or light skin.

The blonde hair and very fair skin contrasts significantly to the dark hair and olive skin that most people possess here. Without fail when I open the door to the marshrut'ka, people stare. It is unsettling and rather annoying. Perhaps they are surprised to see someone with naturally blonde hair, as most of the "blonde" hair here is courtesy of Clairol or Loreal. I have seen a few people with lighter hair than me who were not American. But even those people are rare. What is perhaps the funniest part of this story is that my friend, Chanchal, who is Indian gets mistaken for being Georgian. Her host family saw a picture of her before she arrived and thought how Georgian she looked and how she would blend in well in family pictures. The hair and skin are also dead giveaways to the staff of supermarkets that I am not from around here, and consequently, need to be closely followed throughout the entire store. I want to scream at them, "If you want me to buy something, you need to back off!"

The story was much the same in Israel as well. At least in Georgia being foreign did not result in a myriad of shopkeepers trying to get my business, perhaps because there English was spoken much more often. While there I took to wearing scarves and keeping my blonde hair tucked under a hat. It fooled some, but not many. In Israel as well most people did not think I was American, but French, Australian, German, Canadian or Russian. Once my hair provolked an interesting conversation in Jerusalem. While walking past a barber shop in the Old City, the owner offered to give me a haircut. Though after 2 months I desperately needed it, I did not know if a barber shop was the best place for that to happen. He tried to impress me with the fact that he cut the hair for all the Marines at the nearby American consulate, and that he had previously cut the hair of Colin Powell and Barack Obama. While impressive, those facts scared me because none of those people have much hair at all. I did not want a Marine cut in the least.

Being Friends with a Best Selling Author

Georgia is a small enough country that the odds of running into famous people here are higher than in, say, the United States (unless you live in Los Angeles or New York). I've met the president and have seen him chillaxing in Batumi since that time. He was just sitting next to his LandCruiser by the InTourist Hotel on Rustaveli. In Springdale I encountered a few famous people over the years: Laura Bush (her husband was still President at this time), Aron Ralston (post self-surgery), and Karl Malone (he tips well). I am still upset about not meeting Sonny Trotter when he was in town, and that my friend Calvin got to climb with him. (During graduate school a picture of a shirtless Sonny T from a Patagonia catalog climbing the Cobra Crack in Canada was on the wall next to my desk. I looked at it a lot). In Georgia, I've actually become friends with one.

This friendship came about largely because of a lobiani.

Lobiani is a Georgian dish of beans in a baked dough casing. Usually, I do not like to eat at the Literatuli Cafe in Batumi, but on a Friday in early November, I felt like having a lobiani. While conversing with my friend, Chanchal, about the recent events, frustrations, successes, etc. at our recent schools and with our host families, a man at a neighboring table asked us if we were some of "the teachers." Yes, we responded. This man asked if we knew of a Jimmy, who was teaching in Batumi. I thought I could help the two connect, but unfortunately, Chanchal and I could not make it happen. We began chatting, and eventually invited this guy to join us at our table to continue the conversation.

We soon learn that David (Dato) is a Georgian author with 14 books to his name, had lived in Iowa for awhile, and was in Batumi as the local theater was working on a production of one of his plays. He was really interesting to talk to, and soon invited us to a party he was about to attend. Sure, why not? The random event invitation was not really that surprising as the night had already had some random moments, including the discovery of the new consulate for Iran in Batumi and a Hobbit-sized woman with 2 teeth asking me if I was Turkish. At this point we had no idea how famous by Georgian standards Dato was, or even his last name. I should have known we were associating with someone special with the almost reverence with which people treated him at the gathering. The party was great as Chanchal and I met cool local people, one of whom lived in Utah for awhile. I instantly became his new best friend. We thought we would be at the party for maybe an hour; we stayed five.

The following day we made plans to have lunch with Dato. While at my house I mentioned to my host sister how I was going to have lunch with "some Georgian author named David that I had met last night." She asked, "Dato Turashvili?" with an excited look on her face. I don't know, maybe.

It was Dato Turashvili.

On Saturday Chanchal and I realized that we were dealing with someone very popular in Georgia, and it was then we realized he was a bestselling author here. He is quick to point out, however, that he was bestselling after Harry Potter. But of course. Since our chance meeting in Batumi, we have visited with Dato in Tbilisi as well, going to a radio station and an interview with him at Prospero's Bookstore. While with him we met a famous poet and a radio personality. We often wonder why he is so interested in associating with two teachers from North America, when he has practically all of Georgia to be friends with.

Recently Dato published a fictionalized book about the events surrounding the 1983 hijacking of a plane between Tbilisi and Batumi. The plane was hijacked by university students in an attempt to leave the Soviet Union, and at the time was an event that highly polarized the people in Georgia. It is Flight from USSR, and unfortunately, it is not available on It provides interesting insight into life in the 1980s in Soviet Russia, during the days glasnost and perestroika. I've tried to find more information on the events, but with little luck thus far. The story is very intriguing, and has the potential to be made into a film with its romance, intrigue, and violence.