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.