Monday, October 31, 2011

Party Vans and Presidential Sightings in Kutaisi

Written on 10/17/2011

This past weekend was a long weekend and we decided after much deliberation to spend the weekend in Kutaisi, the second biggest city in the country, capital of Imereti province. It took a while for my family to figure out how I could get there, but after much deliberation amongst themselves, they decided that there must be a marshutka (public transportation van) that leaves at 9 am from the train station in my city that would take me there. They also decided that this would be the only one that left for the day, so I’d better not miss it. They were at least right about the first part, the time, for it did leave at 9 am. As for being the only marshutka, that seems highly doubtful but I have yet to have figured out the schedule.

I made it in time and made my first marshutka ride alone all the way to Kutaisi. The Kutaisi marshutka pick up/drop off point just happens to be in front of McDonalds, the only McDonalds in the whole city. I find it funny that Americans and Canadians seem to get overly excited when they see a McDonalds when they are abroad. While they would never go there in their own country, suddenly a familiar sight makes them suddenly crave the crap food that they sell. I, on the other hand, was happy to see the free wi-fi and got to make my first phone call to my mother in over a week.

Our first adventure was finding a guest house. My friend had gotten the address (but no phone number) of a guesthouse. We walked over to the crowd of taxi drivers and asked them to take us to the street. It took 5 taxi drivers and about 10 minutes, but they finally figured out where we wanted to go and we were escorted to a taxi and overcharged for the ride. Upon arriving at the address given, we found nothing but a house. No signs, no contact information, nothing. The taxi driver was kind enough to shout out and get the owners attention. I was sure we were at the wrong place, but then the gate was opened and we were ushered in.

Here we were given two twin beds in this family’s house. The woman spoke enough English to tell us the necessities and her daughter spoke enough English to translate her mother’s curiosities about us, everything from where we are from to how much money we make. The price was 20 Lari per night, 10 more Lari could have gotten us a hotel room, but there’s no guarantee that a 50 Lari/night hotel would be any better than this.

We decided to check out Motsameta, a church in the mountains about 7 km outside Kutaisi on recommendation from the woman running the guest house. It took us a while to get ourselves out there, and from there we had been told that we could walk from there to another church called Gelati just 3 km away. We were trying to ask some high school girls how to walk there, and they didn’t know the way, but their family was headed the same way and they asked if we would like a ride with them. We agreed but we had no idea what we were agreeing to.

They pointed in a general direction saying “this is our car”, but I was instead guided into a van, completely chuck full with a family, young, old, grandmothers and small children, at least twenty stuffed into a marshutka. We were shuffled in and family members moved over onto other’s laps in order for us to sit comfortably on a makeshift seat made of wood between two seats where and aisle should have been. Off we zoomed down the mountain road. Though Gelati was only a 5 minute ride away, they were a bit lost too. They drove up, down and all around before they found the entrance to the church. In the meantime the high school and college kids in the van decided to turn their ride into a dance party. “Musica! Musica!” they shouted and the driver blasted the music blaring traditional Georgian music. Despite the lack of room, they somehow found a way to get up and dance in the van as we sped all around looking for the church. “You like khachapuri?” they asked, and the next thing I knew, cheese bread was being pulled out for us to try. I think we were also invited to their home… or at least to go somewhere with them that evening, but we had to decline. I guess this is what they mean by Georgian hospitality.

The party van

Finally we got to Gelati and we said our good-byes. They went into the church to worship and we walked around the grounds, slightly clueless about the church and rather still in shock from our ride up to the church.

Then it was time to leave. We were hoping we could get a ride down with our new family, but they didn’t seem to be leaving any time soon. Now we were stuck, 10 Km from town, high up on a mountain. Should we hitchhike? There were no taxis to be found. But, nor were there people leaving the church either. Then, like someone above had been listening, a taxi drove up. Yes, we paid double what we paid to get up there, but we couldn’t exactly bargain when he was the only taxi around in miles. 10 lari later (which, admittedly, is only 7 dollars) we were back in the city and it was time to meet some other friends.

The rest of the evening was rather uneventful, but involved “pizza” which was more mushrooms than cheese and sauce put together, and beer from a brewery that tasted no different than the stuff from the convieneice store. We called it a night early at 11 not wanting to wake up the folks at the guesthouse when we came in. Of course, they were already asleep and we seemed to walk up a very grumpy fellow when we knocked on the door to be let in.

The next morning we checked out of there and I realized that I only had 25 Lari left so I decided I should probably head home before night. We dropped off our bags at our friend’s guesthouse and we got lunch. Somehow we got separated from our friends again and as we were deciding what we should do, we were approached by some Georgian friends of our friends. We told them we watnted to go to Bagrati, a cathedral in the city and they talked with each other in Georgian and nodded and told us to go with them in their car.

I knew immediately we were going in the wrong direction and after a few minutes I realized that we were going back to Motsameta, the same place we had gone to yesterday. Then, it was casually mentioned that the president of Georgia, Mikhail Sakartshvili would be making an appearance later in the day at the church. It was immediately apparent that something was going on today when we got closer to the church. Police were located everywhere and the street to Motsameta had been blocked off to traffic.

Seeing the mess around Motsameta, they decided to head over to Gelati first. It was nice going with Georgians that we knew because they could explain to us what was going on. Or at least they tried, and sometimes they relied on random strangers with better English to explain things.
They found us head scarves to cover our heads with, this was the biggest reason why we hadn’t ventured far into the church the previous day. Whenever you enter an orthodox church, women cover their heads. With our heads covered, we felt much more at ease walking around the church. The walls inside of Gelati are covered in old frescos from ceiling to floor. The style is nothing like anything I’ve ever seen in a Roman Catholic Church. Another interesting feature is that there is no seating area to hold a service. Worshipers wander in and out, priests wonder about blessing this person and that and worshipers go from relic to relic blessing themselves with the sign of the cross (they bless them in the opposite direction as Roman Catholics, starting with forehead, then chest, right shoulder then left shoulder) and kissing this and that.

One thing we could not get anyone to explain to us was the lambs that we saw many worshipers bring with them to both Motsameta and Gelati. If someone could explain to me why they bring sheep to church with them, I’d be most obliged.

From there it was time to head back to Motsameta and make our way in through the police and the crowds. Our friends brought us into the main worship hall at Motsameta as well (without head scarves, but no one seemed to make a fuss about it) and he gave us some candles to light and put around in various places. The place was packed full of people and there was a long line waiting to crawl under the tomb of the martyrs. Apparently if you crawl under it, your wish will come true. I kind of wanted to do it, but then our friends shuffled us out again and off to see the president. We waited around and there were secret service and security everywhere. When vehicles started racing in, I tried to snap a photo but a security agent saw me before I could even get my camera on. “No photo.”. Then the president came out of his car, crossed through the crowd to look over the cliff behind us, then walked “very fast”, as our friend had warned us, into the church and disappeared for 20 minutes as no one was allowed in. Finally, as we could tell he was making is way out, our friend shuffled us to the front of the line waiting to see him as he came out so we could say hello. We really wanted to get our photo with him, but that didn’t seem likely at this point. Finally he came out of the church and as he (speed) walked along, he did indeed spot us foreigners and flashed us a smile and said something in English which we think was “hello!”. We were satisfied with what we got, neither of us had ever been in the presence of a president of any country, much less been addressed by one.

By now, of course, it was far too late for me to go back to my city. The annoying thing about traveling in Georgia is that intercity transportation often cuts off around dusk, making late returns difficult if not impossible. My friend paid for us to stay at the guest house where our other friends had spent the night before.

The place was called Giorgi’s Guesthouse, and again, the place had no sign, no website, no phone number, just an address that we found on various other travel websites. This place had a very chill hostel feel to it and though my friend went to bed early, I sat up with other guests and chatted. The owner, Giorgi occasionally passed out small shots of cha-cha, Georgian vodka, and we listened to the tales of a retired German professor from Hanguk University of Foreign Studies (외대). It was strange to hear someone talking about the Korea from a different time, as he started teaching there in the 1970’s and taught for 23 years.

Giorgi's Guesthouse

Finally it was time for bed. The next day was uneventful and I headed home before noon. But, if every weekend is so eventful, I will leave Georgia a happy woman.

Rainy Day

Rainy Day

Written on 10/19/2011

While my first week and a half in Georgia was sunny weather every day, suddenly the weather started taking a turn for the worse. Now, I’m used to rainy weather from living through three monsoon seasons in Korea. After losing several good pairs of shoes to water damage after my first summer in Korea I discovered that water resistant shoes like Crocs and plastic flip-flops were the way to survive torrential rain storms. Better that your skin gets wet than soaking your shoes and socks for the day.

Here in Georgia I have several pairs of shoes, but none besides my flip flops would survive the torrential downpours outside my window. The temperature was in the 60s˚F and I didn’t think anything of wearing my flip flops out. It was certainly better than soaking my sneakers in the giant puddles I’d have to hurdle to get downtown.

My host aunt found me downtown but was shocked by the fact that I was wearing flip-flops. “Aren’t you cold?! How can you wear that?!” I tried to explain that bare feet dry faster than wet socks and sneakers, but somehow that was lost in translation. She got home before me and apparently informed my whole family that I went out in the rain wearing flip-flops.

Upon my arrival at my house, my host mother and little host sister greeted me at the door shouting in Georgian and pointing to my feet. My host aunt translated the shouting saying that they were sure I’d catch a cold and how cold I must be. They pulled out the space heater trying to convince me I needed to warm up, but I convinced them I was fine.

Now, whenever they see me, they say that “Jo-Anna is never cold” whenever they see me.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Wedding in Georgia

Written on 10/10/2011

 Not long after I arrived in my house on the first night in my new city, my host father picked up a wedding invitation and showed me saying “tomorrow!” followed by “you go!”. I felt excited to be invited to my first wedding minutes after arriving. So, the next day after exploring the town I got dressed up for the wedding. I was worried because my host mother put on a nice dress, but I threw on my dress pants and a nice shirt and asked if it would be alright and they said yes.

This was my first time alone with just my host mother and host father. I was a bit nervous about leaving my host aunt since she is the one who speaks English and translates everything for me. We hopped into some other relatives car and sped off. My host mother made a phone call and asked how to say village. Then she informed me, mostly through sign language, that we were going first to the village, then coming back to the city to go to the restaurant for the supra (dinner party). It was quite clear once we were out of the city. The road became a pot hole filled gravel road where we weren’t trying to drive on one side of the road or other, just the part of the road that would damage our old car the least. After zig zagging down the road avoiding not only pot holes but cows, people, a bicycle and other cars much faster than us, we finally found our destination.

We parked down the street and walked up to the house. Everyone was lined up around the driveway and we mingled and I was introduced to some of the other guests. Minutes later a caravan of cars arrived beeping all along the way. The wedding party had arrived. They zoomed into the driveway, stopping just before hitting the guests waiting for them. Everyone crowded around to see the bride and groom as they stepped out of the decorated cars. Before they ascended the outside stairway to the second floor, some kind of plate was broken. Then she went up and all the guests (there were hundreds) flooded up the stairs to say congratulations.

One room was set up with a table full of food and drinks and people made their way in line to greet the bride, then filed out. That was all for the village portion of the event. We all hopped back into the car after only being at the house for about 20 minutes, and we made our way back along the potholed road back to the city and to a wedding hall. There we again waited for the bride and groom to appear and this time they were greeted with some very nice fireworks. 

I was quite overwhelmed with the spread on the table. There was hardly room for our plates with all the food piled on the table when we sat down. We started to eat right away. I tried a little of this and a little of that and found myself full not long later. Much to my surprise, that was not the end of the food. After the first hour or so, the waitstaff would bring around a new dish every  ½ hour or so and I ate until I felt sick.

Then the alcholol started flowing. Georgians love to drink, especially at a supra, and wine is served in pitchers rather than bottles and are refilled whenever they reach half empty. Tcha-Tcha (Georgian vodka) is readily available plus a wide selection of mineral water, soda and what Georgians call “Limonati” or lemonade, but it never seems to be made from lemons. The only alcohol missing at this event was beer, perhaps it’s not classy enough for a wedding.

Georgians make toasts while drinking from a horn. The horn at this wedding happened to be made of chrystal and appeared to hold about a liter of wine. Which, after saluting the bride and groom, the men would then drink all at once. Women don’t often make toasts like this, but the one woman I saw make a toast had to take 2 or 3 sips to down her liter of wine. 

Then, of course, like any good wedding, there was plenty of dancing. Everyone got up on the dance floor, young and old. The music selection was completely random, with Georgian songs, Russian songs, American songs and (randomly) a lot of Itailan songs. Then, about once an hour, they kicked everyone off the dance floor and we were treated with performances of traditional Georgian dances from professional dancers. At one point my host father motioned for me to follow him out of the wedding hall telling me to bring my camera. He brought me to a side house where the performers were getting ready for the next performance and he asked them to take some photos with me. It was slightly embarrassing, but I do have a terrible soft spot for getting my photo taken in traditional garb or with others dressed in traditional clothes, even in my own country. 

Finally at 1 am, my host mother called it quits and we walked home from the party. I was grateful since all that food was not feeling so good in my stomach. The party, however, was still going strong. If you’re ever in Georgia, make sure you get yourself invited to a Georgian wedding. You won’t regret it! 

 Every wedding needs a goat, right?

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

First weekend with my host family

Written on 10/10/2011

So far, things with my host family have been really great. I’m really fortunate for several reasons. Firstly, I’m in a city. A small city, but a city none the less. I was kind of hoping for a village placement, I had been mentally preparing for no hot water, no running water, outhouses etc since I signed up and here I am in a house 15 minutes walking distance from the downtown area, indoor bathroom where you can even flush your toilet paper, hot water and a washing machine. The only modern convenience we don’t have is a stove. They have a small gas burner, something like an oversized camping stove, which they seem to use to cook everything. Not to say it’s really nice and modern here, but it’s much more than I was expecting.

I’m also lucky because the aunt that lives here speaks fairly good English. She has a very difficult time understanding me, but she can communicate with me quite well and explain all the things going on around me. The father can also speak some English. While it’s not very advanced, it’s enough to communicate. My host mother doesn’t really speak a word of English, but since I’ve arrived, she’s picked up 4 or 5 words and she seems to be eager to learn more. She’s always a bit apprehensive around me because we can’t really communicate well, but hopefully we’ll get to know each other better soon. I’m also living with two children, an 8 year old girl and a 12 year old boy. They are both great and we communicate with a mix of Georgian and English. The girl has kind of adopted me as her new best friend… or new favorite toy, I’m not sure which, but she points to random things and tells me what they are in Georgian. I’m afraid I’m a poor student for her, I’m kind of in word overload and my mind is not soaking up anything. I’ve picked up the following phrases which I use to communicate everything:

It is good: kargia
It is bad: Tsudia
Beautiful: Lamazia
Car: manqana
I am…: Me var
Where is …: sad aris
My: chemi
Hello: garmajova
Nice to meet you: sasiamovnoa

I do know more than this of course, I did have 5 days of language classes, but these seem to be the only words that will come to me quickly enough to use them. Hopefully I learn quickly but I’m just in overload at the moment.

My house seems to be layed out in a similar scheme to most other Georgian houses I’ve seen in the neighborhood. Two floors with the stairway to the second floor outside. There is an indoor stairway, but it’s very steep and ladder-ish and feels quite awkward to use, especially if you have anything in your hands. My room is by far the nicest in the house. They clearly recently renovated the room for guests. Newly wallpapered walls match the new curtains I have a big double bed and two wardrobes. I plan on buying some hangars because at the moment all my clothes are on shelves. The other two bedrooms are a bit sad looking. The kids room has two twin beds shoved together and you need to cut through the parents room to get to it. It doesn’t seem as though there is any electricity in those rooms. They gave me a flashlight to cut through those rooms to use the bathroom at night because if I were to use the outdoor stairway to go down, the front door would be locked. There are two other rooms in the upstairs, but they seem to be rather a work in progress. One is completely empty and full of dust, the other is full of scrap wood. They told me that they will put electricity in those rooms soon. The downstairs is nice with a kitchen cabinet area and a sitting room area with the TV. Off of that room is the large living room with a piano (I’ve been told that pianos are rather like a piece of furniture here with most people owning one) and sofas and a table. No internet or computer, but they said that we will get internet for the house (or for my computer?) soon. Here you can buy the usb drives that use internet through the phone network. The device is quite expencive though (two different companies, about $100 USD and $50 USD respectively) plus you need to pay for the monthly service, and the price varies depending on the useage of course.

The house also has a yard with an overgrown garden and a large metal structure that seems to be for growing grapes. Most houses have something like this in their front yard. The back yard has a sink (no sink in the bathroom, they’ve told me that this will be moved into the bathroom soon too) and a small house for storage plus several lines hung for drying laundry. There are gates which lead into the neighbors yards and it seems that neighbors are always coming and going from our house. It’s a nice community atmosphere here and it’s the sort of town where everyone knows everyone. As we took a walk around town we bumped into all sorts of people whom the family knew. This was a student, this was a teacher, this was the son’s mother, etc etc.

So far the weather has been beautiful. During the day it feels close to 80˚F but with no humidity so it is very agreeable. But, because it is now October most people seem to be wearing fall clothes, long sleeves, pants etc. I was quite warm dressed like that and have opted to wear clothes from my summer wardrobe. I’m not sure what I’ll do for school since I haven’t brought many nicer summer clothes. All my “teacher” clothes are for the winter. Hopefully it cools down soon! Tbilisi, the capital was a bit cooler than here, so I was thinking that I’d packed just right. The problem with this program is that they don’t tell you your placement before leaving, so it’s hard to know how to pack. 

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The rest of the TLG orientation

Due to the lack of internet at my home, I will be writing posts and posting them later. This post was written on 10/8/2011.

For the last two full days of orientation we mixed up the rhythm a bit, but it was still quite a full schedule. Georgian classes in the morning and information sessions and methodology in the afternoons. My Georgian language is progressing a little, but unfortunately, my listening comprehension, even in class is pretty bad. I think I've got 3/4 of the alphabet down, at least so that I can recognize them, but it will be a while before I'm able to write them on my own. Not to mention distinguish between similar letters.

One thing I really wish we had done on this orientation is have a group excursion and actually see Georgia. I've only been more than 100 meters away from the hotel 3 times in the past 7 days and each time only about 4 hours each. Fortunately, last night, one of the other volunteers asked our teacher where a good place to go to see some Georgian culture was and got the name of a restaurant. All we knew was that there was Georgian food and wine there, but about 30 of us jumped into a bunch of taxis lined up in front of the hotel and zoomed over there. 

The restaurant was small and nice but we knew we had picked the right place once the music started. From the little I've seen, it seems that Georgians love to sing and love four part harmonies. There was a variety of acapella music and other singing. 

Then the dancers came out. There wasn't a whole lot of dancing, but we got to see a few numbers. It was not what I was expecting at all, but it was fabulous. The music and dancing here is so lively and interesting. I can't really compare it to anything I've witnessed before. 

Thursday evening, the last evening of training, we were finally given our assignments. I was told that I was placed in a city in the Samgrelo province. I’m not sure if I’m going to disclose the city name on the blog or not for privacy reasons. If I had been placed in a village, I wasn’t going to since I would probably be the only foreign teacher in the area and it would be impossible to keep my identity and my host family’s identity private. But, as I will be in a city, it may not be as big of a deal. There are two other teachers from TLG placed in my city and there are others that are already there as well. I will see how things go. I may give more information on my location as the time passes.

Friday morning we went out for our last jaunt around Tbilisi. Many main streets downtown near Freedom square were closed off to traffic and there were police everywhere. It’s because the president of France is in town this week. Street cleaners were working hard to make the city center look beautiful.

We came back to check out of our hotel and the host families and school representatives had all arrived to pick us up to bring us to our respective cities, towns and villages. They had a quick meeting and then it was time for us to meet our family and go out into the real Georgia. We were placed on either side of the room and they announced the names one by one and we clapped for each person when they found their family/ school representative. 

I was picked up by another teacher at my school who happens to be the sister in law of my host family and lives with us. I am really lucky because she speaks some English. In fact, her English is quite good, she’s just never spoken with native speakers much before and her listening skills are not yet up to par. Don’t read this as a complaint, though, I’m quite happy to have someone to translate for me because the rest of my family doesn’t speak much English at all. The host mother only can say yes and no, the host father seems to know about as much English as I do Georgian, but he communicates quite well with these 10 words.  More on that later.

From the hotel, she took me by taxi to Tibilisi Central a bus and train station in Tibilisi. We found the bus to my region and loaded it up with all my things. There were about 5 or 6 other TLG folks on my bus as well with their respective families/ school reps. After loading everything on, my host went and bought our tickets and came back to announce that the bus was scheduled to leave at 4. It wasn’t even 2 o’clock at this point. Fortunately, we were both hungry, so we went off in search of a restaurant. It took us a while, but we found a good one and she ordered lots of yummy stuff. 

We made it back to the bus just in time to hop on. Six hours or so later we were in my city and meeting my host family at the bus drop off point. In my next post, I’ll write more about my first few days with my host family.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

TLG Orientation Days 2-4

Well, our orientation has gotten much less exciting since my last post. We have very little free time during the day due to the... orientation. Our first three days have gone like this:

8-9: Breakfast
9-10: Orientation
10-12: Intercultural Training
12-12:15: Coffee Break
12:15-2: Intercultural Training
2-3:30: Lunch/ Break
3:30-5:30- Georgian Class
5:30-5:45- Coffee Break
5:45-7:15- Georgian Class
7:15- Dinner and free time
12:00 - curfew

If you're wondering how my Georgian is coming along, I suppose I speak as well as anyone who's been here for four days can. We've learned quite a few phrases and I'm trying to keep track of them in a small notebook that I can carry around with me. It is helping me to speak, but not really helping me remember the phrases. I've probably got about half the alphabet down, but learning the Georgian alphabet is much more challenging than learning Hangul was. There are way more letters and it's more like Roman letters in that there is no real rhyme or reason for their shape. They all just look like squiggly lines to me.  Fortunately there are no capital letters or then I'd really be in trouble.

We're all jet lagged and in information overload.  By the time our free time comes we're not all that excited about exploring. Finally, last night, we made our way out of the hotel and into town for the first time since Saturday. We wondered around without much purpose, we had no idea where we were or what we wanted to do. But we happened to get out of the Marshutka (minibuses/vans that serve the city, no large buses like other cities) in a rather hip looking (but deserted) area which seemed to be a rather international district. We wandered into a restaurant without knowing what it was and found out it was Uzbeki food. But, it was delicious and not very expensive (though quite a bit more expensive than Georgian food) and then we moved on to a Moroccan hookah bar down the street. It seemed a bit overpriced at 30 lari ($18 USD) for the hookah, but we split it between 4 people so it wasn't too bad. We could never have afforded to eat there though, most of the dishes on the menu were the same price as the hookah! In a country where a giant meat filled dumpling costs $0.35 USD at a nice restaurant, it seems a bit exorbitant.

 Statue at the end of the hip, international street

We still don't know where we're going to be placed in Georgia, though we've been told that the greatest need is in rural parts of the western side of the country, so many of us may wind up there. I'm not to concerned about it now. I'll be concerned once I figure out where I'm actually staying. With my luck I'd freak out and wind up in a perfectly normal place. 

Uzbek dumplings and Georgian Beer

Monday, October 3, 2011

Tbilisi Flea Market and Art Market

As I mentioned in my last post, we found a weekend flea market and art market along the river in Tbilisi, only about a 10 minute walk from Freedom Square. The selection had a few interesting things that you don't see everyday in Seoul, even in Hwanghak-dong

According to blogs I've read, some schools still use abacuses in the classroom. Hard to believe in this day and age. I wouldn't even know how to use one if I wanted to. 

I couldn't believe this car, with all the wares for sale on the hood and roof, with the whole family inside. I took a photo and the old man in the driver's seat insisted on checking out the photo. He and the family got a good kick out of the photo. 

Relics of soviet times are everywhere in the market. It would be a collector's dream come true. 

We found an art market set up in the park next to the street with the flea market. I wonder how much these paintings go for?

Sunday, October 2, 2011

TLG Orientation Day 1

 Our hotel and home during orientation

This is my first week in Georgia, and we have a one week orientation before we are sent to a school to teach. We got to our hotel in Tbilisi last night around 5 pm and I was able to call home and tell everyone I had arrived safely. Just 2 hours later we had our first orientation meeting. We were late, too, because we had no idea what time it was and we thought we were an hour behind the actual time.

At our first orientation meeting we learned all about transportation and safety here. We’ve been told to beware of driving in taxis alone, crossing streets, stray dogs and gypsies. Overall, though, they tell us that the crime rate is not very high here and it’s fairly safe to go around town. Today we went out for a few hours, my roommate at the hotel and I, and we certainly noticed police and security everywhere around the city. We also found that there are many underground passes to cross the streets since it seems a little suicidal to cross the streets in some places.

TLG (Teach and Learn Georgia, the program I’m with) takes in volunteers every two weeks but this group starting with me is the biggest they’ve had yet, 102 of us. It’s a little hard to get to know 102 people. We’re all here alone and want to meet friends, but it’s hard to get to know people when there’s so many of us. Fortunately, on our flight there were only 6 of us and we’ve more or less been sticking together.

First thing was our medical check. This was super easy. Despite the austere appearance of the clinic on the first floor of an old apartment building, it still had little touches of modernity/ cleanliness that I did not have for my medical checks in Korea. Like covers for the urine sample and a real toilet instead of a squat toilet… Though the vials of blood taken didn’t have covers on them. I guess they’re not exactly going to get contaminated with HIV or Hep from the air… Just would hate to be the one who drops that test tube rack by accident…

Freedom Square

Then, after we got back from the clinic, two of us went out to explore the town for a few hours. First we decided to walk, but after a while we realized that the sidewalk sort of disappeared and the street looked more and more highway like. So, all we could do was to get into a taxi. But, though we had decided we were going to Freedom Square (the only landmark we had heard of) we had no idea what this was in Georgian. Serendipitously, on a street sign just in front of us, there was a sign, written in both English and Georgian that pointed the way to the square. I tried my best to copy it as it looked on to paper before getting into a cab. We got into the cab and showed him the paper… the taxi driver scratched his head a bit and asked… “airport?”. Oh boy, looking at it again, I realized that I had miscopied the first letter since the sign had been far away. I fixed the letter and he said.. “ahh! Hfjojveoxozdjo” or something else we couldn’t understand, but we figured that was probably better than the airport, so we said yes, and all of a sudden he drove off. We almost took off before asking the price, but we remembered and I busted out the only Georgian I learned before leaving “sami?” (three). And he kind of laughed and took off. I assumed that meant OK.

We got there in one piece, driving in Georgia is a bit interesting, since things like lanes and rules and respect for other drivers don’t seem too important. We were also looking for a speed limit sign, but couldn’t find one of those either. They must have a speed limit.. right?

Singers at the festival

Once in the square, we didn’t really know what we were going to do. But after walking around for a few minutes, we found a crowd of people and went over to check out what was going on. Apparently it was some kind of music performance. We stuck around for a few songs and we were impressed with the singers and it was interesting to get a taste of Georgian music… or at least what we assume is Georgian music.

Beautiful, crumbling house
From there we walked around and saw a bakery where we proceeded to pick up a few snacks. One baklava and one cream puff later, we continued on our aimless journey and found a church, a park and eventually an outdoor flea market.

Cream Puff and Baklava from local bakery

 Statue in the park

The flea market was tons of fun. For those of you who read the blog, you must know I’m a sucker for markets and old things. Everything from dishes, cameras, war metals, Persian rugs, and swords were there on sale, and the market just continued from one road down the next on both sides of the street. Then when we thought we had found the end of the market, we discovered that the park on the other side had been converted into a giant art market and we went out and checked out all the beautiful art for sale as well. I'll make a separate post with photos for this, since I took quite a few.

Flea Market

After that it was time to head back to the hotel for lunch. The meal times are rather interesting. Breakfast is served at our hotel from 8-11, then lunch from 3-5 then dinner from 8-10. I’m not sure yet if this is just a hotel thing or a Georgian thing but I guess we’ll find out. Every meal so far has included bread and cheese along with another dish. We’ve had pasta three times now in four meals, including for breakfast. They also offered breakfast cereals with dinner, but not with lunch. It’s hard to say if these are normal yet, or if they are trying to be accommodating for us westerners or what, but they are certainly interesting. 

Finally it was time for our evening meeting. We learned a bit more about the program and we got our cell phones, which are provided by TLG and are free to use if you're calling someone else from TLG. We're now all sporting Nokia 1280s which are basically a newer model of the super basic Nokias everyone used to walk around with in 2000. I even had to manually set the time and date.

Nokia 1280, our phone

Tomorrow, the real orientation begins, first with an info session for an hour in the morning, followed by 2 hours of a Georgian language class followed by lunch then intercultural training and finally dinner at 8:00 in the evening. Not much time for play and we've been banned from drinking for the entire orientation week (seemingly because of people who have caused problems in the past). Not that they can really enforce this rule, but we aren't quite ready to test them yet.