Sunday, December 25, 2011

Life updates

Just wanted to say a few things. I'm updating from my iPod so sorry for that. Firstly I'm traveling in Turkey at the moment so don't expect any posts for a while. Secondly I'm spending new years with my host family and then heading back to America on Jan 3rd. I'll be in Boston for 10 days and then I should be hopping on a plane to come back to Korea! Just signed a contract and got my visa issuance number from YBM sisa. I'm not looking forward to the split schedule but I can't wait to teach adults! I'm compleatly burnt out from childen at the moment. And I can't wait to be back in my apartment. I can't wait for ondol heating.... I may sleep on my yo (floor mat) for a week just because I can. And obviously I can't wait to see the boyfriend... He's been so paitently waiting for me to return. My first plan when I get back? Using my amazing yongpyong + Alpensia ski pass that the boyfriend fought so hard for meto get when they announced the special edition pass when he olympics were anounced last summer. See you all soon in 대한민국

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Whirlwind tour of Tbilisi

 Samtavro Church in Mtskheta

After my first bus ride to from Tbilisi to my city I swore I wouldn’t go back again until it was time to go back to America. Six torturous hours in an uncomfortable bus with poor ventilation made me think that there was nothing to see in Tbilisi that was worth doing that again. But since then of course, I have found better modes of transport and I’ve found myself in transit in Tbilisi 3 or 4 times since the beginning of November. While I’ve come to know the bus stations quite well because I’m always going from here to there passing through Tbilisi, I hadn’t gotten a chance to explore the city since my first week in Georgia during our orientation (and even then, I only got out into the city a few times for just a few hours).  Finally this weekend a chance to really see the city came up, my best travel mate was leaving for America. I spent the day with her and another friend exploring the city, got to say my goodbyes on Saturday night, then had one more day on Sunday to see even more. Taking night trains there and back maximized our time so we had two full days to explore.

First stop was actually to head out of Tbilisi, to the neighboring town of Mtskheta, the old capital of Georiga. Now it’s just a small pleasant city with lots of important churches. We didn’t have time to get into the mountains to find the most famous churches and monasteries, but we got to see two major sights in town, Samtavro church and Svetitskhoveli Cathedral.

 Svetitskhoveli Cathedral in Mtskheta

Svetitskhoveli Cathedral was the most important cathedral in Georgia during medieval times and several kings and church patriarchs have been buried here. Beautiful, original murals in here date back to the 17th century.

Murals in Svetitskhoveli Cathedral

 Murals in Svetitskhoveli Cathedral

After roaming around Mtskheta for about 2 hours hitting up these two churches and all the souvenir stands picking up Christmas presents to bring home, we headed back to Tbilisi without any problems.

 Soviet medallions at the Dry Bridge Market

From there we went back to the Dry Bridge Market, the first place I discovered by accident in Tbilisi back after I first arrived. We all did a little shopping here, there are so many great things to buy here.

 Old photos at the Dry Bridge Market

Next it was time for lunch. Unfortunately, in Georgia, it can be hard to find a big variety of cheap eats. Generally we wind up eating some form of Khachapuri (bread with cheese) or Lobiani (bread with beans) because these are the cheapest. The selection of Khachapuris and Lobianis depend on the city and the restaurant, but here we found something we’d never tried before, Khachapuri with boiled egg inside. We were happy with the results and three of these plus three teas came to a grand total of 10 Lari ($7 USD). 

 Khachapuri filled with cheese and boiled eggs

From there it was on to Sameba, the biggest and newest cathedral in Georgia. Construction finished in just 2004, it is absolutely massive and can be spotted from afar from most places in the city. While this church is quite impressive to look at from the outside, inside it lacks the charm of the older churches and their beautiful old murals. Walls inside are mostly bare except for the various icons hanging on the walls. 

 Me at Sameba Cathedral

 After that, we spent some time with some friends of friends and then headed off for dinner. I hoped to find a place that had Georgian dancing for my buddy’s last night in Georgia, but we were unsuccessful. But, we did wind up with a nice (expensive) meal of Khinkali (Georgian dumplings) with salad and cheese in a fancy restaurant on the outskirts of town.

The next morning we leisurely got up and out of our hostel and headed to Narikala fortress. It was fun to climb the ruins of the fortress up to the top for the spectacular, bird’s eye view of the city. 

 Church in Narikala Fortress

 View from Narikala Fortress

 Side street near Didube Station

From there we headed to the market near Didube station to buy some Chorchkhela (grape and nut thing that is hard to understand until you see and taste it) for gifts. The market is fun to walk through, there’s lots to see, it’s not a touristy place at all. It really shocked some friends of mine who aren’t used to seeing markets where they come from. I’m used to it from living in Hwanghak-dong in Seoul.

 In the market at Didube Station

 Small, Medium, Large and Titanic!

Dinner was something I’ve been wanting to eat for a month. Adjaruli Khachapuri, which I personally like to call "boat Khajapuri". Traditionally it is served with cheese, egg and butter, but we tried another variation too, filled with cheese and vegetables. Really, this is the ‘small’ size for 6.80 Lari, but I think this could easily fill two hungry people. I don’t want to think how big the  ‘medium’, ‘large’ and ‘Titanic’ sizes would be…

 The expensive sulfur baths, from outside

Last stop for the night was the sulfur baths. I love going to the jjimjilbangs in Korea and I was hoping for a similar experience. There were two options. Paying (relatively) lots of money for a private bath, or going to the public bath for 2 lari. Just like in Korea you must take off all your clothes to go in, but unlike Korea, there's no baths in this bathhouse, just showers and a sauna (as far as I could find at least...)

 The cheap sulfur baths

After this, we were finished and we headed back to the train station to go back to our city. But, Tbilisi is a great place to wonder around and I look forward to my next chance to wander the city streets.

Monday, December 19, 2011

Pros and Cons of being a TLG (Teach and Learn Georgia) Teacher

 I hope I’ve made some of my readers think about coming to Georgia to participate in the Teach and Learn with Georgia volunteer program. I want to highlight some of the good and bad points of the program and of living here for those who are considering coming.


Program open to all nationalities: Most English teaching positions only consider native speakers, but Georgia wants as many teachers as possible and will accept any fluent speaker of English. This is a great opportunity for people to experience another culture and perhaps improve or practice their English at the same time. Most participants are from English speaking countries, but in our orientation group there was also someone from the Chech Republic and from Poland.

Airfare included: Unlike many volunteer positions, this one includes lots of benefits, one of which is round trip airfare. Not only do they offer round trip airfare, but if you sign on for two semesters, you’ll even get a round trip airfare to your home, or to anywhere of equal or lesser value for the winter or summer vacation. The only unfortunate point is that you can’t choose your flight schedule or route (though you can make requests, but they don’t have to honor them). You must fly from Tbiilsi and they make the bookings, you can’t book your own and get reimbursed which is what I usually do when I go to Korea and back so that I can choose the airline and schedule that I like.

Health insurance included: Health insurance is included in the program at no cost. Seeing the doctor is covered 100% and prescriptions are covered 50%. Although, I hear most doctors are pretty bad, but I had good luck personally here.

“Stipend” provided: Volunteers get a “living stipend” of 500 Lari  (about $300 USD) per month after taxes. I use quotation marks though because this is 200 Lari per month higher than the local teachers. It is quite easy to live off this small amount. If you don’t travel much or make long distance phone calls on your cell phone, you could even save a little money. Because I travel every weekend, I’ve found myself with close to a 0 balance in my bank account at the end of the month, though.

Low cost of living: This goes along with the above point, but living and traveling in Georgia is very inexpensive. A six hour marshutka (minibus) ride from my city to the capital city is 15 lari ($10 USD), or I can pay the same amount for the 8 hour night train and get a bed with sheets, blanket and pillow in a 2 person room. If you’re on a budget, you can take the 4th class in the night train for just 5.50 Lari ($3 USD) you can get a bed with no blankets or pillow in another section of the train. A loaf of bread is 0.60 tetri (0.20 USD), a kilo of clementines is 1 lari ($0.65 USD), a cup of tea in a local café is 1 Lari ($0.65 USD),  a ride on the metro in Tbilisi is a fixed rate of 0.50 tetri ($0.30 USD), and a night at a hostel is usually between 15-25 lari ($10-$18 USD). This makes Georgia a very affordable place to visit or live, even on a very low salary. 

24-hour support: If you ever have a problem, whether it be a translation issue, school issue, health issue or personal issue, you can call the TLG hotline, regional representatives or the health insurance company who all speak fluent English and can help you with your problem.


Living with a host family: Although technically you have the option of getting your own apartment, on a salary of only 500 Lari per month, it would be nearly impossible to pay for your own apartment and survive on this. I’ve heard of some teachers that renew their contracts and find a roommate, but the vast majority of teachers live with a local Georgian family. I hate to say that this is a pro or a con, because it’s complicated and depends a lot on the family and the teacher.

Good points of living with a host family include a) Low rent of 100 Lari per month ($65 USD) which includes meals, utilities, etc, b) The opportunity to learn Georgian traditions, language, culture, etc, and c) A chance to integrate into Georgian society.

Bad points include a) conflicts due to cultural differences b) the need to adapt to local customs and expectations, the good and the bad c) the inability to control your surroundings d) difficulties controlling your diet e) Never understanding what’s going on around you f) Accepting your host family’s situation… no family is perfect, everyone has their problems.


Roughing it: While every home is different of course, many people here are roughing it, so to speak. No, no one is living in a shack on the side of the road like what many people may think about when you say the word “third world”, but your house may not have the modern convienences that we are used to in our home countries. Central heating is quite rare, most homes are heated by wood stoves or electric space heaters. Many homes may not have a stove or oven, just a gas burner to cook on. Many homes don’t have washing machenes, they may hand wash everything or they may have a manual “washing machine” that dates back to soviet times into which you must heat water and manually pour it in and manually drain it out. Hot water may come from a hot water heater, or hot water may come from a fire built under a tank in the bathroom. If it’s the latter, you may feel bad about asking your host father to chop you wood every time you want a shower. Most teachers here find they don’t get to shower too often. Several times a week if they are lucky, once every 2 weeks if they are unlucky. Maybe you might not have any refrigerator and all your food is stored on the table overnight. My classroom had no heater until after our first snowstorm and teaching in the cold is unpleasant for teacher and student. Maybe your electricity goes out for a few hours once or twice a month. Maybe your electricity goes out for 2 days. Transportation is not always reliable, sometimes the bus you expected to come just never shows up. Or it’s too full and won’t let you on. Or it’s too full, but it lets you on anyway. Living here is certainly an adventure. But, that’s why I came, so maybe you won’t consider it a con.

No control over placement: One of my biggest concerns coming here was the fact that I didn’t know where I would be placed. We were told 12 hours before we were shipped out to our families where we would be placed. It would be nice if you could choose to live in a village or city, choose whether you wanted to be closer to the mountains or to the sea. I guess in the end it doesn’t matter, but it would have made packing a lot easier if I had known where I would be placed. If I had known that I was going to be in a wet, rainy part of the country I would have brought some kind of rain boots and an extra umbrella. My biggest regret here is the fact that I brought no boots with me.

If anyone is interested in this program, feel free to e-mail me with your questions and concerns.smileyjkl (at) hotmail (dot) com.

To apply for this program, please go here:
To read other blogs, please see here:

Sunday, December 18, 2011

A Day in the Life of a TLG Teacher

I am a “volunteer” teacher in the country of Georgia located in the Caucuses between Russia, Turkey and Armenia. I use quotation marks around the word volunteer because we are actually paid higher than the local English teachers, our salary (living stipend, whatever you wish to call it) a whopping $300 USD per month. Local teachers make about $150 USD monthly. I am part of a government sponsored program called Teach and Learn Georgia (TLG) which places fluent English speakers of many nationalities into public school classrooms around the country to assist the Georgian teachers and provide both students and teachers the opportunity to practice their English.

I am writing this post because many of the teachers I met during our week long orientation had no idea what kind of country Georgia was nor had any idea what living in Georgia would be like. Some teachers expected to be living in a tropical country, many teachers expected to be living under western European standards, many teachers didn’t know that it was quite possible, no likely, that they may end up living in a village where they might not have things like running water, hot water, heating, air conditioning etc etc. 

Everyone here has different experiences. Some people live in modern houses in cities, others live in rural areas where they don’t even have an indoor toilet, just a squat toilet in an outhouse in the backyard. If you’re not willing to live like this for a while, than you shouldn’t consider this program. But for those who are open minded and willing to experience something completely different, than TLG is a great program to join. This is just the story of one day in my life.

I wake up to the alarm clock on my TLG supplied Nokia cell phone at 7 am. It’s still pitch black like night outside, there’s no daylight savings time here. I crawl out of bed and search around in the dark for the plug for my space heater and plug it in the only outlet in my room. I’m not allowed to leave the heater on at night, maybe for electricity costs, maybe for safety, probably for both. I crawl back into bed and hit the snooze button for the next 30-45 minutes until I can drag myself out of bed. I pull out my clothes for the day; jeans, sweater, long underwear to wear under everything plus two pairs of socks. I put it all in front of the space heater to warm up, everything feels like ice to the touch. After about a minute in front of the heater everything is warm and toasty and I can get dressed.

I go downstairs to the kitchen to start getting ready for school. I strike a match and light the gas burner on our gas canister that serves as a stove and put some tomato and bean sauce on to warm up. I plug in the hot water maker to boil water and while everything is heating I go get ready. The kitchen is cold because no one has lit the wood stove yet this morning. The bathroom is even colder with its tiled floor and cement walls. A shower is unthinkable in this cold, sitting on the toilet is like sitting on ice. Our sink is outside and I go out to brush my teeth and put my contacts. I never realized that toothpaste would get so tough to push out from the tube in the cold. At least the water is hot this morning so I can wash my hands and face in warm water.

I go back in and cut up some bread to go with my bean and tomato sauce for breakfast. I pour my hot water in my cup and make tea. I hold the cup in my hands to make me feel a little warmer.

I leave the house and go to wait at the bus stop for 9:30 when my co-teacher’s husband will come to pick me up to go to school. The marshutka (the van used for public transportation) only runs to the village once every two hours and since we don’t teach until second period today we get a ride rather than getting to school for first period and sitting around doing nothing (lesson planning is not really something teachers in my school spend much time doing). As usual, they are late and I stand around in the cold for 20 minutes waiting for them to come. We show up to school 5 minutes after second period has begun and my co-teacher scolds our students for playing in the hallway rather than sitting in the classroom waiting for us.

We start class, my co-teacher asks the students what page we’re on, and since she doesn’t have her own copy of the text book, she takes one of the student’s copies. Two out of the seven children in this class have no text book, well, make that three now that the teacher has taken another book from them. We put them in pairs so that they share books.

These children are in the 6th grade and, though only one of the seven students can actually read, our principal decided that they should study from the English World 3 textbook, a book that focuses hard on reading, assuming that students know past tense and a heap of vocabulary. These kids can’t answer simple questions like “how is the weather?” or “how old are you?”, heck, some of them can’t answer “how are you?” properly. Now three months into school we’re still in the “review” chapter in the beginning of the book trying desperately to enforce the basics. Trying to teach them past tense when they don’t understand present tense. I’m getting frustrated and feeling hopeless with these students. We’ve been having such good progress with the younger grades, but these kids are too far behind.

When I first came, I thought that working in a village would be better, easier to teach since there are small classes. Only 100 students are in the whole school, grades 1-12. But, I’m realizing more and more each day how big of a disadvantage these students are at. Many of them do no homework. Maybe their parents don’t care, or maybe their parents are unable to help, especially with English. As an ex-soviet country, the majority of people over thirty have only studied Russian as a second language, not English, and may not even know the English alphabet to help their children. Children who don’t get a good grasp their first year of the basics fall behind quickly as the material gets increasingly difficult every year. There’s no such thing as leveled classes or repeating grades in this school. Often children in the cities have better educated parents or can afford private tutors or English academies for their children, but not the children in the villages whose parents may not have stable incomes to pay for such luxuries. Many students go to school without books, even, because families may not have money to buy them.

The class ends when someone rings the bell. Yes, we have an actual bell and someone must actually ring it. We have a ten minute break where we warm up around the wood stove. 45 minutes of teaching in a classroom with no heat and my hands have started to go a bit numb. We got a tiny space heater for our classroom last week, finally, but today there is no electricity, so we don’t even have that. Even when we have it, it doesn’t really do much unless you happen to be standing right next to it. Our only plug is near the door and most of the hot air goes out our broken door anyway.

The bell rings and we go down to the first grade classroom. They have a wood stove here and I’m actually able to take off my jacket while I teach. These kids are the sweetest, most well behaved students. They are slowly catching on to everything. A lot of them have learned the alphabet and now we’re starting phonics with them. I think this class will able to go far with English if they keep doing what they’re doing now.

I leave this class feeling a little better about life and now it’s time for a break. We head to the “cafeteria”. It’s not really a cafeteria, it’s a room with a table and a few chairs where the teachers take their breaks. There are no meals offered at school. Students theoretically eat lunch when they go home from school at the end of the day (which varies depending on the grade, but is somewhere between 1:30-3:30). There is a small “café”, though where students can buy snacks. Nothing nutritious, mostly cakes, cookies, and a Georgian favorite, sunflower seeds. Teachers usually drink tea or coffee, water is stored in plastic jugs which are filled and brought to school every day. There is no running water in the school.

Now we go to teach the 11th graders. We look all around, but they are no where to be found. Finally we spot one of them. “Come to class!” “No, teacher, we have chemistry now!”. Apparently someone had changed the schedule without informing us. We sit around the teacher’s room wood stove and wait until the next period. My co-teacher disappears for a while. When the bell rings, I find the 11th grade students, well, three of them at least, but my co-teacher is nowhere in sight. I call her and she tells me to start class without her, she’ll be back in 5 minutes. When I ask the three students who have showed up where the rest of the students are, they inform me that the rest have already gone home.

We start class. Again, we have no teacher’s book, but with only three students (miraculously all of which have books) I am able to look over their shoulder as they read their lesson. These are good students who try hard, but their English book is way too difficult for them. They read the whole lesson without understanding much and are unable to answer any of the questions in the book. I go over all the “new” vocabulary from the lesson, but there are too many other words from the text that they don’t understand that they are still unable to answer the questions in the book. I assign the work we couldn’t do in class for homework, but I know they won’t do it. My co-teacher, by the way, never showed up for class. And she’s the good co-teacher.

After school I run an English club for the older students. This week we are playing the board game Life, which I borrowed for the week from the American Corner in town. The kids love it, but they don’t use much English to play the game. One student who speaks English well translates everything for the rest of them.

After class I go to catch the marshutka back into the city. Usually I rush out to catch it at 3:30, but it never shows up until 4:00. Today I get out of our English club at 3:40 but when I get to the marshutka stop, the students inform me that it has already left. Fortunately, I am informed that if I stop a passing taxi from here heading back to town it is only 50 tetri (0.30 USD) so some other teachers and I hop in a cab and head back to town.

Back in town I head over to my favorite internet café. While it’s possible to get a USB modem for a laptop here, the device is expensive and I didn’t feel like spending three day’s pay on a device I can only use for 2 months. The internet café charges just 1 lari per hour (0.75 USD) so it’s cheaper for me to go there several times a week rather than getting internet for my laptop.

After making my skype calls to the Boyfriend and checking e-mail and facebook I head back home, trying to be home before dark. While it’s not really dangerous to walk around after dark, people tend not to do it unless they have to, and so I try to do the same. It’s kind of lonely walking home after dark, even at just 7:00.

I get home and my host mother points to the pot of tomato and bean sauce and asks me “sachmeli?” Food? This is how we communicate since my Georgian isn’t so great still. I scoop up some sauce on my plate and eat it with bread. For dessert we have homemade fruit preserves. This is a treat, my host mother doesn’t pull these out often.

After that I pull out my book and sit in front of the wood stove trying to keep warm. It’s hard to read with the cacophony of noise around me. Phones constantly ringing, the two children arguing with their mother about their homework, lots of really loud conversations because my family loves to talk and talk and talk. I’m used to all this now and I can usually read my book over the din. This past week, though, my host mother’s brother and his wife and their 3 week old baby have moved into our house (for reasons that have never been explained to me, they just appeared one day and never left) and this has added to the din. The baby is generally very, very good and hardly makes a fuss, but when she does start to cry, the mother has the most obnoxious song to calm the baby down that goes something like “Nyaaaaa, nya nya nyaaaaa, nyanyanyanyanyaaaaaaa, nyaaaaaaaa”. After my ears can’t take the abuse any longer I retreat to my room where I huddle in front of the heater with my book until it’s time to sleep.

I go back downstairs and my host parents have figured out that I ran away from the cacophony and laugh that I have returned again now that things have calmed down. I go out again to the sink outside to brush my teeth and take out my contacts, thinking to myself that I should have put on a jacket before stepping outside. Finally I’m ready for bed to recharge for a new day. I slip into my ice cold sheets and wait to warm up and fall asleep.

 * update* the weather has been much better lately, around 10˚C every day. November was an unusually cold month. December is more seasonable. I expect that January and February should bring back November's cold weather again.

Saturday, December 17, 2011

Gori Stalin Cult

 Small statue of Stalin in front of the museum. The large statue in town was removed in 2010

Gori is Stalin’s hometown and is considered something of a local hero. We thought we’d check it out for a few hours on Saturday for the next chapter in our weekend travel adventures.

Stalin Wine, 35 Lari (about $20 USD)

The museum dedicated to Stalin is hard to miss, it’s pretty much the biggest building and certainly the most attractive building in the city as far as we could see. It’s found at the end of Stalin Avenue and it’s got Stalin’s old house and train out front. We got there before opening, but they let us wait in the lobby until it opened at 10am. Though the building is huge, there’s really not a lot to see. Old photos with little explanation in any language (And certainly no English, fortunately I had a Russian speaker with me to translate the signage in Russian), some books published by Stalin, some paintings and portraits of the Communist leader, some things that had once been in his possession.

Stalin's death mask

Outside you can view his house and part of his personal train in which he used to travel around the country with his confidants.

Stalin's house. This is the only room open to the public.

All in all, the museum is quite overrated and overpriced at 10 Lari ($7 USD) for entrance to the museum and 5 Lari ($3 USD) for entrance into the house (of which you can only view one room from the outside) and the train. To put that in comparison, you can travel 6 hours by bus from my city to the capital for the same price, or first class by train with a private room with a bed for that same price. (That generally is how I decide how good a price is in this country… but judging how far I could travel on that same amount of money….). But, perhaps this might be the only chance in your life you can see a museum dedicated to preserving the legacy of one of the world’s most terrible leaders.

Stalin's personal train (well, part of it anyway)

While in Gori, we also had hoped to visit Upliske, a cave city located in the mountains nearby the city, but we weren’t able to find a marshutka, and with the weather being bitterly cold we decided to head back to Tbilisi after just 4 hours in Gori.

Friday, December 16, 2011

School Excursion

Written 11/28/2011

I was invited on my host family’s school field trip to see a cave near Kutaisi. I had nothing better to do on this rainy weekend so I went along for the ride. While it was raining in my city, by the time we had gotten to Kutaisi, it had turned to snow. This wasn’t a big problem, or so we thought, until we were headed up the mountains outside of Kutaisi and then I started to get a little more worried. No one else seemed concerned though, and all the moms and teachers were throwing down shots of tcha-tcha (Georgian vodka) as we went along.

The bus handled the switchbacks up the mountain well for a while until things started to get steeper. Finally there was one turn where the bus couldn’t turn and get the momentum to go up the hill at the same time. The bus stopped, and then started sliding, not rolling, backwards down the hill. It wasn’t long, maybe only for one or two seconds, but those two seconds as we slid backwards, frighteningly close to the ditch on the side of the road (but fortunately not towards the drop off the mountain on the other side of the road) seriously frightened me and I wanted off the bus. But the driver decided to give it another go. And the same thing happened. We went up, up, up, and slid back down.

After this, the driver got everyone off the bus and he tried again unsuccessfully to get up the hill. There was no other choice but to back the bus down the hill until there was a place for the bus to turn around. We on the other hand were about 30 students and another 30 adults who had been dropped off of a bus in the middle of a snowstorm. And kids from a city that sees very little snow. So, of course the inevitable happened. A giant snowball fight where both kids and teachers and students were all joining in. I was probably the only one trying to stay out of the melee, my sneakers already soaked through after 2 minutes of walking through the wet snow. 

Bus backing down the hill while students and teacher engage in a snowball fight

We had to walk about 10 minutes (probably would have been 5 minutes if it hadn’t been for the snowball fight) down the hill until the bus was able to turn around and get us out. So we changed our plans and headed to a different cave. One that didn’t involve climbing any mountains.

Perhaps it was fate that this happened because as we started our tour, someone mentioned that I was from America, and it just so happened that another worker who was off duty but just going into the cave to take some photos was the official English translator at the caves and he gave me my own personal tour while the rest of the students had their tour in Georgian.

The cave, as you can see, was beautiful. The colors around the cave come from different minerals. White from limestone, orange from clay and black from magnesium. My guide was quick to point out all the formations that looked like other things. “This one looks like a monk!” “This one looks like Simba from the Lion King!” “Here’s an elephant!”. It was quite entertaining. 

After this we went to a house in the area where every parent on the trip brought out a huge amount of food. There actually wasn’t a whole lot of variety. Everyone brought 2-3 loaves of khajapuri, then there were several boxes of cold cooked vegetables, several boxes of cold chicken, and about 3 chocolate cakes. Bottles of soda, mineral water (Georgia’s #1 export), “lemonade” (which is strangely pear flavored), and of course wine and vodka for the adult folks were also scattered about the table. After stuffing ourselves silly we warmed up and dried our wet clothes in front of the wood stove inside the house, then headed back to the bus and back home. Though the day started out a bit scarily with the snow, all in all it was a pretty good trip. 

Typical Georgian feast

Bonus: A chance to experience a bus ride with a bus full of Georgian children

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Day 3 in Armenia: Everything I didn’t see on day 1 and day 2

Well, Yerevan isn’t such a big city that you could spend a long time here as a tourist. I decided to hit all the rest of the sights on the tourist scope on day 3 here, my last day, and I was pretty much able to do that and more.

 Entrance to the Echmiadzin Cathedral Compound

First thing in the morning I decided to take a trip out of Yerevan to the closest neighboring city, Echimadzin which also happens to be the location the Armenian Church’s Catholicos, The Vatican of Armenia, so to speak.

The journey there was the first challenge. The couchsurfers told me where to find the marshutka to Echimadzin but when I arrived there, there was no marshutka to be found. Some men asked me if I was headed to Echmiadzin and then pointed to an unmarked car and told me that the price was just 300 drams ($1.00). This seemed a little sketchy, but then an old woman hopped in. I asked her if she was going to Echimiadzin and she said yes. So, I hopped in and hoped for the best. The car zoomed along the highway and I was dropped in front of a very large cylindrical shaped building with a cross on top. It looked promising, so I headed through the gates and into the complex.

I had high hopes for this place, but I am sorry to say that there isn’t a whole lot to see here for a typical tourist like me. The main church (and main tourist attraction) is Echimadzin, the first Cathedral of the Armenian Church. I found it right away, but due to a lack of signage, I didn’t realize that I had found it. I was expecting a really large, impressive church, but found just an average sized church here with not a lot to see inside. 

Priest walking towards Echmiadzin


Because I didn’t know I had found the church, I continued to search for another hour looking for the cathedral that I had already, unknowingly, found. In the process I found another church, the St. Gayane Monastary, dedicated to a woman martyred in the 3rd century. 

 St. Gayane Monastary

I eventually realized that I had found the church of Ezchimadzin and then headed back to Yerevan. It was more challenging to get back because there were so many people trying to get to Yerevan at that time, so early in the morning. People waited in an unorganized group and whenever a car showed up (usually one about every 5 minutes) everyone would jostle to get into the car first. I wound up waiting about 30 minutes trying to get into the cars until finally a minivan showed up and I was actually able to get myself in position to get in before the other people waiting. 

 Blue Mosque

The minivan serendipitously dropped me off in front of the Blue Mosque, which was the next place I wanted to see. The actual mosque appeared to be closed but I walked around the grounds wich were nice, and probably much nicer in summer.

 Inside the market with lots of dried fruit products

Across the street from the mosque is the market. When the couchsurfers described this market, I imagined a very large complex, but it was rather small and about half the stalls seemed geared towards tourists. But, I was able to pick up some preserved fruit for my host family and co-teachers back in Georgia. Was probably over charged for them, but I guess that’s to be expected at a place like this. 

From there I took the long way to get to the Armenian Genocide Museum/Memorial. I walked through some interesting neighborhoods in the process. 

 Old neighborhood
To get to the Genocide Museum, I looked at the map and decided to follow the roads illustrated on the map. I climbed up the stairs to the sports complex, and then followed the road down a big hill. Then I found at the bottom I needed to climb back up the hill on a different road to get to the Genocide Museum. I was quite exhausted by the time I arrived at the Genocide Museum, I had been walking since 8 am that morning and by now it was about 2 pm. I walked all around and found myself at the eternal flame, but could not find the entrance into the museum. Finally, as I walked to see some pine trees planted in remembrance of the genocide, I found a staircase leading downstairs and into the museum. As I walked in, a woman told me that the museum was closed because there was no electricity. I was feeling quite depressed now after walking so far to get there only to find it closed, and it didn't help that as I walked to the other side of the pine trees I discovered that I could have cut across a path that connected the sports center and the museum that would have cut 30 minutes and a lot of pain out of my arrival here. 

Sports Complex

Eternal flame at Genocide Memorial

I headed back, cutting through the short cut through the sports complex and headed back toward a restaurant I had passed on my way there. They had the barbeque meat which I had been spying around town and I ordered myself barbeque chicken, which I didn’t know was actually to be put on a sandwich of lavash bread (thin traditional Armenian bread), so I ordered one Khajapuri (cheese bread) to go with it and a small bottle of Fanta. When I asked for the check, I thought there had been some mistake. The cheese bread, barbeque chicken wrap and the soda had come to just 900 drams ($3.00 USD). I told them there was some mistake, but apparently the chicken was only 600 drams ($2.00) and the others had been just 150 drams each. I left there in higher spirits and rested feet and jumped on the metro and headed to my next spot to check out. 

 Barbeque Chicken lunch :-)

I headed to __________ a new church built in ______ . It’s quite big and impressive from the outside. Inside it reminds me a lot of a modern Catholic church. It’s unusual to see so many pews in Georgian and Armenian churches. People visit to pray, but there aren’t services held in the same way we might think of a service in a Catholic or Protestant church. I happened to stumble across a wedding going on here, on a Tuesday afternoon, but just as in Georgia, the wedding proceeds amongst the rest of the church traffic without the pomp and ceremony one might expect in the Catholic Church. 

 Candy in the market near the church

 Nuts for sale in the market near the church

The last stop on my itinerary was the Cascades, a large staircase that gives the best view of the city from the top. I headed up at sunset and was startled to see Mt. Ararat in the distance, looking much bigger that I could have possibly imagined. I stayed until after the sun set, taking photos, then moved on to a café with wifi where I spent the next few hours until I could meet my couchsurfer. 

Unmistakable Botero statue at the bottom of the Cascades

Night view from the Cascades. Opera house and Mt. Ararat in the baground. 

 Appreciating the view of Mt. Ararat from atop the Cascades

 Sunset from the Cascades

We went out for my last meal in Armenia to a new chocolate café that had recently opened. We had some delicious salads with hot chocolate which was really just molten chocolate. Then for desert, I had a lovely apple pie swimming in chocolate sauce. A perfect ending to my trip. 

 Apple pie with chocolate sauce

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Day 2 in Armenia: Temples, Churches and Fortresses

For my second full day in Armenia, I decided to take a day trip out of the city to visit the must sees of Armenia (according to TripAdvisor), Garni and Geghrard. I was planning on going alone, but one of my couchsurfing hosts happened to have the day off and I was lucky enough to have my own personal local guide for the day.

And boy was that a good thing, because just getting to the marshutka station to find the marshutka out of the city would have taken me all day I think. But, with my host, we got on the local marshutka, got off and walked to the intercity marshutka station, then walked into a side lot and found the marshutka heading in the right direction. We were lucky too that we only had to wait 5 minutes before the marshutka took off, as the marshutkas wait until they are full until they take off.

First stop was Garni Temple, a Zorostrian temple built in a Greco-Roman style. There's a lot of history at this sight but the temple is the most visible. This was the site of a fortress, summer palace and there are baths that are still visible with their original mosaics still visible on the floors. The view around Garni was spectacular, snowy mountains in the distance, railroad running through the gorge below and quaint village houses spotting the landscape. Garni is certainly worth stopping to visit, though it probably only requires about 30 minutes to see everything, even less if you don't stop to read the information placards.

From Garni, it’s 7 km to Geghrard. We hopped on the next marshutka and took it as far as it would take us, which was only another 2 km or so. From there we hitched a ride with a passing car another 3 km or so, which left us with another 2 km of walking the rest of the way to Gehrard. But, the walk was pleasant and while there was snow all around and the sky looked threatening, the precipitation held off and we were able to walk the rest of the way to Geghrard peacefully.

Geghrard is a monastery built into the side of a mountain. The monastery dates back to the 4th century, although the main chapel was built in 1215. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. 

The church is absolutely fantastic, by far my favorite sight in Armenia. The whole church was carved out of the rock. The lighting inside comes mainly from natural light and candle light. This makes for some dark spots where it is nearly impossible to see, but this adds to the mystery of the place. 

If you climb up the steps, you can find yourself in a second room from which you can look down into the first church from a hole in the wall. This room has amazing acoustics and apparently many singers come here to perform. The  monastery used to be home to a music school as well, many years ago. When I found this little fact on the information plaque, my host offered to perform a chant for me, and it really sounded amazing in there. I wish I could have captured it on video.

Worn down stairs

 Armenian sweet bread called Gata with "Armenia" written in the Armenian alphabet

 From here, we joined up with two other travelers heading in the same direction and split a taxi for 500 drams ($1.75 USD) each back to Garni, from where we caught the marshutka back to Yerevan. From here it was another 45 minute marshutka through the city and back to our neighborhood of Erebuni. 

There was still a little daylight left to be had and so I decided to make one more stop, this time alone, to see Erebuni Fortress, a 20 minute walk from my couchsurfer’s house. 

I thought I had arrived too late, the gate was locked and I couldn't see any visitors around. I was turning around to leave when a security guard asked me “Can I help you?”  Apparently the fortress was still open and he opened the gate and took the entrance fee (1000 drams, $3.25 USD).

Erebuni Fortress

View of the neighborhoods around Erebuni Fortress, from above

 I was the only visitor in the whole place and my only company was a dog that took a liking to me and followed me all around. This was the location of an ancient citadel. The location, high on a hill, was strategically very good. You can see for miles in every direction from the top. The day I went it was not clear enough to see Mt. Ararat in the distance, but I could see closer mountains and I had a wonderful view of the city.

After this I headed back to the couchsurfer’s home for dinner and a relaxing evening at the house.