Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Mini America

Instead of traveling far this weekend, in an attempt to save some money yet remain to be the social butterflies the four of us have seemed to become this semester, we drove a mere 20 km to Kutaisi to camp out at our friend Chase's house.  And when I say camp out, I mean this in a pretty literal sense.  Chase, a fullbrighter from South Carolina, has somewhat created a Mini-America with his centrally located, 2 bedroom apartment that he has all to his very own self.  The girls and I have taken full advantage of this apartment and have enjoyed many late night parties and relaxing lazy days at his place.  Chase is also very into couchsurfing, which if you've read my blog before, you know that we are very pro-couchsurfing.  This past weekend we met 2 German boys, 2 Swiss girls, 2 Italians and some fellow Americans.  As you can imagine, the place was pretty crowded and we all take the attitude of grabbing a blanket, your jacket as a pillow and attempt to crawl into a bed or find a spot on the floor! Some were TLGers that just happened to be traveling and looking for a place to crash, some backpackers, and even some who had been living out of their car for the past month as they traveled from Germany, through Turkey and now through Georgia.  It's amazing to meet everyone, hear their stories and hear about their lives.  I love that anytime we meet someone couchsurfing, it's a guarantee that we will have two things in common, a love for traveling and a sense of adventure.  It makes for lots to talk about! 

Anyway, back to the weekend.  As entertaining as we all for each other, I think we found the most entertainment in a new addition to our volunteer/couchsurfing clan.  An adorable puppy cleverly named Karl Barx.  When we showed up on Friday, Chase surprised us with Karl and he told us the story of how he found him, approached him and picked him up (while he was all alone) off the street and brought him home.  Of course, I was thinking to myself: Chase, you're crazy! You don't know where this dog has been, he's not at all potty trained, he's going to need lot of attention and what are you going to do with him when you leave??? But all those thoughts left when we all saw how sweet, adorable and happy was.  I'll admit it, I'm not a huge dog person, but Karl Barx is just the cutest puppy EVER! 

So, we spent lots of time playing games, chatting, and cooking various forms of eggs (because it's just so cheap and easy).  We also spent lots of time sitting in the sun in the park and throwing a nerf football around that Taylor happened to bring all the way from Canada.  See what I mean about creating a Mini-America? We spent the weekend, speaking English the ENTIRE time, with other Americans, playing football in the park, playing games, playing with a puppy, cooking cheap food and of course enjoying a few drinks together.  Do I think it's bad that we've created this Mini-America? No. I don't.  I think that after 8 months of being away, it's nice to every once in a while, spend time with others like ourselves and indulge in activities we've been doing our entire life.  I think that sometimes people look down on those who are traveling abroad and create a Mini-America because it implies that they aren't submersing themselves into the culture they're living in.  While I think this is legitimate, every once in a while, it feels great to revert into the culture we grew up in and ignore our present culture.  I love so many aspects of Georgian culture, but there's no denying that I also love the culture I grew up in, the culture I know the best, the culture that feels like home.  Being so far from home right now, I relish in the moments where I do feel home, as those moments are often few and far between.  

Monday, March 21, 2011

Just a little tidbit...

This weekend I realized how adapted I’ve become to Georgian life and how much I’ll dearly miss it when this fabulous year comes to a close.  As our Samtredia gang headed eastward to Tbilisi to greet exciting visitors from the homeland (aka Melissa’s parents) we went from needing a tour guide to realizing that we were the tour guides.  Granted there’s still a lot that I haven’t seen in Georgia, let alone Tbilisi itself, but for the first time we were responsible for telling foreigners about this place we’ve called home for the past 7 months.  (We also got to enjoy lots of fun presents sent from our families back in the states, and yummy goodies like, oreos, peanut butter and even apples from America!)

We noticed how expert we've become at Georgian life and culture when we went to a restaurant that we had gone to with some Georgians soon after we arrived back in September.  At that point, we had no idea what any of the food was, or how to eat anything, what to order, what to drink, etc.  The Georgians did all the ordering and we went along with it.  This time, we were the ones ordering everything without a menu, explaining how to eat food like kinkali and teaching our American visitors how to say cheers! (gaumarjos!) I realized how much I truly have fallen in love with Georgia, its people, food, music and culture.  I felt proud watching several Georgians rush up to do their favorite Georgian dances while the music literally blares in our ears.  I was happy to rush up myself and join them, although my Georgian dancing is not quite the same as their Georgian dancing! 

It’s interesting to have these moments where I’m aware of how much of an effect Georgia has had on me.  As I’ve passed the 3 month mark to my departure date, I’m filled with feelings of being torn between two worlds that are completely 100% different, but both allowing me to be extremely happy, and I know it’s only going to get worse as that departure date itches closer and closer.  I’m thinking of all the things I’m excited for at home while at the same time realizing how much I’m going to miss my life here.  Good thing there’s still many fun memories to be made in the next three months! A trip to Greece and Turkey, hiking in Kazbegi and Svaneti, visiting a city of Caves, beach trips to Batumi, and of course spending lots of time with my host family and my crazy students.  I have to say, I do love my life :)

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Oh the Food We Eat…

I’ve been wanting to update you a bit on what I’m actually eating over here in Georgia.  This is one blog that probably should have occurred closer to the beginning of my stay here, but better late than never, right? Georgian cuisine is quite delicious and I really do enjoy most of the foods here.  I’d say my only complaint is that I miss the variety.  When we go to restaurants, we really don’t even need to look at the menu anymore because we always eat the same thing anytime we go out! I miss food from other cultures, but that’s what Israel and Palestine was for! The break was definitely needed and I ate extremely well while we were traveling.  It’s also hard during the winter because fruits and vegetables are harder to find, and are much more expensive; which makes eating healthy quite difficult.  However, you take what you can get!

Some basic Georgian staples are:
Khatchapuri: cheese pie.  It's delicious :) 
Adjaruli Khatchapuri: A variation of khatchapuri with an egg cracked into the middle that you mix into the cheesy bread.  Also, quite delicious! 
Kinkali, meat, potato or mushroom filled dumplings. You eat them by biting a small hole, sucking out the juice and then finishing off the rest, with the exception of the top.  It's bad luck to eat the top! Kinkali as also NOT to be eaten with a fork or knife! 
Lobio: My personal favorite.  It's often served in a clay pot along with mchadi, a corn based bread.  
Mtsvade: Meat and onions on a stick!
Ojdakhuri: Meat, potatoes and onions in a delicious sauce.  
Cucumber and Tomato Salad: Our veggies for the YEAR. 
 Sokko and Sulguni (mushrooms and cheese): One of my favorite meals.  
Churchkela: Kind of tastes like a fruit roll-up with Nuts inside.  The fruity part is made from grapes so this is a huge hit in the fall during wine season.  

As for what I eat with my host family, we often rotate through about 5 meals.  Sure, there are new things thrown in there every once and a while, but a majority of the time we eat:

*Lobio (a bean soup, which I’m obsessed with)
*Hacho (boiled hen, chicken, or duck in a yummy nut sauce– yes the meat comes from our backyard. They’ve learned to turn up the volume on the TV when it comes time to prepare the meal, if you know what I mean…)
*Meat and Potato Soup
*Borsht (Veggie soup – which I LOVE, but Cici hates – so it’s usually pretty funny when Lela makes it!)
*Stuffed Cabbage – it’s delicious.
*Bread and Honey – we eat this every morning and usually every night.  Sometimes it’s bread and cold meat, or bread and cheese, or bread and peanut butter or jam, but I think you get the gist that a staple of our morning and evening meal is BREAD.

I really can’t complain about the bread during the winter though, because Lela, my amazing host mother makes our bread about every day in our wooden stove.  It was the most pleasant surprise EVER coming back from Israel.  The girls have even come over several times for hot bread and butter, which I think would really only ever happen in Georgia.  I’m used to people coming over for a cup of coffee, but not a piece of hot bread and butter! I’m becoming quite spoiled and accustomed to homemade bread…I’m not sure if I’ll be able to go back!  I’m also addicted to instant coffee.  Never thought that would happen, but I’m going with it.

I do really miss cooking and being able to make yummy meals with new recipes.  It’s just one more thing to look forward to at the end of this journey, but for now I’m trying to get several of these Georgian recipes down pat so that I can come home and share them all with you.  Get excited… 

Saturday, March 12, 2011

To Yerevan and Back

A few days ago, I returned from a 5 day trip to Armenia with several other TLGers.  Taking advantage of 2 holidays and a weekend allowed us to explore the cosmopolitan city of Yerevan and several other surrounding areas.  Our time was filled with delicious food, good conversation, many (many) churches and great people.  
Group shot with our Marshutka driver

We decided to couchsurf again and experienced all the perils that come with this particular endeavor.  Our first couchsurfer was a bit over the top, but welcomed anyone and everyone into his home.  While this meant 3 days of sleeping on the floor using our coats and sweaters as pillows and blankets, it also meant meeting tons of new Peace Corp volunteers, travelers and Armenian University students.  After growing weary of little sleep, a few of us headed to a different couch surfer who gave us a much quieter atmosphere, beds and yummy tea and jam.  One of the reasons I love couch surfing is having the ability to find all the bars where the locals hang out.  Sumit took us to this bar called Calumet where everyone was sitting on the floor on bean bags, drinking the local brew and enjoying each other's company.  I'm not sure we would have found the bar otherwise... 

There were about 7 of us ready to explore outside Yerevan so renting a Marshutka seemed to be the most cost effective decision.  Our driver, Roman, was so wonderful.  He and Michelle totally hit it off (probably because they could actually communicate with each other and carry on a conversation), but they ended up planning our next three day trips.  Roman basically drove us all over Armenia.  We visited many churches, monasteries and even a lake.  Each famous for its own old (literally) reason.  
A beautiful church, that we actually didn't go inside... nor do I remember it's name.
But look how pretty??!! 

Geghard Monastery - A beautiful monastery nestled up in the rock hills
Etchmiadzin - the mother church of Armenia - essential to the history of Christianity 
Look how big Mt. Ararat is! 
While all the churches and monasteries we visited were equally beautiful, I found myself growing tired of going from one church to straight to another.  A few of us spent one day wandering through a couple museums.  We visited the Armenian Genocide Museum and the National Art Gallery.  This was just a heavy day as the genocide museum was just pretty gruesome and nauseating to see pictures of and read about.  Its setting was beautiful with a backdrop of Mt. Ararat (in Turkey) and being able to overlook the city of Yerevan from the top of the hill.  The art museum was nice, but I'm not sure I was able to fully appreciate it after the day we had had at the previous museum.  Luckily we finished the day off on a good night with a lovely iced coffee at a nearby cafe.  It's amazing what a little caffeine can do to brighten a depressing day. 

A few of us outside Novamonk Church - its setting was absolutely breathtaking
Group shot in front of the mountain! 
We really couldn't get enough of the mountain,
we had to sit down and ponder it for a while. 
We also ate lots of delicious and yummy food, ranging from Lebanese, Chinese, American (pizza hut - don't judge - it tasted SO amazing) and of course, Armenian.  After being away for 7 months now, being in a city where there are options and variety when it comes to food is something that I'm just not willing to NOT take advantage of! While I do love Georgian food, (blog post coming soon about that...) I miss eating food from other cultures.  This was one aspect that definitely made Yerevan much more of a cosmopolitan city.  Variety in food, great night life, department stores from all over the world, and a mix of people from different cultures and backgrounds made Yerevan a city where I thoroughly enjoyed my time.  We even managed to mix a little Karaoke in there! 

Ice cream cones for 100 Dram! YES! 
While I enjoyed the trip, I found myself anxious to go back to Georgia.  I was ready to be around familiarity again, where I could read the signs and communicate with the people.  Always a good sign! So here I am, happy to be back in Georgia, where the sun is starting to shine more and more each day, leaves are beginning to sprout and layers of clothing are slowly being shed.  Spring has sprung! 

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Skiing in Bakuriani is Definitely Different than Skiing in Colorado

First of all, I simply cannot believe that it's March 1st.  Where in the world did February go?? It turned out to be quite the busy month for us girls over here in the land of Samtredia.  Between computer power cord problems and losing internet due to crazy neighbors and malfunctioning cords/satelittes/i don't even know and stopped asking... blogging just hasn't been on top of the priority list!  I did want to get a quick post out though before we take off for our Armenian adventure (more about that later). 

With all the snow in February we decided it was absolutely necessary to go skiing.  The girls and I (minus Tara due to a injured foot), along with some newfound Zestaponi and Kutaisi friends headed back to Bakuriani (where we went horse backing through the mountains last fall) for a weekend of skiing and relaxing at our favorite hotel.  Both times we've visited Bakuriani we have relished in the warm rooms (you should see our faces when we realize we can wear a t-shirt and still feel warm), delicious food and the wonderful staff.  We are so taken care of whenever we visit, so we were definitely looking forward to the weekend getaway! 

We spent most of Saturday out on the slopes, which I was pretty much giddy about.  I've been itching to ski here for a while.  The last time I went skiing was in Colorado, which was clearly a great skiing experience - it's Colorado!! Let's just say that my skiing experience was quite a bit different here in Georgia.  First of all, there isn't a central ski lodge-type area where you go and pay for your ski pass for the day, find your rentals and leave any excess clothes you may have brought with you in case it's too cold or too hot.  This did not bode well for Michelle and I because we were basically dressed for the Arctic tundra! When we reached the bottom of the mountain, we were bombarded with Georgians asking us if we wanted to rent equipment from their stand.  As we looked around, we began to slowly figure things out, we were going to have to rent ski equipment from random Georgians, leave our boots with them (pray they didn't get lost or stolen) and just wear everything we brought! Finally, with the help of an English speaking man from Tbilisi, we were strapped into our new feet for the day and told to come back when we wanted to pay and retrieve our boots.  
Some of us at the top of the mountain, ready for a great run down! 
I think the most noticeable difference between skiing in CO and GE is the way we physically get up the mountain.  In CO, everyone stands in a line, waits their turn and safely gets helped onto a chair lift.  Makes sense, right? Well, in GE, everyone is crowding around the tiny little opening to get to the lift, there are ski's everywhere, people pushing, some falling over, etc. Then, rather than ride in a chair up the mountain, a man hands you a pole, with a circular piece of wood on the bottom,  that's revolving around similarly to a normal chair lift, and you quickly stick it between your legs and hold on for dear life as it drags you up the mountain! I was definitely a bit nervous and managed to only squeak out a small yelp, rather than a gut-renching scream as I struggled to maintain my balance and hold on for dear life.  But after a few times up, and after only one small fall (in which I managed to also wipe out a poor little 6 year old trying to make it up the lift as well) I'd consider myself a pro at the scary ski lift! 

The day was beautiful though, the view from the top was stunning and I loved the feeling of rushing down the mountains.  While I wished the hills would have been longer, I managed to challenge myself with some ski jumps and am proud to say I didn't fall once during the whole day!! 
Beautiful, right? 
Our evenings were spent drinking wine and playing cards, possibly belting a rendition of Elephant Love Medley with my girls and again, eating delicious food.  I really do love my life here.  I certainly can't complain!! 

As if life doesn't get any better though, the same group of us that went to Bakuriani is heading to Armenia tomorrow for a mini vacation.  We happened to have 2 national holidays (Mother's day and Women's day - yes they are holidays where kids don't have to go to school...Georgia LOVES women!!) so we're taking a couple days off of school and heading to Yerevan! We're couch surfing again and are really looking forward to staying with him! I'll be sure to post pictures when we return! Here's to a great trip!!