Unfortunately, I still haven’t been able to Skype with my dad. I kept missing him on Skype, and today something happened to the webcam and Skype was temporarily out of service while he called me. I hope to be able to speak with him tomorrow.
The cultural trip last weekend was really great. We did a lot of traveling and just hanging out with friends, which was exactly what I wanted. After Georgian class and lunch Saturday, I caught a marshutka to Khashuri to meet up with the other four volunteers in my group. They had found a minivan willing to take us to Akhaltsikhe for the price of a marshutka, which was awesome—no random Georgians getting all up in my business. It was a pretty scenic, albeit scary as per usual, drive. Colton in particular was really tense because he had been on the car accident marshutka just a week prior. We randomly stopped in Borjomi, and two more people got into the minivan, which initially was awkward—but they turned out to be current volunteers (a married couple, Will and Alicia)! They were strangely nonchalant about having run into a group of trainees, but we talked to them about our permanent site placement thoughts—all anyone is thinking of these days—during the ride.
The city name means “new castle” for obvious reasons.
Colton being a statue.Photo credit: Kate Schwenk
Because they actually live in Akhaltsikhe, Will walked us to our hotel and stayed until he was sure we weren’t getting ripped off, which was very nice of him. Surprisingly, even though I got quoted the upsell/foreigner price on the phone, I told them up front that we knew how much the rooms should be and they didn’t put up a fight—so we all paid 13-15 lari each for 2 rooms for the night. Not bad. We were also able to meet up with a few G12s who were also staying in the hotel or live in Akhaltsikhe.
We then grabbed dinner with the G12s, the other group of trainees who chose Akhaltsikhe as their destination, as well as an expat friend of theirs, Irina, who is doing her PhD in Anthropology at NYU and doing some fieldwork in Georgia. We ordered around 60 khinkali, lobiani, xat’chapuri, and salad, and we had tons of leftovers (that we saved for the night). The food only ended up costing 5 lari a person, which was pretty amazing.
Irina’s apartment just happened to be across the street from our hotel, so she invited us to come over and play a game called Banana (I told my host family this and they looked very confused and said this game doesn’t exist in Georgia), that would ‘change our lives.’ It actually was a very fun card game and I hope to be able to teach others in the future! I also won, barely beating Nash out…which was nice. It was great to meet another American other than the other volunteers—I can definitely see the benefits to hanging out with a bunch of expats, but I also didn’t come to Georgia to only hang out with Americans. If I am placed in an area with a large amount of expats, I’ll have to keep that in mind. Her apartment was also absolutely gorgeous inside—fully furnished, and she even has a car in Georgia!
The fateful game of Banana. Photo credit: Kate Schwenk
After leaving Irina’s, we walked over to the castle—Akhaltsikhe literally means “New Castle” and it was actually quite recently remodeled (the city itself) a few years ago. We knew it would be closed as it was quite late at that point, but after taking photos, we decided to get a bit closer. We took a few wrong turns but ended up at its front entrance. The lone guard there told us we weren’t allowed to roam around, but told us we were allowed to because we were Americans. What a perk. We basically got to explore the castle by ourselves at night, and even climbed into a tower. The view was gorgeous and it felt like a once in a lifetime experience. I can’t even imagine how heavily guarded that castle would have been in the US, let alone how quickly that guard would’ve been fired. Because we missed the actual tours, the only thing we really know about it is that the first part of the castle was 11000 years old! We couldn’t really understand anything else the guard was telling us.
The next morning, we left for the famous cave city, Vardzia. We were going to take a marshutka there, but a cab driver called us over and said he’d take us there for 5 lari (the marshutka price) and even stop for scenic photos on the way. We were hesitant because it meant we had to squish five people into four seats, but decided it was worth the risk.
Party in the the back! Photo credit: Kate Schwenk
It was the best risk ever taken. Misha, our driver, was extremely kind, did stop at all the scenic points, and even was an extremely safe driver. He even gave us mini-tours with Kate translating (from Russian) for the rest of us.
Sights before we even reached Vardzia. Yeah, this is a beautiful country.
When we arrived at Vardzia, he told us to leave our things in his taxi and he’d wait for us while we explored. I asked how long we should take and he said as long as we wanted! So while we were out in the caves for around 3 hours, he just sat in the taxi and waited—many of us left our bags and wallets in the car, which is definitely a safety hazard, and he didn’t run off with them! What a guy.
Safely reunited! Photo credit: Kate Schwenk
The cave city itself was one of the coolest things I’ve seen. We climbed into some of the dwellings that didn’t have stairs, and Colton and Nash even got into a three-story cave. We found the church inside the cave, and some random stairs and ladders near it, so decided to explore—and found ourselves in a half hour journey on staircases inside the caves. We had no idea where we would end up at the end, but when we finally emerged, we had reached the top level of all the caves! It was such a cool experience and I’m definitely interested in seeing more cave cities in Georgia in the future. Coming down was a bit of a nightmare because of the tiny, steep steps; the number of people crammed in; and the hot, humid weather, but we survived and lived to tell the tale of how great a cultural trip it was.
Megobrebi (friends) mid-trip
I needed some help on the way up. A friendly Georgian provided. Photo credit: Kate Schwenk
Some Georgians were doing photo shoots in the field after the big finish, so we joined. Photo credit: Colton Heath.
Today our training manager, Tengo, came over to give our mid-training interviews. Lunch was at my house and so he was actually able to eat at my place and meet my host family (again). My host family speaks so often and so fondly of him that I was so glad they were able to host him. My mid-training interview went well; he asked how I felt in general and what my difficulties were, and then told me I was doing fine and to keep it up.
After class and dinner, I thought about going to sleep early, but am so glad I didn’t. I watched a few Russian cartoons on YouTube with my host brother, which I think was important for our bonding time because he is so shy, and then went into the kitchen because he was hungry and my host mom got some food for him. That sparked a 2-3 hour long conversation between my host mom and me. My host dad was on the computer for a bit, but joined in during the last hour. It was the most amount of time we’ve spend just talking in recent days, and now that I have some sort of vocabulary to build off of, we were actually able to cover really interesting topics.
For example, she told me that she knew Tengo because he was present at the first community meeting here in Gomi in which he asked who was interested in volunteers. At that meeting, she was the only person interested—so she was the first host family member to sign up. I asked why others weren’t interested, and she said that there was initially a lot of interest because they assumed the Peace Corps would pay for rent and meals; when they found out that rent/room cost wouldn’t be covered, they were no longer interested. She knows of two families who live near the vodka factory who turned in applications and then backed out when they realized this! It really got me thinking about what is really in it for these host families, hosting a stranger for 3 months without compensation for their time, but I’m sure they are thinking the same thing about me. The conversation also reinforced what I had told Tengo during my interview—I feel so lucky to have been placed with this host family, who actually wanted a volunteer not for the money or for anything else, but because they wanted me.
Apparently, a day or two before I arrived in Gomi, Rusa, our PST host family coordinator, called Teona and told her that she got a girl like she had asked for, and that I had an Asian face. She also said that I ‘didn’t like dogs or cats,’ which is more like I’m allergic to indoor pets, and clarified that they didn’t have any. Teona said that was great and I arrived!
Our conversation then moved to if Teona was going to work as a teacher (like she’d studied in college) once Nika grows up. Her plan is to work as a teacher or anything that she likes once that happens and his grandmother (Mamuka’s mother) returns. She worked in the Gomi vodka factory while she was in university in Gori, and wouldn’t mind returning there. I told her about working as an RA in university and how it meant that I didn’t have to pay for housing or food, and I think they understood the concept, which I’m really proud of.
We then talked about the price of American vs. Georgian colleges; they literally thought I was joking when I told them how expensive USC is! But I was able to explain that many students are on scholarship, financial aid, and loans; and that sometimes it takes 10-15 years to pay off all your loans to the government and banks. We also even talked about how people come to the US on a travel visa, then stay and become undocumented immigrants. I told them that it probably wasn’t a life they wanted because of how hard it was and how little money they stood to make, and they understood!
It may not seem like much, but I’m so proud of myself and my Georgian in sustaining this conversation without much “ver gavige” or “I don’t understand” from either party. I hope to have many, many more of these conversations with my host family in the future. This is exactly the type of cross-cultural awareness I wanted to participate in, and I’m very glad I asked for Georgian speakers only in my permanent site host family.