Monday, July 22, 2013

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Out of the Village

Well...what can I say? I travelled 9,000 kilometers, I spent four months, that’s 123 days or 2952 hours in The Republic of Georgia.
            Georgia is perhaps the most interesting country that I have ever had the opportunity to visit. It is a country of contrast, a country of duplicity, and one of contradiction.
            I’ve spent the last few days on the cobbled streets of Tbilisi with its clean and stylish middle class. Young couples sneak kisses under Christmas-lighted trees. Dignified older men and women laugh, it trickles into your ears as they vanish around the corners of trendy restaurants, leaving nothing but a cloud of expensive perfume in your nose.
            I’ve spent the better part of my time in the village, with the lovely, semi-nomadic farmer class, scraping sustenance out of the generous earth with muddied fingers, they smile with open hearts and offer to you everything that they own, which never seems to be enough to them, but always seems too much for you.
            Georgia is a love story, we just don’t know how it’s going to end. Sought after, courted by superpowers, scorned, abandoned, and revered, Georgia now sits on a precipice between Russia and the U.S. with a pro-Russian Prime Minister beginning his first term and a pro-American President ending his last. Do the people want us here? Do they want to westernize, join NATO and the EU and speak English and embrace capitalism? Or do they want to go back to Russia, trickle back down into the notorious days of gangsterism and corruption when life was difficult but the choices were unbelievably easy? Unfortunately, most Georgians that I have spoken to have little sense of history, they simultaneously love the West and Russia, despite what Russia has done to them, despite what we'll do to them. Like I said, we just don’t know how it’s going to end, yet.

            My last days in the village were the easiest that I spent there because my emotions were buoyed by the prospect of finally seeing my family again, but I was torn between the thought of a Canadian Christmas and the reality of forever leaving my new family, my Georgian family.
            “I’m doing the right thing by leaving, right?”
            “Don’t worry too much about it, mate. It’s time to go home.”
            “If I stayed another week it would just be that much harder, right? If I stayed another year it would be just that much harder, right?”
            Oh Dali, Giga and Rusiko.
            Dali grew fonder of me as the fateful day approached. She was constantly jabbering at me in Kartuli, convinced that I was just being modest when I told her I wasn’t fluent yet. She grabbed me in a giant bear-hug and shook me around like a rag doll, she threatened me with a wooden spoon, and she took it as a personal affront when I lost my appetite for a few days. She almost cried when I told her “Shen aris chemi Kartveli deda”, you are my Georgian mother. She has a lovely soul.

            I was amazed by how much Rusiko opened up to me during my time in the village. When I arrived in August, she wouldn’t say a word to me, instead she would sit in the corner of the room, carefully tracking my movements with her big green eyes. By December I had to forcibly keep her away from me: “Russo, stop touching my hair” “Russo, stop going through my journal” “Russo stop trying to light my shoes on fire.” She was convinced that she could fit in my backpack and that I could sneak her into Canada, her mother was even more convinced that I could find her a “kargia Canadelli bitchi,” a nice Canadian boy. When the time came and I pulled open the drawstrings of my pack, telling Russo to hop on in, she had a sudden change of heart, and told me that she’s going to Russia instead. That didn’t stop the tears from running down her face.
            Giga was a man about it. He was uncomfortable with the prospect of me leaving, but he made me shake his hand and promise to come back one day. The kid is fifteen-years-old.

            My Canadelli Deda went on a shopping spree before I left. She bought dozens of pens, pencils, crayons, glue sticks, sheets of paper etc. I used as much of the supplies as I could during school but everything that was left I collected on a table in my room. I added to it all of my novels, some electronics and a few silly Canadian toys. When I showed the family that I was leaving them with all of this, they completely flipped out. Russiko started bouncing around, Giga’s smile could have melted a snowman and Dali gave me a big hug. It was probably the most touching thing I have ever witnessed, thanks Canadian mom, your thoughtfulness went a long way.
            The last day of school was interesting. A few of the teachers that I had made friends with didn’t want me to leave, they truly are nice people that made me feel welcome. It was the kids that were the hard part. I gave a little speech to each class, telling them that they were wonderful students and a lot of fun. Some of them cried, some of them begged me not to go and some of them gave me a look of utter abandonment. I was crushed.

            A few of the older girls gave me love notes written in wonderfully questionable English. The gesture was immense, it must have taken them a long time to write them.
            Rusiko saw all of this and wasn’t about to be outdone. We walked home from school together and she immediately locked herself in her room while I started packing. An hour later she handed me a note that says she has two brothers, Giga and Zach. I finally lost it at that point and had to look away, convinced that I suddenly had something in my eye.

            I did not know how to feel on the morning that I left. I didn’t want to leave those two kids that had become my brother and sister, but I was and still am unbelievably excited for the next chapter in my life, wherever and whenever that occurs.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Midnight Khachapuri

            Don’t you hate it when you’re brushing your teeth out in the yard, shivering in the cold mountain air, when you accidently spit toothpaste onto the family axe? Then you have to scramble to clean it in the dark because that’s the type of thing that embarrasses you now?
            It has been a day of firsts.
            Today was my first shower in eight days and my second in twenty-three days.
            A rat keeps gaining entry into my room through a hole in the ceiling. Sometimes he brings me early Christmas presents and leaves them on the floor by my bed; a piece of chewed firewood, bits of string etc. Today was the first time he brought me a red pepper.
            Tonight was my first English lesson of the week. I tutor my host kids in the English language, everything from conversational to grammar, three times a week. The content of these lessons depends entirely on how hung-over the villagers have made me that day. Today the hangover was surprisingly mild, so I decided we should brush up on our verbs. We went over the basics like ‘carry’ ‘catch’ and ‘cut.’ When we got to ‘clean,’ Rusiko (the thirteen-year-old giggle monster that she is) informed me that she ‘cleans the house’ and that she ‘cleans her room’.
            ‘Very good, Ruso.’
            Then Giga, my fifteen-year-old Georgian prodigy, said: ‘I clean my grandmother, who is one-hundred-and-fifty-years-old.’
            ‘...that’s very good of you, Giga.’
            We moved on to ‘pick-up.’ Rusiko told me that she picks up her pencil. I told her that I pick up my telephone sometimes. Then, for some reason, I looked at Giga, dead in the eyes, and told him that I like to go to the bar and pick-up women.
            ‘Yes,’ he said, a knowing glint in his eyes, ‘I also like this process.’
            Today was the first time I heard him use the word ‘process.’
            Tonight was the first time my host-mom has made midnight khachapuri. We were sitting on the couch, watching the highlights from this week’s episode of Georgian Dancing with the Stars (somehow better than the American version) when Giga got a nosebleed. He tilted his head back to stem the small stream of blood that was dripping down to his chin, and kept stuffing the cheesy-bread into his mouth. This kid is my new hero.
            Honestly, if any wealthy readers out there want a good investment, buy this kid a plane ticket and give him a few years of university at a western school. This family lives on 300 lari a month, the equivalent of about $180 CAD, and though they live better than most in this village, I don’t see how Giga is going to afford the 3000 lari-per-year tuition to study political science at Batumi University. In the four months that I’ve been here, he has remembered every single thing that I have taught him. He has gone from no English to semi-fluent in the same amount of time that it has taken me to gain ten pounds and grow a moustache. He gets top marks at school and I don’t doubt for a moment that he could be president of Georgia one day.  
            6 days left in the village, 14 left in-country.

Thursday, November 29, 2012

It Was the Complete Opposite of Disneyland

I have to start off the post with an apology over my serious lack of entries over the past couple of weeks. Wait, what am I talking about? This is Georgia; the fact that I’m still alive after the past two weeks is apology enough.

            I sit in my living room on a broken, Soviet-era sofa. The television spits out Mexican soap operas that I travelled ten-thousand kilometers to watch. Sweetened Turkish coffee sits in my lap, the fire roars to my immediate left, and my host mom, Dali, is all sorts of up in my face.
            My sickness carried over into the weekend but I’m feeling much better now. Dali heard me coughing this morning when I was spending a few blissful moments in bed before my body hit the frigid air of my room (the product of a rat chewing a hole into the yard) and she’s on a mission to get me healthy again. She towers over me from where I sit, one hand on her hip, the other clutching a gigantic spoon filled with an insane amount of dripping honey, the remnants of the blackened hive still crushed into it.
            “Dali, I’m not putting that spoon into my mouth.”
            “Tchame, bitcho!” (Eat, boy)
            “Meh ar var bitchi, Dali. Meh var katsi” (I’m not a boy, Dali. I’m a man)
            “Oi shen, shen, shen! Tchame!” (Oh you, you, you! Eat!)
            “Dali, even if consuming that amount of honey at one time wouldn’t choke me, I’m not interested.”
            “Grippe! Grippe! Tchame!” (Sick! Sick! Eat!)
            She gives me that certain look of hers. This look tells me that her family has lived in this valley for hundreds of years. It tells me that the Persians, the Mongolians, the Turks and even the Russians couldn’t subjugate her people. It tells me that despite being a single mother in the desolate, unforgiving mountains of Adjara, she raised her two kids whilst chopping firewood and scratching potatoes out of the thin topsoil.
            “Okay Dali, momei puri da meh tchame es.” (Get me bread and I’ll eat this)
            “Kai bitcho” she says with the flash of smile as she moves away. I’m a good boy.

            My weekend started off the only way it possibly could, with a five-hour marshrutka ride out of the mountains. It was a holiday Friday, a religious day commemorating Saint Giorgi (George), the bro who killed a dragon from the back of a horse with nothing but a pointy stick. I arrived in Batumi in one piece, met up with my friends Jon from Delaware and Chris from jolly old, and we hopped right back into another marshrutka.
Just a perfect photo-op
            Our destination was Zugdidi, which translates to ‘big hill’, a medium-sized town three hours to the northwest. There we met up with fellow English teachers Derek from ‘Murica, Corey from Vancouver, Brent also from ‘Murica, Jess from Australia and Michelle from Kiwi-land. Why did I travel eight hours with a head-cold? Did I do it for some divine archeological ruins? Did I do it for a girl? Did I do it for an once-in-a-lifetime experience, never again to be replicated no matter how hard I try until my body fails me and my spirit roams the earth as a dissatisfied ghost for all of eternity? No…I did it for a cheeseburger.
            My friends and I have been in Georgia for just over three months. We all left a number of things behind and we all truly feel the absence of certain people in our day-to-day. Jon misses his girlfriend, Derek misses his boyfriend, Chris misses his mother and father, Corey misses his wife. Those people are all thousands of miles away from us, scattered about the world in small pockets of civilization and preserved in our memories like amber. We can’t do anything about that at the moment. But what we can do is put a little bit of cow between a couple slices of bread, wash it down with some beer, and feel content with the people we do have around us.
            A night of too much beer directly preceded a morning with too little water. Us boys got ourselves together and headed out for some shwarma. The Turkish treat took the brunt of the hangover, the carbonation of a soft drink took another sizeable portion of it, and the crisp autumn air took the rest. We stumbled around the town like neglected shadows, shells of the men that we were three months ago, and we had a lot of fun bullshitting; finally speaking English with really nothing at all to say.
Did I mention how far away our wives and girlfriends were?
            John, Chris and I said our goodbyes and headed for the marshrutka stand outside of the town’s dilapidated train station. We had a of couple hours to kill so we found some steps, busted out some sunflower seeds and pretzels, and enjoyed the warmth of the failing sunlight. We soon felt our bladders begin to fill, which is never a good sensation in a country with little in the way of public facilities. The train station? No, there won’t be a toilet in there. A tree? No, there are too many people around. Hold it? No, the bus journey could take up to three hours.
            Chris and I found ourselves in desperation mode. We started walking, stopped an old Russian bloke, and in broken Georgian implored him as to where we could void ourselves. He vaguely gestured and we set off, hoping against hope that he didn’t send us to a portal to hell.
            We found ourselves in front of a decrepit concrete building. Six spires reached towards the heavens from each side of a curved dome. Inside were vaulted ceilings, fecal-matter splayed at eye-level, and a suspicious red liquid pooled on the floor. A man stood behind a counter, his face completely hidden by a wooden screen. He gestured but he did not speak. I handed over forty-tetri, double the price, and had the scariest, most satisfying moment of my life.
Took us 3 hours to realize one of our group members
was an old Georgian lady
            It was not until Chris and I found ourselves back on the marshrutka that we realized we were in the presence of Beelzebub. We were shaken. It had been the complete opposite of Disneyland. Every kilometer that separated us from that place gave us a little more hope in the world; restored a little more beauty in our eyes.
            Jon hopped off the bus early, leaving Chris and I to bro-out hard in Batumi for the night. We checked into our hostel, had a much needed wash (separately), and set off into the monsoon in search of some food and some beer.
            Half-way through a pastry, hastily consumed in an entranceway to a block of flats, I realized the solution to our money woes. I remembered a lively little Georgian restaurant; we could drink 1.50 beers and eat 80-tetri kinkali, converting to about 1 dollar and 30 cents Canadian respectively.   
                 We were there for about a half hour, watching football on T.V. and talking about how truly ridiculous life is sometimes, when a rowdy table of big Georgian men invited us over. We were downing shots of vodka and eating khachapuri when I thought to ask them about their current employment situation. One man was in the coast guard, one was in the army, one was a border guard and the other was Georgian search and rescue. I jokingly said, “you are very good friends to have!” and one of them replied, “yes, very good friends,” whilst showing me a pistol under the table.
            I sought out Chris’s eyes, mimed the international signal for ‘holy shit this guy has a gun’ but it was too late. One man had Chris standing on a chair, pointing a stern finger in his face and yelling at him because Chris hesitated when asked if he loved England. We planned our escape and just before we jumped up to run out the door, one man paid our bill for us. We ran down the street, laughing about our good fortune and the day we had had. The rest of the night was a blur: I think I bought an Iranian man some fruit juice and picked his brain about politics while Chris was busy teleporting about the city.
            I have 8 days left in the village and 16 days left in-country. Pray for me.
- Zacho

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Sick as a Dzagli

The only dzagli in Georgia I wouldn't mind
getting rabies from
 To those of you who are irregularly checking the blog from both here and around the world, I'm not dead yet. I've been taken down by yet another sickness, my sixth in four months, and I have been unable to do anything other than read and cough. I tried updating this blog a few days ago but writing when you're sick is like playing solitaire when you're drunk, its lonely and you often miss the point. It's a brutal existence here when you feel like crap, I sit on the couch with a book and a cup of tea and my Georgian mother yells at me for being sick...this has gone on for four days.
        Here are the top 5 reasons, no joke, that my host mother has given me for my current illness:
1. I read too much
2. I'm on the computer too much
3. I have cold hands
4. My socks aren't thick enough
5. I went outside without my slippers on...once
   Of course, it has nothing to do with the schools communal water cup. Now before this trip I had never been around children much before, but did you know that they are always sick? They constantly cough and sneeze and drool and put everything within an arm-length in their mouths. That's all well and fine, some people back home have told me that this is completely natural, but never, ever have I ever heard of a communal water cup.
   There are perhaps 100 students in my school, plus ten or so teachers give or take. At the front of the school there is one hose jutting from a concrete slab and on top of this slab sits the cup. During each break, children of all ages come to slurp greedily from this little wooden chalice. This is either the most foolhardy, ridiculous thing that I have ever seen in my life, or it is genius in its archaicness. One child in the village gets sick, they all get sick. One child builds up the antibodies to a certain virus, so must all the rest.
  The only problem is when a fragile little Canadian comes over, touches a book or a pencil, and then accidentally sticks his finger in his mouth like a complete jackass...six times. 

Monday, November 12, 2012

Zacho Wants You to Figure Your Shit Out

What do you want out of life?
What lengths are you willing to go in order to achieve it?
            Our families are models for us, whether we want to admit that or not.
As far as I can tell, each member of my family wants something different out of life. My wonderful Mother, with her deep intellect and capacity for understanding, I think she wants to put her spirit in the right place. My rolling stone Father, who puts down countries like the rest of us put down beer bottles, I think he wants insight into the human condition. My dear Sister, tugging along a backpack full of textbooks 7 years out of college, I think she wants enlightenment.
            What am I supposed to do with that?
            I think the most compassionate thing that we can do as human beings is to accept that everybody wants something different out of their 81.4 years. I think we lose that. I think that hurts us.
            As for me, I have no idea. I guess I jump face first into new experiences and hope that something will grab me.
            Currently, it takes me four or five hours to get to civilization, depending on how drunk the marshrutka driver is (they drive faster when they’re plastered).
            That’s the equivalent of driving from Vancouver to Kelowna for wifi. That's like flying from Calgary to Montreal just to sit down when you go to the bathroom.
            Did I find whatever it was that I was looking for? Does putting the mind in seclusion open up the soul?
            I have less than five weeks left and so far, nothing yet.
            Maybe it’s an epiphany that will hit me as soon as I step off the plane and into that fresh B.C. air. Maybe I’ll find it during my next adventure. Maybe I’ll be a bitter old man, cheating another bitter old man at chess, when it will hit me like a sack of Georgian potatoes. Maybe I’ll never find it.
            I guess the point in all of this is that it’s never too late to try and figure it out. Opportunities may pass us, but we can always make new ones. We gotta love those around us, hope for a little love back, and keep on truckin’ till we figure it all out.
            Wow, introspective posts sure make me hungry, what’s for dinner?

 Maybe its khachapuri night! One of the national dishes of Georgia, its literally just bread filled with cheese. This is a North American stomach's wet dream...if only it wasn't filled with Georgian cheese...

Oooh maybe we're having khinkali! This is Georgia's other national dish: dumplings filled with spiced meat. The trick is never to eat the little nub at the end, this shows that you aren't an impoverished little girl. No complaints here.

It's still autumn and everybody knows what that means...weird white pumpkin/squash-thing season! They crack these babies open, toss them on the fire, and scoop out their warm innards by hand. Oddly enough, the only thing that Georgians don't put salt on.

What's that? You've put on 10 pounds in 3 months by eating nothing but bread and potatoes? Not getting enough protein in your diet? One of the many benefits of living with a Muslim family is that just when you think you'd strangle Ronald Mcdonald for the chance to lick the grease off of a cheeseburger wrapper, your village slaughters 15 cows in one night!

So far, this has been my favourite dish. Beef (nuggets?) fried up in an unspeakable amount of oil, accompanied by salad that I'm pretty sure host Mom stored in the cupboard for a week.

One week later...I've eaten so much beef that I think I'm starting to go blind. In this incarnation, we have stewed beef, complete will all the bones and gristle you can choke on. For garnish, we have borano! Borano is sharp, oily melted cheese, fried in even more oil and placed in front of your whilst still boiling. It's like fondue...without all of the things that make fondue delicious.

How about some grape juice to wash it all down? My family takes grapes right off of the vine and makes their own (fuck you, food hipsters) and yes...that is an inch of sugar at the bottom of the jar.

 I couldn't eat another bite. What's that? Why are you yelling at me? made me cake and Turkish coffee. Well, as an honoured guest in the land of hospitality, surely I can't decline.

- Zacho

Wednesday, November 7, 2012

Zacho Gets All Spiritual and Stuff

            I was talking to a friend of mine today, British Chris, about Dostoyevsky, a writer I both hate and admire and hate to admire. Dostoyevsky says that ‘it is not miracles that incline a realist towards the realist it is not faith that is born of miracles, but miracles of faith.’ As a realist, I tend to agree with Papa Fyodor, I mean the man was a true Russian badass: his writing got him sentenced to death, reprieved, put into a Gulag, released, and made him wealthy before he gambled it all away. So what happens when a realist is presented with something so awe-inspiring, so humbling, and so deeply spiritual that it appears as an undeniable miracle to their eyes? Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you: Vardzia.

            Perhaps it’s a place you have to see with your own eyes, but I’ve trekked to Machu Picchu and I’ve been to the Mayan temples at Chichen Itza, I’ve seen places like Stonehenge and Notre Dame de Paris and countless other sites where faith meets ingenuity and the human character triumphs...but I’ve never felt as strong of a spiritual connection to the world as I did at Vardzia. I swear it wasn’t the chacha.
            Vardzia was built sometime in the 12th century, an entire monastery built within a mountain in order to protect the monks from the weather, Mongols, Persians and Turks. The Persians and Turks ended up sacking the place, driving the monks away for a final time back in the late 16th century. The human spirit persists, however, and the monks have started coming back to live and pray in the caves.  
            I do not know what it was that really struck me about this place in particular. It was visually stunning, sometimes eerily quiet, and placed in a perfect green valley with a trickling blue river. I don’t believe it was the physical nature of the place. I think it was the fact Vardzia illustrates the lengths that people will go to protect something that they believe in; and as I’m not a religious person, the metaphor appeared even stronger to me. If we, as the present incarnation of the human race, could stand by our convictions to such an extent that we would excavate a goddamned mountain by hand to preserve them, what are we truly capable of?
            Vardzia was just one stop in a weekend full of adventures, however. It was a dear friend’s birthday, the name of whom I can’t quite recall, but we assembled in Borjomi, a little town in the Lesser Caucasus, to celebrate. We walked through a forest that was so calm and peaceful that we forgot we were in Georgia. We explored a castle, swam in a hot spring reputed for its ‘healing powers,’ and we crossed a river on a log and built a fire on the far shore. We also drank a lot of terrible Georgian wine.          
             All in all it was a terrific weekend, a much needed reprieve from the village life. I doubt I can stretch another 25 days straight here without going insane but I’ll just have to wait and see; the 10 hour round-trip out of the mountains in the most horrible form of transportation imaginable, the marshrutka, is a heavy price to pay just to stop myself from talking to the livestock. I’m going to finish off this post with some pictures of last weekend, I hope everyone that is reading this back home and around the world gets a chance to find something that gives them a little faith, even if it’s simply a little faith in humanity.

-                    - Zacho