Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Road Trip: Sighnaghi and Tbilisi

Sighnaghi in Georgia - "City of Love"

The aim of TLG (Teach and Learn with Georgia) is not only to increase English comprehension in Georgia but for volunteers to experience Georgian culture firsthand - one reason we are placed with host families.  So when I was invited by the 11th grade class on a weekend excursion to Sighnaghi and Georgia's capital - Tbilisi - I  thought "what better way to experience this beautiful country than with my students?"  When I was in school, the only field trips I remember outside of band (yes, I was a band geek) were in primary school and those were usually one-day trips.  Today in America I think field trips are a thing of the past.  In Georgia, most schools take weekend excursions once a year starting in the 6th grade.  This trip was to be three days beginning Friday at midnight.  Yes, midnight.  By travelling at night, we save on lodging and can sleep on the marshutka arriving at our destination refreshed for the long day ahead.  That's the plan at least.

The evening begin with my host father and brother driving me to school at 11:30 pm.  It was Katya's 17th birthday so the trip started a little late due to the obligatory celebration.  And in Georgia, that means cake, cola, katchapuri, ghvino and lots of other Georgian goodies!  After picking up my co-teacher Lea, we started off on our way.  I scored a front seat with plenty of leg room and a great view but the downside is I did not get to watch the great spectacle that was behind me without tweaking my neck.  Imagine a disco on wheels for 8 hours and you'll get an idea of why we weren't going to sleep on this trip.  Irakli kept me company up front and the three diva's Sophie, Tamuka, and Magda provided surround sound singing along to the music.  Madloba gogos!

Disco Marshutka!
By 8:00 am we rolled through Tbilisi with another three hours to Sighnaghi and things were quiet on the marshutka as most everyone was asleep from exhaustion.  We entered the town of Sighnaghi around 11:00 am.  While I have never been there, Sighnaghi looks like you can pick it up and drop it in the Cinque Terre region of Italy and it would fit right in.  It's a beautiful town and one of the smallest in Georgia but with a rich history.  Surrounding it is the second largest wall in the world - behind the Great Wall of China - much of which still stands today.  The town is located in the Kakheti region of Georgia which is known for its rich variety of wine making Sighnaghi a wine-tasting stop-over during the harvest season.  Georgian President, Mikheil Saakashvili, recently named Sighnaghi the "City of Love" and the various guests houses and bed and breakfasts make this a great place for a romantic weekend.

Perfect weather for a lazy nap.

After unloading the marshutka and a quick lunch everyone was off to tour the town.  I needed the exercise so I made an effort to walk every street in town including the smaller side streets.  There are a few churches in the town and the group eventually ended up at one of them for some nice photos; the panoramic views were spectacular!  Making our way back to the town center we picked up a shuttle to Bodbe Monastery, 2km outside of town where St. Nino's remains are enshrined and a holy water spring is named.  St. Nino is credited with introducing Christianity to Georgia making the monastery (and spring) a major pilgrimage for many.  The hike down to the spring is a pilgrimage in itself down a steep set of stairs and then several switchbacks to the bottom of a valley.

St. Nino's Holy Spring
Upon our trek back up to the monastery we discovered our shuttle driver took off without us so we walked the 2km back to Sighnaghi where the men started preparing a mtsvadi (BBQ).  I caved-in to peer pressure and partook in some dinner time drinking of ghvino.  Don't feed the gremlins! :-) I left the cha cha (Georgian vodka) for the more seasoned drinkers.  To work off the great meal the group played tag and hide and seek until it got dark then we took an evening stroll around town which eventually led to the park for more shenanigans.  My patrone, Alex, shared my private room with me and between his friends prank calling him and the marshutka drivers in the next room I got very little sleep that night.

We were on the road to Tbilisi by 8:30 am Sunday and I slept most of the way.  At one of our break stops we managed to leave behind Shota who got off for a smoke break as we were leaving.  The freeway in the outskirts of Tbilisi has few exits so we had to drive 10km before we could turn around and head back.  He was right where we left him and in good spirits but this incident allowed for some great jokes the rest of the trip.

Sameba Cathedral
While in Tbilisi we stopped at no fewer than six churches and monasteries.  Sadly, I failed to write down all of the names (my camera has a dictation mode, why not use it?) but my host family helped me with some of them.  The first stop is Sameba Cathedral - the largest church in Georgia and according to one student, Nino, the 3rd largest Orthodox church in the world.  This church is huge and it seems like you walk a kilometer just to get to the front!  Being a Sunday, mass was taking place inside and I opted to not take photos of the insides of any churches - both out of respect and I was unsure of the protocol;  I'm later told it's OK.  Regardless of how large Sameba is, the inside was packed wall to wall with church-goers and visitors.  I wanted to experience the mass but having so many people packed into the place took away the magic for me.  My Dominican family back home were right though - Orthodox churches have a lot happening.  Even during mass, people are up and walking about.

Kartlis Deda - Mother of Georgia
From outside of Sameba, you can see several churches - the view is breathtaking.  Wikipedia shows 18 churches in Tbilisi but I suspect there are many more.   Next up is Metekhi church where the statue of Vakhtang Gorgasaliis located - a Georgian King who founded the city of Tbilisi.  After Metekhi, we head up the hill to Mtatsminda Park - the tallest point in Tbilisi which prominently houses the television and radio antennas along with a 262 feet Ferris wheel.  My students don't know I have a fear of heights and now is not the time to disappoint them so I decide to take a ride in this thing.  It's unlike any Ferris wheel I have been in (which is not many, btw).  It makes a complete rotation about every 15 minutes which means 15 minutes of shear terror as your cabin-mates joke with you about opening the door!  I enjoyed the ride though and would probably go on it again if I ever visit Mtatsminda Park in the future.

Acrophobiacs need not apply!
After Mtatsminda Park we stop off at a roadside cafe for kinkali.  Some of the students wanted katchapuri and even others wanted McDonald's but Democracy won-out and kinkali was the winner.  That and our marshutka driver was starving and pretty much said we were eating kinkali!  After lunch we stopped at Djvari church and Svetickhoveli monastery before heading back to Batumi.  All of the churches we visited had gypsies and vendors outside which reminded me of Mathew 21:12: "Jesus entered the temple area and drove out all who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves."  It's not up to me to say if this is good or bad - many of these vendors and gypsies live off the tourists - but I find it fascinating (and in some ways, sad) nonetheless since this is not a common site in American churches - at least the ones I have visited.

On the way home, as we pass through Kutaisi, the diva's convince the driver to stop at McDonald's.  I've been secretly craving McDonald's since I arrived in the country so I decide to join them.  While in Kutaisi for training, I tried to find this McDonald's but we made it as far as the bazaar and didn't find it.  Turns out it was right there!  Hoping for a milk shake I join the ladies but all I see are McFlurry's and sundaes so I opt for an M&M McFlurry and I buy Chicken McNuggets and fries for the people waiting on the marshutka.  The girls buy hamburgers.  Despite us being the only people here, service is extremely slow and they nickel and dime you for everything.  Want a napkin?  10 Tetri.  Ketchup packet?  15 Tetri.  Dipping sauce for your Chicken McNuggets?  50 Tetri each (you don't even get one for free).  And a *can* of Coke is 3.50 Lari ($1.80 USD). 

Katya and Shota dancing to traditional Georgian music.

Teens will be teens and after some cat fighting on the marshutka the the mood lightens and the disco starts back up. It could be the McDonald's too - fast food tends to do that.  The ride home becomes as lively as the ride there and by 1:00 am Monday we pull into Batumi.  For my first class excursion with my favorite class, this will be a hard one to beat!

Class 11b Urexis School - October 9, 2010

Thanks for the memories!

(click here to view complete album)

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