Monday, May 28, 2012

A Georgian Birthnapping

Last Monday was my twenty-third birthday, and I can honestly say that it was the most memorable one I've ever had. In the morning my host mother, host grandfather, and I drove to a coworker's house to pick up my cake and bring it to school. It was by far the fanciest cake I've ever had. Throughout the day teachers and children were kept wishing me "Happy birthday!" and giving me flowers. After my last lesson, a friend, the TLG volunteer in Sighnaghi, came to my school, and we meandered outside in search of our friends from the hostel. I felt a little uneasy because I got the vibe that they had organized birthday plans for me, but I couldn't bail on my coworkers because they were throwing a supra for me. To me, it seemed like the obvious solution was to invite them to the supra and then to do whatever they had planned.
 As I turned back toward the school, a large blue sack was thrown over my head, and I found myself being lifted into the back of a car. I was held down for a bit, and when I was eventually permitted to sit up and remove the sack, I realized that other than Sighnaghi's volunteer, I didn't actually know my kidnappers: a Georgian, a Norwegian, and a Russian. While we were getting acquainted, one of my co-teachers called me to make sure that I was returning to the school for my birthday supra. It was sort of a bummer that the supra threw a wrench in my friends' plan, but it would have been really rude to skip it.
After the supra I got into my friends' car, and even though their attempted kidnapping was somewhat foiled, they refused to tell me where we were going. They did, however, surprise me with a large bag of chocolate vaplebi. FYI, vaplebi, whose singular form is vapli, are wafers layered with cream, and I'm addicted to them. We met up with their kidnapper friends, who had gone ahead of us, in Dedoplis Tskaro. Unfortunately, they had to return their rental car in Tbilisi by 6pm, so they had to leave, but my friends from the hostel and my two local TLG friends drove on toward the unknown destination. Along the way, they decided to blindfold me, and when the car finally stopped and they let me put my glasses back on, I saw this.
Its name is Khornabuji Castle, and honestly, I know very little about it, so you're probably better off Googling it. Anyway, we climbed up to the top, where we enjoyed some champagne, vaplebi, and the great view. The climb was pretty treacherous because there weren't any safety rails to keep you from falling off the edge and into the abyss if you tripped. I think this is pretty typical for most sites in Georgia.

Anyway, we wrapped up the evening with Sheepshead, a fantastic card game from Wisconsin, and dinner. On my way back home, the other TLG volunteer in my village and I hitched a ride with two random Georgian guys, who treated us to beer. All in all, it was an incredible birthday, and I'm never going to forget it.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Day of Victory over Fascism

Ten days ago, I finally got out of the village after having stayed there for three and a half weeks. The only reason I was able to stay in Nukriani for so long without getting too stir-crazy is Hostel Tura. It's about a 45-minute walk from my house in the village, and for me, it's pretty much a bastion of awesomeness and of support. Needless to say, I spend a fair amount of time there, and I'm really lucky to have been conveniently placed so close to the hostel.

Anyway, May 9 is a Georgian public holiday: the Day of Victory over Fascism. It marks the surrender of Nazi Germany to the Soviet Union, in other words, the end of World War II. In the West we commemorate Victory in Europe Day on May 8, but due to time zone differences, I think, the former Soviet states celebrate it on May 9 instead. Now, I honestly have no idea what, if anything, Georgians do on May 9. It was, after all, a Soviet victory, and the Georgians with whom I've spoken about Russia abhor its government, understandably. At the same time, Joseph Stalin was ethnically a Georgian.
I celebrated May 9 by going to the village of Duisi in the Pankisi Gorge to see a derby. Pankisi is a valley in northeastern Kakheti that borders Chechnya. It is inhabited by Kists, and since I know next to nothing about them, it's probably best that you skim the Wikipedia article. I can tell you that they speak Kist, a dialect of Chechen, and Georgian and that they're Muslims. Jihadism has at least touched Duisi a little. There was a shop selling calendars with jihadist literature in Russian, and one of the little boys said in Georgian,"Chven vart mujahidebi, insha'Allah," or "We are the mujahideen, God willing." I also heard some Allahu Akbars when the children shot their toy guns.
I think the highlight of the holiday for the Kist children was shooting foreigners with plastic BBs. There was a group of 33 Westerners there, and we apparently made great targets. Fortunately, some of the foreigners had gone the year before, so they knew to buy guns ahead of time to shoot back. I only got shot ten or so times, but it was certainly annoying. The derby itself turned out to be a bit of a bust, but all in all, I was just grateful to be in good company and to be out of the village.

Saturday, May 5, 2012

A Georgian Funeral

Last Saturday, I went to a Georgian funeral, and it was definitely a unique experience. The father-in-law of a teacher at my school had passed away, and all the staff at the school was invited to the funeral. According to my main co-teacher, when a Georgian dies, the body is kept at home for five days, and during that time, the undertaker visits and prepares the body for burial. On the fifth day, the funeral is held.

That afternoon, I arrived at my coworker's house, which is two houses down from my host family's, and sat with the other teachers from school on the porch. After about an hour, a little procession of family members filed down the stairs. A few young men came down carrying flowers, and they were followed by a large group of women--young and old alike. Some of the young women were openly sobbing, but their grief paled in comparison to that of the widow, who was hoarsely wailing "Vaime! Vaime!" Next, a group of men brought down the lid to the coffin, and another group carried the coffin holding the body of the man who had died. They propped up the coffin on two chairs in the yard, and all the guests awkwardly stared at the family as they grieved.

A few minutes passed before the men picked up the coffin and presumably loaded it into a van. The immediate family members filed out of the yard after them, followed by the female guests, and then by the male guests. We walked along the road to a nearby cemetery, and at this point, I realized how many people were actually there--some 200 according to my main co-teacher--and more people were still arriving. On the way to the cemetery, my main co-teacher pointed out the flowers on the road. Apparently one of their traditions is to leave a trail of flowers from the home to the cemetery. She also explained that the funeral would be followed by a  ქელეხი (kelekhi), or funeral banquet. These banquets are incredibly expensive because the family must kill a cow and feed a couple hundred guests.

We were at the cemetery long enough for the body to be buried, and then everyone returned to the house for the feast. There was a massive tent set up in the yard with two rows of tables and four rows of benches underneath it. Plates of food were literally piled on the tables. Every two or three place settings there were the following foods and drinks: bread, nazuki, a bulb of garlic, cheese, mushrooms, greens (onions, radishes, cucumbers, tomatoes, and some herbs), eggplants with walnuts, fish prepared in two different ways, chicken, jonjoli, potatoes, beets, a spinach spread, olives, mineral water, soda, and wine. In addition to all of this, they brought around huge platters of beans, beef, wheat with honey, fried potatoes with beef, mashed potatoes with mutton, and porridge with rice and mutton. It was by far the most incredible feast that I've ever seen in my entire life.