Georgia: Round II

June 15, 2011

My journey, as usual, started with the steady slog of the train northbound out of Belgrade. Eight hours later I would find myself in the hot sun (a nice change from the weather in Belgrade a few weeks ago) over Budapest. I met up with Zsuzsi and Matt for a resounding coup de grâce of our respective lives in Budapest months prior, and indeed that entire time and place. It wasn’t anything particularly special, but it was nice to have a few last drinks before we headed our separate ways. I caught the plane bound for Tbilisi via Kiev early the following morning.

I spent the first four or so days in Tbilisi hanging out with Michaela. The first order of business was the purchase of a new camera (regular readers will know that my other one tossed in the towel after a frolicking by the seaside (read underwater) in Montenegro). I ended up getting a Lumix DMC-FT10 (their shock/waterproof variety) with which I’m very happy. Michaela was studying (studiously, axiomatically, complaisantly) for the GRE, but she had a reasonably-tuned and entirely playable piano in her flat, so I entertained myself for hours (quite literally) each day. My hands hardly knew what to do when they touched the ivory, being that those instincts had long been shoved to the back of my brain in the year long hiatus between leaving Seattle and then. It took much repetition and a bit of listening to the tunes on Youtube before my hands began to warm up, but by the time I left I was able to play Clair de Lune (my pièce de résistance in both time it took to learn in addition to impressiveness factor) as well as several others in a capacity fairly comparable to before I left. That’s reassuring on the basis that I know I won’t have to toil for months to get these things back when I finally get a piano again.

All the while, Tom and I were quietly plotting our plans for something bigger, something considerably more auspicious. The options were on the table, and there were many. We settled on checking out a region in the far southeast corner of Georgia located around a town called Dedoplistskaro. We did this on the basis that Tusheti and other high-mountain regions in the north were still too snowy to be reasonably-navigated by car or anything short of snowshoe-clad feet (I knew I should have brought my snowshoes…). What ended up happening included far less hiking and mountaineering than I had originally hoped for, indeed, originally anticipated, but what replaced it was a veritable sociolinguistic tour de force and all around great time.

I met up with Tom and another Peace Corps volunteer (PCV), Danielle, at a highway intersection east of Tbilisi. We were waiting for the marsh (minibuses, the main form of public transportation between cities in Georgia) that would take us to Dedosplistskaro. Instead, we were picked up by an old man in a Niva Lada (entirely predictable). We made our way piecemeal-ly down to the town itself and were invited in for tea and an assortment of homemade dairy products at our taxi driver’s house. What ensued was an entirely misunderstood negotiation with a third party regarding a “rental vehicle”. We thought we were getting a 4×4 of some sort to ourselves so that we could navigate around the park with relative ease and be free to do what we wanted. Long story short, the guy “renting” us the vehicle was under the impression that he was coming with us. This wasn’t realized until we were well on our way to the park (don’t ask). I was generally thinking the first scenario was too good to be true, but I was letting those who speak Georgian (read Tom and Danielle) do the negotiating. Anyhow, we spent the following few days out in the park doing some exploring and stuff by foot. Although it wasn’t really what we were expecting, it was still a good time, and it was cool to check out that portion of the country.

I ended up accompanying Tom back to Lagodekhi after the trip. This proved to be a fantastic decision. That night we met up with a number of other PCVs and TLGs (some other group there to teach Georgians other languages) and immediately got to playing beer pong. It had been awhile and my beer pong game was a bit rusty, but it was all sorts of fun. The next day we all got together and roasted up some hot dogs (all very American, indeed) and commenced to burning a bunch of old Peace Corps stuff at a sizable bonfire. I met another PCV, Paula, there and we ended up getting along splendidly and spending a majority of my remaining time in Georgia together. After Lagodekhi we went to Kvareli to have a tour of Johnny’s (another PCV) winery. That proved to be wildly successful in both potential for imbibement and entertainment. In fact, it was so successful that I splurged on a 1989 bottle fresh from the cellar (I heard it was a good vintage) which we cracked open later that night.

After Kvareli I headed back to Tbilisi where I would meet Paula for the weekend a day later. That meant I had two days to myself back in Tbilisi. Luck would have it that Misha (my comrade, if you will, from Tbilisi the summer before) was staying at the same hostel as last year. We caught up and made all sorts of rap lyric-related jokes (as per usual) until the next day when I went over to Paula’s hostel (upon her arrival). Among the more memorable things that Paula and I did in Tbilisi those few days was our little trip out to Vake. We visited Vake Park, a fantastic old relic of a park from the Soviet era, complete with dilapidated playthings and epically-grandiose Soviet statues. After that we went to an utterly adorable French cafe out in West Tbilisi and conversed verbosely over a bottle of wine (I’m pretty sure it wasn’t a 1989 bottle though). As an aside, I’m constantly impressed with Tbilisi for its improbable cosmopolitanism; I can always rely on it for a decent Thai restaurant, an adorable French cafe, a Mexican restaurant, an impossibly-Soviet park, and an enchanting old town, among many other things.

Paula had to be back in Akhalsopeli by Sunday, but my plane didn’t leave until Monday night. Not content with simply admitting defeat and bidding farewell to each other a day in advance, we devised a plan which was genius, by anyone’s measure. Days prior, Paula had mentioned the existence of a language of which I had heard once or twice, but never given serious thought to. The Udi language is a Northeast Caucasian language spoken by about 8,000 people scattered in various locations around the Caucasus. One such location is the village of Zinobiani, not far from Akhalsopeli, holding about 80 of the 8,000 total speakers. Paula said that her director has family from that very village and would be happy to show us around and introduce us to some native speakers. The potential for linguistic research was mind-numbing, so of course I jumped on the opportunity. We were taken to a house and ushered in by four absolutely ancient women chattering away in Georgian. Paula was my translator and eventually got across the point that I wanted to take some video of a native speaker speaking Udi. The women were a bit shy at first, but started telling some short stories and proverbs in Udi. Unfortunately none of my video from there turned out, the acoustics in the room were pretty terrible; in addition, most of the Udi was punctuated with comments in Georgian from the other members so it wasn’t terribly useful as one stream of cohesive Udi. After that we were taken to the museum of Udi culture hosted in the same building as the local school. The master of the museum (who was evidently also a teacher and an engineer of some sort), Mamuli Neshumashvili, showed us around the one-room museum talking at length about generally uninteresting and largely ignorable subject matter, on top of that he would talk non-stop for minutes at a time without allowing Paula to translate for me which made the information fairly questionable. At the end of the thoroughly prosaic tour, however, we were read a story in Udi, hands-down the magnum opus of my recordings:

Note the extensive use of pharyngealized vowels.

Riding high from my acquisition, we headed back to Paula’s host family’s place where I cooked up some Srpski Pasulj for everybody. Paula introduced me to an old man in Akhalsopeli named Sandro Papa (grandpa Sandro, essentially). This man was Ossetian, so I really couldn’t resist the temptation of asking him to speak a bit so I could get some recordings of that as well. After much confusion as to why exactly I wanted it, he was delighted to oblige. He was very slow and deliberate, and a few times he needed to be reminded to speak in Ossetian rather than Georgian, but I got a good recording from him as well:

As good things always do, my time in Akhalsopeli came to a close and I had to head back to Tbilisi. I spent my last few hours in Tbilisi at the hostel hanging out with Misha and his girlfriend, Danielle.

All in all it was a fantastic vacation, much more than I could have hoped for and I’m grateful for all the new friends who made the experience what it was.

One Response to “Georgia: Round II”

  1. You’re a great writer, Ian. Fascinating stuff. 🙂

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