Thursday, August 23, 2007

(Host) Family Vacation

Lanchkhuti, my small town, isn’t too bad during the school year. I have lots of work, students, and things to occupy my time. In the summertime, however, I have considerably less to do in my site. To make matters worse, my two host sisters have been out of town staying with family since early July. They are very entertaining girls and so their absence only adds to my boredom. The DVD drive on my computer decided to stop working recently so I can’t watch movies either. The long, hot, humid (being from Texas, I know humid, but it’s just ridiculous here, 20 miles from the Black Sea), mosquito-rich summer days in the Lanch are passed largely by reading lots of books, writing a textbook, text messaging friends, and my poor attempts at cross-stitch. However, I was granted a reprieve when my bosses here allowed me to spend a few weeks with my host sisters and extended host family in and near the town of Akhaltsikhe.
Akhaltsikhe (“New Castle” in Georgian) is a where my host mother is from and where her two sisters and mother live still. It’s in southern Georgia, about 20 kilometers from Turkey, and it’s thankfully a little cooler there. The area looks very different than most of Georgia, so it was fun to see a new part of the country. My host aunt Natalia picked me up from the station and we zipped around town in her little car. She’s a nun and she speaks a lot of English. I’ve never spent time with a nun in the states, I don’t think I’ve ever even met one actually. But I spent lots of time with the nuns of Akhaltsikhe. More on that later.

I was a little apprehensive about staying with people I don’t know very well, I’d only briefly met my host mother’s sisters and never met her mother. But they are all very warm, welcoming people and I felt right at home. Within an hour of my arrival, they’d already dressed me in a traditional Georgian dance costume…

They also gave me that grand tour of the region. Natalia took the kids and I to a nearby monastery called Sapara, built in the 10th century (I think, 13th at the latest). It’s a beautiful monastery in the mountains that’s almost hidden in the surrounding forest. The monastery consists of lots of little churches, castle ruins, and, like most monasteries here, has healing water running on tap. I drank just a little and I feel great!

Next I went to stay at my family’s “house” in the nearby resort village Abastumani. It’s much cooler in this heavily wooded, shady village up in the mountains. It used to be a big resort town in Soviet days with lots of Russian visitors because there’s “good air” there and it’s cool and pretty. I was looking forward to hanging out with my host siblings and cousins, reading, and working in a much cooler environment at my family’s “house.” However, the “house” was actually one room smaller than my bedroom with three beds, a cot, and a broken refrigerator. I panicked a bit when I saw this, knowing it was where I’d be spending my time and sleeping with my two host sisters, two host cousins, and grandmother.

The grandmother, a very nice woman, never stopped speaking to me in Russian no matter how many times people told her I don’t speak Russian. We also shared an outhouse with the rest of the 100 year-old apartment building and a small tap in the center of the yard was our only running water. This meant that I had to brush my teeth and wash my face while my neighbors watched me and talked about me, the American girl. The neighbor women were all very, very nice. But they did squeeze my cheeks and touch me excessively, as well as tell me about all their handsome, smart, English-speaking sons, grandsons, and nephews (my host grandmother quickly let them know that I have a shekvarebuli, a “sweetheart,” and I love her for that). In the end it was fine, of course, I just had to pretend to be Georgian, not American, and therefore have no need for privacy. We passed the time slowly but pleasantly; we ate, walked in the woods, ate, read, ate, listened to music, ate, went to the park, then ate some more. Everyone sleeps there in the afternoons then goes to the park in the evening. There’s a brand-new fountain, as there are in many parts of Georgia, and everyone congregates there at night to look at each other, talk about each other, and pretend not to notice each other. I’m mostly talking about the teenage community of course. Each night around 9:00, the girls would spend half an hour changing outfits and hairstyles then go sit in the park for an hour and not talk to anyone, especially the boys who tried to talk to them. It was interesting for me though to witness this Georgian version of co-ed summer camp or something.

So, back to the nuns. Natalia wanted me to stay with her one night, so I did; I stayed at the nuns’ house, the residentsia, one night. There are nine women there, four nuns and five nuns-in-training. They were all very kind to me and seemed to enjoy having me as their guest. I’ve always imagined nuns as very solemn, stern women; but these nuns were just the opposite. They laughed and teased each other constantly, even played little pranks on each other. After their busy chores during the day (gardening, embroidery, cooking, etc.), we ate ice cream, played with the dogs (they have a huge German shepard), and listened to the music on their cell phones. It was a really pleasant place and I really enjoyed being there, for one night of course. At midnight, we were all still hanging out and I was the first to go to sleep. I could still hear them laughing and talking as I went to sleep in my tiny little room.

The next morning I went on an “excursion” to another monastery with Natalia, two other nuns, and their bishop Teodor meope (“Lord Theadore”), who always laughs at me when I speak Georgian and pasts me on the head like I’m six years old. Teodor meope drove us in his Land Cruiser to Tchulevi, a quite isolated monastery near Turkey. We drove through a few Muslim villages on our way there. The monastery was beautiful, as they all are, and we spent the entire afternoon there.

There’s a waterfall nearby where the nuns and bishop took their shoes off and played around and splashed each other. Afterwards we ate tons of delicious fruit, fresh bread, and the best honey I’ve ever had straight from the comb. At the end of the day, alas, my time with the nuns was over and I returned to Abastumani and my host sisters.

The grand finale of my family vacation was Vardzia, the 11th century cave city near Akhaltsikhe. I’ve wanted to go there since before I came to Georgia, so I was thrilled when my host uncle said he’d take the kids and me. It was pretty awesome. Vardzia is just tons of little caves and tunnels going back into the mountain, where the Georgian’s there lived for protection from various invaders. We walked through dark tunnels and narrow staircases, hoping to avoid bats. I’m a sucker for secret passageways and such, so I thought it was really cool.

So that was my little family vacation.