Catching up on travel stories now. Sorry for the several-month-long interruption.

We went to Georgia for Bayram. Bayram, as I may have mentioned elsewhere, is a weeklong holiday in October in which everyone takes the bus to everywhere else in turkey and visits their relatives and murders a sheep. The traffic coming out of Istanbul, I’m told, is a tentacular nightmare. Anna found cheap tickets (one way) to Tbilisi from Ataturk Int’l Airport, and we found two travel companions: Cat and Erin. Cat we found at a street art festival and agreed to go after five minutes, surely a good sign for the weirdness ahead. Erin agreed to go without hearing anything or even meeting either one of us, which was an even better sign of preparedness. The plan was to more or less fly into Tbilisi, spend a day or so there, cross the country, have some village time, see some weird georgia stuff until the nostalgia and exhaustion build up like a fluid in our lungs and we must airlift ourselves  back to Istanbul. We had no return tickets. School was on monday. The facts.

We landed in Aleksander Novaskhwieualk-shvili airport at three in the morning, and immediately things were funny, because come on that alphabet. We found a few other people from Istanbul who, similar to us, had purchased tickets on the very same flight to Tblisi (I even knew one of them from a party), but unlike us, had no idea what to expect or what to do other than drink wine because they heard the wine was good. Oh boy. We took taxis to avlabari and I messed up the numbers at least three times because come on it’s base twenty, and thus accidentally screwed the taxi drivers out of five laris. Then we purchased beers and went to the concrete guard towers near Sameba Church and drank until five or so in the morning, watching the shadows of crosses and trying not to sit on the exposed rebar, before crashing and finding a hostel. We stayed at, naturally, Tbilisi Hostel.

Rauf (or Ralph, or Ralf, or Raff, Raul, Ron, I’ve never really been sure) still works there. He came to Georgia for an oil job, and liked it so much that he gave up corporate life and bought a hostel. He’s an enormous red-bearded Azeri dude who looks a little like Coronel Sanders. The hostel is a glorious outdoor thing , with a two-floor terrace and grapevines around the staircases. We spent a very slow morning with two fresh shoti breads (large flat loaves shaped like the eye of Sauron) and some vegetables and cheese, and then decided to make our way to Mtskheta, which has the most famous churches in all Georgia and which I actually never visited. The story there is some nun found the shroud of turin and carried it all the way to Georgia in a box, and when she opened the box and touched it, she died in a flash of light and a pillar sprung out of the ground, and they built a church on it.

Anyways, we spent a little time wandering around Tbilisi and bought some drinking horns (something else which I never managed to do last year) and then hopped a marsh for Mtskheta. When we arrived, swarms of people were looking for a bus back to Tbilisi. On our slow walk towards the large rock churches visible from the highway, everyone seemed to be walking away from Mtskheta’s center. It was Mtskhetoba–Mtskheta day. It was also over. 

The trouble began when two leather-jacketed georgians invited us to drink.

“You have glass?” they asked.

“No–oh wait, we have horns!” And the horns emerged from mine and Erin’s bags, and we start to drink at the foot of the statue. One of them scampered up the monument. Pictures were taken. Chacha was consumed. They fed us cheese and mystery sausage. They went off to another party and we declined to follow, because we still hadn’t seen the churches. Drunkenly we made our way through the cobblestone streets and into the church. The stone interior felt spartan. Beeswax candles in all corners and offertories had melted into a sticky golden lace. We left and fireworks went off just as we stepped outside the church grounds. A guy grilling pork on the street offered us a meal for seven lari apiece, which we of course accepted. I cannot even tell you how much living in a muslim country makes you crave pork. And Georgian mtsvadi…oh man. The king of barbecue porks. The guy brought us through an alleyway to a courtyard and we feasted on pork and fresh shoti in the dark. Another guy who spoke good English ate with us and provided a heavy amount of wine, and told us he had no children and was lonely, and he wished to feed us and have us as guests, and we were all winedrunk and took the bus and the tblisi metro home.

Everything, more or less, was exactly to be expected from a georgian afternoon–men pushing chacha at you, old churches, great hospitality mixed with some weird sad moments, really good food and wine.


It’s crazy the way life works. I met a bunch of people at a warehouse in south Seattle yesterday–it could’ve been anywhere in the industrial parts of anchorage, too–this crazy “co-op” convention which happens monthly, at which about a hundred people all drink free microbrews and eat free ice cream and talk about how co-ops could save the world. Not really my jam, but I’m always happy to meet people and drink free microbrews and eat free ice cream and talk about anything at all. This warehouse was next to a copper salvage place. “Do I have the right address?” I wondered. I’d gotten off the light rail at Sodo station. There is nothing at Sodo station. A man wearing a leather apron swung heavy sheets of metal into the back of a truck in an empty parking lot. Slabs of granite lay in heaps in industrial yards. Broken things everywhere. 

And then, all the people I met yesterday at the strange warehouse co-op event were over at my house today, and we made dinner, and talked about traveling all the places. We talked about alaska, and slovakia, and georgia, and istanbul, and new york, and denmark, and all these places that are definitely real places in the whole world. I roasted a chicken and talked about how dad always roasted chickens and they made the usual “woo-wah” noises that people make when I describe my father’s culinary madnesses. Or how he woke us up with the soviet national anthem, and with the repetitive banging of a pot lid with a wooden spoon. 

These strangers made peanut sauce at my house. Peanut sauce. We are practically family. They made me nostalgic for my homeland(s).  

So I’m sitting in the bedroom of what I consider to be my second (or third or fourth) adoptive family, Kate Willette and Bruce Hanson (parents of the inimitable Heather Hanson) and consuming what feels like the entire internet. I got here, to Bellevue, about four days ago, and I’m still readjusting to American culture. For instance: English speakers are probably addressing each other, and not me!

But now you’re all wonderfing what fimportant fings I’ve learned whilst away in Georgia. I know you are. Here they are. I have three.

1. Idleness. There are hours and hours in each day where Georgians do absolutely nothing. Sure, the TV’s on and we’re blasting Rihanna, but no activity occurs. I can distinctly remember several times where I came out of my roost to find out what was going on. Iamze would be sleeping with her fist in the air (?) and Jemal would be on the couch. Temo was slouching in a windowsill. “What are you doing?” “Nothing,” he would say, as if surprised.  Why should I be doing something at all?

2. Radical hospitality. Uncountable times, a group of Georgians would buy me and me friends drinks/khinkali after knowing us for no more than a few minutes. Can you imagine walking into a restaurant and having the neighboring table pick up your tab? It’s unreal. I was invited to supras, houses, weddings, parties, all because I happened to be around. There are no qualifications on friendship, not even whether you like this person. (Of course, they liked me, because I’m so goddamn charming. But they’d invite an elephant seal if that elephant seal happened to be eating khinkali at the neighboring table.) Who does that? Humbling.

3. The kids in my village like fast cars, nice clothes, and music from America. Why? Because they are symbols of wealth. They don’t have a hell of a lot of money, so they imagine that’s what they’d spend it on, if there was a bunch of it to waste. It’s a projection out of poverty, dig? Previously I’d looked down on this because it seemed a valuation of surface-level things, you know, having so much money that ladiez jump into your Mercedez by the handful, just for the chance to touch your gold chains or beautiful, beautiful leisure suit.

But why the hell do we think what’s cool is cool? Handmade bags, a shitload of passport stamps, knowing about bands before anyone else, retro-vinyl-disco-chic? Maybe because we already have money, and therefore to distinguish ourselves, value individual preference.

This isn’t a judgment on either one of our senses of cool. I’d more like to point out that our sense of cool stems from a comfortable material reality.

And, for the record, we weren’t really poor. My host family owned a shitload of land on the other side of the river where Jemal grew excess corn to sell at the bazaar, and we also had like 20 cows, and chickens, and a hazlenut orchard, and two cherry trees, and a persimmon tree, and a bunch of tqemali trees, and grapes out the ass. It wasn’t an industrialized wealth, though. My family still had to work the land themselves to be awash in delicious food. Cool meant leisure without labor.

Those three things spring to my mind if you want the “Georgian Living” guide, on sale at Prima’s Strategy Guides next month with the new WoW expansion, “Encrusted Caucasus.”

So today I woke up in my wireframe bed, exercised in my room to electro-pop, ate a breakfast of khatchapuri and chadi with cheese, and then brought my laptop so we could watch planet earth, and then I taught a few classes by shouting “YOU ARE PIG” at my students while Lela giggled, went outside so students could trace me with chalk, entered school via window, went to teacher’s lounge expecting coffee and snackies but instead everyone was packing and Lela’s eyes were full of glee, “Ernie,” she says, “Poison! It kill everything, we must leave now,” and suddenly that weird gas-like aroma that I’d been smelling for the past few days made sense, and then football outside with my students, and Tamta and Nino meet me on the way home and give me pretzel sticks and bubble gum, and tqemali fruit, and tell me I’m fat.

Now, I’m going to Tbilisi for a music festival, which I’m sure will involve lots of club beatz and cheap beer and world-famous musicians (ha-ha-ha). I’m bringing my uke anyways and singing some Dylan. As of today, I have eight days of teaching left. (I decided not to extend.) I am obsessing over my summer plans: meeting Jari and Kelsey and James in Istanbul, traveling east across the Caucasus to Armenia, going home.



is making a comeback. I played with the 12th grade boys. They’re all done with real school now, and taking goverment-mandated exams in the computer lab. This is the first time it’s been used. They had to have tech guys connect everything to the internet/set up four more computers which had been lying unsused, still packaged, in the director’s office.  After tests, everyone plays outside. Come to think of it, half of my “lessons” today were badminton.

The last day of 12th grade (which was also the last day of 1st grade), there was a concert for the first graders. White curtains had been hung around the walls, and a surprisingly modern stereo system had appeared in the room. It was very, very crowded. Everyone in the school, and I mean teachers, students, and a few parents, were packed into one side of the first grade classroom. The first graders were being cooed over by their parents, who’d undoubtedly been waiting all year to stuff them into tiny tuxedos and party dresses. There was a very large cake.

Then the kids lined up opposite us. They’d spent a month learning lines of a (long) Georgian poem so they could spit it at us in the manner of a firing squad. Then, they performed a traditional Kartuli dance for us. Then, we all danced, and suddenly the air was full of flower petals. Everyone was throwing flower petals.

All that day, the 12th graders had their graduation ceremony, or “bolo zari” (last bell). All that day, the 12th graders wore white shirts, which teachers and students could scrawl well-wishes upon. Then they all get to ring the bell.  Then, in the evening, they feast. I didn’t know about the supra, so I went home for an hour, and heard the pulsing sounds of beat from the school during my evening walk. I went in. The students had pushed the desks in the teacher’s lounge together to form a long table. One of them poured me a glass of wine from a plastic barrel. Giorgi, who speaks the best english, was acting as Tamada. He gave a few long toasts which I did not understand, and then we all drank. Then we danced. Repeat.

Please note: graduation day should forever be known as “bolo zari.”


I’m considering extending my contract. I’d be moving to Batumi with the eminent Laura Deal and her friends until December. Not that I don’t love the village, but life moves very, very slowly here. The most exciting non-school thing is when I go to the purple cafe in Chokhatauri to meet my friends Rachel and Patrick for 3 lari pizza. (Make sure, when you get here, to order pizza WITHOUT mayonnaise.) Or, last night, we walked across the cornfield to my neighbor Manana’s house for dinner and Nitchieri (Georgia’s Got Talent).* Or, a few nights ago, and this is like most nights here, I wandered up the street and my students called me in to play with them. I sat on the edge of the well and they all told me that Gudian would eat me. He lives in the well, and has sharp teeth and long somethings (claws? fingers? wasn’t sure on this word.) It really hit me the other day, that the three Dumbadze sisters (Mari, Kesa, and Eteri) exist nowhere else in the world, and leaving would mean not being their teacher anymore.

Then again, if I eat anymore khatchapuri, the salt content alone might kill me.

*Let it also be known that Georgia has some fabulous television personalities. Vake on the Vake show is really funny (even though I don’t understand him). They’ve got an Oprah (Nanuka somethingsomethingshvili) and on Dancing with the Stars, this judge Gocha who lived in NYC for 20 years and sometimes forgets the Georgian words for things, so he inserts “What a girl!” and “Allright!” into otherwise unintelligible conversation. The Georgian version of Wheel of Fortune is absolutely terrifying. The host is a 40-something lech’ with a mullet who brings in musical acts and strippers between each spin.

This is a feasting culture. The Georgians have a story about how they got their land: while God was divvying up the world for the various cultures, the Georgians were all drinking at feasting, so they didn’t show up to receive their handout (damn liberals.) So God fusses to them, “Where were you?” And the Georgians respond, “We were feasting and toasting in Your honor, Lord!” And so God says Aw Shucks and gives them the land he was saving for himself. Altenatively, my Peace Corps friend in Ozurgeti claims that Georgians have supras to forget.

I was walking home from the burned-out gas station awhile back, and before I managed to make it home, a bunch of neighbors feasting outside invited me to their table. It was laid out with many small plates of bread, chicken, pelamushi, pkhali, and other delights. It was…someone”s birthday? He may have been dead. The grandma showed me a picture of her son, in the casket, and we drank in his memory. We also ate a lot of food and drank a lot of wine (typical). What was atypical was the incredible singing. I’d read about the wildy polyphonic songs of rural Georgia, but this was the first time I actually heard them at the table. It was amaaaaaaaaaaaaazing. It was loud and drunken and boorish and I loved it.

Kind of like this:

Suddenly everyone at the table leapt up and ran through the gate. I was left with my students. “What’s going on?” I asked, and ran to the road. They whole party was walking with a man who had blood pouring down his face. “Bicycle,” Tamta told me. “It break. Front wheel come off.” They walked him to the well and poured a bucket over his head. Once he was cleaned up, they pulled a horse-drawn cart up to the gate and got him home. The supra ended. The song, incidentally, Teona and I did our best to translate:

When autumn begins to fall,

the thrush begins to sing.

When men run out of money,

They begin to insult their wives.

I love eating fresh green cheese

between my clicking teeth,

as much as I love winking at and

kissing pretty girls.


Even Georgians find this song strange.

Every time you get a receipt in Georgia, you can dial #200* plus a few numbers, and play the lottery. There are commercials for it everywhere, and there was even a sketch on Comedy Show about it (wasn’t funny). I have not yet won.

I’m sitting in the internet cafe in Chokhatauri on the way back from a long, long weekend of travel. We had Wednesday off this week, so a few friends and I decided to take the rest of the week off as well to travel to Mestia. Svaneti.

What is Svaneti? you all ask. Allow me. Do you like knife-throwing dances? The mighty Caucasus mountain range? Goat sacrifice? A people who have remained unconquered for millenia, people who are crazy enough to build multiple defensive towers in the mountains and sacrifice goats? People who speak a dialect of Georgian so obscure that few people alive can still understand it?

It’s nearly impossible to get to, though. We loaded out from Kutaisi on Tuesday afternoon for Zugdidi (“Big Hill,” and also the city with the worst reputation in all of Georgia), then woke up at five in the morning to take a second marshukta into the mountains. The drive was amazing: waterfalls, towering mountains, and of course, ambient livestock.

Mestia’s the capital of the region. It’s tiny. The muddy streets were littered with fresh lumber and rebar. Our driver left us downtown to locate our guesthouse so we walked for about ten minutes outside until we found it. It was pink.

The next day we climbed the mountain immediately behind the city. You can see a giant cross on top. “To the cross!” we cried. It was a really, really long hike. Some of us turned back. Me and this Irish guy Cillian led the herd and spoke of our love for climbing, and the adrenaline rush. As we climbed higher, our panorama of the Caucasus improved.

“I could climb to that one!” Cillian said.

“Yeah! Me too!” There was no stopping us. At the top of the mountain, next to the cross, we got a view. Snowy mountain peaks cut into the air, every way you looked.

The next day we hiked to a glacier and got followed by a dog with massive teats. Her name was patches.

This is what it looks like. All of it. Why would you build towers? Not because anybody wants to invade. No, because your neighbors attack you, and so you take them prisoner, stash them in your tower’s dungeon, and then trade them back for livestock or crops.

Anyways, I’m going to go home now and write about two successive weekends in Batumi.

I tried Tqemali fruit. It’s a fruit. I thought it was made from plums, but the chutneylike sauce that I love so much is made from small, rosehip-shaped fruits that only grow here. It figures. They come in a green and maroon variety, have the consistency of fresh snow peas, and taste awesome and sour. The kids (Niko and Zela especially) scale the school’s tqemali tree at lunch to pick handfuls of them. I cannot imagine american kids going crazy for any fruit, unless crushed into dust and mixed with sugar. 

Now that it’s warm outside, the kids run totally loose during the breaks. I mean, they always ran loose, but at least now they don’t do it in the hallways. Our school has a cracked pavement basketball court where they kids play soccer. The balls are faded and have bits of loose stitching poking out in places.

Inside the school, it feels much darker (though the color scheme’s still bright pink/white). The sun doesn’t penetrate the concrete walls. We got new windows recently, still complete with housewrap, but our doors are still knobless and cracked. Sometimes we have to use kindling as a wedge to keep them shut. 

We’ve been doing a lot of testing this week. Lela picks, at random, a test from a book which bears no relationship to the studied matieral. Tests are then collected and scored, and then the scores are ignored in favor of the official 5-10 point scale, 5 being terrible and 10 being perfect. These scores are then recorded in each teacher’s official government gradebook, and mailed to Chokhatauri, where the student’s semester grade is determined, and then the books and grades are mailed back to Buknari. Regardless of the grade, or of their performance in class, students are advanced to the next year’s material and classes. It is either the setup to a Beckett play, or very stupid. 

FOOD UPDATE: Pkhali is spinach paste with garlic and walnuts, then compressed into a round. Great. My third-grader Tamta invited me over to her house and we ate this, plus Tqemali liquer. (Not her. Though she did lure me over by asking “Ernesto, do you like cognac?”)

Pelamushi is a sort of hot grape jelly and the strangest thing I’ve ever eaten. They think you are crazy if you eat it on bread. It is the only thing not eaten on bread. It is eaten plain, with a spoon.

Mch’adi. Cornbread. Every day.

Iamze made salsa just like Dad used to make and called it tomato salad. She also made an awesome buttery pilaf and I drenched it with the salsa, and it was everything I ever wanted. 


The clouds wreath the mountains. They look like golden butter on the peaks. The dirty Supsa, brown with snowmelt, curls around my ankles. I can hear about ten different species of bird and ten million different frogs. Smooth stones blanket the riverbanks. I spend a few minutes tossing them into the river. The trees riot in green in lavender. It smells fresh.

I’ve just come back from a run. The sun’s been out all day, so I had decided to walk as far as I could towards the mountains, and then run back. Perfect weather the whole way. I’ve passed my house and passed the highway and gone all the way to the river. My sandals lie beside me on the banks. It’s hot outside and cold underwater.

As I walk back, Jemali (my student, not my dad) rides his bike beside me and asks me all about the girls I like. We dodge cow poop and watch plastic bottles float down the stream towards larger clots of garbage. He dismounts and hisses at a few cows, which saunter away from us. He refuses to tell me who he likes, so I threaten him with telling random sixth graders he’s in love with them. Or in love with cows.


Georgia in Spring is gorgeous. (Giorgi-ous). The mud of Guria has transformed into a green-and-purple paradise. It’s about 70 degrees every day and sunny. I come out on my staircase in the mornings and smell yummy rain, and watch the sun hit the mighty Caucasus. Sorry I don’t have a camera that works. All our bees begin to generate a lot of honey. To extract it, we have an awesome barrel apparatus. We remove the honeycombs, slide them into a holster in the barrel, and then crank it for all it’s worth. The crank spins the combs around and around until the honey flies out by centrifugal force. It oozes down the sides of the barrel, coagulates in the bottom, and then we open the hatch to distribute it. SO MUCH HONEY. Tengo and I had to hold down the barrel while Iamze cranked.

In animal news, a baby cow ran away today. Tengo and I had to run down the street before school to locate him.