Two weeks ago I ventured on a community service trip to a small town a couple hours outside of Tbilisi. I had heard about the trip through my roommate, who told me that he was going with a friend of his, and that they would be doing a clean-up with orphans. He invited me along, only to then find out there was no room left in the trip. But then he decided not to go, and there was an extra spot…so I went. I didn’t really know anything about the trip, other than there would be cleaning-up and orphans, and I only exchanged two text messages with the organizer before our 7:45am pick up downtown on Saturday. I knew that I should wear work clothes and that we would be done around 10pm. 10pm?! How much cleaning were these orphans going to be forced to do? I slightly balked–especially since I knew no one on this trip, and wasn’t sure if this was the best way to spend my first jet-lag free Saturday in Tbilisi. But then I thought about the orphans, and all the cleaning they were being forced to do, and I felt bad just bailing. So marched myself over early in the morn for a day of unknown adventures.
Now, the first lesson of living abroad is just going with the flow. (Well, the very first lesson is to ascertain whether or not the water is potable…but still.) I mean, there’s not much point in going abroad only to be like, “Well, I’m not sure if I’m comfortable getting into a minibus with a bunch of strangers and spending a day in the mountains.” This will get you no where. Or will just lead to spending too much time online at home, which is already a weak point of mine. So this whole day was born of the resolve to be the brave international traveler I wish I was.
I arrive at 7:45 and see two white minibuses, full of Georgians. They seem a bit too old to really be categorized as orphans. I don’t even know what the coordinator looks like, so I call him and we walk around till we see each on our phones. Nice guy, studied abroad in Massachusetts, explains that we’re driving about two hours to this town where the orphans live, and are only going to be cleaning up for a few hours. Then in the afternoon, the men will play soccer. Its unclear how us womenfolk will entertain ourselves. Soccer was part of the plan because we can’t drive back until it’s dark, as otherwise it will be too hot in the minibus….oh…..right, not something I think about…
About forty five minutes later, everyone has actually shown up and we set off. On the ride there, I chat with the fellow next to me, who works for some government ministry, and learn that this clean up project is co-hosted by a Georgian Green Coalition and the US State Department. Zany. When he learns that I currently study at the President’s Alma Mater (his president, Saakashvili, that is), he announces it enthusiastically to the bus. Like four times. Later, when asked where I study by the other Georgians, it took my like a minute to realize they were just messing with me, but I must say, I’m very glad they all had a sense of humor and were willing to bust out dry humor on the weird foreigner. All of them seemed pretty on the ball, students or young professionals working in the civic sector.
The ride was a little over two hours, and the majority of it was on roads that could–at best and only very generously–be described as “unpaved.” At one point, the minibus did a full stop in the middle of our mountain road so that everyone could get out and smoke. Afterall, it had been like an hour since we left, and not everyone was seated by a window.
We arrived a little after 10am in a small small town, which starts at the road level, and winds up a hill, centered around two roads. There are no stores, gas stations, or any sort of commercial or business establishments. We park near what apparently used to be a shop of sorts, but its completely abandoned (we’re talking no windowpanes; livestock in the buildings), as are all the other buildings around it. In front of one dilapidated building, a playground rises from the weeds, and a handful of boys are playing on it. When we unload, the boys ecstatically run to some of our members, who they know and whose arrival they’ve been waiting for. The young men on the trip quickly hunker down to talk to their tiny friends and the rest of us just sort of lull about.
Someone comes up to me and asks if I need to use the restroom. I politely defer, but then am told this might be a pretty key opportunity, so I decide–another rule of international travel–to take the opportunity while it presents itself. Surprisingly, we load back into the minibus and the driver takes us five minutes up the hill, to a house with a bathroom. After we (a few ladies) have availed ourselves, we’re invited to drink tea on the porch and are served fresh cake to boot. Wow. We hang out there for like twenty minutes. The driver makes himself a sandwich. It’s unclear if we might be holding things up, but Georgian’s rarely seem in a hurry so I roll with it. Plus, it was stunning.
We eventually return to the rest of the gang, and find that t-shirts (its not a community service trip if there’s not a free t-shirt!), garbage bags and gloves are being handed out. We’re split into teams and start walking in various directions (mostly upwards), picking up trash as we go. Main culprits: cigarette boxes, cigarette butts, candy wrappers, plastic bags and too many diapers. We also found a partially disintegrated copy of something about Marx (in Russian) that was anti-Kant and a full set of men’s clothing (in no condition to save). Despite my fears and a bit of false advertising, the orphans weren’t so much made to clean (they were all between 6-10), as they accompanied us as we cleaned. When one of the more mischievous boys was introduced to me, and one of the older Georgians told him he could practice English with me.
“What is your name?” he said very seriously, with no intonation of a question, but pretty good pronunciation. I answered.
“What is your name.” He repeated. I repeated my answer, in my best most evenly paced English.
“What is your name.” Now a couple Georgians chuckled and tried to explain to him that I had answered his question. I told him in Georgian what my name was. He looked at me very skeptically and then, thrusting the stick he was holding out to the side as a pointer, he said, “This is a dog.” Dramatic pause, the pointer stick swerves to the other side.”This is a cat.”
Then he tried to poke a hole in my garbage bag and run away. But every twenty minutes or so he’d show up again, poking at my bag of cigarette butts and really dirty diapers, insisting, “What is your name!”
By 12:30 or 1 it was getting really hot, the ladies (and some men) were fading. Which, seriously, was great. After college, I’m (not entirely, but generally) afraid of young people community service, where intensity and self-righteousness drive you to do bigger, better, more ecologically just and physically exhausting things. Not that good things shouldn’t done, but I’m down on the scenarios driven entirely by guilt or smugness…So I was kinda happy that after two hours of picking chocolate wrappers and socks out of underbrush, we were taking a break.
Lunch was assembled–about six different kinds of bread (hard bread! soft bread! bread with cheese in it! bread with pureed beans in it! sweet bread!) and some chicken and salami. There was lots of soda too, and I had one called “cream soda lemonade” (most non-cola soda here is actually, sneakily, dubbed “lemonade”). Yeah, it tasted neither like cream soda nor lemonade, but I could actually feel my toes tingle as the sugar hit my system. Dang! People sat in clusters, the kids clammering to be by their favorite adults, especially the director of the orphanage. I only just shook hands with him, but he exuded kindness and seriousness, and it was obvious that the kids were wild about him and really trusted him. I think he is very very used to having a tiny person wrapped around his leg, looking for a little confirmation that everything is going to be okay. (Speaking of, if you are interested in learning more about this orphanage and their work, click here or here (the latter opens a pdf). They’re doing pretty incredible work here and I’ve only heard good things about them.)
As lunch was finishing up, they announced that one car would be going back early to Tbilisi. Oooooh…..I tried to suppress the instinct to bounce, but then I thought about the long afternoon of watching people play soccer and a hot minibus ride back in the dark. I’d done my cleaning, it was 2pm, I could be in Tbilisi by 4pm and spend some time with new friends in town. I’m not yet my ideal international good-sport. Hence, I graciously offered to take one of the spots, and climbed into a silver Land Rover with four Georgian guys. Three of these guys had not been in the minibus, they were all Green Party guys who had driven themselves here. We loaded into the car, then waited for like twenty minutes for cigarettes to be smoked and goodbyes to be said. It was a bit before they totally realized that I was some random American, but someone passed along the message.
Little did I know, the day was, in a way, just starting to take off.
Our drive was Zaza, an incredibly affable middle aged Georgian, who owned said Land Rover (remember what I said about Georgians and nice cars?!), smoked Pall Mall Ultraslims and struck me as someone who enjoyed life. He had a couple of CDs on hand, Spice Girls, Frank Sinatra, The Best of Smokie, and we/he decided to listen to Smokie, as it reminded Zaza of when he was young. Zaza actually had pretty good English (people always say Georgians over 30 won’t speak English, but they don’t know Zaza), partially because he was an avid sportsman and watched English language hunting videos. He knew the term “fly-fishing” as well as all kinds of birds and animals. He recommends Babe Winkelmans’ Guide to Turkey Hunting, which, not that I didn’t believe him, does actually exist. Apparently Babe and his wife are serious marksmen.
Driving at breakneck speeds, ducking potholes and barreling over branches (what else is a Land Rover for?), we chat in Georgian, English, and Russian against the backdrop of Smokie. We also make a couple of stops, first for a photo shoot at a lookout, where some other Green Party folks are, and then later, closer to Tbilisi, where there’s a spring and we fill up our bottles with fresh water. When we’re about 10-12 miles from Tbilisi, one of the guys asks me, in English, if I’m in a hurry. No, not really, I reply. Perfect, because we have to stop by Zaza’s country house before we get into the city. There is talk in Georgian. Sure. Whatever. See second paragraph of this post.
We get to Zaza’s place and post up in his backyard. He is putzing about. Then the guys seems to be busying themselves with something. I’m told to just chill, so I sit there, and occasionally eat mulberries with one of the other guys (yes, mulberry tree in the yard). I notice that the fellows are now building a fire. Hmmmm. And heating up the shashlik sticks (three foot long metal kebab spears) in the fire. And another car of (Green) people shows up. Hmmm.
In the batch of new arrivals is a Georgian girl who yells out to me, “Sprechen Sie Deutsch?!” And when I reply in the affirmative, we sit down and chat in German for quite a while. She lived in Germany for a bit, loves German, loves speaking it. In the secrecy of our Gothic tongue, I asked, so, what exactly is going on? She told me that people had already left to buy food, we’d eat, hang out, and then drive into the city. No, I reminded myself, I’m not in a hurry. In fact, it was absolutely delightful just sitting in the shade, chatting, eating mulberries and watching men revisit their primal roots of fire-building.
How to describe the evening that ensued? Sheer loveliness. Someone bought a giant bag of pork and we roasted it (ahem, the men roasted it, women aren’t even allowed close to the fire pit), ate a salad of fresh tomatoes and cucumbers that hadn’t even heard of genetic modification. There were at least 15 liters of beer, but between the ten or twelve people, no one seems more than tipsy, although quite clearly a good time was had by all. Hell, I didn’t even know exactly what anyone was saying half the time, and I still had fun. Jokes were translated into Russian or German, and then I got to laugh a minute after everyone else, and generally people were a bit confused as to why I was there (i.e. with the Green party in the hills. Or at Zaza’s place. Or why I was even in Georgia. Or studying Georgian). But they showed nothing but great hospitality. And the food was so delicious–I will confess, I’m one of those American white girls that tends to eat white meat, I cut the fat off my steak, etc etc. But eating giant fists of pork seasoned in their own burnt fat–sheer happiness for the taste buds. It may be hard to go back.
The party wrapped up around 8 or so, and as we were loading into the cars to head back to the city, another car of vaguely affiliated Green people (the party had grown) stopped and insisted I hop in their car and go out for Georgian wine. I pretty much never say no to wine, and especially Georgian wine. So off we went, in a little car with the steering wheel on the right side (yes, they import right and left sided driver cars here!). We zipped around the city and settled at a very classy wine bar on a main drag of the city, where we drank red wine, ate fruit and chilled. Ancient Roman style, I imagine. When we finally left around 10:30 or 11, I walked back home in the cool Tbilisi air and was very very very glad I decided to just run with things. A Saturday well spent.