Saturday, November 26, 2011

Going to the Country, Blank Slates, and Work

Sunset off of Bishte Pauli (Paul's Tail) on the Adriatik

An elder sister came to visit her younger sister in the country. The elder was married to a tradesman in town, the younger to a peasant in the village. As the sisters sat over their tea talking, the elder began to boast of the advantages of town life: saying how comfortably they lived there, how well they dressed, what fine clothes her children wore what good things they ate and drank, and how she went to the theatre, promenades, and entertainments.

The younger sister was piqued, and in turn disparage the life of a tradesman, and stood up for that of a peasant.

'I would not change my way of life for yours,' said she. We may live roughly, but at least we are free from anxiety. You live in better style than we do but though you often earn more than you need, you are very likely to lose all you have. You know the proverb, "Loss and gain are brothers twain." It often happens that people who are wealthy one day are begging their bread the next. Our way is safer. Though a peasant's life is not a fat one, it is a long one. We shall never grow rich, but we shall always have enough to eat.'

The elder sister said sneeringly:

'Enough? Yes, if you like to share with the pigs and the calves! What do you know of elegance or manners! However much your goodman may slave, you will die as you are living -- on a dung heap -- and your children the same.'

'Well, what of that?' replied the younger. 'Of course our work is rough and coarse. But, on the other hand, it is sure; and we need not bow to any one. But you, in your towns, are surrounded by temptations; to-day all may be right, but to-morrow the Evil One may tempt your husband with cards, wine, or women, and all will go to ruin. Don't such things happen often enough?'

(From Leo Tolstoy's short story, How Much Land Does a Man Need?)

'Surrounded by temptations' isn't exactly how I would describe Tirana, but this excerpt from Tolstoy's famous story/parable about greed still relates to my sabbatical from blogging. When I first got to Bandza, there were very few ways to pass the time. I was in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by farming land, pigs, and cattle. I worked approximately three to five hours in a day (and that was at the beginning when I took matters more seriously). The only way I could pass the time was by running, reading, and writing.

And, man, did I write; I was pumping out three posts a week at times. Now I'm sitting down to write for the first time in three months. What the hell happened? I can't say Georgia got less interesting, because that was never the case (and I still have all those list posts that I had promised, I just need to add content). But as I spent more time in Georgia, I started to spend less time in Bandza (and more time in Martvili, Senaki, and Tbilisi). The time I did spend in Bandza was consumed with tutoring my host-brothers, playing volleyball, basketball, or soccer with my students, and drinking a lot of wine (when the weather gets better, we have a ton of impromptu suphras in Bandza).

My summer inactivity has already been explained, but Tirana was a fresh start. I was planning on a GNJB Renaissance! After finishing up my Georgian thoughts, I would get to breaking down Tirana and Albania. It would be the Autumn of Max!

But then I got here and realized that my first three months here would be nothing like Bandza. Tirana was a city, I lived on my own, I didn't have a social support group like TLG (which meant I had to spend twice as much time cultivating relationships and friends), and I had work...

There's a lot I still want to say about TLG, but this post isn't about that. Either way, my teaching job in Bandza was pretty simple and easy. I taught between 2-4 lessons a day, and towards the end of the year, sometimes I would teach one lesson and then go home. I'm still proud of the work I did, and I know that some students really improved their conversational English during my time there, but at times, my job was a bit of a joke.

My job now is far from a joke. I teach 25 hours a week, run social and sports clubs, and spend most of my other time meeting with students outside of class (something I beg them to do). On top of that, I have lesson plans that must be typed out in advance; an extremely meticulous and bureaucratic task. I also have a student outside of school who I teach once a week, while I have Albanian lessons twice a week.

I'm fuckin' busy, man.

But that doesn't mean I don't miss writing, which is why I'm trying to get back into it. Reading through my last few posts, I have found myself writing just for the sake of excuses. The only way I can stop that is by posting consistently. I'm not going to promise anything, mainly because I'm sick of breaking those promises. But I'm going to Kosovo today for the four day weekend (apparently they celebrate Independence Day harder in Prestina than they do in Tirana), but after I get back, I have three weeks until my winter break. In that time, I'm going to write.

But first I must get away from the city...

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

I Can't Even Blame the Kindle...

Used car shopping in Chicago whilst diving into Lake Michigan

... because I did not read at all while home. And no, it's not because I was watching mindless TV (although my dad did make my sister and I watch the highlights of Mega Shark Versus Crocosaurus). I really haven't gotten around to writing anything since I've been home mainly because I've been traveling like a Depression-era carny.

I went to Washington DC (missed the earthquake, though), Frederick, MD, New York City, Toledo, OH, Detroit, Chicago, and Beaver Creek, CO. And for all but Colorado, I was traveling by car or bus. It was my grand tour, except with less culture and more leisure diving (see above picture).

And after five weeks of vacation, I am exhausted and in need of a vacation from my vacation. I could really go for another week in Pittsburgh of doing nothing but hanging out with the family. But alas, alas, the show must go on. So instead of sitting on my couch at home or weeding the front lawn for my father, I'm at the Dulles Airport in DC (no aftershocks) waiting for my flight to Vienna, after which I hop on my flight to Tirana.

I don't really know what to think of my move. Albania, much like Georgia, is a fairly random country that few westerners know about. They're both countries who are still coming to grips with their post-communist identities, but while Georgia has seemingly made giant strides since the Rose Revolution, Albania is still having political problems. But both countries have incredible histories while offering beautiful natural surroundings.

In fact, Albania was named in Lonely Planet's top ten places to visit in 2011, and this little writeup from the New York Times certainly paints their Ionian Sea coast in an appeasing light. At the same time, I've had one Estonian friend who visited Tirana awhile back call Albania, The asshole of Europe, while I had another Georgian friend come back from working two weeks there to call it like Georgia... but ten years ago (just take a look at this picture of the Tirana Airport... yep, I'll be there in less than 17 hours).

But then again, I'll be in the capital and not the rural backwaters (I loved Bandza, but it wasn't exactly a beehive of activity), while I'll be teaching a subject I much rather prefer (TEFL < English Literature and Grammar).

The question I've gotten a lot over the past week is the same question I got before I went to Italy and Georgia, Are you nervous or excited? My answer has always been really lame, Not really. I've never been one of those people who got overly excited before something happens. Every now and then, something might hit me in the moment (my first night in Bandza comes to mind), but for the most part, I just take things in stride as they come. If I was overly nervous about what might meet me in Tirana, it wouldn't help at all. I'm not turning back now, and I wasn't turning back a week ago (or a month ago for that matter). It's just too interesting of an opportunity to pass up at this point in my life.

So here I am, enjoying my last American meal for awhile (Five Guys burger, with fries and a fountain cherry coke... very American), and I'm even keel. As always, no matter what happens, things could be worse. I could be unemployed... or in Libya.

(PS - Those final Georgian posts are still on their way as soon as I have time in Tirana. But I can't promise an approximate date.)

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

I'm Still Alive

A shot of myself looking quite intrepid at Ananuri

Contrary to popular belief, I did not have a heart attack while cleaning out a pigsty, which eventually led to the pigs devouring everything below the belt (true Mingrelian story). Nor did I parish while playing a game of chicken with a cow in the road (after eleven months in rural West Georgia, I can only think of animal related deaths). I've simply been either lazy or busy.

The busy explains itself, as since I last had anything to say, I've: had my sister visit, also had my friend Ian (formerly of Martvili School #1) return for a surprise five-day visit, spent entire days sitting by and swimming in the Abasha River, gone to two village weddings, attended my year twelves' end of the year banquet (only in Georgia do you have a wine-drunken feast with 17/18-year olds to celebrate the end of the school year), been coming to appreciate and enjoy Tbilisi more and more, been saying my goodbyes to fellow TLGers and Georgian friends, and worked at a summer camp in Bakuriani for the past two weeks.

I leave Georgia in the next few days (still not sure of my flight, but I've got a hesitant date of the 21st). I'll be home for one month, after which I unfortunately do not return to Georgia, but instead take my talents to Tirana, Albania, where I'll be teaching English grammar and literature at an International School (private sector sellout move). I'll have more on my move and what it might mean to the blog in the future, that is for those few people who might afford me some loyalty despite my complete abandoning.

While I am home, I won't be working, which will leave me plenty of time to see friends and family (unlike other TLGers who went home for Christmas, I was in SE Asia, so it's been even longer since I was home), eat non-Georgian food, ride my bike if the weather permits, watch Pirates' baseball on my father's TV every night, drink proper coffee, and catch up on my final Georgian thoughts. Posts that I have prepared include: Ten new thoughts that came to me since May; Ten things I will not miss, Five things I regret not doing/taking advantage of; Thirty reasons I know I'm more Georgian (or Mingrelian) that when I came here; and Ten things I will miss.

So my schedule for when I'm home will go like this:

8-9 am - Wake Up
9-10 am - Brew some coffee and do my best at making breakfast after having not prepared anything for myself in the past year
10-2 - Write/read/watch TV that I've been out of the loop on in the past year (The Killing and Boardwalk Empire to be specific)
2-6 - Cycle
6-7 - Shower & eat
7-10 - Bucco Baseball
10 - Whatevs...

So I promise that I'll finish strong here, as I feel kind of bad about the way the blog has gone to the dogs in the past six months. I blame my Kindle.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

At Long Last... Vietnam

Best meal of the trip was street noodles (Pho), although who knows what type of bugs I might have in my stomach right now...

I have had next to no school in the past month. Part of that is my fault (vacation, which, if anybody is wondering, was unpaid), but the other half has been a mixture of vacation and overall apathy. There have been a ton of vacations days, including the four days we get off for Easter and the two days this week for national holidays (WWII Victory Day and St. Andrea’s day). But there have also been a lot of random lacking of students at school.

Look, Vietnam has awesome weirdly shaped fruit as well!

This is a village school, so it never surprises me when I come to school, hang around for an hour, and then get told that most of the students are in church (this was the case for all three days leading up to the Easter holiday, during which I had maybe two lessons), or they were all practicing for upcoming singing/dancing/sporting competitions (as was the case this week). The sporting competition is actually tomorrow in Martvili, which will involve me participating with a bunch of my younger students in carnival games (three legged races, potato-sack races, tug-of-war, etc.). Should be a blast.

This picture reminded me of Georgia... come to think of it, any random farm animal sighting might make me think of Georgia from here on out.

In the meantime, I’m stuck in Bandza on a Friday night, which leaves me two options: cow tipping or blogging. I chose the latter in order to finally catch up on some log-jammed travel thoughts. I think Vietnam is a good place to start, at least before I completely forget everything I remember about the country.

Speaking of similarities between Georgia and Vietnam, the complete absence of such a notion as 'safety.'

One of the reasons I love Georgia is because it’s so unique (they may get old, but it’s true) and I think that was the reason I enjoyed Vietnam so much. After trudging my way up the Southeast Asian peninsula and only encountering the familiar (even if for the most part, it was thoroughly enjoyable); it was nice to come to a place that seemed so different.

This was purty, notice the completely gray but one-dimensional sky in the background that always hung over Ho Chi Minh City.

To be honest, before going to Vietnam, I didn’t know what to think. When I let my family in on the news that I’d be traveling through Asia instead of enjoying the wonders of the rustbelt Christmas, I got an email from my Uncle Mike with words of encouragement. But he also expressed some mixed feelings on viewing Vietnam as a tourist destination, since he was of the time and era when you did not want to go to Vietnam. He had had friends die there, and understandably would always view Vietnam from that perspective.

I had the same apprehensions. On one hand, I could make those Back when I was in ‘Nam jokes I’ve always wanted to drop (hell points!), but on the other hand, this is still a place that has some fairly recent bad history with the States. But I’d also heard only positive things from people who had traveled there. Plus my Mother and I would be meeting up with a family friend who was teaching in Ho Chi Minh City. If Americans taught English there, it couldn’t be that bad?

This is good old Uncle Ho' (as the commies called him) who Old Saigon is currently named after.

I was right. I never felt any sort of hostility during my five days there. Looking back right now, it seems even silly to have even entertained the notion. A few of the museums I went to definitely had an anti-American perspective, but that’s to be expected in any country that was occupied/invaded by another nation. But going to the War Remnants Museum gave me a small notion on what it must be like for a German enter a WWII Museum (in no way am I comparing the War in Vietnam to WWII or the few atrocities committed by American troops in Vietnam to the Holocaust; I’m only saying that they produce the same shocking or guilty feeling).

These are the Cu Chi Tunnels on the outskirts of HCMC, which are always a hot topic with locals (they believe the current tourist attraction is fake).

Anyways, it’s been far too long to really summarize anything, so I’ll just hit some highlights.

* I had heard how Bangkok was twenty years ago from certain people and books, and how it’s been ruined by the excess amount of tourists. Well, I would guess the backpacker’s district in HCMC (Ho Chi Minh City, which is where we spent all our time) is much like Koh San Road was then. It’s a small eight square-block area that is packed with guest houses/hostels, bars, and small stores selling knock-off anything and everything. They had knock off DVDs, backpacks, and photocopied books. My biggest purchase was a North Face winter ski jacket for $50. It’s bright orange, which would be fine anywhere but Georgia, where everybody wears black and/or grey.

Anyways, there are tons of places that will rip you off, but there are also a few gems, like a couple of spots on the main street that sold beer (and only beer) at one of the cheapest prices you can find anywhere. They had small plastic tables set up outside with even smaller plastic chairs to sit in, which made for some uncomfortable but tipsy evenings. It was a communal drinking atmosphere and you were almost expected to be social if you sat down.

This was a Vietnamese bazaar, which is the same as a Georgian bazaar, except people don't walk through, they ride their motorbikes through.

There were a few locals that would invite you to join and talk your ear off. One of the guys was a university student who only came to the backpacker’s district to work on his English (take note Georgians). But those nights also gave me an opportunity to meet fellow travelers who would tell you where they’d been, where they were going, and any suggestions as for other places in HCMC.

There were also a few sleazy Vietnamese guys who would ask you why you weren’t talking to the beautiful Vietnamese girl sitting next to you. But I knew those tricks.

* Speaking of tricks, the prostitutes would ride up right next to you on a motorbike and solicit themselves. The multi-tasking facet of it was actually quite impressive, if not a bit sad. You could also pick out the bar/brothels by the amount of old Poms (that’s Englishmen for those that don’t know) that had two young Vietnamese girls on each arm. That wasn’t sad, more so disgusting and pathetic.

* And speaking of motorbikes. Good lord. So I am always getting one upped in my search for the place with the craziest traffic and drivers. First it was Italy, then Peru, and then Georgia, but Vietnam (HCMC in particular) has the craziest traffic you will ever come across. There are eight million people who live in HCMC; guess how many motorbikes there are? Five million! That’s fuckin’ crazy! You literally cannot be near a city street at any time of day without there being a thousand motorbikes flying by, and when I say there are no rules, I mean it.

Traffic in HCMC, F'n crazy.

Crossing the street is an art. There are no crosswalks or safe times to do it, you just have to plunge out there like Frogger and pray. The best strategy is to keep at a steady pace that will help the bikers avoid you. If you’re lurching around in a precautious but indecisive matter, you’re more likely to cause an accident. All in all, Vietnam has the craziest drivers I’ve ever come across, although I’ve heard Jakarta is crazier.

* Getting around Vietnam by foot is a pain in the ass, mostly because of the traffic and the fact that everybody parks their motorbikes on the sidewalks. There’s really not too much to see tourist wise in HCMC, so it’s not that big of a deal. But the easiest, cheapest, and fastest way to get around if you must is on the back of a motorbike. Basically, there are guys sitting on their bikes at every corner that you can hop on the back (they have a helmet for you) and ride you to any destination. I did this once (I was still a bit apprehensive following my motorbike crash in Thailand) and it was quite the perspective, if not a bit heart wrenching.

The new big high rise in HCMC, with a sign in the foreground wishing us all a happy New Year...

* All those motorbikes cause some concerning pollution. Half the days we were there, the city was enveloped in a sort of overcast density that made it feel like the sky just wasn’t there. That had to have been my biggest complaint. Well, that and the fake Cu Chi Tunnels whose only worthwhile attraction was being able fire off a couple rounds from an AK-47 (still waiting on those pictures, Mom).

* One of my favorite aspects of Vietnam was the currency, which was the Dong; yeah, I know, hilarious for those with the minds of fifth graders, myself included. When I was there, the Dong was 30,000 to one Dollar. That meant everything and anything cost some absolutely absurd amount of Dong. Kind of made me feel wealthy. Well, really, it kind of made me feel like I had a wealthy Mother.

Other than the dong, I really appreciated the intense badminton pickup games. Displaying dominance.

* I’m a big fan of coffee, and Vietnam takes pride in their coffee. When I was there, I couldn’t find a street block in the city without some old Vietnamese woman selling street made java. But there’s also a lasting French impression that has led to a nice café culture in certain spots. All in all, a good place for coffee.

Another European import was Notre Dame cathedral in the heart of HCMC. Not very SE Asian communist, is it?

* Most major international cities you visit nowadays all look the same, have the same tendencies, and are constantly trying to outdo their local rivals (think Tbilisi/Baku/Yerevan or even Chicago/NYC). And though I got a small whiff of that in HCMC (they did have KFC, while there were just putting the finishing touches on a giant UAE-type skyscraper), the everyday character the city has retained despite the influx of tourism and money made it really stand out to me.

And I have a feeling that when I go back to explore the rest of Vietnam, the entire country will share in the same unique identity.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Not so much

Mother Georgia, who welcomes you with the fun (a ball of wine in her left hand) or the fury (the sword in her right)

I know in my last post (in which I let some fury fly) I had promised to spend some of my layover time in the Prague airport on some long-awaited posts on areas outside of Georgia, but much like my Mingrelian friends, I was of course only conning you.

Actually what happened was I got into a conversation with some Georgian law students who were heading to Lithuania for a moot-court competition. They were all from Tbilisi, so they had an even higher sense of Georgian-superiority than most, but a few of them knew English quite well and we had a nice little talk, which of course included the mandatory question all Georgians ask foreigners, Do you like Georgian food?

All in all, it was a pretty pleasant talk. The only part that bothered me was one of the students, who when I tried to express my enthusiasm for his trip to Vilnius, the historical capitol of Lithuania, by saying, Lithuania? Cool, man!, he replied by saying very dryly with a small tint of arrogance, Lithuania is not cool... Georgia is cool. This is exactly the type of narrow mind frame that had me jones'n for a vacation.

I know not all Georgians think this way, but there are a ton that do... without ever having been anywhere else! That's so ridiculous and irrational. I don't mind thinking Georgia is amazing, because I share the same notion. It's unique, beautiful, and the people are incredibly hospitable. But saying it's better than another place without ever having been there is outrageously short-sighted.

Anyways, I wasn't really in the mood to type anything up, and considering I was on vacation in Krakow, I didn't really feel like doing anything productive there, either. All of which means that I now have three different places to catch up on (Vietnam, Armenia, and Poland). So please be patient, although apparently there are singing/dancing/sporting competitions the next few days in my district meaning meaning there is no class while I'll have plenty of time to take a bite out of that list.

As for Georgia, the week long vacation may have been just what I needed to come back with a fresh set of eyes. Krakow was amazing, but just within the few days I've been more appreciative and less bitchy (at least in an observational sense). And that's despite a drunken soldier spilling a liter of beer all over me on the night train back from Tbilisi on Monday night (although to be fair, he did offer me some of it beforehand).

Thursday, April 28, 2011


Another old Fort, although these usually don't lose their appeal.

So I just got off a marshrutka in Tbilisi and now I'm waiting around to take a plane to Poland for a week-long vacation, which is coming right on the heels of my Easter trip to Yerevan (I have a seven hour layover in Prague tomorrow morning, during which I expect to write some things on Armenia and the not-forgotten Vietnam post). Why in the world should I be complaining?

Because my marshrutka was the ride from hell: nut job driver who looked exactly like the kind of Georgian man I've come to despise (fat, scowling, and carrying himself with an unwarranted sense of accomplishment); the marshrutka music that blasted the entire four hours (if you've never heard marshrutka music, you're one lucky bastard. It's a 30-year smoker belting out a love song behind digital music) that probably caused haring damage to the five under-four-year-old children sitting in their parents' laps; and then the seven times I saw someone throw an empty Nabeglavi, Fanta, or Coke bottle out of the window onto the side of the road.

I got off that marshrutka thinking, I only just came back to Georgia after a short foreign vacation, so why is it that I can't wait to leave again? What it comes down to is the love/hate feeling I've encountered over the past few months, where there are certain aspects of Georgian society and culture that I still adore, while there are others that I once found novel but now find only aggravating beyond belief.

I've never been in a foreign culture for this long, so I'm not used to the roller coaster ride one's emotions tend to follow. But I was told over and over again (as I mentioned in my last post) about how you'll love it, then grow bored, but as time winds down you'll love it again. For me, it's been a lot more complicated.

I promise not to let anything too harsh come out in these last two months, as I'm still a guest in Georgia. Plus, as mentioned, there are still instances from time to time that remind me of why I still think this place is so unique. I also know that when my sister comes (she is visiting for ten days in late May, super excited about that), her new set of eyes should help me re-realize why I fell in love with Georgia in the first place.

This is a heavy handed topic that I'd rather wait until later to tackle, but I also think it helps explain why I've been having so much trouble consistently posting. For every hilarious observation (the Georgian man squat in which men sit legs crouched with their arms resting on knees and wrists slanting upwards; they can stay in this position for hours) I also want to drive a steak through my skull when I'm waiting in line to use an ATM.

Maybe it was just the marshrutka ride that made me want to vent, but I don't ever want to hold back here, no matter what the readers may want. I still love Georgia and am grateful for their hospitality and for giving me the opportunity to teach, but every now and then I just need to scream what the fuck...

It all comes back to Bandza though, and I do love my village

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Been awhile...

A pretty neat looking picture of the steeple of the Martvili Monestary and an early Moon. As my Pops would say, Trippy Man...

So as you’ve noticed, I stopped making excuses for my truant posting a while back. But that’s not going to stop me right now, as it’s been nearly a month between posts and I feel as if I owe you an explanation. There’s several reasons for the lack of posts, which I’ll try to get through as quickly as possible before I can get on to some real observational thoughts.

It’s amazing how quickly things have gone by, considering where I am. The average person would think that being in rural Western Georgia would cause time to move at a painfully slow pace, and although there have been some sluggish periods, I’d say that overall, time has flown by like a BMW-wielding Georgian.

Before I went abroad, my friend who had taught in Korea for a year told me that your feeling towards time shifts like a bell curve. In the beginning, you’re really excited and everything is a wonder. As I was going over some of my earlier posts this past weekend, my friend’s comment certainly proved prescient. Look back on my September posts and you’ll see how I come off as some wide-eyed newcomer who think they have it all down after a few experiences (I cringed at reading over some of my innocent ignorance).

A random castle (you get a lot of those in Georgia) sitting atop the road from Bandza to Senaki.

But then you hit the dog days, and there’s a lull. My trip to Southeast Asia (in the words of Scarlett O’Hara, As God is my witness, I will get to those Vietnam thoughts before I leave this earth. That’s how it went, right?) helped to stave off any feelings of monotony, but as the winter lagged on, there has definitely been some times during which I’ve thought, Good Lord, can this go any faster? The goofy weather (I thought we turned a corner a few weeks ago, but it’s been rainy and cool for the past week [there’s fresh snow fifteen kilometers up the road from me]) and the frequent electricity disruptions (we had another three day wind storm a few weeks back that cut power to my village for five days) haven’t helped.

Number One Threat to Georgia? Bears! This beast was roaming the inside of it's cage in the Tbilisi Zoo (entrance fee of 50 Tetri [30 US cents], making it easily the cheapest Zoo ever).

But even then, I still had things to keep me busy: my Kindle that is jam-packed with classic literature thanks to Project Guttenberg, increased tutoring of the boys, trying to make sure I don’t add winter weight by running on the weekdays (I don’t really look forward to running, while I enjoy it even less in cold weather), big trips on the weekends (went to the Georgia/Croatia Euro’12 Qualifier in Tbilisi that Georgia won on a ’90 goal, immediately after which I was hugging every random Georgian man I could find in my section), looking for a teaching position for the summer (I will be in Turkey) and this upcoming school year (I will not be in Georgia, a topic for another day), and planning more lessons for my classes at the Bandza school (Valentine’s Day, St. Patrick’s Day, my skiing trip, and the upcoming Easter holiday have given me ample topics).

So now it’s mid-April, I have two months left, and it’s back to the excitement I felt in the beginning. But that excitement isn’t due to my departure, it’s more of an energy producing excitement that reminds me how I must make sure to take advantage of the little time I have left. Although with that excitement comes a sort of wistful feeling, so instead of observing the new, I’m blinded by nostalgia.

A shot of Senaki and the Samegrelo Valley, probably the only completely flat area in Georgia.

So I probably won’t have too many mind-blowing observations during my time left here, although it’s not like I ever did. But I will still do my best to conjure up some magic and be more cognizant of the fact that with each day that passes, I’ll have one less day to expound on this unique and authentic culture.

But there’s been a lot that’s gone over the past two months that I can probably bumble on about. Here’s a few quick thoughts old school style.

Erti – There have been two deaths in relation to my host family in the past six weeks, the first was rather expected, while the other was far more tragic that occurred only ten days after the first. I’ve already talked about the Georgian grieving process, but I never realized the expectations on the immediate family during the forty days that follow a death. TLG should probably mention this during our orientation, because it sure would have helped me, but basically don’t practice the piano, don’t play music at all, don’t expect any meat at the dinner table, and never, ever smile. That last one’s a bit of hyperbole, but I would say the past month has been the only time I’ve felt uncomfortable with my host-family, if only because I was walking on egg shells with zero direction.

This is my little buddy Luka on his 6th birthday, obviously not old enough to cut his own orange, and therefore getting Gogita (his neighbor) to do it for him. Look at the anticipation in that little guy's eyes.

Ori – I finally decided to help out with some farm work. It was the first official day of work a few Saturday’s back. There were some guys I recognized at the breakfast table, and they were passing out shots of tchatcha. Afterwards they went out to work while I went to my room to read and then went on a run (after the tchatcha buzz faded). When I got back from the run, I decided it was time to man up. So I walked over to the vineyard, grabbed a shovel and started churning some farmland. It was a quite a sight for all of the real men there; they stared as if I had just solved the Riemann Hypothesis (if you don't want your head to hurt, do not click on the link). But I don’t think I did much of a good job, since I haven’t been asked back since. Mission accomplished, I guess?

Sami – On Wednesday after dinner, all the men of the household were intently watching the European Figure Skating Championship. I don’t know if it was for the view or the art, but they all seemed mighty impressed with the double and triple axels these young were pulling off (whole lot of De-da’s and Op-pah’s). But the best was when a black skater from France stepped on the ice. Lasha looked at me and instead of dropping the n-word, said, black. These are the type of small success stories I savor.

In honor of the upcoming holiday of Easter, here is a crooked cross (I can't remeber why so many crosses in Georgia look like this, but it's not really crooked as it's supposed to look like that [Cue random Georgian reader to correct my ignorance]).

Tuesday, March 22, 2011


A lucky shot of the Didveli Slopes in Bakuriani.

So before I can finish my long awaited final words on Vietnam, thus bringing closure to my Southeast Asia thoughts, I must quickly gush about my weekend in Bakuriani.

I had been planning a ski trip ever since I got back from the winter break. Initially I thought we’d (from the outset, many of my fellow TLGers were quite enthusiastic on joining me, but due to various factors, I could only muster up eleven friends [eight of which were TLG]) go to Gudauri, which is the ski resort about an hour and a half north of Tbilisi on the way to Mount Kazbegi. I decided on Gudauri because I had heard it offered the best skiing in the Caucasus for both difficulty and variety. But after researching the situation further, I made the executive decision of switching our destination to Bakuriani. Again, this was for various reasons, but it was mainly monetary since Gudauri is more expensive in just about every facet.

Bakuriani is a ski town in south central Georgia, located about thirty kilometers east of Borjomi and three hours by marshrutka from Tbilisi. It’s known for its mineral water (my personal favorite in Georgia) and being the home to Nodar Kumaritashvili, the Georgian Olympian who was killed on the luge course in Vancouver last winter. But before I went, that was the extent of my knowledge. The only other information I had heard about the place was that you needed a car to take advantage of the skiing, because there are several different ski slopes in different parts of the town (this is partially true, but the slopes are big enough to keep you occupied for a day, so in theory you could come for a three day weekend and ski a different slope each day).

But Bakuriani also offers more activities for those who don’t want to ski. It’s really like a winter fun park, where you can go snowmobiling, quading, horse back riding (which a few of my friends took advantage of), and ice-skating. Bakuriani also offers ski-town type amenities: bars, clubs, a hookah lounge, movie theater, and upscale ski-resorts. Guduari, on the other hand, is the definition of a ski village where if you’re not skiing, there’s not much else to do.

This is the type of attraction that you will only see in Tbilisi and Bakuriani: a horse-drawn carriage.

So Bakuriani it was, but where to stay? A fellow TLGer forwarded me an email she had received from another teacher who had stayed at a ski school in Bakuriani named IkiSki that also doubles as a guesthouse. It sounded interesting and reasonably priced, although when I say reasonable, I’m comparing it relative to Georgia. I am not comparing it to skiing and mountain accommodation elsewhere in the world, where skiing vacations can run you into the thousands of dollars. IkiSki also had skis on hand for rent and provided transportation to and from the slopes. So I emailed the address on their website and asked about available accommodation on certain dates.

I got an email from a guy named Irakli telling me he wasn’t there this season, but that he had forwarded my email to his mother, Lali, who ran the place and spoke/understood English. Sometimes that qualification is used quite liberally; even in the capital city of Tbilisi there aren’t many people who know competent English, so I had my doubts that Lali of a small ski town in Georgia would be able to communicate with me flawlessly. But my doubts were quickly put to rest as Lali walked me through the details (the guesthouse is 45 Lari a day/night for a dorm style bed and three meals, while they rent equipment in house for 25 Lari a day, all of which includes transportation), and patiently accepted my constantly changing plans (the first and last time I will try to plan anything for fellow TLGers; we change our minds as often as we change underwear).

So it was all set, people from West Georgia would head to Bakuriani Friday morning in order to arrive for a three o’clock meal, while our friends from Tbilisi would be leaving after the workday (damn responsible Tbilisi people making us Mingrelian teachers look bad) and arrive in time for a nine o’clock dinner, which ended up being svadi (Georgian BBQ) cooked in the fireplace… but back to getting there. When we rolled into Bakuriani, Lali and her husband Victor came to transport our bags, and only allowed us to walk the five hundred meters to IkiSki after telling them a taxi wasn’t necessary.

A shot of IkiSki from the road, with a few of my friends hanging on the bottom deck.

From the outside, IkiSki looks exactly like any other ski chalet: log cabin exterior with a stone base and a giant slopping roof. Now, seeing this type of building in, say, Chamonix, France wouldn’t make you think twice, but in Georgia, it stands out. A majority of the developers who planned the hotels in Bakuriani weren’t really worried about achieving an authentic look (and the same goes for most other Georgian tourist destinations I’ve been to, like Mestia and Batumi). The goal is to build quickly with aluminum siding and concrete, slap a fancy English name on the front (we saw one named Hotel Château Palace), and let the money roll in.

So it was nice to see such an exceptional building in which IkiSki was ran. But in Georgia, the outside of a building can be deceiving—just ask some TLG village teachers, where a new coat of paint on the outside of their school is more vital than working chalkboards. Yet after I stepped into the dry room (a small room near the entrance to most houses in consistently snowy climates), I knew IkiSki was legit.

This is the common room. God, do I miss that fireplace already. In the background is the communal eating area.

Any words won’t do this place justice. It is amazing. Magaria. The place is all solid thick timber, gracefully decorated, and defined the adjective homey. At some point or another over the weekend, each of us mentioned how much we would have loved to live there. It’s about as close to the perfect ski chalet as you can get. But it’s more than that; the winding green wooden staircase (that runs all four stories), shared sleeping rooms filled with bunk beds, and the unequaled common area, all of these features give the whole place a clubhouse type of atmosphere and feeling. But how in the world did this immaculate beauty of a lodge end up in a former Soviet Republic? (Side note: I will not hide my displeasure with Georgian architecture, which I primarily blame on the soviet era and it’s utilitarian concentration. I would say that things are getting better, but then I think of the Presidential Palace and have second thoughts).

A shot of Lali and myself on the IkiSki porch. Trust me, she wasn't nearly as scared of me as this picture indicates.

Lali is an older Georgian woman from Bakuriani, opened IkiSki in 1998, and ten years ago built the current building that houses all the instructors, students, and Lali’s family. But Lali is no ordinary Georgian Bebia even though she does have eight grandchildren. She has done heaps of traveling, won the Bakuriani over-fifty ski competition a few years back (her trophy is humbly displayed on the mantle of IkiSki’s magnificent stone fireplace), and has a quick wit with a fantastic sense of humor. Oh, and she speaks perfect English. She reminded me of Serena, the mother of the host-family I stayed with in Italy. Both were petit older ladies with boatloads of energy and constant smiles, while they shared the same relentless intuitive nature.

But probably Lali’s best characteristic—and the most unusual given her nationality—is her attention to detail. She was on top of everything: fitting the skis, figuring the sleeping situation, transportation, meals, and agreeing on exact times for any and every activity. In fact, she was so acute on time schedules that when one of us was late or caused a delay, she would jokingly point out that we had been in Georgia too long and were taking after one of the worst Georgian traits: tardiness.

Lali's husband Victor and one of the ski instructor's Irakli, enjoying the morning sunshine from the top balcony.

Lali’s son Irakli (who I had first emailed) worked as a ski instructor in Vermont while studying in the U.S. and currently lives with his American wife in Cambodia, while her daughter was a Tbilisi model before marrying a Georgian National Rugby player, and her third son lives in England. Lali’s husband Victor is a former Russian physicist from Vladivostok (the Juneau of Russia that sits on the Sea of Japan all the way across Siberia) who quietly understands English although doesn’t use it as much as Lali, is constantly displaying a hospitable smile, and doesn’t mind socializing with the rap-listening and vodka-drinking ski instructors. So needless to say, it’s an unusual Georgian family.

So when Lali built IkiSki, she had her architect friend draw up the plans and used only local material for the construction (the stones for the foundation and the hearth came from a quarry five kilometers up the road). Every inch of IkiSki had at least a little bit of thought put into it. On the first floor is the dry room, equipment room, and then the common area, which is similar to something one might see in an especially cozy European hostel: giant fireplace, comfy sofas and chairs strewn about, a CD-player with surround sound (without a doubt, the best music collection I’ve come across in a Georgian household: The Doors, Janis Joplin, Led Zeppelin, Marvin Gaye, and Nina Simone), a DVD player with projector to show movies, and an excellent coffee table (something I rarely see in Georgia) on which we were constantly playing chess or nardi.

My buddies Joel and Mic getting into some heavy nardi in the common area.

There is also the eating area and kitchen on the first floor, to which we had free reign, but for the most part we tried to stay out of the way of the IkiSki cooks who made all our delicious meals, which were prepared based on our requests (Lali even had them make sats’ebeli [spicy Mingrelian tomato sauce] after I mentioned how much I loved it). The second floor has all the dorm rooms where we slept. It also has a foosball table, which was unfortunately missing an actual foosball (there is a Ping-Pong table in the basement as well, but with only one paddle. As Lali said, “You can’t have nice things with kids around.”). The third floor, where Lali and Victor stay along with the ski instructors, wasn’t off limits to us adult guests, and anytime we wandered up, there was a good chance of being offered coffee, or more likely a shot of vodka or a beer.

IkiSki runs as a ski school during a majority of the ski season. They offer twelve-day camps, in which kids from ages six to fourteen will come, learn to ski, and have fun for about two weeks. Usually they rent out any extra beds if they aren’t to full capacity on the second floor, but luckily for us, they had just finished their season so there was plenty of room and no kids around (we teachers get enough child-time during the work week, so we had no desire to feel like we were at school on our weekend vacation). There are four Georgian ski-instructors who run the everyday skiing, speak better English than some of our co-teachers (Disclaimer: Just kidding TLG!), and are fairly young. They made good company, loved to party (I’m pretty sure they were more or less letting loose after a long season of instructing), and were more than helpful when it came to fitting the equipment.

My friends Tom and Dirk with one of the other ski instructors Dato, who if anything can be said about, loved to party.

Equipment fitting was actually one of the first things we did when we got to IkiSki on Friday. It was too late to go up to the big mountain of Didveli, plus we consisted of four beginner skiers with two girls being first-timers. We thought about walking over to the bunny slopes that were right down the road, although it didn’t make sense to pay the 25 Lari rental fee for the entire day when we would only get in a little more than an hour of skiing. But when Lali could sense our hesitancy, she immediately told us she wouldn’t charge us for Friday, quite a generous offer that convinced us all that despite her unique character, she still had a bit of Georgian in her.

My Georgian friend Nino catching some rays on the IkiSki front porch

So I’m already 2000-words into my IkiSki love affair, but I have to wrap this up soon. All I can say is that if you are ever thinking of going up to Bakuriani, check out IkiSki. I know it might not be ideal when the kids are there, and it is a bit expensive (at least for TLGers making 500 Lari a month), but the accommodation and the company of Lali and Victor are well worth any baushvebo (children) inconvenience. Also, they are in the middle of adding to the main building a completely separate guesthouse with private rooms and bathrooms, which they hope to have done by next season. Other plans include possibly turning the basement into a full-fledged bar with a sauna, while I did hint that the front porch (which has a perfect view of Didveli) had ample room for a hot tub.

The map of Bakuriani near the center of town, you gotta love the Georgian tourism office's persistence about being part of Europe. But not only is Georgia a part of Europe, Europe started here. Take that Greece.

As for the skiing in Bakuriani itself, we came at the worst possible time. The recent rising temperatures had melted a ton of the snow, and the weather on Saturday was terrible: wet and windy (when it’s windy, they close the second lift on Didveli which cuts out any challenging runs or steep descents). But our plans for an early exit on Sunday were dashed when we awoke to a shining sun, no wind, and a slight temperature drop, meaning the snow would have hardened overnight. All of which led my buddy Mic and I to give Didveli another go. It ended up being excellent skiing despite having to stick to the groomed runs. It was still patchy in some spots, but all the other skiers tended to fly down the middle of the run, leaving the outer edges untouched and as close to powder as one can get given the conditions.

And finally, the view at the top of Didveli on a clear day is stunning; on Sunday I could see all across the Southern Caucasus and into Armenia. Needless to say, if I’m in the area next winter, I definitely want to come back when the season is in and the snow is good. It seems like a big enough ski space, while apparently one of the other slopes offers some of the more challenging runs in Georgia.

But I may not have to wait until next winter, because Bakuriani also struck me as an awfully pleasant place to spend a summer weekend. As mentioned before, there are plenty of other activities to keep you occupied, and the hiking has to be challenging and sprawling. In fact, Lali mentioned a 25-kilometer hike to a glacier lake that particularly piqued my interest. So perhaps I’ll go back before the snow falls again. I know that if I do, I’ll be staying at IkiSki.

A shot of Didveli from the road near IkiSki. If you haven't noticed, I figured out you can do some pretty amazing things with iPhoto...

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Sweet... Sweet Shuki

Easily on of my favorite pictures I've taken in Georgia
Recently I started rereading Wendell Steavenson’s Stories I Stole, which is a personal account of the two years Steavenson spent living in Georgia from 1999 to 2001. If you go all the way back to the point where I reignited the blog and switched the focus from Pittsburgh Sports to my travels in Georgia, I mention Steavenson’s book as possible reading material for those unfamiliar with Georgia.

I remember reading Stories I Stole the first time and thinking, what am I getting myself into? I was halfway through the book before I even left the States (the second half of the book drifts away from Georgia and focuses more on her personal struggle and relationship with a German photographer), and though I had read other content telling me the country was in much better shape since the Rose Revolution, I was still a little startled at how bleak a picture Steavenson painted in her stories.

This is from my recent hunting experience in Martvili

Some of the aspects of Georgian culture she reflects on have stood the test of a decade and still hold true today, including this very prescient passage regarding the drinking culture of toasting, tamada, and suphras:

It was a kind of aggression. When they did not know you well, they filled your glass and filled it again and carefully watched how you drank it. This was their measure of you; this was done to disarm you… The quantities, however, were still very large and could provoke either love or violence. This was the Georgian way, friend or enemy with nothing in between. History was lost in tradition, drinking a way of remembering and forgetting at the same time. (pg. 10, Stories I Stole)

That was the good stuff that I was looking forward to. The more alarming characteristic was laid out in the next 18-pages in a chapter entitle Shuki. Now, all Georgians and anybody else who has spent significant time in Georgia understand what shuki means—power (actually, literally, it means light, but that's neither here nor there). And I’m not talking about Saakashvili power, I’m talking about the type of power that keeps the lights on, the hot water flowing, and space heater pumping… electricity.

These are the mountains of Samegrelo, quite stunning on a clear day

In Steavenson’s stories, she describes a sort of third-world Tbilisi in which you might get an hour of shuki in the morning and an hour at night. A Tbilisi where only 20% of the residents would pay their power bills, while a majority of those who didn’t would just bribe an official to reset the meter (including Steavenson herself). A Tbilisi where candles gave you light and tchatcha gave you warmth.

But that was ten years ago (the back of my head says, 2001 was ten years ago? Jeebus, am I getting old), so it didn’t surprise me all that much when I got to Georgia and didn’t experience any of the shuki problems Steavenson so excellently described in her writing. Every couple days the power might go out for a few hours, but it was never for all that long and never caused that big of a problem (the main reason for blackouts was weather [rain, snow, wind], although sometimes there was no rhyme or reason to the sudden darkness). When it did hinder a deadline or a teaching priority, at first it was problematic, but like all other inconveniences in Georgia, you just adapt and get used to it—roll with it as my Dad says.

The landmarks of Tbilisi seen at dusk

Now, I live in a village of Samegrelo, so I’m sure that some people have it better than me especially Tbilisi, but also including even those who live in the towns and cities of West Georgia (except for Guria, nobody cares about Guria). Hell, even Martvili, which is ten kilometers farther away from the main power grid, would have shuki while I was reading by candlelight in Bandza. Nevertheless, I think I have it pretty good; some of my fellow TLGers were and are much worse off (like my friends in Guria, where they might go multiple days without shuki despite immaculate weather).

It’s almost a contest between teachers to see who has it the worst. Well, I have to walk a kilometer to use the communal out-house, or I’ve only eaten bread for the past week, or the always pleasant, You don’t even want to know how long it’s been since I showered. But usually it always comes back to shuki, and when it does, it’s always a score of hours or sometimes days, You had power for three hours yesterday? I would kill for that.

The nicest building in Bandza; our Police Station

Well last week, I think the shuki issue tested almost everyone’s patience. There were unbelievably strong windstorms (at times, I found myself running at a standstill during my Friday jog) throughout West Georgia starting last Wednesday, which continued until Sunday morning. Thus, power was cut in and out throughout the region for the past week (they are still getting things together).

This is probably the worst I have had it since I got here, which really isn’t that bad compared to some (as mentioned, Guria has it rough) and definitely nothing compared to how it was ten years ago; but it does make you realize how lucky you are when you do have power. For me, it really doesn’t matter as long as my Kindle is charged up and I have candles, coffee, and matches. But it is problematic in regards to blogging, email correspondence (a vital cog in my existence), and teaching related tasks (worksheets, lesson planning, and TLG required reports).

So when you haven’t had power for a few days, you get a little antsy: I really want to listen to the new Radiohead album; I would give anything just to check my email; Can I not have to tutor Rezi and Luka under candlelight? So as I sit around and realize I’ve spent the past six hours reading The Odyssey, I might get a little down on myself and the situation. But then! Something flickers, the light on my electronic regulator turns green, and the magic of shuki lifts my spirits like a long awaited text message from a deep crush.

The road from Bandza to Martvili; avoid the cows...

People love to use the phrase you never appreciate what you’ve got until it’s no longer there. Usually this is in reference to a relationship or a recent breakup, but it can easily fit for how we in Georgia think about that sweet, sweet shuki. This afternoon, after I got home from school, there was again no power; so I ate, read a little, and then decided to go on a run, during which I conjured up some thoughts for this very post. But when I got back to the farm, I came to the realization that those thoughts would have to be put on the backburner as my laptop was out of juice and there was most likely ara shuki (no power). But when I opened the door to my room and saw that all-important green light glowing on my e-protector, I almost did a Tiger Woods fist-pump. And now I’m writing this all before the fortune of shuki turns it’s back against me and all is dark again.

There was one line that came from one of Steavenson’s Georgian friends named Kakha that really encapsulated what shuki means to anybody who has lived in Georgia, “In England, you have electricity. But you do not have the happiness that comes when the electricity comes!”

My host-father Lasha loves to curse the President’s name when the power is out. When he sees me, he looks at me incredulously, points at a nearby lighting fixture, and utters, “Oh… ah… Saakashvili… stupid.” (Like all other Georgians, Lasha might not know the English word for smart, but he definitely know the English for sureli [stupid]). I just laugh rather than try to argue with him on how ridiculous it is to blame the President for a power-outage. But my favorite Gabunia shuki tradition comes from Luka. Whenever we are sitting in the small house trying to stay warm while reading under shared candlelight, and the power abruptly comes back on, Luka will clasp his hands together, look to the lights hanging from the ceiling, and say in English, Thank you, Misha! Gets me every time.

I guess on the Gabunia farm, Misha giveth shuki and Misha taketh away.

Beautiful nature and harsh reality, staples of rural Georgia

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Thailand Positives... Finally

Oh, Firenze, how I miss you...

I remember coming back from Italy in August with a mostly negative outlook on the people of Italy. But as time fades, I look back fondly on some of the Italian people I was lucky enough to know (particularly the family I lived with for my first 5 weeks and a younger couple who ran a night café a block off of the Duomo [it’s been so long I forget their names]), and also start coming up with reasons for why I was so down on the culture in the first place.

One of my favorite places to drink in Firenze, on the dam in the middle of the Arno

When I got back to the States, to anybody who asked How was Italy, I would immediately point out how self absorbed and unwelcoming I found the people. But it wasn’t really fair for me to generalize all of the Italians in that way; I really should have been more specific. Since I spent almost all of my summer in Firenze, any judgment I made on Italy was shaped primarily from my experiences with Florentines, not all Italians (hell, I didn’t even make it to the East Coast or south of Rome). So to be clear, I found Florentines to be self-absorbed and unwelcoming.

But even then, can I really blame them for acting that way? For six months of the year, Americans infest Firenze like the seven plagues. And if it isn’t the older retirees who won’t spend money outside of their all inclusive tours while losing all sense of patience for anybody that doesn’t understand English, then it’s the university students who get drunk in their public squares and pee on their monuments. So, understandably, it breads a certain dislike.

This is a famous sit from one of the bridges in Firenze; couples would lock a lock to the bars as a symbol of their everlasting love.

In the end, I found Firenze to be split into two types; 1). The tourist hawkers in the center of town who were overly friendly but only because they could smell the newly minted Euros in your billfold. 2). Everyone else, who wasn’t concerned with tourism and only wanted to be left alone. Once they could tell you were foreign, they just didn’t care for you (and they certainly didn’t want to hear you butcher their language while trying get to know them). While I was living there, it was certainly off-putting and (more importantly) frustrating; while traveling or living abroad, I like meeting new people—especially locals. But in retrospect it makes total sense. I’m definitely willing to give Italy another chance, but definitely not in a big tourist trap type city such as Firenze (although I really enjoyed traveling through the other parts of Tuscany).

There were other aspects I didn’t appreciate about Firenze culture that I suspected could more accurately be placed in a general Italian category: the creepiness of the men, their inability to walk like civilized human beings on the sidewalks (how hard is it not to walk four abreast, or avoid walking straight into someone going the opposite way), the length of their phone conversations when sitting next to you in public places or on public transportation, and the creepiness of the men (seriously, very creepy).

The replica David at the Piazza de Michelangelo in Firenze

But the one thing that can consistently leave a bitter taste in your mouth is a final impression. For me, it was on my flight home from Rome to Detroit, which reminded of the utter indifference Italian people had towards parenting—mainly the way children acted in public spaces and the lack of concern or discipline they showed towards it. There were kids running up and down the aisle-ways the entire flight (I’m not kidding when I say the entire flight; all eight hours), who not only continually bumped into unsuspecting passengers (often waking them up [this happened to me twice]), but amplified their annoying behavior by screeching and yelling non-stop. One of the worst flying experiences I ever had to go through.

The Duomo; or as the tourists call it, 'the domo'

Now that might not sound like a reasonable explanation for why I held such a lasting grudge. And you’re right. It’s not. For the most part, everything I wrote above is fairly irrational. I had an amazing time in Italy, met some fantastic people (foreigners, ex-pats, and Italians alike) who remain friends to this day, got to take advantage of numerous incredible experiences (biking through Tuscany and attending a Fioretina FC match), and I know I’m a much better person for the experience.

In good time, if not already, I’ll look back on Thailand with the same fondness. The similarities are eerie enough: the dishonesty I felt, the impersonal encounters, and the longing to meet real locals (or more accurately, finding myself only visiting places filled with foreigners). Plus the all-important negative lasting impression (if you don't recall from a previous post, our taxi driver tried to charge us three times the normal rate for our ride to the Bangkok airport). But I’ll get over it; in fact I already can’t wait to go back for another crack.

It was raining one day at the beach, so I grabbed my book and enjoyed a refreshing drink

All I have to do to forget my negative memories of Thailand is flip through my pictures. A quick tour though iPhoto has me reminiscing about the amazing people I met and places I saw. First, the people.

On Koh Lanta I met the stangest diversity of people, mainly through the daily beach-volleyball game that started at around 4:30 p.m. everyday. It was a motley group of people that at any time could include Swedes, Fins, Thai (two lady-boys who could have beaten Ice Man and Maverick), Germans (every one of them spoke excellent English), Aussies, Swiss, Italian (this guy named William who spent every winter in Koh Lanta, was a bit of an asshole in only the way an Italian can be , and loved to utter bravo after every good point), and then a lone American (me).

The damn Canadians

There was also a Canadian couple from Vancouver who were spending the winter in Southern Thailand; the girl (Sui) was running her fashion company from her blackberry, while the guy (Chris) was picking up spare jobs leading diving trips to small islands. Visiting them while I happened to cross paths was Chris’ Mother (Paulette) who adored her son beyond belief, had a wicked smoker’s voice, and never had a problem telling you what was on her mind.

I also met a gay English couple (Ian and Oliver) who were writing off the vacation to a business expense as they were “investigating tailors and manufacturers in the market for production of some of their lower end product.” They ran an upscale clothier that specialized in coming to the client for fittings, because, as Oliver put it, “If you asked our clients to go shopping, they wouldn’t even know what you were talking about.”

Then there was a 15-year old Norwegian kid (visiting his father who had a house in Thailand) also named Oliver who spoke perfect English, tried to teach me some Thai (unsuccessfully), was amazed when I told him I didn’t have a PS3 or Xbox360 (he had both that he had paid for from his earnings as a bus boy in Norway [when I was fifteen, I was taking out the garbage once a week for beer money]), and, for a teenager, could handle his Bicardi Breezers like a seasoned pro.

Then there was my Austrian buddy Armin, who I met while traveling from Railay Beach to Koh Phangang. He saw that we shared a destination (in Thailand, the travel companies brand you like cattle with a sticker bearing your end point) and struck up a conversation. Armin ran his own electrician company, had traveled through Mexico and even spent some time in Cuba, spoke fluent English (his favorite phrase to use in exasperation, come onnnnnn) and was a born conversationalist like myself (the content might not always be there, but the spirit is).

My Austrian buddy Armin, carefully reading his Southern Thailand guide.

Not all of my encounters were so satisfying, like the group of South African girls I had drinks with in Railay. I never thought that the white South African accent sounded so similar to Cher from Clueless. I ended up wandering off after one of them used the word colored when referring to a native. There were also the roving bands of Australian guys who were there for the obvious reasons and didn’t give a rat’s ass how obnoxious they were. You could spot these guys a mile away; Chang or Tiger Beer singlet, Quicksilver board shorts (buy Aussie!), flip-flops (or thongs as they call them), and sunnies (sunglasses) covering their eyes as they scan the bar for the cheapest looking prostitute. Okay, that may be a little harsh; I find Australians to be extremely entertaining, it’s just that South East Asia is like their Cozumel.

But even the few annoying foreigners I ran into couldn’t ruin all the incredible friendships I made (and this even isn’t mentioning all the equally amazing people I met in Malaysia). There were the two lovely Irish girls I intruded on at my hostel in Bangkok; they had started traveling in India and were making their way to Laos, Vietnam, and Cambodia before heading down the Malay Peninsula and ending up in Sydney where they expected to find jobs. There was also the trio of girls from Quebec City who just had that French-Canadian intrigue about them (beautiful, skinny, smoked cigarettes), but instead of being apathetic and disgusted that I was American, these girls were actually cool. I briefly considered following them to Koh Tao, but decided that might be too much.

All in all, I met a ton of cool people. But as you can tell, most of them were foreigners. And from my previous posts, you can probably guess that I won’t have anything positive to say about many Thai people. It is tough, because the only Thai people I encountered were serving me a beer rather than sharing one with me. Of the three places I spent significant time (Koh Lanta, Railay, and Koh Phangang), I met zero Thai tourists or vacationers. With good reason though; it was the absolute peak season and there’s a reason these places are so popular with foreigners.

I’ll make an apt comparison for my American readers. There’s a reason South Carolinians don’t vacation in Hilton Head, because it’s filled with people from Ohio (South Carolinians most hated adversary), it’s more expensive (meaning you get less value for your money), and there are better beaches and golf courses all along the South Carolina coast (Fripp, Kiawah, Edisto, Folley, IOP, Pawley's, and my personal favorite Sullivan’s Island).

God, do I miss that food.

Thai people aren’t going to the spots I went to for the same exact reason; in their eyes it’s a rip off and they know of better places to go anyways. And as a yuppie-white person, it’s my ever lasting dream to find out where those places are so I can one day say, Oh, you went to Koh Samui, I heard that’s… nice. But next time you’re in Thailand, you should check out Koh (insert obscure island here). I heard about it from a Thai friend (name-dropping of an indigenous friend is always a plus) and it was paradise on earth. I was the only foreigner there (this is the killer).

So all of my encounters were made from the type of economical encounters that don’t usually precede friendship. But I’d be remiss in not mentioning Jip, the proprietor of the bungalows I stayed in on Koh Lanta (Blue Moon Bungalows on Long Beach). I was recommended the place from two English girls I had met in Kuala Lumpur, and they actually told me to ask for Jip. Amazing guy and super laid back: never wore a shirt or shoes, never worried about bills (I would often forget to pay for a coke or pad-thai only for him to casually ask me if he remembered correctly the next time I sat down to eat), and helped me out with anything and everything (where to go, what to eat, and how to get to my next destination). I’m also pretty sure he was supposed to charge me for wi-fi and just never did.

Jip and the chef at Blue Moon Bungalows in Koh Lanta (I can't believe Jip was wearing a shirt here)

Then there was the restaurant that was right next to my room (they didn’t have a bungalow for me, but set me up in a room with a fan, giant bed, and no bugs [a rarity for beach-accommodation in Thailand] for a cool $10 a night). I tried to spread the word, but it really was some of the best food I have ever tasted (easily the best pad-thai I ever had). The chef, who was the only other employee there, would let me watch him make the food; everything was fresh, it was all absurdly cheap (no more than $4 for a meal) and he knew exactly how spicy I liked it (most of the food served in Thailand is left for you to spice it yourself, and I tended to go overboard). I’ll just let the pictures do it justice.

There were certainly other aspects of Thai culture I really enjoyed: the buses (cleanest and nicest buses I have ever been on; they had forty-inch flat screens showing movies), the food (Lord, do I miss the food), the beer (Chang is cheap, tasty, and has over 6% alcohol content), the football (they got any and every football match; for example, when I was waiting for my night ferry to Koh Phangang at a hawker center, they were showing the Everton/Scunthrope FA Cup match. I don’t even know if they were showing that in England), and of course the pure beauty (despite there being a ton of trash covering the beach that I stayed on in Koh Phangang, I was still in awe of some of the beaches and islands I got to experience [as I hope the pictures have conveyed to you]).

I should probably have split this post in half, and spent more time talking about the characteristics I mentioned in the paragraph above, but I need to get to my post on Vietnam before I completely forget the place (not to mention the backlog of thoughts I’m accumulating on Georgia since my return). So I think this is a good place to leave Thailand. On a high note. I miss you already.

Oh, Thailand, how I miss you...