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

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