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Friday October 9

I land at Tbilisi’s shiny new airport at 3:00 a.m. after an overnight Lufthansa flight from Munich.  Wonder of wonders, my bag arrives as well.  I haven’t checked a bag in eight years and I was less than enthused about it.  Unfortunately, the airlines, in their wisdom, have reduced the allowable weight for carry-on luggage and, because of the stack of resource material I am carrying, I entrusted my bag to the tender mercies of the airlines. 

George, the CESO driver, is there to meet me and drive me to the guesthouse.  My first impression of Tbilisi is that it is cleaner and brighter than it was six years ago.  There seems to be a lot of construction, including a massive Mariott hotel complex.  I see more restaurants and bars with bright signs, the streets are in much better repair and the cars are newer than I remember.  And most of all, the lights are on!  In 2003, the Russians were playing their games and there was no electrical power during the night.  But, I ask George if things are better now and he says:  “No, not better!”

When I arrive at #2, Gamsakhurdia Avenue and take the shaky old elevator up to the apartment on the top floor, I feel like I am coming home.  Dea greets me at the door and it is as if I have never been away.  I have trouble getting to sleep after confusing my poor body with two overnight flights, a day-hotel and nine time zones, but eventually, I sleep until past noon.

When I finally wake up, Dea has breakfast waiting for me.  It includes matsoni, a Georgian yoghurt, no flavour or sweetener added, very similar to the natural yoghurt in Greece.  She also serves me a cup of Georgian tea, made from tea leaves grown in the Guria region, where I am going for my volunteer assignment.  While I eat, Dea brings me up to date on the doings of all the people I met when I was here the last time.  Then she invites me to go to a wedding tomorrow, where I will get a chance to meet most of them.  What a treat!  The bride and groom are Jimmy and Nana who took me on tours of the Georgian countryside during my last visit.  Jimmy is a doctor and speaks good English and Nana is originally from Greece.  It will be lovely to see them again and an honour to attend their wedding.

During the afternoon, Dea's brother, Nikoloz, arrives home.  He is an ophthalmologist, as was their father.  Niko shares the apartment with Dea and their mother, Marina.

Supper brings another array of Georgian cuisine.  It begins with a very nice soup, flavoured with cilantro, the omnipresent herb in Georgian food.  The main course features a freshwater fish with a pleasant flavor but an unfamiliar texture.  The flesh is very soft and I am not quite sure if it is to my taste.  There is also a salad called ajapsandal.  Dea explains that it contains aubergine (eggplant), onion, garlic, carrot, Bulgarian (sweet) pepper, chili, tomato and, of course, cilantro.  Also, there are tomato and cucumber slices, sprinkled with cilantro.  Even for someone who doesn’t exactly enthuse over vegetables, it is a delicious meal.  Georgian cuisine stresses the importance of vegetables being very fresh and these certainly are.

To my surprise, the apartment now has an internet connection, which makes communication much easier and I also pick up a wireless connection that isn’t secure, so I can use that as well if needed.  Susan calls me on Skype and we get a usable connection.    There are still some of the usual Skype problems and in the end it drops our connection, but it does work.

 

Saturday October 10, 2009

Well, what a day in Georgia!  I go to Jimmy and Nana’s wedding. The couple actually had a civil wedding a few years ago (which is probably a good thing as they now have a one-year child).  Today they are getting married in the church, and, at the same time, having the little girl baptized.  The little one is named Theodora, which means ‘gift from God’ in Greek. They picked this name because they had tried for years to have a baby and had nearly given up when little Theodora showed up.

We arrive at the church a little late, but Dea says it’s OK, because she is in the wedding party and they can’t start without her.  Jimmy and Nana greet me like long-lost friends   and Nana introduces me to her mother and two sisters.  I trot out my few Greek phrases to impress them and they immediately unleash a torrent of Greek at me. I have to sheepishly admit that I am just showing off and I really don’t know more than a few dozen words.  I also meet Constantine, whom I know from last trip and we hit it off again, as we did before.  Dea and her mother introduce me to countless aunts, nieces and friends, most of whose names seem to be Nino. 

The church is a small one by Georgian Orthodox standards, but ornately decorated and the Byzantine architecture is very interesting.  There are no pews; everyone stands around the central space between the four huge main pillars that support the high dome.  The Orthodox service is completely incomprehensible to me, but it is interesting to watch the proceedings unfold.  In the fullness of time, after many ancient Georgian prayers, chanting, blessings and tasting of communion wine, the attendants hold wooden hoops over the heads of the wedding couple and the whole party, led by the priest, circles the altar three times.  I follow everybody to congratulate the newly-weds (and kiss the bride).  Then another priest takes over the duty of baptizing Theodora.  This may be the happiest baby I have ever met.  She never cries once during the whole long day, even when her outer clothes are stripped off and she is ceremoniously dunked in the baptismal font.  She does look slightly startled when the priest scoops up more water and pours it over her head and, when he tries to dunk her in the font a second time, she braces her feet on the edge of the bowl and scowls at him.

Wedding service

Nana, Theodora, Jimmy

The supra

After the ceremonies, we all adjourn to a restaurant for the supra or traditional Georgian banquet.  Jimmy asks Constantine to be the tamada, the toastmaster, who conducts the endless series of formal toasts, integral to every Georgian banquet.  The food is incredible and the wine supply apparently inexhaustible.  There is no main course, just an neverending succession of small dishes containing a bewildering array of Georgian delicacies.  Some are familiar, some totally strange.  Most are delicious, although the small boiled fish, about six inches long, with all parts intact, taste, well… fishy.  Each time I think the meal is over, out comes another dish.  About three hours in, the servers bring shashlik, large metal skewers with succulent pieces of pork, still sizzling from the grill.  I think I can’t possibly eat another thing – but I am wrong!  The very nice white wine is carried to the table in two-litre pitchers so many times I am tempted to believe there must be a tanker truck parked behind the restaurant.

The evening wears on, the guests begin to take their leave and the toasts become longer and less focused.  I have a chance to talk to Beso and the lovely Nino, whom I also met on my last trip.  Beso is a successful businessman and Nino is the director of a genetics lab in Tbilisi.  They were married just after I first met them and now have a child.  Beso decides that he has had enough wine and traditional Georgian food and we should all go somewhere for beer and a steak.  He drives us downtown to a narrow winding street in the oldest part of the city, where there is a very attractive restaurant and bar area.  Each establishment has tables out on the narrow cobblestone street where people can sit and enjoy the mild evening.  This area is just another example of the progress that has been made in turning Tbilisi from a post-soviet economic basket case into a modern cosmopolitan city.

 

Sunday October 11, 2009

Morning comes quite early! 

George arrives at 8:00 am to drive me to Ozurgeti, where I am scheduled to begin my assignment.  Constantine lives in Ozurgeti and is returning home, so he takes advantage of the ride and comes with me.  He is good company and makes the trip very interesting.  Blue skies and temperatures of 25°C make the trip through the Georgian countryside a delight.  We head north from Tbilisi along the Mtkvari River to Mtsketa, past the historic Jvari cathedral that I visited last time.  A brand new four-lane expressway carries us west through a broad fertile valley and bustling country towns.  Each town seems to contain the ruins of at least one soviet-era factory or mill, now rusting and derelict.  About 80 Km from Tbilisi we catch up to the construction crews building the new highway.  From here on, it is two-lane blacktop, but the intention is to eventually extend the new highway all the way to Batumi on the Black Sea coast.  The highway construction, probably carried out with European and U.S. aid, creates a visible economic boom where the money circulates through the local economy.

Damage to bridge by Russian bombs

The road leads us through Gori, birthplace of the notorious Iossep Jugashvili (a.k.a. Josef Stalin).  Gori is currently better known for being bombed by Russian planes during the war of August, 2008.  Gori suffered damage, but the city of Tskhinvali, capital of South Ossetia, just a few miles to the north, was virtually destroyed.  We drive past huge subdivisions with rows and rows of identical, newly-built cottages, now home to the refugees displaced by Russian aggression in South Ossetia.

The road leads us higher up into the foothills of the Lesser Caucasus mountains.  Eventually, we pass through a tunnel and emerge into the West Georgian province of Imereti.  From this point, the road snakes down through a picturesque, winding valley.  We drive beside clear mountain streams and pass through quaint villages.  Cows appear to have the right-of-way in rural Georgia. They amble along the shoulder of the roadway and stand on the pavement, totally disinterested in the cars and tractor-trailers which whiz by, missing them by inches.  I never see a dead cow, but dead vehicles are common.  Occasionally, we round a corner to find bossy reclining in the middle of the highway, contentedly chewing her cud.

We pass through Kutaisi, the capital of Imereti and the second-largest city in Georgia with a population of a quarter million.  Scholars believe that in the late Bronze Age, 1300 B.C., Kutaisi was the capital of Colchis.  This was the kingdom of King Aeetes, whose daughter was Medea.  Jason and the Argonauts sailed their ship, The Argo, to the coast of present-day Georgia and up the Rioni river, which is still navigable as far as Kutaisi.  As the story goes, Jason stole the Golden Fleece and the affections of Medea and took them both back home.

We continue west along the Rioni River and then turn off on a smaller road which leads into the province of Guria.  This narrow road winds and twists and switchbacks its way up and down over hills and through valleys until we finally arrive in the sleepy agricultural town of Ozurgeti. 

Aleko Mameshvili, the Director of Guria Agribusiness Centre meets us in the central square and makes me feel welcome with a big hug and a kiss on the cheek.  I am startled, but I guess it is the normal way for men to greet each other in West Georgia.  We go to the GABC modern, well-appointed office and I meet the other staff.  Manana Chkhaidze is the financial manager and Irina Surguladze is the public relations manager.  Zaza Mameshvili is the director of Agroproducts, a related company.  Aleko speaks English well and Irina is fluent, so communications are not a problem.  We have a brief meeting to introduce ourselves to each other.  Aleko explains the concept of the Guria Agribusiness Centre and briefly outlines what they are trying to accomplish.  I tell them about myself, my background and what I hope to be able to contribute during my two-week stay.  I explain that my experience lies in being a practical businessman, and I am not any kind of expert.  I don’t feel comfortable with making presentations that may or may not meet their needs, but I will listen to their issues and make suggestions and give input whenever I can.  I tell them that I am particularly looking forward to meeting some farmers and visiting some farms so I can grasp the situation and understand the challenges.  They seem content, possibly relieved, with what I propose.

GABC staff:  Irina, Aleko, Manana

Manana at work

Guest house

After the meeting, Aleko takes me to the guesthouse, a five minute walk from the office.  Beso, the caretaker, shows me my room and the facilities.  It is a large house and the family must have been prosperous in Soviet times.  The rooms are large, with high ceilings and parquet floors.  The bathroom facilities are adequate and very clean.  Several other men are staying here as well, but we share no common language, so I don’t know anything about them.

We then retire to a nearby restaurant, which is attached to a small brewery and seems to be called “Ozurgetibeer”.  I like it already!  We have a very nice meal with Natakhtari, a good local beer, some local wine and several toasts.  I am told that I may not drink to a toast until I have made one of my own on the same topic.  It is a good incentive.

 

Monday October 12

Each day, at about 2:00 p.m., we knock off work and go to a restaurant for a huge Georgian meal.  This always includes far too much food; too much wine for mid-afternoon and way too many toasts that it would be extremely impolite not to participate in.  Once I get home, I usually need a serious nap, so I can be conscious in time for supper.

I arrive at the GABC office Monday morning for my first day of work.  I spend a fair bit of time with Irina and Manana, showing them the resource material I brought with me.  They are enthused about it and Manana asks me for some specific help:  she is working on a marketing plan (I think her first) and she has lots of templates and instructional material off the internet, but she would like to have an actual example of a marketing plan that someone else has done.  It would give her confidence to know that what she is creating measures up to professional standards.  I promise to find one for her.

Then a local farmer arrives from the nearby village of Shemokmedi.  Valerian Mgeladze is not a typical Gurian farmer.  He attended university in Russia, graduating as an agronomist and is a consultant to GABC.  He owns four hectares of land (about ten acres), a very large farm in an area where most are half to one hectare.  On this land, he raises seven cattle (including five milk cows), pigs and chickens.  The milk from the five cows is made into cheese and sold locally in the markets.  His mother is a master cheese maker.  He grows hazelnuts, 6 to 7 tonnes of kiwi fruit, corn, soybeans and enough grapes to make 2000 litres of red wine, “for personal use only”, he says with a grin.  He has applied for a grant to help build a greenhouse so that tomatoes and cucumbers can be grown for sale year round.  The greenhouse will need heaters during the night from mid-December to mid-February.  The temperature sometimes plunges to -5°C for a night or two.  Pretty tough climate!

Valerian Mgeladze

Entertaining the client

Eating kinkhali

 

Kinkhali

I ask Valerian what his biggest problems are.  The first is the availability and cost of credit.  It is nearly impossible to get credit from local banks and even if a loan were offered, the interest would be anywhere from 16% up to 40%.  This is at a time when interest rates worldwide are at historic low levels.  His other major problem is the “American Butterfly”, which attacks tomato plants, although I don’t know what species he is referring to.  I ask Valerian about his plans for the future and he tells me he hopes to increase the size of the farm and hire some full-time employees.

We then retire to a restaurant for lunch.  Along with the usual array of Georgian culinary delicacies, we have khinkali.  I tasted these on my last trip, in the province of Kakheti, where they are the native specialty.  Khinkali are little bell-shaped dumplings containing meat and cooked in boiling water.  They are liberally flavoured with black pepper and eaten by grasping the ‘stem’ and biting into the dumpling.  This inevitably releases a torrent of juice to run down your chin, but the flavor is exquisite and they are one of my favourite Georgian dishes.  We go back to the office after lunch, but soon it is the end of the working day and time for my afternoon nap.

 

Tuesday October 13

The staff of GABC plans to attend an International Trade Exhibition in Munich Germany in late November.  They will have a booth to promote Georgian tea and other products.  In order to apply for German visas, they need a letter of invitation from the organizers of the exhibition and they have been waiting anxiously for it.  Today, Aleko receives a phone call from DHL Courier in Batumi that the letter has finally arrived.  Aleko, Zaza and I (the newest member of the GABC team) head out in Aleko’s Mercedes to fetch it.

Batumi is a major port city on the Black Sea, near the Turkish border and is the western terminus of the Georgian Railway.  Since the border with Turkey opened, virtually all long-distance truck traffic from Europe passes through Batumi.  It is the capital of the region of Ajara, which until recently, was the personal fiefdom of Aslan Abashidze, a local strongman.  He was at odds with Tbilisi and ran the region as an autonomous state.  One of President Sakashvili’s major successes was to depose Abashidze in 2004 and make Ajara fully part of Georgia again. 

Ajara is a beautiful, fertile region with a pleasant sub-tropical climate.  Bamboo and palm trees are common and tea and citrus fruits are major crops.  During Soviet times, the prices for these crops were high and input costs were subsidized.  The farmers of Ajara were very prosperous and many large farmhouses attest to how well off people were in “the good old days”.  Even now, with loss of Russian markets for their crops, the farmers still appear to have a more comfortable life than in many other parts of the country. 

Batumi is a beautiful city!  It is an important seaport but also a very popular seaside resort town.  It was a major holiday destination for Russian tourists but fell on hard times when the Soviet period ended.  The conflict between Georgia and Russia over territory means that all those tourists now only visit the Russian-controlled region of Abkhasia, further north along the Black Sea coast.  To help convince the Ajarans that they are better off as part of Georgia, Sakashvili is pouring tons of money into Batumi.  The downtown area has many elegant old buildings, which are now beautifully restored.  The streets are newly-paved, there are fountains, well-kept parks and many new and modern hotels.  I expected to see a shabby, old-fashioned resort, but there is very little evidence of post-soviet decline and decay in this lovely place.

I fulfill a long-standing goal and get my picture taken dipping my fingers in the Black Sea.  The beach is stony, not sandy, but the small stones are smooth and rounded.  Even though the tourist season is over there are several couples sunbathing, having picnics and swimming in the warm salty water.  Several small freighters are anchored off, waiting their turn to load or unload in the busy port.  This is a major transshipment point for crude oil from Azerbaijan which is processed at the Batumi refinery for use in Georgia or loaded on ships for further destinations.

We go for lunch to rather bizarre looking place – built like a huge wooden sailing ship, parked on the beach.  Inside, it is actually a very nice restaurant, seating about 200.  By now I have come to take massive, delicious lunches for granted, but this time I am in for a special treat.  Kachapuri is a staple at every Georgian meal.  It is usually very much like a plain cheese pizza and it is eaten as an appetizer course while waiting for the main courses.  Apparently, Ajarian kachapuri is famous all over the country and nothing will do but I have to try it.  A large, flat bread is hollowed out and filled with cheese, like the typical kachapuri, but in Ajara, they add a lot of butter, milk and an egg and then bake it in the oven until it all cooks together.  It is delicious, and would easily, by itself, provide a meal for several people – not just one middle-aged Canadian who is also expected to eat a small, tasty fish, some shashlik, tomato and cucumber salad and wash it all down with quite a bit of a famous semi-sweet red wine called kvanchkara.  One of the reasons this wine is famous is that it has the dubious distinction of being the favourite of Josef Stalin.  The other reason is that it is very tasty, indeed.

Strange restaurant

Ajaran kachapuri

Stalin’s favourite wine

 

We climb back into Aleko’s Mercedes and make our way homeward to Ozurgeti, dodging careening minibuses, lumbering Turkish tractor-trailers and nonchalant Georgian cows!

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