Sunday, December 26, 2010

Merry Christmas

A blurry photo taken of one of the many decorated Christmas trees that line Orchard Drive in Singapore.

Unfortunately, I am not with my real family in Toledo, OH, watching my seventh showing of A Christmas Story while sucking down a BM (that's a Bloody Marry in Schneider Family vernacular) and waiting for my Aunt to finally get to my Grandfather's house so I can open up all of my gifts, most of which of the gag gift kind (Chuck Berry Records, and past-expiration date Spam).

I am also not with my host-family in Bandza, who, since today is not Christmas in Georgia, are probably not doing much at all. Maybe gearing up for the two weeks of Georgian slothfulness that ensue from New Years Eve until Old New Years. Alas, I will be missing out on it all.

But I am with my Mother in beautiful Malaysia, while last night (technically Christmas night here) I stumbled onto the 2nd Annual Kuala Lumpur Biker Festival in downtown KL (the party was a stone's throw away from the famous KL Towers). Never before have I jammed out to reggae music in a country that looks down upon the use of cannabis (if you want to call life in prison looking down upon) next to women in burqas.

As much as I miss both of my homes (Bandza and the States), that's a story I can tell the Grandkids some day. I hope you're Christmas is treating you just as well.

Happy Holidays,

Friday, December 24, 2010

The Farther North, The Better

I don't have any picture of Malaysia uploaded yet, so I'll post my favorite picture yet. This was taken at the Singapore Zoo. Nothing I hate more than Tourist Attractions and Ed Hardy.

I don't want to make Singapore sound all bad. I really liked Little India, where there were a ton of neat looking hostels and some good local food and bars. I especially liked one guy starting a conversation with me at a stop light about how there are too many immigrants in Singapore now (despite he, himself being Indian), and how much the American dollar sucks now. My apology didn't seem to make up for the money he lost.

But we made it into Malaysia despite quite the cluster at the boarder (a lot of passport stamping, line waiting, and getting off and on of buses), and into Jahor Bahru. When I asked the cab to drop me off at the city center from our hotel (which was a few kilometers outside the town), he dropped me off at giant mall (only when I later got lost while driving into Malaka did I realize that the word Senter in Malaysia meant the bus depot more or less). I immediately thought, this is no better than Singapore. But then I purposefully got lost, ran into hawker center and a few cool looking buildings (the Sultan Ibrahim Building and the Sultan Abu Bakar Mosque), stumbled around a bazaar while trusting my good friend's advice of spending my money in Thailand and not in Malaysia (my response, how can it possibly be cheaper?), and had a much better feeling about the city then when I was first plopped down a few hours before.

As I was having my second meal that night (I try to have two dinners, as I want to take advantage of the food here as much as possible), I heard this loud singing, which resembled more of a moan, coming from somewhere nearby. I have never been to a Muslim country before, so I had no idea that the sound was in fact the Adhan (Islamic call to prayer usually played from loud speakers adorning the mosque and surrounding minarets). I found it somewhat soothing, despite the sound quality of the speaker hanging from the minaret which neighbored the restaurant where I was eating.

I can't go on much further, as it's late (technically it's Christmas already in Malaysia), I'm tired, and I have more traveling to do tomorrow. But the point of this post is to say that Malaysia is much better than Singapore, as I've yet to see a Hooters. Malaka (the city I am currently in) is awesome and reminds me of Charleston with it's history and proximity to the ocean and water way. I guess you could say the same thing about Singapore, but they haven't ruined it here as they did in Singapore. Okay, that's enough Singapore bashing for now.

Also, I haven't killed anyone on the roads yet, despite me being a virgin left-sider (no more!). I would say that observing Georgians maneuver on two lane highways definitely helped me while meandering up the coast today, although it did leave my Mother breathless a few separate times. I blame that on Georgia, though.

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Disneyland with the Death Penalty

As mentioned, I'll still try to keep a Georgian feeling rolling around on this blog, but since I couldn't find a Georgian Orthodox Church in Singapore, this Armenian Church will have to do.

I can't take credit for the title's description of Singapore, as it came from science-fiction writer William Gibson (who also kindly described this city-state as the 'world's only shopping mall with a seat in the United Nations'). But I can't say I don't agree with it.

This place is like a mixture of South Beach and Las Vegas placed at the Southern tip of the Malay Peninsula. It's weird. There are tons of franchised restaurants (especially along the river walk, which eerily reminds me any city in Florida near water, which is basically all of them). I mean, there's a Hooters here for Christ's sake. You're bombarded by everyone and anyone trying to sell you this tour or that tour, while the alcohol is far too expensive.

I've never been to Vegas, but I know what I do and don't like at this stage in my life, and from everything I've heard about Vegas, I'd take Charleston, SC over 'Sin City' any day of the week. To my untrained eye, Singapore seems a lot like Vegas in the sense that it would be fun if I had a ton of money, was traveling with five of my good buddies, and lacked a sense of dignity. Fortunately, I'm not there yet.

There are some things I really like about the city. It's easily walkable with what is widely considered the best public transportation in the world (although we didn't even get to use it today since we never had to). It's strikingly clean, which is mostly due to the harsh fines levied for anything from spitting to chewing gum. It's got a diverse culture with a deep history (what the hell is an Armenian Church doing in Singapore?). The food, when you get away from the tourist traps, is ridiculous... I'm going to hold off on the topic of food and how it compares to Georgian food for a little while, but I've never been in love with Georgian Cuisine, while I'm a spice, noodles, and seafood fiend. But to top it all off, I'm with my Mother, who I haven't spent a significant amount of time with in far too long. There's certainly a lot I've been happy about since I left Tbilisi on Monday evening.

I'm only here for another half of a day, which would make a little less than 48 hours (awesome movie by the way). I never like to make too harsh of a judgement on a place based on just two days, and a lot can go into a first impressions, especially the weather (this place is humid to an insufferable point, while it's been overcast since I got here). I'm sure if I had more time to spend here and maybe knew someone who had the lay of the land, I would lighten my criticism. After all, the list of places I truly despise can pretty much be narrowed down to the confines of West Virginia.

But I usually fall for anything new, which kind of explains my weird affinity for Georgia (the fact that Georgia keeps surprising me is probably what keeps the affair going). So the fact that I never really felt all that amazed by Singapore kind of struck me as odd. Then I realized that this place didn't feel all that different from a place I have been before: Downtown Disney.

Monday, December 20, 2010


So, I know I've probably been letting down a lot of readers recently with my lack of posts, the terrible state of the blog (it looks like shit and gives me a headache), and my never ending promises for improvement. But instead of coming through on those promises, I can only say that the blog will be even more inactive than it's been since the beginning of November as tomorrow I'm heading to SE Asia for four weeks.

I may or may not post some thoughts while there, but it is tough to justify doing anything of the sort while traveling. So I'm not promising anything, but don't be surprised if I do let some things leak from my brain once a week or so. And as usual, I will try to relate it to Georgia in some way, since that seems to be why most people come to this site.

But I will leave you with another promise in that I'll be updating more frequently in the New Year and when I get back to Georgia, as it will be cold, miserable, and I'll have another five months to go, but this time without many of my friends who are leaving for real this time.

Until then, be good. Kargad...

Friday, December 10, 2010


Me and my faithful PE teacher Lonia, who has been rocking his Mo for over twenty years. Odds are he is probably sick at volleyball as well.

By now, I’ve played several sports with Georgians while getting a capable grasp of their strengths and weaknesses in athletics. Not surprisingly, just like any other country in the world but America, Georgians are pretty good at football (despite how their national team may perform). But Georgians also really enjoy basketball. I think I’ve touched on this before, but they play basketball exactly like people who have played football their entire lives: frantic, physical, and with little skill at all. This combination makes them extremely tough to play with and against, since they continually foul and will jack up shots from any spot on the court (despite their devotion, few Georgians [a.k.a. Bandzans] know even the most basic basketball strategy).

I’ve yet to play rugby outside of leisurely tossing the ball around with Luka and Rezi, but I would think most Georgian men would excel in this activity based on the full-contact football they play. But I doubt the average Georgian can catch a properly thrown rugby ball based on the hand-eye coordination they display in other sports (many of my passes on the basketball court have caused a black eye or two).

But much to my surprise, Georgians are damn good at phrenburti (volleyball). Of course when I say Georgians, I’m really only talking about the men of Bandza. But if there’s enough skill in a small village of Samegrelo to get a consistently competetive game, then I think it’s safe to assume that the remaining 99.9% of the country’s population share a similar ability; that is unless—unbeknownst to me—I was assigned to the phrenburti pipeline of Georgia. Although Bandza does churn out some tall boys—or as my buddy Ian calls them, freaks.

I’ve never been much of a volleyball player, but like most sports (except for tennis; I suck at tennis), I can hold my own. Yet here, I often find myself acting as the weak link in my side. My neighbors here (when you live in a village, everyone is your mezobeli [neighbor]) are quite good at the sport, and play it with an ability (based on my previously mentioned lack of hand-eye-coordination, it’s quite surprising that that skill is conjured up for this activity) and strategy that they so sorely lack in basketball.

I mean, it’s not the Olympics, but they exercise strict positioning and generally try to use all three volleys to set up an optimal scoring chance. When a side receives a serviceable ball, they’ll aim a volley to the setter (who is always front-center with his back to the net) while yelling sami! [3] as a way to count down the volleys. The setter will then serve a nice ball up to a player ready to spike while calling out their name, Maxi!

Back in the States, when I play volleyball, there’s not nearly this much thought and strategy put into it (example: Georgians will lose their shit if a back-player does not shift forward to cover the player in front of him who’s going up to block a spike; ra ginda bitcho!). For us amateur Americans, usually the aim is to get the ball across the net without an unforced error. The thought process is more along the lines of ‘Let’s not fuck this up’ rather than the Georgian philosophy of ‘Embarrass your opponent by spiking a ball into their face,’ a tactic that I’ve been on the business end of more than a few times.

One person in particular who has tattooed my forehead with freakish consistency is my dance instructor Vephkhvia (probably as payback for my snail like progress in learning the dance he’s been drilling into me for the past month). Despite being decked out in formal dance shoes (shined to a ‘T’) and nice dress pants, the man dominates. It’s really Jekyll and Hyde, as he’s so gentle and elegant when on the dance floor, but when he walks onto the volleyball court, he turns into blood-thirsty maniac.

What is even more interesting than the level at which the men of my village play is how they play it. Smoking breaks are often, but that doesn’t mean you won’t see one of the older guys digging a spike out of the dirt with a cigarette dangling from his lips. Also, a point doesn’t go by without someone yelling at a teammate who messed up (unless it was me, who I think they just feel sorry for). Usually the shouting match doesn’t go past one exchange each, but the dialogue always consists of a forcefully dictated bitcho (boy) and something else that I believe translates into ‘What the fuck?’

And trust me on this one, you do not want to see the arguments that disputable calls can lead to. The questionable ruling usually arises from the ball hitting near the boundary (which is marked by a line made from a pick). I’m surprised I haven’t seen blows exchanged at least once, although today one guy feigned quitting after being forced to succeed his argument. Georgian men: passionate about politics and volleyball calls.

Another aspect, which drives me crazy, is their insistence on trying to use some crazy Ronaldinho move with their feet when trying to get the ball back to the server. More often that not the ball ends up wayward, delaying the game another thirty seconds. I swear that most people could play two games in the time span it takes us to play one game. For a finicky American, it’s beyond frustrating.

But what redeems it has to be how they express their displeasure after making an error (this is before being senselessly berated by a teammate). I’m constantly making mistakes, after which I’ll let out a long but slow bodishi (sorry) to which my teammates gracefully reply araphris (which, when used in this context, translates into something along the lines of ‘no worries’). But when Georgians muck up, they’ll immediately utter a remorseful and drawn-out deda (mother). The part that gets me is the manner in which they say it; like it’s been lodged up in their throat for years and they’re just now able to get it out. De….da.

Endnote: The men of Bandza are also sick at table tennis (ping-pong). So random.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Sunflower Seads, Ballgames, & Cleaning Up

This was a nice shot of a speed sign in Samegrelo that I found highly amusing

Georgians love sunflower seeds. There is not a place in this country—except for the churches—in which Georgians won’t find a way to chew on a couple seeds. You can buy them at any busy street corner in the country, usually from some hunchbacked Bebia (grandma) selling cigarettes, seeds, and possibly condoms. It kind of gives you the feeling that you’re constantly at all a ballgame; you know… if they sold cigarettes and condoms at sporting events.

Another aspect of Georgian culture that makes you feel as if you could be at Fenway or Wrigley: the women selling warm khatchapuri and lobiani from a tray they carry through the bazaars, all the while calling out the names of their product. It gets me every time, sending a slight nostalgic reminder of the ‘Lemonade Here’ guy at PNC Park. But let me tell you something, nothing hits the spot like a warm khabizgina (bread baked with potatoes and cheese) while trying to squeeze your way past haggling Georgians.

I digress; back to sunflower seeds. When outside, people just drop their shells on the ground leaving a nice Hansel and Gretel trail wherever they may be going. But if they are indoors, usually they will collect them in their hands for when they next hit the outdoors. Although that doesn’t mean the marshrutka floors aren’t cluttered with the seeds of former passengers.

The worst are the students at my school, who will sit in class, eat them at a non-stop pace, and drop the remains on the already dirty floor. I’ve tried my best to put a stop to it (especially in Tamari’s own classroom), but it’s kind of hard when the school actually sells them in our own tuck shop (a small room that sells pens, notebooks, lollipops, bread, and of course, packets of seeds).

But the students don’t really care at all about the school because there is no accountability. Every evening, a woman goes through the entire school and sweeps the place clean (side note: can’t they make brooms with longer handles for the women here? There’s a reason any woman over seventy is hunched over walking with a cane, and it’s because their brooms are the size of most people’s dust brooms).

So what’s the problem with dirtying the school if someone else is going to come through it every night to clean? What a wonderful message they’re sending to the youths of Georgia: Drop your garbage wherever. Someone else will clean it up for you. Maybe that’s the reason why the roadsides are cluttered with trash and there isn’t one public garbage can or dumpster within a ten kilometer radius of my village. But really, who doesn’t like the smell of burning garbage that constantly wafts through the air of Samegrelo?

I’d like to talk to my director about organizing a once a week crew made up of students that would help with cleaning. Although I feel like I might get a response along the lines of Why? That’s what we have the cleaning lady for. Another motto for Georgia: If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. And if it is broke, just put some tape on it.

Editor’s note: In true Georgian fashion, I don’t know what’s wrong with the Blog and why it looks this way, but until I get some overwhelming complaints or the problem doesn’t right itself, then I’m not going to do anything. This place is getting to me.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Lelo Burti

This is a shot of the National Stadium in Tbilisi, where the Georgian Rugby Team makes its home

On Saturday, the US Rugby team played the Georgian team in Tbilisi for a friendly match. Unlike their football team, Georgians love their rugby team because it’s somewhat internationally significant. Their team recently won the European championship and ranks fifteenth in the world, one spot behind the America team, which was much to my surprise since I always thought we were terrible; but really, how many countries even have Rugby teams? But it’s not surprising since rugby blends two things that Georgians love: men and contact.

I would have gone to the match at the national stadium in Tbilisi if I didn’t have a birthday to attend on Saturday night. Based on how many people were in attendance, it wouldn’t have been difficult to get a ticket; the crowd wore a blue and yellow shirt. Apparently the Georgian’s support hasn’t translated into actual bodies in the seats.

Anyways, since I couldn’t be there, I had three of my fellow Americans over to the house to watch it with my family. We bought beer (unfortunately, it was Natakhtari, which just happens to sponsor the Georgian Rugby Team; they don’t really have much selection at the markets in Bandza) and potato chips, as that’s what you need when watching an American sport’s team, while Ira stuffed us with satchmeli (food) and Khutcha (my cousin) constantly filled our glasses with the family wine. It was the best of both worlds.

I’ll be honest, I don’t know much about rugby, but it’s not that hard to understand at a basic level if you already know American football (don’t ask me about strategy though). I just wanted to see someone carted off on a stretcher, which nearly happened early on when an American player illegally clotheslined a Georgian player. Pretty sure Lasha spouted some not so flattering names towards the American culprit. If it were you or me, we would have been decapitated, but since the guy was a rugby player he got up after the initial shock had him down and out for a few moments.

Despite not really knowing what was going on, it was still a ton of fun to watch, with the Americans leading for almost the entire match. But Georgia was driving while down 17-12 in extra-time and had the ball near the end zone; the room was at a standstill in anticipation. I could taste the victory when suddenly the power cut out. Immediately, Lasha looked at me and exclaimed “Saakashvili!” It was a classic response.

Eventually Rezi got on the phone with his friend and found out that Georgia had scored, kicked the extra point, and won 19-17 (not quite what Luka predicted: a 24-12 Georgian victory). We didn’t believe him until the power came back on and the game was the top story on the news. As Ian exclaimed, the whole thing seemed staged, let’s cut the power, kill all the Americans, and act as if we won! But much to our chagrin, it was all too real.

I was kind of happy Georgia won anyways, as I really don’t have all that much invested into the American Rugby Team, and I had a feeling a Sakartvelo victory would mean much more to them than an American victory would for us. But my diplomatic stance didn’t stop Luka and Rezi from giving me constant business. Pretty soon we’re going to have a lesson on winning with humility.