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Our host family: Marika, Kakha, Taso, Sandro and Piso, the cat.

Friendship Force journeys to the “other Georgia”

By Bob Anderson

The Friendship Force of Big Canoe/North Georgia visited our many friends in the Republic of Georgia October 14-25. If you remember, our club hosted 15 of these Open World young business men and women in our homes in 2016 and 2017. They visited the U.S. to study entrepreneurism and agritourism. Open World is a Library of Congress funded program to help expedite democratic and capitalistic principles in Eastern European countries.

For our Journey to the “other Georgia” we truly had a diversified group—nine members from Big Canoe/North Georgia, two from Washington and seven from foreign countries including Canada, Australia, Germany and Alabama! We were home hosted most of the time by families from the Tbilisi Friendship Force Club. We took part in some activities that no tourist would ever experience!

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Meeting parliament members was a highlight. From left to right, Nini, Secretary-General, Minister of Parliament and Lana.

Georgia received its independence from Soviet rule in 1991. Real Georgians called their country Sakartvelo rather than Georgia. They are located in a “bad neighborhood” with Russia to the North, predominantly Muslim countries Turkey to the Southwest and Azerbaijan to the East; Armenia to the South shares its principles of democracy and Christian faith. Russia still occupies 20 percent of Georgia and are very proud of their young democracy and their strong Christian Orthodox faith.

Our Open World friends, Keta, Nini, Maya and Etuna held a very nice welcoming reception for us with local politicians. We sampled lots of Georgian food including khinkali (dumplings stuffed with cheese, mushrooms, meats or potato), and pelasuchi (grapes, sugar, walnuts) also known as Georgian Snickers. Some of us were brave enough to try some chacha and Georgian vodka. They provided entertainment with professional dancers performing several folk dances.

We toured Tbilisi, the capital city with a population of 1.5 million—almost one-third of the country lives in the city. It was founded in the fifth century and served as a major stop on the East-West Silk Trade route. Over the years it has been dominated by Romans, Muslims and Russians. Georgia signed a treaty with Russia in 1801 because they needed a “Big Brother” to help defend them in the region and they shared a common Orthodox faith; it was a good idea at the time!

Georgia is very committed to freedom of religion—from the Holy Trinity Cathedral you can see Armenian Orthodox, Russian Orthodox, Catholic and Jewish churches and synagogues. We visited some archeological ruins which had a popular thermal spring and bath house. Unfortunately, there are an estimated 50,000 stray dogs in Georgia left to fend on their own—it would bring a tear to the eye of any BCAR volunteer or dog lover! You have to be on alert for beggars and gypsies even small children!

We next did a day trip to Kakheti where we visited the St. Georgia Church and St. Nino (Patron Saint of Georgia) Monastery. Keta and Nana, our Open World friends, set up a fabulous six course plus luncheon with the Depute Patriarch—the #2 official in the Georgian Orthodox church. Keta translated several toasts that were made by the Patriarch and our group.

Nana then took us to a local archeological museum in nearby Sighnaghi; findings in the area go back to 1500 B.C. We did a walking tour which included the original walled city. Nana took us to Tsori to “her” Knowledge Café’ which she initiated. They provide educational material and training program for adults and children in the local community. Singers serenaded us with folk songs; more good food and we all had a chance to make our own Georgian Snickers!

The next day we headed North to Mt. Kazbegi (5000+ meters high) and the Darial Gorge on the Georgia-Russian border. I did not see Russia from my porch, but I did see it from the checkpoint. Russians are allowed to pass into Georgia but Georgians are not allowed to pass into Russia for fear they will be arrested. The first thing that greets Russian visitors at the border is a huge Orthodox Christian church. I think Georgians want to send a message.

We had lunch with another Open World alum, Shoda at a nice restaurant in Stepantsminda. After lunch Shoda escorted us to a picturesque 14th century monastery high up on a very rough dirt road in several four-wheel drive vehicles. The scenery was breathtaking from the monastery

The next day in Mtskheta our group visited the Jvari Monastery originally built in the sixth century. The Cathedral (11th Century) is supposedly home to the “robe of Christ” which is buried under an ornate altar. After an outside lunch at a local botanical garden, we headed to the Caves of Uplistsikhe. These limestone caves date back to 4000 B.C. and were not excavated until 1957! That night, we had a farewell dinner hosted by the Tbilisi Friendship Force Club; there was more good food, many goodwill toasts and even taught some line dancing!

We shared and exchanged some small thank you gifts with our host family Kakha and Marika and their lovely children Taso (age 8) and Sandro (age 4). After a lot of hugging we said our good-byes as we leave Tbilisi to explore the rest of Georgia. Our Open World friends, Lana and Nini, set up a special tour of the Parliament and “press meeting” with the Secretary-General and a Minister of Parliament. They were very appreciative of the Friendship Force—Open World collaboration and count the United States as an important ally.

We traveled to Kutaisi the second largest city in Georgia. At the Folklore Center, Nino, Mindia and Shalva, our Open World alums, set up what can only be described as a jaw-dropping entertainment experience. For our small entourage of 18, there must have been nearly a 100 dancers and singers entertaining us with unbelievable synchronized and choreographed Georgian dancing and singing. At another nice reception Nino shared with us the mission of LDA (Local Democratic Agency), Shalva (self-sustainable farming) and Mindia (export of honey).

Our next stop was the resort town of Batumi on the Black Sea which is only 17 km from Turkey. We visited the Caves of Prometheus which were discovered in 1983 and opened to the public in 2010. These caves had the usual stalactites and stalagmites with an underground river and several large halls. We had lunch at the Grand Palace Hotel, some dipped their feet into the Black Sea (gravel beaches) and then we had a guided walking tour of Batumi.

On our next day we traveled North to the city of Zegdidi on the border of the Russian Occupied Territory of Abkhazia to meet our next Open World friend, Archi. Georgians are not allowed to travel to Abkhazia but Abkhazians can travel (and receive health benefits and pensions) from Georgia. Over 70,000 Georgians have lost their homes and have been permanently displaced in the Occupied Territories; those who stayed have lost many of their freedoms.

Archi organized another lunch and shared with us his organization which is called Center for Transparency in Government. Their goals are fight corruption, monitor resources, election voting, gender equality and laws from Parliament; their funding comes from outside sources as the USDIA, SIDDA (Sweden) and the Norwegian foreign ministry. We then visited three eighteenth and nineteenth century cabins; we helped crush spices and enjoyed more Georgian food cooked in a fireplace.

The next day we traveled to Vani to again meet up with Mindia the beekeeper and Shalva who served as his translator. Mindia is the largest exporter of honey in Georgia but his business was nearly ruined by the floods of 2017. He is trying to stress the importance of meeting EU standards for all products as a way of expanding trade outside the borders. With his staff he prepared a feast of foods with plenty of red Georgian wine and chacha. He thanked the group for coming to his country and seeing his operation; each of us received gifts of jars of honey.

We traveled to Bojormi. After a delicious lunch in a quaint restaurant, we checked into a very nice hotel. Bojormi was the home of Nodar the luger who was killed on a practice run at the 2010 Winter Olympics. We visited Rabati Castle in nearby Akhaltsikhe. The castle was once a Mosque and Turkish seminary during Ottoman Empire days; today it is an Orthodox church with a blend of new and old buildings with a nice view of the city and surrounding area.

. On our last day in Georgia, we traveled out of our way to visit another Open World friend Rima in Akhalkalaki. If we had driven on moon craters on the moon, it would have been smoother than the road to this town in Southern Georgia! This region of Georgia is predominantly Armenian; Rima is Armenian and is learning both English and Georgian while starting a news website and raising two children. When the Russian military base closed in 2008, the economy in this poor part of the country declined even more. Many local men must travel to work in other countries (including Russia) for six to eight months a year to earn a living.

What are some impressions of Georgia? It is just a step or two above a third World Country. After 70 years of Soviet neglect, the infrastructure needs major investment. Driving second-hand import cars on streets with no stoplights or street signs is common in the busy cities. Many residents still live in those ugly gray cement Soviet high rise apartments. Their main export is Georgian wine but not much else; there are few natural resources.

Even with two incomes, families are just getting by, but very happy just to be free. The country desires to join NATO and the EU but Russia probably will not allow it. The residents do not have much material wealth by our standards but what they do have is a love of life with strong church and family ties. Education of their children is very important. Though it will take a few decades, they are determined to work together to rebuild their country. Perhaps we all can learn some things from them!

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Our North Georgia/Big Canoe Friendship Force group with Rima (in green sweater) and her staff.

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