Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Free Day

Wednesdays and the weekends we have off from Gudushauri so that we don't get burned out at the hospital, can catch up on our language studying, and take day trips with Fr. Theodore. Yesterday, Fr. Theodore had our day planned with several meetings.

Our first meeting was with Mother Mariam (Deda Mariam) at Holy Transfiguration Convent in the Old Town section of Tbilisi. I had read about Mother Mariam before even coming to Tbilisi in the Orthodox Word in a story about an orphanage she created to help the children orphaned by the Abkhazian War. The actual room we met in was part of a Georgian queen's palace in the 17th century. We were greeted in excellent English by Mother Mariam and a German friend of hers, Knut. Upon hearing of our medical work here in Tbilisi, Mother Mariam praised our efforts and commented on the horrible health care system here in Georgia. She herself is trying to make a difference by creating a nursing school that teaches theology and bioethics in addition to standard nursing care in hopes of producing more compassionate and comforting nurses. Another one of her projects has been to help single mothers raise their children in safe and secure environments, as such mothers are often disowned by their families here in Georgia. We also spoke with Knut and learned that he has been in Georgia for several years helping farmers gain better access to European markets.

Second on the agenda was lunch with the Deputy U.S. Ambassador Mark Perry at his residence. We were joined by the Vice Consul, a man named Calvin, who is also responsible for the report on Religious Freedom in Georgia; naturally, he had many questions for Fr. Theodore. Religious freedom in Georgia is an interesting topic because Georgia (Tbilisi in particular) has always been a very tolerant country. In fact, in Old Town, you can find a mosque, synagogue, and church on the same block where they have been functioning for centuries. But Georgia is also overwhelmingly Orthodox (At least 80%), and for some radical priests (ex-priests rather--they have been defrocked), they see no place for Protestant missionaries. They (just a very, very small minority of the Church) have done things such as harass missionaries and burn their books. Patriarch Ilia of course condemned the priests' actions, for these were acts of hate not zeal, and even excommunicated a priest who refused to repent. In matters concerning the Embassy, we learned how difficult it is for Georgians to get visas to come to the US, for so many overstay. It is estimated that there are 40,000 illegal Georgians in America.

Next stop was World Vision Georgia. There we met the Director of WV Georgia, David Womble. He gave us a brief overview of what WV does in Georgia, namely helping the war-torn region of Abkhazia, finding foster homes for orphans, creating a youth bible curriculum, and more recently attending to the HIV/ AIDS problem in Georgia. Knowing that Derek and I are premeds, David introduced us to Gerry, the man in charge of the HIV/AIDS and public health issues. From Gerry we learned that Georgia has a relatively low presence of HIV (only 1300 documented infected), but a growing infection rate, and given the lack of knowledge of HIV in Georgia, there is a risk for a larger epidemic. WV's approach to helping has been to educate Georgians and help prevent infection, and most recently they have begun a care and support system for HIV+ individuals. Public health being Gerry's specialtise, he was quite interested in our activities at the National Medical Center, and said he would like to follow up with us towards the end of our stay.

Our next meeting, a dinner, wasn't for a few hours, so while Fr. Theodore returned to his apartment to do some work, I passed the time at Giorgi Chekhidze's (the one who helped me at the airport) house. The original plan was that Giorgi and I were going to go swimming, but he was late in returning and there wouldn't have been much time anyway. So instead, I had a pleasant time talking to his sister, Tamta and her friends while drinking Turkish coffee. Before long, it was time to go to Lasha's apartment for dinner.

I had met Lasha the iconographer the previous Sunday after church at Sameba Cathedral where he showed me a church fresco (remember, there are 12 churches within the cathedral) in progress he was working on. Lasha's apartment is full with both his works and the works of his students. I cannot describe art very well, so I will not try, but the icons were stunning. After eating a delicious meal of fresh fruit, lobiani (bean stuffed bread), and wine, Lasha showed us some of his civil art on his computer. Again, I can't describe it, but it has a very folksy (naive?) feel to it. We said goodbye and Fr. Theodore took us home.

Ghame Mshvidobisa (Good Night)

Sunday, June 24, 2007


Last Thursday, I began my 5 week internship at the Gudushauri National Medical Centre. This is the first time the hospital has invited American (premed) students to come and work, so we're playing things by ear. On paper, we are "volunteer nurses assistants," and for the most part, we do just that.

The commute to Gudushauri takes 30 minutes by marshrutka (a large passenger van) and costs only 50 tetri (about 30 cents). If you've read my earlier posts, then you know that Georgians are terrible drivers. Fortunately, marshrutka drivers tend to be better drivers, maybe because they drive a prescribed route. But their vans are not always in the best condition. Just yesterday, on our way to Gudushauri, the rearview mirror simply fell off, but instead of pulling over to re-attach it, the driver continued along, occassionally looking over his shoulder.

Gudushauri is recognized as Georgia's best hospital and was built with the help of America among other countries about a decade ago. But Georgia is poor, and even with the help of foreign aid to construct the building, many corners were cut and today the building is not in very good condition. Yet its crumbling facade belies the quality of care that patients receive within.

On our first day there, we again met Dr. Merab Kiladze, our supervisor and one of the few English speakers in the hospital, who introduced us to Nino, the senior resident, who also speaks English. Soon we were placed in the care of the nurses, who for the most part speak no English, and we followed them on their rounds. Our ward is the general surgery ward, and many of the patients there have had serious surgeries. At least two or three patients had surgery because of ruptured appendices and the resulting sepsis. One patient was a young woman who had suffered some horrific accident and had a large part of her thigh/buttock missing.

One thing that struck me was that every patient, old and young, recovering and dying, had family members with them, and not just one, but sometimes several. No one was ever alone. Some family members pretty much moved in, bringing televisions and well stocked pantries. The nurses make no effort to restrict the activities of the patients' visitors, because in Georgia, family is most important.

There is certainly a great deal of compassion shown toward the patients, but there exists also a warm relationship between the doctors and nurses. When we aren't seeing a patient, we hang out in the nurses'/physicians' station where the atmosphere is relaxed (and sometimes cigarette smoke filled, despite the no smoking signs) and jovial.

One of the few English speaking doctors, Dr. Vakho (short for Vakhtang), showed us a patient who had suffered multiple stab wounds to his abdomen at a bar fight. Then Dr. Vakho made a very interesting comment: he said to us that violent crime must be rare, if non-existent, in the United States because we are so wealthy. We quickly corrected him, and he seemed bewildered that this was not the case. According to Fr. Theodore, most Georgians have such misconceptions.

Friday, June 22, 2007


I apologize for not giving a comprehensive post recently--I've been quite busy with work at the clinic this week, but should have time this weekend to give a recap.

I have activated the anonymous comments feature (I wasn't aware that y'all were being blocked from commmenting!), so please comment.

Now, I'm off to the Bazaar to buy some scrubs.

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

A trip to Bodbe and Sighnaghi

Fr. Theodore thought it would be nice if we left the city and saw some of Georgia's countryside, in particular, Sighnaghi. Fr. Theodore has a cottage there where we planned to spend the night instead of racing back to the city.

It is a two hour drive from Tbilisi to Sighnaghi, but as tired as I was, there was no nodding off, for two reasons: 1) The landscape is just amazing. Rolling green hills stretch out into the distance and are for the most part treeless. As soon as we left the city, we were plunged into agrarian society. It is actually believed that agriculture was first developed in the Caucasus. As we drove by, we saw farmers tending to there fields of potatoes, onions, and herbs as well as vineyards. Shepherds herded their sheep and goats right by the side of the road; cattle roamed freely. 2) Georgians are crazy drivers. There is no real licensing institution in Georgia, and as a result, half the driving population don't know how to drive. Add to that the fact that many of the cars on the road are Soviet models (ever hear of Niva?) meaning that they are both old and poorly made. There is no speed limit, and we ourselves would travel in excess of 120 km/hr at times--but we were safe in the hands of Fr. Theodore who was once a rally car race driver. There were many times that we came close to witnessing an accident as cars would try to pass each other on steep hills and sharp turns.

We arrived safely in Sighnaghi. First order of business was to stop by Fr. Theodore's cottage, which Fr. Theodore himself had not seen since its remodeling. The cottage is nice and quite comfortable but its true value lies in its view. From the front porch is a breathtaking panoramic view of the Caucasus mountains. Even at this time of year the peaks are still capped with snow at elevations exceeding 3500meters (the Caucasus are even higher in other parts). On the other side of the mountains lay Chechnya and Dagestan.

We drove into Sighnaghi to meet a friend of Fr. Theodore's and were met instead with an amazing amount of construction. John, Fr. Theodore's friend, told us that 500 men were working in Sighnaghi to give the entire town a facelift. The goal is to make the town look as it did in the 19th century in order to attract more tourism. John is an artist from America who fell in love with Georgia and lived here for several years and now has a young family. We had a lovely lunch at John's house complete with some of his own wine.

Less than an hour after eating with John, we were invited to another "dinner" by Sergo, a good friend of Fr. Theodore who was responsible for the renovations in the cottage. This time we at at an outdoor restaurant that looked out onto the plains below and the Caucasus in the distance. Again we had wine (which I told was good, but not super--there is no such thing as bad Georgian wine) for our many toasts. Stuffed, tired, and a bit tipsy, we finally turned in at Fr. Theodore's cottage.

The next morning we packed our things and stopped at the nearby convent. Unfortunately we had arrived too early, and as Fr. Theodore had to be back in Tbilisi for an appointment, we decided against waiting and instead visited the springs a little ways away. The spring is believed to have healing properties and is tended to by nuns. We each took turns dipping ourselves into the frigid water.

Then off to Tbilisi. When we returned, I was greeted by the news that my lost luggage had arrived.

Note: I apologize for not posting photos of my recent adventures. I do not have easy access to the internet/an easy way to transfer my photos. When I do, I'll be sure to upload them asap.


This will be a brief post. When I have more time, I'll try to elaborate.

We arrived at Sameba (Holy Trinity) Cathedral at 8 am for the 9 am Patriarchal liturgy. Fr. Theodore is a hierodeacon and he serves at the cathedral. The cathedral is simply magnificent. It stretches 100 meters above and below ground. In addition to the main cavernous cathedral, there are at least 11 other churches within the same building. It was built very recently (less than a decade ago) and while it has the feeling of an ancient church, as it should, there many modern conveniences hidden in the structure, such as air conditioning and speakers. The Liturgy lasted 4.5 hours, which is relatively short considering that there were two ordinations (deacon and priest). By Fr. Theodore's count, there were 6 bishops (including Patriarch Ilia), 30 priests, 16 deacons, and dozens of acolytes serving in the altar.

After Liturgy, we had lunch with both Giorgis and Giorgi the elder's friend, Irma. There we feasted on khinkali, Georgian style dumplings, and drank the local beer. Afterwards, Giorgi the elder invited Derek, Giorgi D, and me to the Turkish Baths. A bit of background: The "Tbili" of Tbilisi means warm, which comes from the hot springs found in the old part of the city. It was because of these hot springs that King Vakhtang Gorgasali decided to build the city where he did. The water is sulfuric and is believed to have healing properties. At the baths, the four of us had a private bath that had a pool of warm water and a shower nearby. After taking a dip in the waters, we each had our "bath" which consisted of having a "masseur" first scrub my skin so hard that several layers came off, next lather me with soap and scrub some more, and finally wash my hair with a soap balloon and douse me with the naturally warm water. I've never been so clean in my life.

Saturday, June 16, 2007


Georgian culture is characterized by the making and maintenance of friendships. One great example is the supra, a great feast that can last for days, which every capable Georgian takes great honor in hosting whenever they can. An integral part of the supra is toast-making in which every individual at the table is honored with a unique toast. As you might see, Georgians place great importance in relationships. While I have not yet had the privilege of attending a supra, I've seen what can come about from the many connections Georgians have.

Yesterday was a whirlwind tour of what I'll be seeing for the rest of my stay in Tbilisi. After a delicious breakfast at Giorgi's house, Fr. Theodore, Derek, Giorgi, and I set off to Gudushuari National Medical Center to meet Dr. Merab Kiladze, the surgeon whom Derek and I plan to have supervise us while we volunteer at the hospital. Now, Fr. Theodore was at one time operated upon by Dr. Kiladze, and since then, they have been good acquaintances. Thanks to this relationship, Derek and I were given this amazing opportunity. Like most buildings in Tbilisi, the medical center is not in the best of conditions, but I was a little more surprised than usual because I expected the hospital to look like the ones back in the States. We located Dr. Kiladze but we had to wait a few minutes while a heated argument in the physicians' lounge was resolved before meeting him. Dr. Kiladze is a serious man but at the same time clearly happy to have us volunteer at his hospital. My only concern is that he may have high expectations of us--he said that our duties would involve things such as inserting IVs into patients' arms, changing the dressings on wounds, and tending to patients in the ICU. Derek and I have agreed that we must make it clear on our first day on the job (next Thursday) that we haven't done such things in the US (it would be illegal for us) and would require training. Another possible hurdle is that our activities will actually be monitored by the head nurse, and she doesn't speak much English.

Our next stop was at the apartment Derek and I will be living in beginning Sunday. Fortunately, we will be staying with a family, the Danelias. Again, thanks to Fr. Theodore's connections, he knows Nana Daniela as a language tutor, and when he learned that Nana would be teaching in the US for the summer and would leave a vacant room, he made arrangements for our stay there. By strange coincidence (or perhaps not), one of the Georgian language books I have been studying is written by Nana. Nana's mother-in-law Tsitsana and her 13 year-old son Giorgi (it's a very common name) will be living with us. When we arrived, we were greeted warmly by Tsitsana and soon afterwards by Giorgi who had just woken up. Giorgi is a great kid, very friendly and mature (he also speaks great English), and also very brilliant. A couple of years ago, he was Georgia's number one chess player in his age group. I'm looking forward to our stay there.

Our next meeting killed two birds with one stone. We picked up Inga, who will be one of our language tutors, on our way to see Dr. Dato. Inga was once Fr. Theodore's tutor, and they, too, have maintained a close friendship. Dr. Dato practices integrative medicine, meaning that he uses 21st century tools to diagnose health problems, but prescribes herbal remedies if he feels that they are more effective than modern drugs. He understands both modern medicine and Caucasian herbal medicine, and uses both to treat diseases. It was clear from talking to him (through Inga) that he understood modern medicine and was not any sort of witch-doctor. His office also served as his workplace, and we got a chance to see him make a remedy for kidney stones. He also invited us to accompany him on one of his herb-collecting day-trips.

More later.

Thursday, June 14, 2007

The Longest Day

I've only been in Tbilisi for18 hours, yet I've already seen and done so many things.

I arrived in Tbilisi at 4:30 am (for some reason, virtually all flights arrive in the wee hours), breezed through customs, and proceeded to baggage claim. As you may recall from my previous post, I wasn't sure if my bag had made it with me. Not so surprisingly, my bag had not made it to Tbilisi. Luckily, my bag had only clothes. Before filing a report with the lost baggage officials, I notified Fr. Theodore of both my presence and situation. He sent me back to Lost Baggage with his Georgian friend, Giorgi, who quickly took charge of the situation.

By the time I left the airport at 5:30 am, the sun had already begun to rise. Luckily, the apartment at which Derek and I were to be staying for the next few nights was only a 5 minute drive away. Fr. Theodore's Toyota Land Cruiser was our means of transportation. Now, this isn't any luxury SUV--this is the real deal. It weighs 9000 lbs., can hold 180 liters of fuel, has a kangaroo bar (it originally came from Australia where it's necessary to protect yourself and car from kangaroos that jump in your way), has a 4.7 liter diesel engine, can drive without a hitch through 3 ft. water, and is protected by a ballistics blanket that guarantees that if a mine were to explode beneath the vehicle, no one would be hurt. Now why would a priest need something like this? Because his diocese is out in the steppes where there are no roads to speak of and the terrain is brutal.

Despite the fact that I had been traveling for 30 hours with little sleep, I was surprisingly alert when we arrived at the apartment. As soon as I had put down my bags, Giorgi and Fr. Theodore prepared a quick dinner/breakfast with wine (of course). The food was delicious and it was all within the fast. There was fresh bread, rice-stuffed cabbage, pureed beets and spinach, an eggplant dish, fresh herbs that were eaten alone, a bean dish, and two kinds of chutney. The food was served cold and apparently, this is typical. We only drank the dry red wine after a toast, and Giorgi was the toastmaster, or tamada. The first toast was to God and the last to the Theotokos. By the time I had stuffed myself, it was bright outside and Giorgi and Fr. Theodore left so that we could catch a few hours sleep before we had to be up again at 11:00 am.

The remainder of the day was spent in Downtown Tbilisi where we had a brief tour of Tbilisi State University. I also bought a few items of clothing to last me while my bag is accounted for. We had a delicious dinner at Giorgi's house (where his mother and sisters live--he's 25) that was attended by a few of Fr. Theodore and Giorgi's close friends. Three of them happened to be Americans that had been doing graduate work or simply been in Georgia for few years. John and Lauren both study Georgian Chant and they treated us by performing along with Dato, a Georgian chanter.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

A long journey to Tbilisi

Me Enjoying Beer
Originally uploaded by rugbyxm
Currently, I am in the Vienna International Airport, where I am waiting for my final flight into Tbilisi. It is a great feeling to know that I am almost there, especially after being almost certain that I would miss my flight and have to arrive a couple days later. Here's the story:

I booked 2 tickets to get to Tbilisi as this was the most cost effective way. The first was a roundtrip ticket from Newark, New Jersey to Tbilisi; the second was a ticket from Chicago to Newark. Because O'Hare is notorious for its delays, I booked my flight to arrive in Newark a full 7.5 hours before my 9:50 pm Lufthansa flight was scheduled to depart.

My flight to Newark departed on time, but as we approached Newark, bad weather forced us to circle the airport. This went on for about an hour until we learned that the plane was low on fuel and would need to be diverted to Buffalo. Expecting the diversion to be just a pitstop, I wasn't worried--I would still have more than 5 hours to get to my Lufthansa flight, right? Yet somehow the weather never improved in Newark and we had no idea when we'd be able to leave Buffalo. When we were deplaned at 5:30 (yes, they made us wait on the tarmac for 3 hours first), I began to worry. Already, flights to nearby JFK were being canceled--I expected my flight to be canceled next. Prepared for the worst, I began to investigate my options if I would indeed miss my flight. As my ticket was non-refundable, if I missed my flight, I would have to purchase a new ticket to Tbilisi at a price that would severely cut into the funds I had set aside for my time in Georgia. As 7 O'Clock (less than 3 hours before my international flight) came and passed, I pretty much gave up: I was not going to make my flight to Tbilisi.

But miraculously, we were given the OK to depart for Newark at 7:15. We hastily reboarded the plane and took off by 7:30 and landed in Newark at 8:50 pm. I had an hour to get to my plane before it left. At this point I knew I had made it, but I was afraid my checked luggage would not (as I would have to pick it up from the luggage carousel and recheck it with Lufthansa). Luckily, when I checked in at my Lufthansa desk, I was informed that they would do their best to retrieve my luggage and put it on my plane. Whether they managed to or not, I'll know soon enough. If worst comes to worst, I'll have to buy new clothes in Tbilisi.

My Lufthansa flight arrived in Frankfurt at 11:30, but my next flight to Vienna would not leave for another 6 hours. By coincidence, Derek, my fellow U of C trekker, had a similar layover. Dreading the idea of spending several hours in the Frankfurt airport (where they allow smoking), we hopped on a train to the city. There we saw what we could in a couple hours' time, bought chocolates (as gifts), and had lunch and a beer at the Kaiser-Grill (see photo). For more photos of our excursion into Frankfurt, and to see all the photos I take this summer, visit my flickr site:

Sunday, June 10, 2007


Originally uploaded by rugbyxm
Over the past 3 days, I've worked at the four convocations (graduation ceremonies) of the University of Chicago. My job, as you might guess from the picture, was to bear the University flag and lead the procession, sit on stage (right in the center, behind the President of the University) for the entire ceremony to make sure that the flag didn't fall, and lead the recession at the end.

While it was indeed quite tedious to listen to hundreds of names being called out at a time, it was a great feeling to be part of a such an important event. It was obviously an important event for the graduates and the families--I would give a conservative estimate that for the College Convocation, there were easily 8,000 people in attendance. There were so many that not everyone could fit in Harper Quad/see the stage, so the ceremony was broadcast via a live feed to several huge LCD screens scattered around campus. And given my location on the stage during the ceremony, I had lots of "screen time."

After today's Graduate School of Business convocation, I packed up the last of my things and said good-bye to Room 1120 in the Shoreland. For the next two nights I'll be staying in a friend's apartment before I leave for Georgia.

Thursday, June 7, 2007

Beginnings and Ends

For both those that were directed to this blog and those who stumbled upon it, I welcome you to my blog. I created this blog primarily as a means for family, friends, acquaintances, and benefactors to keep track of my activities while I am abroad this summer.

Yesterday marked the end of my second year of college. It seemed not so long ago that I came to the University of Chicago from rural Tennessee with very low academic expectations for myself, having graduated from a rather incompetent high school. Since then, I have overcome any disadvantages I may have had and come to appreciate the rigorous education at the U of C. Next year, I will be taking the MCAT and begin the application process for Medical School.

Now that studies are done for the summer, I have an even more exciting adventure ahead of me. Next Tuesday, I will depart for a 11 week trip to Georgia (the former Soviet Republic, not the state!) where I'll attempt to learn Georgian, volunteer at a hospital for a month, and travel the (small) country.

I've already begun my Georgian education here in the States. For those who don't know, Georgian is a language isolate, having no other living languages in its family. As such, it has its own alphabet and sounds that are quite difficult for most of us to make (including consonant clusters up to 8 letters long--read more here) The Georgian professor on campus kindly agreed to tutor me and Derek (my fellow U of C traveler) for an hour a week this last quarter. As you may guess, an hour a week is not enough to learn much of any language, especially one as difficult as Georgian, but we've nonetheless managed to learn the alphabet and its associated sounds and basic phrases. In Georgia, we will have one-on-one tutoring for a minimum of 2 hours a day and I'm sure the little we've learned here will get us off to a running start.