Tuesday, September 4, 2007

Javakheti Part 2: The summer camp at Mir a Shkhani

The small village (about 50 families) of Mir a Shkhani is an anomaly within Javakheti. First of all, the people there are ethnically Georgian, unusual in the mostly Armenian province. Second of all, they are all Muslim. The village most likely converted during one of the invasions coming from nearby Turkey (only a few kilometers away) several centuries ago.

The camp for college-aged youth (all from Tbilisi) was based in Mir a Shkhani’s two school buildings near the Mtkvari River (the river which eventually flows through Tbilisi). Organized by Metropolitan Nikoloz and funded by World Vision, a Christian organization, the camp was an island of Christianity in this Muslim village. But differences in religious belief never became an issue and the people of Mir a Shkhani welcomed us and showed us the hospitality one comes to expect from Georgians.

Now, this wasn’t your typical summer camp. There was work, hard work. And lots of it. The main objective of the camp was to restore an ancient church carved into the mountainside. It was only discovered 5 years ago—not surprising, as all that is visible from the outside is a small rectangular hole big enough for someone to crawl into—and little is known about its history. It is believed (how, I don’t know) that the church was dedicated to St. John the Baptist and it is for this reason that it is called Tavkvetila—literally, “head severed,” referring to how St. John the Baptist met his end.

There are two rectangular-cut holes that lead into the church. The first, at the base, leads to a vertical shaft 12 feet in height. A ladder provides the only means of gaining entrance to the church. Presumably, the entrance was designed this way in an effort to keep animals out of the church (it worked but not entirely—there was an active swallow’s nest in the church). The second hole is about 30 feet directly above the first. It is the only window into the church and provides all the light. The church is quite large, measuring about 20 ft x 40 ft x 20 ft high, a size that is even more impressive when one considers that it was carved entirely out of rock.

While certainly large enough to hold 40 or 50 worshippers, Tavkvetila is not large enough to contain the crowds that come on September 11th (the feast day of St. John the Baptist on the Julian calendar). In the past, the overflow was forced to stand outside on the uneven terrain (it is a mountainside). But now no longer. The camp participants built two large terraces out of stone on which people can stand outside the church. The larger of the two terraces measures 100 ft long and stands 7+ ft at the highest point. And they did a good job—their progress was regularly evaluated by architects from Tbilisi who praised the students’ excellent work.

Derek and I joined the camp in its second half (in all, 4 weeks). We were rather unceremoniously dropped off by Fr. Theodore who said something about picking us up the next week. Derek and I would be staying in the men’s building (there being 2 parts to the school) in one of the tiny classrooms. The room was tiny, the floors wooden and dusty, and the window had a pane missing. We would be roughing it.

That first afternoon was a bit awkward. Here we were, two Americans who didn’t know much Georgian, arriving halfway through a camp. We exchanged greetings with the 20-odd students at the camp but for the most part, we didn’t speak much with them, instead clinging to Nes and Nino, the two English-speakers. But soon enough, their curiosity of Americans together with their Georgian hospitality and my desire to practice my Georgian broke the ice and very quickly I made many good friends.

As dusk approached that first day, we were visited by 3 monks from Vardzia monastery (the cave monastery). They came bearing gifts of watermelon and fresh honey from their own bee hives. They soon joined a game of volleyball that was underway in the school yard (the volleyball net was a gift from World Vision, and it quickly became a favorite evening pastime, not just for us, but for the entire village). It was quite surreal to watch monks in their cassocks playing volleyball…

Here’s the schedule of a typical day at the camp:
6:00 am: Wake up, brush teeth from spring, drink tea, fill jugs with water from spring under the bridge. Watch the cattle being driven by the villagers into the mountains. The men taking on the large cattle and water buffalo; the women and children driving the calves
7:00-7:30: Depart for worksite 2 km away (Tavkvetila) carrying water jugs, stopping to pick apricots. Ford Mtkvari River and climb up mountainside to reach worksite
7:30-11:30: Perform backbreaking work while we’re still protected by the shade of the mountain. Listen to morning prayers being read by volunteer.
11:30-12:00: Eat delicious lunch prepared by the girls (some of the girls worked at the site, too) back at camp and carried to us by one of the guys who slept in.
12:00-2:00: Return to work; now in the sun
2:00-2:30: Head back to camp; ford river, this time not making an effort to avoid falling in (by now it’s very hot), if haven’t fallen in, pushed in by one of the guys
2:30-6:00: Relax, nap, chat with others, swim in the Mtkvari River
6:00-6:30: Have supper (usually bread, cheese, tomato and cucumber salad, potatoes, pasta, honey)
6:30-8:30 (dusk): play volleyball or soccer with locals
8:30-10:00: talk on the porch, practice Georgian
10:00-10:30: evening prayers
11:00-6:00: sleep, unless interrupted by prank

As we had arrived towards the end of the camp, most of the hard labor had already been completed. The terraces had already been built; all that was left for us to do, was to backfill the larger terrace and excavate two cells below the church (most likely used for storage). The work was still hard, often involving breaking up large rocks; by the end, my hands were quite blistered.

Derek, unfortunately, became quite ill with food poisoning (not at all surprising given that we weren’t living in the most sanitary of conditions; everyone got sick at some point and I would have my turn soon) during our second day at the camp and was subsequently whisked away to the more comfortable monastery in Baraleti to regain strength where he stayed for almost 5 days. Without Derek, I lost the only person I had been speaking in English to regularly. Sure, Nino, Nes, and a few other students could speak English, but they knew that I wanted to learn Georgian so they made a point of speaking to me in Georgian, and they only spoke to me in English when I had no clue as to what they had said. I was totally immersed in Georgian—and I loved it. The English-speakers took it upon themselves to teach me the more difficult aspects of Georgian while the others, mainly the guys, taught me phrases and short poems. The guys especially had a lot of fun with me: they would teach me a phrase that they swore was innocuous and have me repeat it to the girls, which I would naively do. Based on the girls’ reactions, I would find out that the phrase wasn’t so innocuous…

More still to come.

1 comment:

Shanidze said...

That's a nice article, I didn't know people in Mir Askhani very muslims, so they must be probalby Adjarians.