My 22-hour journey from DC to Tbilisi, with a 10+ hour layover in Munich, went by without a hitch. During my layover in Munich, I left the airport and went into the city center. I walked around the city and saw a few sites, but just after buying a crepe slathered with nutella (I know, I know, what am I doing eating a crepe in Germany?) the skies opened up and it began to pour rain. I took refuge in a doorway and tried to wait it out, but the rain kept coming and my things were starting to get wet. So I bought an umbrella. For those of you who know me well, I've never owned an umbrella. This one was both crappy and expensive, but it did the job.
Relatively dry, I returned to the airport where I divided the remaining four hours before my flight to Tbilisi between taking naps in the terminal and exploring the half-dozen or so identical duty-free shops. As my departure neared, I realized that I had been sitting at the wrong gate. There had been a change. I knew I had found the right gate when I saw Georgians surrounded by mounds of carry-on luggage. Lufthansa now limits economy class passengers to just one carry-on (plus a "personal item"), but that didn't stop some of the passengers on my flight from bringing four or more large items. One passenger had a half-dozen and was asking those who had only one or two items to take them on board for him.
I arrived in Tbilisi at 3 am, breezed through passport control (I was afraid they would see my Afghan visa and not let me through...), collected my bags, and was met by Levan from the NGO for whom I am working. During the brief 20 minute drive from the airport to my apartment, I could see that Tbilisi had changed quite a bit since I was last here in March of 2008. New buildings line the highway (the "George W. Bush Street"), including a new glass structure that is now home to the Ministry of Internal Affairs. Saakashvili has a new residence on a hillside (next to the Mother of Georgia statue) overlooking Old Tbilisi that is also made out of glass. Rumors are that due to harassment by opposition protesters, Saakashvili is spending more of his time at his vacation residence in the West Georgian province of Adjara. Instead of driving the more direct route of going along Rustaveli Avenue to my apartment in Vera, Levan made a detour along the Mtkvari River. Rustaveli Avenue by the Parliament building and Freedom Square has been closed due to ongoing opposition protests. There, the street is occupied with mock cells that were erected when the protests began on April 9.
My apartment in Vera is quite nice, almost too nice. It is a one bedroom apartment with a huge living room, kitchen, and balcony. You can see photos on my flickr page. It's beautifully furnished. My apartment is also conveniently located withing walking distance from the NGO's office. This means that I won't have to take any marshrutkas!! (Read about my marshrutka experiences in Bishkek here.)
Even though I got to my apartment by 4am, I couldn't go to sleep until about 7am, and even then, I only slept for four hours. When I got up, I realized that I had no way of getting in touch with anybody: my cell phone which I used when I was in Tbilisi last year had broken, and I had lost the SIM card along with all the phone numbers stored in it. The first order of business, then, was to get a phone. But I knew I needed some help from a Georgian friend to make sure that I wouldn't be ripped off, so I headed out to Sameba Cathedral where I knew I could count on finding some of my friends. Sure enough, Kuku and Natia were there. They were very happy to see me, and I them.
Once liturgy was over (the Patriarch serves here, so liturgy usually lasts a minimum of 3 1/2 hours), we left for the bazaar where I managed to buy a sweet phone for a good price (by the way, feel free to call me! +995 57 343873). Next, Kuku and Natia took me to another old friend's place nearby, where we celebrated my return Georgian style (chacha...). I and my friends were surprised and happy to see that I had forgotten very little of my Georgian. I was expecting that it would take a couple of weeks at least before I could speak fluently again, but I've been chatting away in Georgian the moment I set foot on Georgian soil (in fact, I didn't speak a word of English on Sunday until my family called me that night).
On Monday, I had my first day at work. I've been asked not to write about my work at this NGO, so unfortunately, I can't go into too much detail. I'll just say that everyone at the office is extremely friendly, and that I'm being challenged in a good way. A large part of my responsibility will be to write beneficiary stories. And since the beneficiaries live in impoverished regions outside of Tbilisi, that's where I'll be spending a day or two every week doing interviews and monitoring the NGO in action.
Today, I will be going to the Shida Kartli region, and will be visiting villages just mere kilometers from the South Ossetian border...