Sunday, February 28, 2016

Tbilisi, Georgia: Why the "Other" Georgia Deserves a Look - February 2016

Nestled in the foothills of the Caucasus Mountains and slowly emerging from Russia's shadow, sits the humble country of Georgia. A popular holiday destination for skiers and only a two-hour flight from Moscow, the capital welcomes visitors with its ever-present tourism slogan: "Tbilisi: the city that loves you."

And love you, it truly does, inviting Americans and many others into its country visa-free. During our long weekend in Tbilisi, we were surprised by the country's distinct culture and old world charm.

Old Tbilisi is a captivating canvas of ornate architecture and vivid color. A well-traveled stop along the Silk Road, Georgia has been influenced by a variety of cultures over hundreds of years. The country exudes Asian, Indian, Arabic, Soviet and western influences, all while remaining true to its own unique heritage. A walk through town will take you down narrow streets, past ancient churches and by brick-domed sulfur baths. On one side of the city you can visit the magnificent 100-meter high Sameba Cathedral and Holy Trinity Church built in 2002. On the other take an aerial tramway to the hills above the old town to stroll the grounds the Narikala Fortress and gaze up at the grandiose Kartvlis Deda: a twenty-meter tall aluminum statue of a woman referred to as the Mother of Georgia who welcomes her friends with a bowl of wine in one hand and warns her enemies with a sword in the other.

Clustered in the central part of the old city you can see the centuries-old Metekhi Christian Orthodox Church perched on the cliffs above the Mtkvari River within view of a synagogue, mosque and turquoise-veneered Armenian church. Beneath the religious buildings and winding cobblestone streets is an underground bazaar with a passageway lined with market stalls hawking jewel-adorned knives, orange clay handicrafts, hats woven from sheep's wool and hollowed animal horns for wine drinking. Ancient scripts and trinkets display the beautiful Georgian alphabet, and the locals laugh as the foreigners attempt to muster the unfamiliar sounds needed to articulate the Georgian language.

The Georgian people are proud, and eat and drink gregariously. Often regarded as the birthplace of wine, Georgia boasts more than 520 varieties of grapes producing nearly 300 unique types of wine. White, red, green and yellow grapes are used to make the wine and also to produce the local vodka drink, Chacha. For a non-alcoholic beverage, try a glass of tarragon soda which bubbles fluorescent green and is sure to deliver a sugary fix.

A peek inside a Georgian cafe, past the plumes of hookah smoke, you'll see oversized pillows and colorful table cloths displaying the warm and hearty cuisine. Typical Georgian dishes include khinkhali: dumplings filled with meat, potatoes or mushrooms, kachapuri: bread stuffed with thick yellow cheese, mtsvadi: grilled skewered meat, and kababi: seasoned meat wrapped in a thin flat bread. Warm spiced beans are also a national staple along with fruit and nut jellies, spreads and candies. A meal for four people with drinks cost us about $15 U.S.

Religion has a resounding presence in the hearts and homes of the Georgian people, and it would be impossible to travel too far without seeing the circle surrounded Georgian cross marked for a blessing. Less than a twenty-minute drive from Tbilisi is the ancient capital of Mtskheta which is often considered the birthplace of Christianity in Eastern Europe. Designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site, Mtskheta is home to Svetitskhoveli Cathedral and Jvari Monastery. Other popular day trips from the capital include a drive through wine country or a visit to the surrounding snow-capped mountains.

Georgia isn't just another nation who escaped the suffocating Soviet grip. The Georgian people are strong and have managed to retain their unique identity through generations of war and occupation. Tbilisi is a city that has been destroyed and rebuilt 29 times, and through it the spirit of Georgia has prevailed. Today the country is eager to show its heart to the world.

Tbilisi, Georgia: The Birth of Christianity in Eastern Europe - February 2016

Guest Blogger: James Strange

Persians turn the Kura River red. In 1227 Sultan Jalal al-Din of Khwarazm and his army of Persians attacked Georgia in what is today the city of Tbilisi. On the first day of the battle, Georgian soldiers were able to defend their beautiful capital city and hold off the pagan invaders. That night however, a small band of Persians who were living in Tbilisi secretly opened the gates and allowed the invaders into the city. By morning a river of blood flowed through the streets.

As dawn broke, the Sultan commanded that all the holy Christian artifacts be removed from Sioni Cathedral and placed at the center of the Metekhi Bridge that crossed the Kura River. The remaining survivors were then rounded up and taken to the bridge and ordered to cross it, walking over the holy icons and denouncing their faith. Those who did were spared their lives, while those who refused were beheaded.

One hundred thousand souls sacrificed their lives that day. One hundred thousand Georgians were thrown from the bridge. The bodies piled up so high that it was described that a man could cross the river by walking over the bodies. The Kura River turned crimson red from the blood of these canonized saints that day.

Flash forward 2016. The country of Georgia today represents a culture of a long sought after independence.  As a visitor to the city of Tbilisi, your eyes are immediately drawn to the massive 20-meter aluminum statue of Mother Georgia. This beautiful figure, perched on a hilltop overlooking the city, is greeting her friends with a bowl of wine in one hand and her enemies with a sword in the other.

As we toured this city and the surrounding countryside it became evident that this country has two main foundations: wine and Orthodox Christianity. We marveled at the history and legends of how Georgia became one of the earliest Christianized areas outside of the Middle East.  

Saint Nino brings Christianity to Georgia. The story begins in 320 AD with a 13 year girl named Nino and a grapevine cross that she had woven together with strands of her own hair. She came from a prominent family with ties to Jerusalem and Rome. She was the daughter of a Roman general and was paternally related to the founding father of Georgia, King George.

Legend tells that she is said to have been visited by a vision of the Virgin Mary and was given these instructions: "Go to Iberia and tell there the good tidings of the gospel of Jesus Christ and you will find favor before the Lord; and I will be for you a shield against all visible and invisible enemies. By the strength of this cross, you will erect in that land the saving banner of faith in my beloved Son and Lord."

Upon arrival to the capital city of Mtskheta, she met with Queen Nana who had been stricken with a severe illness. Through the prayers of young Nino, the queen was healed, immediately baptized and became a Christian.  Despite the miracle, King Mirian would not convert from his pagan worshiping and threatened to exile his wife.

One day, on a hunting trip, the King was struck with blindness as darkness covered the woods. Lost and confused he cried out to his pagan gods to help him see again. After hours of panic and fear, he began to pray to the God of Nino. As he finished his prayer, the darkness was lifted and he could see to find his way back to the palace.

The King converted to Christianity and made it the official religion of the country. In honor of the God of Nino, he erected a wooden cross on one of the highest peaks overlooking the city.  The large cross was an iconic landmark of early Christianity.  Later a church, Jvari Monastery, was erected in honor of this young apostle. Though the church has been damaged and rebuilt several times over the centuries, the original rock foundation for the cross remains tucked away inside this small basilica. Still an active church, we attended Sunday mass here with the local Georgian worshipers. 

Svetitskhoveli Cathedral and the cloak of Christ. In the small town of Mtskheta lies the second largest Georgian Orthodox Church. Originally built in the 4th century, this holy place of worship has been destroyed and rebuilt many times, the latest being in 1029 AD. So why all the fuss over a church? Why have so many conquering armies made it a point to destroy this simple church? The answer ... this is no simple church.

The story begins in Jerusalem at the crucifixion of Christ. As told in the Gospel of John, Roman soldiers cast lots to see who would claim the robe of Christ. As fate would have it, a Georgian Jew named Elias happened to be in the city and had made his way to Golgotha. Moved by the events of the day, he persuaded the lucky winner into letting him purchase this holy cloak. 

Elias made his way back to Mtskheta and was immediately greeted by his sister, Sidonia. He told her of the horrible killing of a prophet and how he had come in possession his robe. Sidonia was deeply moved by the story and asked to hold the cloak. As she gathered this bundle of cloth into her arms, she was overcome with such grief and emotion that she died. Unable to remove the cloak from her grasp, Elias chose to bury his sister with the robe forever in her embrace.

A cedar tree sapling soon sprouted at the headstone of Sidonia’s grave.  Time passed and the tree grew tall and wide and served as a marker for the resting place of Sidonia and the holy robe. Three hundred years later, young Nino found herself before this tree. Christianity was spreading across Georgia and the people needed a place to worship. She ordered that the tree be cut down and that seven large columns be made from its trunk. These columns would serve as the foundation for the church. 

The first six columns were placed into position but as the seventh was readied for lifting it began to ascend into heaven. The workers were amazed at this miracle happening before their very eyes. Word quickly spread that the construction had stopped and that the seventh column had risen into heaven. Nino came to the site and heard the story of what had happened. She knew that God had instructed her to build this church and to make the columns from the cedar tree and so she began to pray. Nino prayed throughout the night and as the sun began to rise that next day, the seventh column could be seen descending down from heaven and laid into the place that had been prepared for it. It is said that water would seep from the seventh column and that this sacred liquid could cure the sick. 

The construction of the church was completed and today a monument marks the location of Sidonia’s grave inside the cathedral. It has served not only as the coronation site for kings but also as their burial place. There are ten Georgian Kings buried inside the church. 

Georgia has survived occupation by the Arabs, Persians, Mongols and most recently the Russians.  Nestled between the Caspian and Black seas, this country is rich in culture, architecture and history.  Their stories are told today as if they had just happened yesterday. It inspires me to learn more ...

Monday, February 1, 2016

Kajiado, Kenya: The Maasai Tribe - January 2016

The semi-nomadic Maasai Tribe travel the countryside with their cattle between southern Kenya and northern Tanzania. It is estimated that there are nearly 1.5 million people who identify as Maasai. During our time in Africa we were fortunate to visit a Maasai compound and speak with the family.

Facts about the Maasai:


  • A typical Maasai compound is home for more than 120 family members.
  • A compound contains several circular thatch huts made of branches, grass and cow dung surrounded by tall grasses.
  • One man may have up to 25 wives. 
  • Each wife has a hut within the compound where she and her children sleep and cook.
  • The husband rotates sleeping in each hunt.
  • The primary diet of the Maasai is cow and cow by-products. The standard meal is cooked beef and a mixture of blood and milk. 
  • It's common practice to puncture the neck of a cow to draw blood without killing the animal.
  • The Maasai Tribe is permitted to live in Kenya's and Tanzania's national parks alongside the wildlife because they do not endanger the animals.
  • Both the Maasai men and women keep their hair short and wear brightly colored fabric and beaded jewelry.
  • The tribe wears various colors to project the illusion that there are more people in the group than in reality as a way to intimidate and confuse any potential predators.
  • The Maasai believe that colors have meaning: blue - good luck, red - protection, black - ceremonial decoration.
Customs & Traditions
  • Beginning at age 5, Maasai boys have responsibility for the family's cattle and shepherding.
  • During adolescence, it is traditional practice for boys to wear black fabric, paint their faces white and not bathe for four to eight months to prepare for circumcision. After the procedure, the boy officially becomes a warrior.
  • Maasai men engage in ritualistic group jumping to maintain and display their physical strength.
  • Girls marry at age 22 and boys at age 25. Both must select a spouse outside of their compound and leave upon marriage.
  • Men choose their wives; women have no input.
  • Maasai women tend to prefer their husbands to have many wives so that there are more workers on the compound.
  • In addition to building the huts, Maasai women are responsible for gathering all of the wood and water needed for cooking and warmth.
  • Nowadays, some Maasai have cell phones but it is challenging because the compounds are not outfitted with electricity.


Serengeti, Tanzania: Glamping in the Grasslands - January 2016

Glamping: glamorous luxury camping with resort-style services and amenities.
While on safari in Tanzania, one of our night's accommodation was at the Serengeti Tortilis Camp. After a long, dusty day scouting animals our safari guide pulled off a main road in the national park and onto a dirt trail. At the end of the trail was a campground with several large sleeping tents and a tented common area.

Upon arrival we were greeted by a porter who gave us a hand radio and escorted us to our private tent. Our tent, like the nine others available for occupancy, was divided into four rooms: unzipping the outer waterproof cover revealed the lounge area with a couch, chairs and table; the second and largest room housed a queen-sized bed with mosquito netting and vanity; a small room behind the bedroom was outfitted with furniture for our luggage, and the last room contained the bathroom area with a fully-functioning sink, commode and hot-water shower.

As we became acquainted with our luxurious "camping" quarters, the porter informed us that 35 liters of hot water was available for our shower that evening, and we simply needed to shout when we wanted him to pour the water from above the tent which would come through the shower head. We were also told that the walkie-talkies were for communicating with the staff so that we could be escorted to and from our tents and the common area due to the active wildlife surrounding the campground.

Walking to dinner that night the sky was illuminated by constellations, and we could smell the delicious food being prepared. In addition to the sleeping tents, the campground's common area included a lounge area, bar and restaurant. The restaurant served a set three-course meal with various libations available for purchase.

We learned that the semi-permanent campground was completely powered by solar panels. The common area was outfitted with WiFi and various power charging stations were available to guests.

After a restful night's sleep, we awoke in the morning to the sound of bird calls. Walking to common area that morning we admired a giraffe grazing alongside our tent and later from our breakfast table, we saw a family of elephants and two lions running through the tall grass.

The all-male staff we met at the camp couldn't have been friendlier, and the service was impeccable. We definitely enjoyed our first experience glamping and would highly recommend the Serengeti Tortilis Camp to for those looking for a comfortable night of adventure.