Top: World's first 360-degree Panorama of Ushguli, Svaneti, Georgia, Feb 24/2009, from 12 separate photos...

Tuesday, 25 December 2007

Merry Christmas! Even though today was a regular work day in the Orthodox world, and Orthodox Christmas will be on January 7, wherever else it is celebrated, today's the day.

We waited until 15:35 before the electricity - off for nearly 4 days now - came back on, enabling me to connect to the internet and the blog again just in time for this special day. Another timely thing was the arrival of some more books - chiefly on teaching English, plus Roger Penrose's hefty 1100-page physics magnum opus, The Road to Reality. These, plus some fabulously unavailable fresh root ginger, were all the gift of a recent new American friend whom I had introduced to Ushguli and Svaneti while he was working on his Georgian-based doctoral thesis. TG and your wife, thank you so much for the gifts - perfect timing that they arrived on Christmas evening!

Some more cellphone photos:

Bottom, the view from my bedroom window west.

Middle, one of my three school-age English classes. (Not all the rooms have electricity, but several that do have radiators as of September. Others have wood stoves.)

Finally, top, some crazily tilting icicles, sent off on wild angles by the shifting snow above them on the roofs.

Thursday, 13 December 2007

the W()RD: in lieu of pictures

I had 30 MB of free internet access from Magti when I first signed up for 3G service months ago. It certainly didn't take me long to blaze through that, and into my phone's credit, at the rate of 1 lari (c. 65 cents US) per MB of download. With careful, frugal use, I can achieve costs of about 2-4 lari per day - no more always-on internet like it was in Tbilisi, at 45 lari per month! The other complication is that the Mono cards by which one updates one's cellphone credit cost 1 lari extra in Svaneti... and some bright entrepreneur has decided to import only the 5-lari version into Ushguli, meaning that those of us who need cellphone credit will pay 20% extra for it. I'm protesting this robbery by getting my Mono cards, the 10- or preferably 20-lari versions, in Mestia. I'll be there next on Monday the 18th, it seems. So all of this is to say, blog updating will be a bit sparse until then, when I can a) get to my bank, b) buy more credit, and c) jump back online.

Until then, here are a few notes, 1000 words being worth a picture:

1) The most popular export to Ushguli from Latin America is... soap. Lots of it, many flavours, all of similar quality. I mean TV soap operas, or serials, as they're locally known. Some members of my host family, including 16-year-old Anzor, Dato & Nanuli's son, are wildly into these deeply meaningful, highly educational, throughly realistic cinematic portrayals of the lives of genuine people. Now that the Imedi ("Hope") TV channel is back after being closed down on Nov. 7 during the riots which briefly gripped Tbilisi, there are more serials than ever on offer. (Imedi, incidentally, is milking those bad times of its closure, damage and subsequent reopening as of last night for all they're worth. This morning a music video appeared, featuring clips from the riots and chaos of Nov. 7 in a sour-and-sugary context. Have the Georgian media made a cynic of me? Not hardly. Imedi knows that a bit of suffering can be whipped up into all SORTS of righteous indignation.) Back to serials... I'm thinking of taking on a new secret identity: serial killer. By which I mean, of course, not the usual meaning of "a person who murders many victims" but, in a play on words, "one who kills soap operas".

2) Cow manure, when it freezes, is by virtue of its organic bonds harder to break than ice and some kinds of rock, all of which are more brittle. Try it with a pickaxe sometime! Dare to compare!

3) This winter in Ushguli will be the season in which weather has the greatest effect of any season in my life, ever, anywhere. Not necessarily a bad thing, merely an observation. I'm not uncomfortable at all, in my 3 pairs of socks and trousers, with up to 7 layers on my upper half, wearing a hat indoors and two outside. I will never have lived through as snow-filled a winter as this one, even in 15 years in Canada.

4) White actually has an infinite variety of shades. Just ask any interior decorator how many names of white paint there ever have been, are and will be. Or ask a foreigner recently moved to Ushguli for a winter in up to 2 or more m of snow.

5) Having one's electricity fail at unspecified intervals is much harder psychologically than knowing when it will fail based on a schedule of power cuts. This feels like a time warp to my early months in Tbilisi 8 years ago: in Ushguli those bad old times are still here.

6) I'm actually loving it here, despite some of the above ranting. Wouldn't leave for the world. (As C.S. Lewis once pointed out, the best critic of something is one who loves it and is frustrated by its faults, not some one who hates it.) Ushguli is always amazing, and in the winter, with much less going on than the frenzy of spring through fall farming and tourism, I'm learning a lot about the village and its people. This is a PRIVELEGE - I don't need convincing of that.

More to come soon...

Tuesday, 11 December 2007

Ushguli, December 11, 2007

More straight from this morning!

Me at work on top of the haystack, and at my computer in my room.

Ushguli, Svaneti, December 11, 2007

Good morning from Ushguli! Temperature -2 C, medium to heavy fall of snow happening as I write.

Introducing some members of my host family, whom I have been friends with - and stayed with many times - since my first visit to Ushguli in 2004. These pictures are from this morning, so hot off the press they're practically steaming.

Bottom - Anzor Ratiani, soon to be 17. He and I are two members of the morning and evening animals' work crew. We help look after what goes into the cows - hay - and what comes out of them - chiefly manure. Twice a month we'll move about 3 tonnes of the stuff via ox-drawn sled to a field, where in the spring it'll feed the potato crop - which in turn will feed US. Talk about a recursive food chain.

Top - Bebia (Granny) Tsiala. She also helps with the above duties, as well as milking. Does a lot of cooking and cleaning at home as well. A real sweetheart.

Monday, 10 December 2007

Ushguli, December 4, 2007

I spoke too soon. Uploading pictures is not so bad, after all - doable, at least.

These photos are both from my cellphone camera (the only way you're going to get pictures from me in reasonable time for the next few months, as film developing and my scanner are a long way away now), from a jaunt I made up to a favourite spot for viewing Ushguli. Jaunt? The snow was up to 2 1/2 feet deep and I was wearing rubber boots, plus 7 layers on my upper body. But I got there and shot the photos and some video too. Going back down took about 10 minutes as opposed to about an hour. This was because "up" needed me to tack (zigzag) up the relatively steep hillside in that deep snow; whereas "down" was straight, buoyed up by all the same snow. Wonderful! The bottom shot is towards Mts Shkhara (left) and Lamaria (right) and the upper parts of the village, where I live; the top shot is of the lower part of the village, the angle I trudged up to get.

Pictures are slow.

Tried to upload a medium-size one (less than 600 kb) and it wouldn't go. Will keep on trying tomorrow. Hey, it's better than nothing; at least I'm back online, even if it is rather slow and buggy.

Greetings straight from Ushguli...

Yes, it's true. I'm back online after nearly 3 weeks. Arrived in Ushguli on November 23, and have been trying to get onto the internet from then until now. 5 days without electricity; numerous other power failures; several calls to and from Magti, my cellphone service provider. The last little thing needing correcting we sorted out a few minutes ago. Needless to say, I'm delighted. Don't know how much this will cost; do know that it's a bit buggy and slow; but the main thing is, I'm up and running again.
It's been as cold as -16 C; and we have about 1 metre of snow. I'm teaching 8 English classes per week, from grade 1 through adult, all from zero knowledge (by the students, that is! Although it's the first time I'm teaching my native tongue to those who know nothing of it, as well). And helping my host family with farming things - looking after the cows, mostly. Learning much about this amazing village at the top of Europe.
Stay tuned, viewers. More to follow, as close to live as it gets.

Thursday, 22 November 2007

Ushguli, early November 2007

What a dramatic difference overnight in the mountains can make. A night of snowfall transformed the world; it continued the next day, giving my group of 11 Bulgarians and a Georgian some apprehension about the trip home. My writing this from Tbilisi means that we accomplished it - with a layover in Mestia to break up the long trip. We seemed cursed, however, to arrive only in darkness while travelling to, in or from Svaneti, as happened in all 3 cases.

This week my total blog viewer population passed 3000; that as recorded by country (which tool I had added later) passed 2500; and today the USA viewer count reached 666...

My next post, tomorrow evening Georgian time, hopefully will be from Ushguli by what I call MMM - Magti mobile modem. Tomorrow I travel there, and by evening I hope to have things up and running to continue posting as though there were no difference. Stay tuned!

Wednesday, 21 November 2007

Ushguli, late October-early November 2007

Top: Vittorio Sella's late 19th century picture of this hill from the other side shows four of Tamar's towers; now, about 120 years later, one is complete at right, and another ruined at left. I was told there were nine in the Middle Ages.

Second down: the carved wooden door of the church second from the top in the village.

Bottom two: a view of Mt Shkhara through autumn leaves, the day before our great snowfall, as seen in the final shot for today.

Greetings Vietnam - 64th country to view the blog! Yesterday, under "Viewers by country" I added:
- a button for those who wish to rave about the blog;
- a world map showing where it's day and night;
- a weather report for Mestia, Svaneti, which is as close as I could get to Ushguli, some 44 km away. Now you can get an instant, daily idea of what the climate is like not far from where I'll be spending this winter.

Tuesday, 20 November 2007

Ushguli, late October 2007

Here we are again, looking down on the village from in and near Queen Tamar's fortress (1st and 3rd shots) as well as just marvelling in general at its towers and Mt Shkhara (middle shot). These are all among my "classic" views to which I will always return seeking new ways of capturing them.

Monday, 19 November 2007

Central Svaneti, late October 2007

Another trip! It's been a busy year for me in the mountains, at least one visit per month on average from May.

This was with a group of 11 from Bulgaria and 1 from Georgia, with me as tour guide. Our own marshroutka (minivan) to Ushguli, 9 days there, then back, both ways via Mestia. We cooked, cleaned, gathered and cut our own firewood, in order to make it cheaper.

The way up offered the best autumn scenes I've yet seen in Svaneti, such a range of colours in the trees. Timing is everything! As usual I was somewhat constrained in stops for photographic opportunities as we travelled, and also as usual I made the most of what time allowed. Ushba remained stubbornly invisible behind clouds - but what was on display more than made up for that caprice.

Sunday, 18 November 2007

Upper Svaneti, September 2007

It was only a weekend, but I did my best to make it count. Just a few locations for the photographs, as I was travelling with friends; but fortunately they were indulgent, perhaps aware that they would not regret stopping here and there for these images.

Greetings to the first viewer from Montenegro! That makes 63 countries stopping by, something I'm quite pleased about.

Saturday, 17 November 2007

Upper Svaneti, September 2007

Still on the way home - what we accomplished in 12 hours takes several days to spin out in photographs. I could hardly have wished for better weather - clouds for drama, clear air, brilliant sunshine and deep blue sky behind the clouds, just right for landscape work.

Friday, 16 November 2007

Upper Svaneti, September 2007

More from the way home via Lentekhi. There had been just a sprinkle of snow at this height, but enough to be visible and cause some excitement among the two young girls of the family I was traveling with this time. Snowballs abounded!

Upper Svaneti, September 2007

So we move to the next trip up to Ushguli, via Lentekhi both ways as a) it was by LandRover and b) it was only for a weekend and we needed to save time on the shorter route.

This trip was for the purpose of helping me move my winter things, as well as taking a lot of materials for Ushguli's school: 1/2 the entire year's curriculum books for all classes and subjects; many other school materials such as notebooks and pens; lots of new Georgian books for the school library; three computers; and three radiators. All of this was donated by friends of mine and their friends or colleagues, and it was a great blessing to the village.

Here are three shots of a set from the road back, not far from Ushguli itself, weather cooperating nicely as far as lighting and air clarity. More to come.

NB My move to Ushguli for the winter has been delayed 8 days due to the road being closed from K'ala onwards until this evening, and needing to match schedules with my friend who is driving me up. No worries, I've waited this long.

Wednesday, 14 November 2007

Upper Svaneti, August 2007

Continuing our departure from Ushguli via Lentekhi, a route I've taken far more seldom than the Mestia way, which is longer but has better roads and stays open longer. The bottom shot shows how much ice and snow were still around in late summer, likely to survive until winter freezes them again.

I note that my USA population of viewers finally overtook those from Georgia more than a week ago, and seems destined not to allow the latter to regain their prime position.

the W()RD: Magti Mobile Modem!

This is a historic occasion: the first blog entry I'm posting while connected to the internet using my cellphone as my computer's modem! I connected at 0910 Tbilisi time on November 14, 2007, via Magti:
This means that I can continue blogging - and generally stay in touch via internet - while in Ushguli for the winter... a dream come true. Not cheap, but worth every tetri.
Currently waiting for the snowed-in road from K'ala to Ushguli to open up - departure imminent, Nov. 16 possible.
Stay tuned!

Tuesday, 13 November 2007

Ushguli, August 2007

The evening of Maryamoba (see yesterday's pics) gave me my first ever Svan wedding - a nice change from the 6 or 7 funerals I've been to in Svaneti. It felt like God was saying, Enough mourning already - let's party! Below are two shots from the feast, blurred intentionally because ALL of the subjects are in witness protection programmes. No, seriously, they are. No, really... OK, I didn't have my flash with me but rather wanted to capture the moment on film anyway. This is what a 1/4 or 1/2 second shutter speed looks like handheld by a SOBER person, in case you've ever wondered.

The top shot is as we left Ushguli towards Lentekhi. My two American lady tourists, having driven all the way from Baku to Uahguli, now wanted to return to Tbilisi by another, worse, route, just for the heck of it. At least it gave us a change of scenery - and the road was no rougher, better even, than the worst they've been on in Azerbaijan...

Monday, 12 November 2007

Ushguli, August 2007

Bottom: rain-wet leaf...

Top 2: On this trip I was in Svaneti for Maryamoba, feast of the Virgin Mary, for the first time that I'm aware of. Indeed, how could I forget such an event? Everyone brought lots of food to the village's graves (so THAT's how they use those tables permanently set up in the fenced enclosures). We went around remembering the dead, eating little but toasting a bit; then packed it all up and returned home. These two shots are of my host Dato's father's grave complex.
The white braids around the table and the piglet's snout are made from fresh bread dough.

Sunday, 11 November 2007

Ushguli, August 2007

More leaves and rain, below.

Above, Shkhara at that particular point where the stream crossing the road makes a nice reflecting puddle. A favourite angle, in other words.

Welcome first viewers from Latvia and Finland this week!

Saturday, 10 November 2007

Ushguli, August 2007

The same as yesterday, only different.

Friday, 9 November 2007

Ushguli, August 2007

Bottom 2: in the absence of good weather, concentrate on the details - in this case, raindrops on rose leaves. Minimal focus (depth of field) to allow you to notice what I think is important.

Top: Lamaria Church and Mt Shkhara at the top of Ushguli again. Every day new weather and a new mood, different lighting making a unique scene.