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Charleston, SC, United States
"Fear is a stranger to the ways of love. Identify with fear, and you will be a stranger to yourself." -ACIM

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Softball, Oil Rigs and I’m on TV… again.

What a weekend! The weather was great, the food was good (I wasn’t in my site) and I had a lot of fun with some of my good friends.

One of my fellow volunteers took the initiative to work with the local softball federation and write a grant similar to the one that I did in order to build my English Room, but he used his funds to help them rebuild the one and only softball field here in Georgia. He’s also doing another great project at his organization and you can keep up with him at his blog: (

As part of every USAID funded grant that we do through the Peace Corps, there has to be a training element involved. So, I and a few other volunteers agreed to help him this past weekend and we ran a softball clinic for around 30-40 boys and girls in the capital of Tbilisi. We all just had a lot of fun working with the kids and teaching them a game that we all love was just great. The girls here (and this is pretty much the case in just about every aspect of society) just don’t get as many opportunities but at the same time are just so much easier to work with. They were all about trying to learn new things and get better. The boys were more interested in showing you how much they already knew and not listening when you tried to explain things to them. But, overall we had a great time and I think this was a wonderful volunteer led initiative in cooperation with the local softball federation founder Gia Kemoklidze who is a wonderful man to work with and a credit to his country.

Every night after the trainings, we went back to my buddy’s house and cooked our own food and then made breakfast every morning before going back to the capital. We got our hands on some chicken breasts and real bacon, so… YUM!

We still have one more training to do at the end of this week and then the U.S. Ambassador to Georgia will come out to join some Peace Corps Staff members and other volunteers to play a ceremonial game and celebrate not only another great project but the Peace Corps’ 50th Anniversary. (I know the Peace Corps has been getting some bad press lately, but it’s still a great organization that does some great work around the world and for better or worse, I love it).

After the weekend I had a reporter come out to Muganlo from a Caucasian TV station (televised in Russian for Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia) and do a story about my work in an Azeri village and my life with a Muslim family. It was an ok experience and marked my 7th time being on television since I’ve been here. Ho-Hum. Really the story was more about me being an American and spending two years working in a rural village full of minorities that don’t share my same beliefs, culture or culinary habits. I talked about what I liked and disliked (diplomatically) and my host-family talked about what it was like to have me there for two years. I was bored with it for the most part until I heard my host-dad Akif talk about how much he loved having me around and how much he would miss me when I leave. While he was talking and I was preparing my reaction (since all the interviews were in Russian and I didn’t want to make a grammatical mistake on international TV) it really hit me that despite all the problems I have, I’ll really miss my family here once I leave.

Anyway, after the interview was over, Akif had to go back to work. He asked me to come along with him since he would be visiting several oil drilling sites that day and “maybe it’ll be interesting for you.” I thought, ‘Why not?’ I’ve got nothing else to do today. And in case you don’t’ know, Akif is the materials manager for a medium sized oil company here in Georgia and is well respected at his company because he’s known as a guy who gets stuff done.

So, first we went to this one rig way up in the mountains about a 45 minute drive from our village that was shut down for the Spring so they could clean it and repaint all the generators and whatnot. I’d never been on an oil rig so for me it was really interesting. One of my fellow volunteers said, “Isn’t that dangerous? I don’t know that I’d go on an oil rig in America. And we have regulations!” Hahahaha. True, but I had a hardhat. On this rig it was kind of funny since the core of the rig goes down 5 kilometers and has produced over $30 million in oil over the past 10 years using a combination of American, Russian and Chinese parts. While I’m standing on this thing all the generators are running as they are being tested and everything creeks and makes so much noise that it’s unbelievable. However, now I understand how Akif can put up with all the noise at home. Eleven people running around seems quiet compared to the rig.

After the visit there, we went to his main office where they separate the gas from the oil and then pump it out to trucks that then haul it off. This was also really cool because I got to see the oil that comes from the rigs get pumped into huge tanks and one tank that was being filled from oil directly from the ground. Akif let me stick my finger down in the oil to smell it and look at its color and tell him what I thought.
“Smells like kerosene,” I said.

“Yes, yes. Everything comes from this. But what about the color?” he asked to test what I had learned from the rig.

“Looks too light maybe? I think it should be darker,” I said.

“Good! This is the oil that we’ve only separated out the gas from. We still need to take out the water and some dirt. Good!” was my reward for paying attention on the rig.

This location is also the place where my oldest host-brother Levan works as a welder. We said hello to him quickly, Akif told him to get back to work and then we went on our way. Next was a trip to the workshop where my middle host-brother Aslan works basically tearing things that are broken apart, fixing them and then putting them back together. I watched him work on some pipe while Akif told him how he was doing it wrong. (Fathers are the same everywhere). Once they got the pipe all broken apart we all went home and had dinner with lots of vodka to celebrate a day of being on TV and me meeting about 100 of Akif’s coworkers. Some of them I had met before at Supras, but a lot of them I was meeting for the first time. Overall it was a fun day and I learned a lot about oil and what Akif really does.

This week I’m in the capital for my final medical exams so lots of poking, prodding and blood drawing. More updates on that and my future plans in next week’s blog post.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Moon Shining in Broad Daylight

It’s that time of year; time to make the homemade vodka or ‘ChaCha’ here in Georgia. Now while those of you in America maybe thinking, isn’t making homemade liquor illegal? I say that here it’s not only legal; it’s a source of pride for most families.

I have run across several debates about how ChaCha is to be made. The consensus is that it is to be made from grapes and that only poor families and uneducated people would make it from things like apples and peaches or other fruits. I think it’s more of a pride in the Georgian grapes than anything, but grapes seem to be the preferred method. I tried to convince them to let me make a batch out of corn to show them the Appalachian method, but they weren’t going for it.

Let me walk you through the weekend’s events. On Saturday morning, I arrived at home to see that the still had already been set up. (See photo below). Now, what we needed to do was open the huge barrel that we had left all the grape stems, seeds, and skins in from the fall when we made our wine. My family finished that process in October, so those had been left in there to ferment for about six months. I could describe the smell inside this giant barrel but for fear that you may be having a snack while reading this, I’ll spare you.
Getting the rot from the garage to the back yard was simple enough. We got a shovel, a ladder and some buckets and the process was on. We simply dumped buckets into the cooker until it was just over half way full. Then, it’s build a fire and wait on the alcohol to drip through. Simple as that. Really, after you get the still set up the process isn’t very labor intensive. You really just need to make sure the pipes stay cool in order to help the condensation process. (See my host-dad Akif below).
Now comes the more “scientific” aspect of the job. Ideally, the first 3 liter bottle should come out at about 70% alcohol by volume. We measured this with what I thought was a thermometer at first but then realized was a float that depending on the level of alcohol in the bottle tells you where you’re at. After that your next bottle should be around 40% alcohol and then around 30% before you need to load in more grape sludge. So that’s 9 liters at 70, 40 and 30% or, when all mixed together a batch of around 47% alcohol. Just as a note here, your typical bottle of liquor in the states is around 40%.

At this point you have two options, you can either remove the grape sludge and start a new batch or poor all 9 liters back in and distill it for a second time. You will lose a little alcohol % here but the taste will get better. Or so I’m told. Our first batch came out at a total of 55% so we dumped it back and got a final first batch of 42%. “Very not strong,” said my host-dad. But that first batch still tasted like the grape sludge and burnt like fire so we had no choice.

Like I said this wasn’t too labor intensive, so while we waited for the goodness to drip from the pipes we also took the time to dump last fall’s wine that we had “aged” in plastic bottles into one large glass container as to get some oxygen into it and to balance out the alcohol there as well. The women watched the kids to make sure they didn’t burn themselves, they made lunch and all I really had to do was poor beer and haul wine bottles up from the cellar. Of course there was the testing that happened after ever 3 liter bottle was distilled. (Half shots only cause you never knew what you were going to get). By the end of the day I was not feeling so well and needless to say slept quite late on Sunday.

Sunday was the same process except we had to do everything in the rain. It rained all day and everything just turned to mud. Gross. But, one thing I can say about ChaCha, it’ll keep you warm even when you’re wet. I think we ended up with about 25-27 liters of ChaCha by the end of Sunday but we still have more to go. I hear the best grape sludge (and by best they mean the highest alc. %) is at the bottom of the barrel. So, we’ll see about that.

I’ve been drinking this stuff for about two years now and I can say that every batch and every home is different. Some taste ok. Some taste real bad. Some are high in alcohol. Some are really high in alcohol. I don’t recommend it and I can tell you I’ve never met anyone who has ever said they drink ChaCha for the taste.

I think later this week if we still have wood and the still is still set up, I’ll buy some corn and try to get them to let me make some corn liquor for them. It can’t be any worse and who knows, maybe they’ll like it. They sure loved Jack Daniels when they tried a bottle a few months ago. I was frightened at how quickly they fell in love with Tennessee whiskey. Even my one host-brother who rarely drinks was putting down shots of that.

Until next time, stay safe and avoid the cops if you’re planning a weekend Shine; unless you’re livin’ in The Republic of Georgia, in which case go for it!