When we (the ‘we’ of the RPCVs of Madison) began working on the ‘we all Create’ Poster back in 2008, we were thinking of the creations of art and beauty. But here in Georgia, I had the opportunity to create something in nature, in a place of existing intense beauty. It seemed a presumption to go to this place: could I be part of a project to make nature better?? But it happened – I was part of a “create.”
The Greater Caucasus Mountains of Georgia have provided a natural rugged barrier for the country. Not impassable, and certainly some versions of the Byzantine Road (aka the Silk Road) have passed through as a trade route between East and West. These magnificent mountains haven’t deterred conquering armies from trying to absorb the fertile river valleys and subtropical climate as their own.
In 2015, three Returned Peace Corps Volunteers who had served in Georgia and remained in the country after their service was over decided to follow their passion for the mountain cultures and start the TCT Project as an eco-tourist plan to attract visitors. I have written about this project in a previous post, and about my excitement in their plan. After intense fund-raising, this year they were ready to start the hard work of building the trail, an
east->west and west->east trail, each about 1500 km, envisioned from the Black to Caspian Seas, and back. The goal for two months of work this year was 200 km between Svaneti and Racha.
One other Peace Corps Volunteer, Samantha, and I signed up for this Peace Corps Georgia-approved project. We spent one week doing intense work…and loved it!
We were based at a tri-level campsite. Most the tents were on the third knolltop with a southeast view of the mountains, overlooking the valley and community of Nakra below – small triangles of galvanized rooftop glittering between the trees. We were a colony of seven tents. Morning dew was heavy, and the mountaintops across the ancient river valley were still snow-covered on the northeast slopes at the end of July.
Our kitchen tarp and campfire were on the second knoll (the above two photos by Salome Tsopurashvili). A handwashing station of a water bag and soap-on-a-rope were on the pathway back from the hand-dug latrine, up and over a steep hill. The water filter station was setup on another trail that led to a spring. This spring also served the village through an approximate 1″ diameter PVC pipe. The basic communal space had been setup by Jonathan, Sopo, and Salome before the rest of us arrived.
The first level was tented by Jonathan, a Trail Builder with years of experience working the national park trails of the US. The team leaders also included Austin as Volunteer Coordinator, Leah as Assistant Volunteer Coordinator, and Jeff as Trail Scout.
In addition to Samantha and I, there were 5 other women trailbuilding volunteers: Megan (American via Thailand on the way to Costa Rica), Sopo (Georgian), Salome (Georgian), Flizzita (German), and Kathy (British via South Africa). In the above photo, we built new trail through a meadow, which required digging back the sod and removing it from the trail area, then grooming and smoothing the trail for water run-off.
Building a trail involves a variety of duties, and we were encouraged to try different things to avoid over-use of localized muscle groups. Scouting and flagging the trail and surveying for ascent/descent angle were the beginning of the process, and Jeff and Jonathan had taken care of at least a day’s worth of setup before we arrived.
(First two photos by Salome Tsopurashvili.) We maintained and improved a section of trail through the forest, which involved cutting back brush to an arm’s length on either side of the trail, using a shovel or pick to dig steps or a drainage ditch, cutting down small trees in a few places, digging out roots, and smoothing the trail with a very slight slope to encourage water run-off.
Lunch and hydration breaks were enforced, and any need to stop and rest, or return to camp for a bit, were supported without guilt.
One of the (many) incredible things about the Svaneti mountains was the lack of trash. I mean, NO trash, not even a cigarette butt, though there was clear evidence of people presence. Like the above photo of the Byzantine Road, still in use: a tractor was used to drag a log down to the mountaintop. I did find one 2-liter-size plastic beer bottle on the second day, but I can’t even call it “trash.” It had been cut off, most likely to be used as a drinking cup, or a dinner bowl, or a scoop, and probably fell out of the riders pack as he returned by horseback to the village.
At the end, Austin and Jonathan measured our progress. They estimated we maintained or built about 760’ of trail, creating a connecting to other trails that made a continuous 1000’ (0.31km) of trail. If the project goal is ~1500km from the Black to Caspian Seas, we completed 0.02% of the total project! Looked at another way, the goal for this summer was a 200km section between Svaneti and Racha, so 0.15% done!
These are not disappointing numbers, but numbers to be proud of. It was magical to be in on the early stages of helping to build the TransCaucasian Trail. And that was just one week — really, four days of actual hard work, the rest in travel and setup/teardown.
But that’s not all that a Peace Corps Response Volunteer can help “create!”
What about the next generation of environmentalists? I helped at two different GREEN Camps this summer, one here in Kutaisi, and the other in Lagodekhi in the mountains to the far east of Georgia, almost to Azerbaijan.
The Kutaisi Camp was a day camp for 3 days with 20 youth,
and Lagodekhi an overnight for 5 days with 37 youth.
Each camp had trainings and hands-on activities related to Alternative Energy, Climate Change, Waste Management, Energy Efficiency, and Upcycling.
What would you do if you were Minister of Environment, and had the ability to make positive changes? The Lagodekhi youth had the opportunity to think about it, and present their solutions.
(Second photo by Barbare Jabanishvili.) They also had a unique day of training on how to identify a project, write a grant proposal…then draft out their own ideas. After the camp, 350GEL (about USD175) was made available for them to submit for their project ideas. Six teams (1-4 youth each) ended up submitting grant proposals. I’m excited to hear what projects they are going to implement in their communities!
But it wasn’t all learning. There was free time in Lagodekhi and evenings of karaoke, DDR, and movies. Loved watching these kids, ages 12-17, in action!
These Macarena photos are from karaoke/DDR night in Lagodekhi.
(First photo by Kelley EB.) Environmental hikes were a key component of both. Some kids had never been on a hike! Hard for me to believe, in this beautiful country.
Also hard to believe is the amount of trash. Recycling is in my DNA, but not so much here .
Waste pickup activities were a key component of each event.
(Second photo by Barbare Jabanishvili.)
They are the world, they are the future. And they sang it like they really knew and understood it.