Here Paul Hayman, managing director of MAAssist, tells his eventful story about his visit to Georgia in March this year, where he visited the school and started to make plans for the renovation.
The Georgian school renovation project – Part 2
In March this year I travelled to Ambrolauri, Georgia to start planning the school renovation project. This journey turned out to be quite an adventure and a truly humbling experience.
The journey started early on Wednesday the 23rd, as I had an important business meeting in the City of London before heading off to the airport. Obviously the clothes that I needed for a trip to the Georgian mountains were not suitable for the pin-striped surroundings of the City. But I needed to travel light, and stuffing a suit and leather shoes into my backpack for a long journey to Tlugi, via Heathrow, Warsaw and Tblisi, did not seem a good idea. So here was my first dilemma, what to wear? I opted for a smart pair of jeans, shirt and tie and my faithful tan linen sports jacket and a scarf. I still stuck out in the City but the meeting went well and I felt suitably attired for my trip.
I arrived at Heathrow on time and landed in Tblisi, the capital of Georgia, just after 5am. Here I met my ‘fixer/translator/guide’ Davit Maisuradze – or should I say I approached a man holding a board with my name on and hoped all would be fine! As it turned out Davit proved to be very valuable in many ways and he seemed to know everyone.
We walked out of the airport into freezing temperatures and I quickly realised that my sports jacket and scarf were completely inadequate. We got into a 4 x 4 Nissan Pathfinder and we started our drive out of Tblisi and northwest towards Tlugi in Ambrolauri.
The roads in the centre of Tblisi were pretty poor and were lined with police cars every 5 miles or so, blue lights flashing even at this early hour. As we dodged our way past the potholes, police and out of the city I was surprised to see petrol stations every 3 miles or so, but there were clearly very few cars on the road. By this time I was starting to feel the effects of sleep deprivation but there was little chance of sleep as the roads got worse and worse as we travelled further out of Tblisi. I had to hold onto my seat constantly as I was thrown around the car.
We were about 50km outside of Tblisi when the sun started to rise. We started to pass the refugee camps that grew up after the South Ossetia War, an armed conflict in 2008 with Georgia and Russia on one side and the separatist governments of South Ossetia and Abkhazia on the other. I was now starting to see the stark realities of the country and the serious challenges that it faces.
Our journey seemed never ending as we climbed higher and higher into the mountains, lurching through pot holes and listening to Davit’s collection of 80’s new romantic songs. Davit, suggested we stopped for food and chose their equivalent of a roadside service station, which was really just a small room that was heated by a small wood burning stove. Our breakfast consisted of a huge selection of food including stews, salads, breads and a fizzy lemonade type drink, not my usual tea and toast!
Our journey continued and the weather really started to close in. The snowfall became very heavy and the snow quickly covered the road. The road soon changed into a mountain pass and at one point we stopped to help a stranded car, towing it very slowly up to the summit while a snow blizzard raged around us. At the summit the temperature gauge read -8 degrees outside, so I decided to stay put in the car and leave Davit to uncouple the cars. By the time he got back into the car he was frozen and the weather had closed in; we were now in a total ‘white out’ and were going nowhere for a while.
I took the opportunity to try and get some sleep, only to be woken by a Georgian Army truck screeching its horn as it nearly crashed right into us on the mountain pass, a very near miss indeed!
As the weather slowly lifted we continued our journey on towards Tlugi. By now the roads were just single lane tracks and, about 1pm, I was very relieved to hear Davit say we had arrived at the school. By this time I had been travelling non-stop for about 17 hours and hadn’t slept for over 26 hours.
We were met by a small lady who was one of the school teachers. The school was a large, single storey, concrete building on a sloped site, much bigger than I was expecting. It was in a very poor condition with several of its windows broken. Also the chimneys for the school’s small wood burning stoves pierced through the glazed sections of the windows. The school entrance was constructed of half a dozen crumbling steps which had clearly felt the ravages of the harsh weather over the years. There were no handrails or guards to stop falls and the steps were clearly dangerous.
I walked around the school to survey the conditions. In every room there was heavy smoke damage caused by the wood burning stoves, there was no electricity, no running water and the floor coverings were often missing, causing me to trip on more than one occasion. The toilets were situated outside. They had no doors and again there was no running water; they were essentially holes in the ground. The only running water for the school came from a broken water main in the grounds. This was an SOS project which needed some careful consideration.
I met the children and teachers of the school, but they all appeared to be somewhat shy and didn’t know how to greet me. They often kept their heads bowed and clearly didn’t know what to make of this visiting stranger. I had brought bags full of pens and pencils and left them with the teachers who seemed to be very thankful for such a small gesture.
So after taking many measurements I waved goodbye to the children and we left to visit the town of Ambrolauri.
Ambrolauri, was about 10 miles away and there we met Dato Janelidze. Dato has been involved in harvesting the fir tree cones for many years. He processes the cones by drying and bagging them ready for distribution to the nurseries and forests in Denmark.
Dato wanted to show me what happened to the cones once they had been picked from the trees, so we drove into his yard to find out more. As we got out of the car we were met by Dato’s dog, a large and rather effective guard dog tied to a chain that was so long that the dog basically had the run of the yard. That was another near miss that I will never forget!
After we had completed the tour Dato invited us to eat. We drove a short distance to a small house where we were taken through the main dining area, where a few people were eating and drinking, into a private room. It all sounds very glamorous, but it wasn’t; the private dining room was separated from the main dining room by an old curtain, it had a simple wooden bench and a window that didn’t close so the temperature was below freezing.
Food started to arrive; chicken livers, offal, stews, breads, enough to feed at least 10 people. Dato disappeared for about 15 minutes and returned with a jeroboam of his home made red wine. He made many toasts which were duly translated by Davit, with lots of references to family, god and giving thanks. Dato’s generosity and real enthusiasm for the project was very touching.
I was quickly realising that our initial plan to send a team of UK tradesmen and materials to Tlugi was much more of a logistical and costly challenge than we had thought. So we decided to explore whether sourcing local labour and materials would be feasible. We had planned to stay in Ambrolauri that night but felt we couldn’t achieve anything further on the project in Ambrolauri and decided to return to Tblisi to check out the available local labour and materials.
By now I was seriously tired and a little drunk and I was desperate to have a rest, but no chance. Our return journey began much as it started, with me holding onto my seat as we lurched through pot holes with Davits 80’s new romantic selections blaring away. Luckily the snow storm had stopped and we negotiated the hairpin corners a little more quickly on the way back, even though snow was still quite deep on the road.
I started to doze, thanks to sheer exhaustion, when I was rudely awoken by Davit’s shouts as we started to slide across the road towards a car that had already slid into a bank of snow. Crash! We bounced off the car and ended up on the opposite side of the road, or should I say giant toboggan run. Davit immediately got out and started to make phone calls as he went to talk to the passengers of the other car. I got out of the passenger side of the car and went to help, but of course I couldn’t understand a word. Nobody was hurt or injured and the 4 x 4 was hardly scratched as most of the contact had been taken by the 4 x 4 footplate. The mood was tense and Davit was obviously concerned – car insurance is not mandatory in Georgia and such incidents can turn nasty. I took Davit to one side and offered him the €200 in cash I had. There were more hurried and tense conversations then we quickly returned to the car and left the scene.
Davit did not speak for quite some time except for a few expletives in English. I reassured him that it was a minor crash and he could not have avoided it. The remaining journey was completed slowly, quietly and without incident back to Tblisi.
A hotel room, a shower, a change of clothes and sleep was beckoning, but as we drove back into the city Davit decided to take me for dinner to a German styled bar with wholesome food and cloudy strong beer. Finally we reached a hotel only to find it was fully booked! It was now well past midnight and I had not slept for over 40 hours. Luckily we finally found a room at the Marriott and, after what felt like an eternity, I finally got some sleep.
The next day Davit took me to the material markets and we looked at how we could source the materials we needed for the project from within Tblisi. The market was fascinating – it went on for miles with car parts, plumbing equipment, tyres and building materials all set out in a market environment. Bartering and haggling was the norm. We also visited an uPVC window manufacturer who priced the replacement windows from my drawings and sizes. Prices were quoted in Lari, Dollars and Sterling! My initial view that we could do more with the funds by sourcing locally was quickly being confirmed.
But now the real dilemma… what to do? How do we do this renovation, how extensive should it be and what is the best use of the funds we hope to raise? The important aim of this project is to make life a little easier for the children at the school, to give them a chance in life. We need to plan this project carefully and will work with Fair Trees®, the school authorities and the staff of the school to ensure that the project is a success.
If you would like to know more about Fair Trees® and the project please see the attached and/or enclosed information or go to:
or contact Teresa Owen at Teresa.Owen@maassist.com,
And if you would like to contribute to the fund-raising please contact:
Paul Hayman Paul.Hayman@maassist.com
Teresa Owen Teresa.Owen@maassist.com