Kutaisi made for a nice getaway providing us with little slices of home, but we were leaving such comforts (and hopefully the rain) behind early Thursday morning, aided by the persistence of goofy Chris to get up; first with an alarm, a groan, a flick of the light and a throttle. Derek lasted less than thirty seconds before finding something that sent him on a tangent. Zach and Jon went about their business as I, as I am known to do, took my time. Why hustle, bustle and rush to go somewhere when 'Georgian Maybe Time' (GMT) will just make you sit and wait? We rushed out of the Hostel with no real plan except for finding some way of getting to Borjomi. We would start at the train station which was close by, try some marshrutkas if that failed and keep an open mind - as per the promise I made to myself to remain adventurous.
As we arrived at the train station, no marshrutkas were to be seen, so we hailed a taxi with the intention of arriving back at the McDonald's where the main bus terminal sat in behind. The six of us, and our bags, crammed into the hatchback and hadn't gone two hundred yards before five of us thrashed about in the back seat anxiously comparing our precarious and awkward positioning to the group. Our driver was asking where we wanted to go, again, despite knowing we wanted to go to McDonald's, to the marshrutka station. He continued to ask 'where' until one of us figured out he was asking where we wanted to go, beyond Kutaisi. He offered, for a fee of course, to drive us to Borjomi as is, packed into the back like a circus' clown car. My sense of adventure desperately needed restoration and we all understood the frustrations of marshrutka travel. I voiced my strong opinion to travel by this ridiculous mode. Any resistance at spending the next three hours on another mans lap was quickly deemed a moot point, as those in favor negotiated a price of ninety lari and the car turned onto the highway passing a sign pointing in the direction of Borjomi. We laughed at how absurd we felt and must've looked; and for the people sitting on laps, being able to feel the others laughter made for a most awkward sensation. It was here, feeling intimate as we had but no choice to be with everyone, Derek ingeniously renamed our destination, 'BROjormi'. We all laughed, then felt awkward again.
A few pit stops later, to cycle seating arrangements, refill the car with natural gas and one stop to eat breakfast, allowed us to arrive in Borjomi with good spirits. The leaves on the trees had turned yellow, orange and brown and were still falling into November; the air had a combination of being cool and fresh, a crispness to it that reminded me of early Autumn at home; a comforting familiarity that no amount of McDonald's could have brought; so it seems I was wrong when I said we left such comforts in Kutaisi. The sidewalks were dry where the water hadn't collected into puddles, so there was hope we managed leave the rain behind.
The group took time to get their bearings and speculate what was meant from the description in the guide book I was reading directing us to a potential Guesthouse; Hotel Victoria. A man hounded us about having a vehicle who could take us straight away to Vardzia; he pushed down on in a few times to prove how tough it was, but we ultimately ignored him. We crossed the river on a suspension bridge as we were instructed, unnecessarily zigzagged through the aesthetic streets made narrow by encroaching houses and trees, then walked through a little park before backtracking half a block to the address in the book. We were greeted by a soft-spoken woman with a big smile who showed us the room with four single beds and a double on the top floor. Two needed to share; Chris waited for Derek bedside to claim their spot together. BROjormi was becoming a self-fulfilled prophecy.
We rested while chatting in the large pine-covered common room upstairs after the nice lady showed us the bathroom and told us not to use the shower. Wicked. She had disappeared downstairs only to reappear a short time later balancing a tray covered with glasses of wine which had been made using the famously salty local mineral water. After toasting, I tried to sip the at the glass of wine, bit it had such a powerful, salty aftertaste, we all agreed to take it Georgian and pour it down in one go. We collectively tried to conceal our cringes, but failed. The gesture to greet us with their household wine had a far more pleasing after effect than the wine itself, and likewise lingered much longer as a fine memory than the rosy liquid on our tongue.
After relaxing, as we always did when finding a place to drop our bags and our heads, we set off to explore Borjomi and in particular, to find the naturally warmed springs in the forest. We filled a bag with things we wanted to bring, and volunteered Derek to carry it. Derek brought a bottle of chacha, a gift from the teachers at his school, and I brought bags of Skittles in a weak attempt to cloak the taste of the punch. A short walk across another river brought us to a nice shop, Inka Cafe, where we warmed our hands and bellies on take-out cups of decent coffee, and further still, perused the new construction that reminded me of a posh ski village. The buildings were lovely, the wrought iron railings around patios and French doors were impressive in their detail and symmetry, however, the aesthetics were ruined in viewing a river flowing with plastics. As teachers, we are attempting to educate for responsible garbage disposal practices, but I don't feel anything is sticking yet; for example, on Earth day, many teachers take the kids out to pick up garbage, then having had a fun day, the kids have dumped the garbage back in the street watching the wind redistribute it in the hopes they will get to do it all over again soon. Something was lost in translation; an all too common occurrence.
At the gates of the Mineral Water Park, we paid fifty tetri to enter and Derek added a two lari expense with the acquisition of an empty two liter jug to fill at the fountain. In November the park was open to the public but the food stands, cafes, fair attractions and cable car were closed for the season and nearly completely devoid of people other than ourselves. The comforting Fall visuals in Borjomi transformed into a scene from a zombie movie inside the park among the stationary rides, boarded windows and empty benches. With all day and no objective other than walking the three kilometers to the pools, we stopped and poked around at the creepy scene of an empty playground. Stairs, slides, swings, teeter totters, mushroom huts and pirate ships had all been submerged under a sea of fallen leaves. Someone then returned us to reality and mentioned we really ought to be on our way; we had been playing on the playground for well over an hour. We passed only a few locals on the way through the three kilometer park to the naturally heated sulfur pools.
At the swimming hole, we stripped down exposing every inch of ourselves to the cold before testing out the healing properties from the pride of Borjomi. A constant temperature of twenty seven degrees, according to the guide book, felt colder. We drank some chacha and chased with Skittles and even raced a few laps to keep warm; Chris, ever giggling, insisted on drinking the water. The most difficult part was getting out of the spring, back into the frigid wind whipping through the valley. More difficult still was getting out when two older women appeared, insisting on livening the afternoon with some casual banter as six men, clad in only their underwear, bobbed in the water. I was refreshed. I was healed. It was the closest I'd had to a hot shower in far too long.
We walked back, stopping along the way to make a nice fire riverside to warm up and I distributed chunks of a few Snickers to everyone for a snack. A day in Georgia venturing with such ease was rare, I thought, allowing myself to get hypnotized by the flames, then I remembered Jon's day wasn't as simple. By the end of it, Jon had narrowly missed serious injury on several occasions; taking a tumble down a hillside, narrowly had his head crushed by a falling rock, fell into the river, and had a long branch javelined at his chest from across the water by Chris, who giggled.
In the evening, I saw a divey joint named 'Touristo', and decided to go inside for dinner. The man spoke no English, for being a self-proclaimed tourist restaurant, and had no power at the time we entered. He pulled up a chair next to our table, beaming, leaning into us as we ordered a round of beer and British Chris chose a Coca-Cola from the menu, which the man immediately walked to a corner store to buy. We ate by candle light, a decent spread of Khinkali, puri, khatchapuri and ostri.
We capped off the night by sharing a pitcher of ghvino at an insanely loud karakoe bar down the hill, called Taverna Nia, meeting a table of local men who bought us a round of our white wine, which we obliged to them a pitcher of their 'black' (red) wine. We spent the night gabbing away at each other and would periodically turn to our new friends, offering a toast to health or friendship or family.
On the walk back to the hostel, Jon, British Chris and I continued uphill for an evening stroll while the others went directly back to the guesthouse. We chatted, passing the construction-by-flashlight of a new castle-like hotel on the hillside, a father and son playing basketball using the twisted metal of a downspout as a hoop, and the rusting chassis' of a few Russian trucks until we came to stop where the road had ended at a concrete shell of a building. We climbed onto a deck without any railing where we continued to talk about family, friendship, religion and outer space. We were laying on our backs, and as the conversation faded away, the three of us stared into the starry sky only speaking to acknowledge a shooting star. The day was appreciated for its simplicity, a rare commodity outside the village where simplicity and utter boredom collide.