A Travellerspoint blog

Georgian Tidbits Vol. 2

Brief messages from the front lines...

Remember, these tidbits aren't meant to be full of hopes and dreams, lollipops and rainbows, puppies and sunshine. They are a collection of noticeable cultural differences I've encountered and share from my perspective that we may find odd, ridiculous or downright terrifying. Besides, positivity is rarely funny.

I went to a wedding and got hit by a car in the parking lot. I then drank a horn full of wine, danced my ass off and hung out at the Mafia table.

I thought 13 year old Georgians were having "wedding themed" birthday parties, but no, these children are actually getting married.

I was uncomfortable when I first saw the chickens getting their heads cut off, but this nemesis-rooster is pissing me off and I hope his whole crew gets it.

My host-mother says my facial hair makes me look like a goat and my hair stands up like I'd been licked by a cow. My mother in Canada says the same thing.

My host-mother said they didn’t really want me, but when I showed up to surprise them they learned to love me over time. My mother in Canada said the same thing.

My students at school have started sticking their hair up, just like mine. They look stupid.

Bebia slipped on the kitchen floor today and sprained her wrist. It's the only part of her not covered in deep wrinkles because her whole arm looks like the Hindenburg. Ice it Bebia. No child, a nap and a shot of vodka is the cure.

Classes came to an abrupt end and the children were ordered to stack firewood as the older kids chopped. The teachers drank wine and supervised.

Positive: Haircuts only cost three lari here ($1.80). Negative: They aren't worth three lari.

Bebia has walked in on me using the toilet three times in five days. Once is an accident, twice is a coincidence, but three times is a fetish.

Today P.E. consisted of raking leaves (with brooms made from sticks) and setting the piles ablaze.

I was continually telling a student to stop cheating on his test when my co-teacher undermined me and gave him the answers. Why do I even bother?

My entire host-family called me into the kitchen only to ask me if I missed my wife. They thought it was hysterical when I said I did miss her; even going so far as to mock me with fake crying. I'm glad someone found it funny and not utterly hurtful.

I had to call the Hotline (translator) today because I could not understand what my family was saying about weddings. "She says you are very good at weddings, and two other weddings now have asked if you can come." I was apprenticed by the one R. MacKenzie, so I know a thing or two.

I haven't been to a funeral supra yet, but something tells me I'd kill at that too. Badum pshh!

I have photos of myself and two men in the village that have died since I arrived here; one of a car accident and the other of heart failure. This has to be the most common one-two punch for cause of death here in Georgia.

Test 2 was spent blatantly and shamelessly copying from the smart girls book. My efforts to stop it were futile as the my co-teacher stood by, thinking it was normal and acceptable.

My class schedule has changed seven out of nine weeks. I remember when I thought it was odd when still happening after day three.

I hear that yelling out the word as children are reading, and mocking the way they mispronounce words is a great way to boost a kids self esteem and confidence in the classroom. Especially if it's the teacher.

Georgian Class Discipline 101: Bang, stomp, scream, twist children's ears, pull their hair and if all else fails, hit them in the face with a Physics textbook. I assume the only logical step from there is to stab them in the arm with a penknife or shoot them in the leg, non-fatally.

I draw small pictures to demonstrate meanings of the vocabulary I put up on the board. This, of all things, makes the kids go bananas. How boring has English class been that this simple gesture is so exciting? Time to kick it up a notch.

I coordinated 'project one' in class today, wondering why my co-teacher has never bothered. Paint splattered everywhere; desks, kids, teachers, walls... but we made flowers and they learned the word scissors because I had to yell "Put down the scissors!" every fifteen seconds, not because they were misused for cutting paper, but rather continually wielded as a weapon.

Posted by CRBackman 02:42 Archived in Georgia Tagged wedding school wine georgia crafts tidbits saqartvelo Comments (0)

The Wedding Crasher

You'll go, and you'll like it.

"Cor, kortsili, k'vira You go." Wedding, Sunday.
"Can I stay home?" Worried about having to work the next day.
"No. You go. Kai bitchi." G'boy.

My host-sister and host-mother have already walked into my room unannounced and are now going through my drawers, consulting each other until they find a pair of pants they agree on and pull a shirt from the pile showing it equal consideration until my host-sister, rummaging through my underwear drawer finds a tie I brought with me. She, Teona, squeals with excitement. Tsitso encourages her by becoming elevated as well. "Show-ays, Cor?" Pointing to her mammoth feet, rolling one on her heal back and forth. Ah, shoes, I understand. I point to the black shoes I brought. They grimace with identical expressions, then walk out together talking under their breath. To steal a line from my wife, I am beginning to feel like a ken doll who's owned by a child with anger issues. I have waited for three months for the novelty of my arrival to wear off, which it has not done one tiny bit. It is Sunday, the day of the wedding between the two people I have never met, soon to be stuck in a room with three hundred people I don't know and will hardly be able to communicate with. I hear Georgian weddings are blast; a can't-miss if you're lucky enough to have a chance to go.

My plan is to sneak under the radar, incognito, fade into the background upon my arrival. I have grown to understand that the novelty of drinking with a foreigner is an urge Georgians have no willpower to defend against. In a room with three hundred people all wanting to toast with you would be certain death. If I can succeed in keeping a low profile, I can get home to bed unscathed and guarantee myself a pain-free Monday.

My clothes, picked out for me because I am an incapable twenty nine year old, are freshly washed and ironed hanging over the chair in my room waiting for me. I did everything they told me, even received a haircut against my wishes which left me looking like a short bus frequent who attacked himself with a pair of scissors. The combination of my inability to do anything for myself and this haircut will not be advantageous for me when I get home. We dress (surprisingly they allow me to do this on my own), take some photos and wait on the porch for our ride to arrive. Bebia spends the hour in waiting pinching my cheeks and tousling my shitty haircut. Finally we set off in a Mercedes owned by a 'business associate' of Chabuki's but without Tsitso, my host-mother, I wondered. In my inquiring, I found out that her sister had passed away, and she was obligated to defer from large social celebrations in a show of mourning, and was also the reason she wore, head-to-toe, all black. Only after one full year, this November 27th, would she would be eligible, so to speak, to wear color and participate in community events again.

We stopped in Abasha before continuing onto Kutaisi. Rauli, Chabuki's associate, buys some mineral water while I add money to my mobile and Chabuki disappears into an 'aptiaki' (pharmacy) for a few minutes. I drink a regular water back in the car as the two men stand in the parking lot of the train station for an hour, 'talking business'. After the hit was ordered, the coke delivered, the dead hooker's body disposed of and the cops paid off, we uneventfully continued on the road to Kutaisi.

Even after dicking around in Abasha we were one of the first to arrive. Again, I sat patiently in the car flipping between reading a book on my iPhone and playing Boggle while the men talked business in the parking lot in the dark, drizzly night illuminated only by the light of the flickering restaurant sign. The only other people outside were a group of small girls who chased each other in ballet flats and puffy dresses. We waited for three hours while people continually arrived before the bride and groom even showed up, an apparent custom to have them enter the reception area first, even if it meant making their guests stand in the rain. The cars carrying the bridal party and their families pulled into the restaurant parking lot without taking a break from their horn. We were all extra aware that they had arrived. The first car drove slowly, cautiously, un-Georgian-ly, infuriating the next one in line who squealed his tires around the lead vehicle, then slammed on his breaks just short of the anxious crowd. At this time, I was outside with all the others making sure to keep out of the way and to speak quietly when it was required of me, sticking to my plan to remain invisible; just another person in the crowd. Assuming the asshole driver had parked, I turned my back to the vehicles and returned my attention back to discreetly reading Plato's The Republic on my iPhone.

All of a sudden I had been shoved, or kicked to the ground and was sprawled out on the asphalt in a half push-up position; my legs lay in a puddle and my vision had turned everything to a red hue. Was it really that rude to read an e-book at a Georgian wedding to warrant being drop kicked? What the did I do? I looked behind me to make sure another attack wasn't coming and saw the taillights of the asshole driver inches from me. A few men banged on the car's boot in disgust, some women gasped 'Oy deda!' Chabuki and his associates helped me off the ground, then realizing I was fine, burst into a chorus of laughter as I assessed, in frustration, my sopping pants to the knee. A crowd, staring at me, gathered around myself and the car, and I was seething; I was pissed I had just been hit by a car driven by a typical asshole driver into a puddle in the parking lot of restaurant playing host to a wedding for people I didn't know in foreign country where I didn't speak much of the language, and worst of all was having to endure this absurd haircut while everyone stared at me. [Do you like what I did with the title; I crashed a wedding, and also, I was struck by a motor vehicle].The asshole driver opened his door and poured himself out managing with great effort to stand up making it apparent to myself and the crowd just how shit-faced he was. The crowd laughed at the image before them and I was alone in experiencing the shock at such a site. Some men made their way to me by this time, slinging their arms over my shoulders, around my arms, around my back, slapping me on the body, all asking how I was. In replying I was good, they sensed my accent. Chabuki was one of the men hanging over me taking a shining to the spotlight and explained to those who were interested that I was an English teacher from Canada who lived at his house and who he normally introduced as 'Tsitso's bitchi', Tsitso's boy. The jig was up. My cover was blown. I watched as a glint in the eyes of all the men around me exposed their thoughts; how good of a story would it be to tell people I once got hammered with a Canadian, who was hit by a car moments before? My host-sister translated what the men were saying: My fazah friend say can Canadidan drink? Mama (Dad) say to zem, 'Coro can drink 'bevri'' (a lot of) ghvino. Thanks Chabuki.

Inside the restaurant on the top floor, led by the bride and groom, a bunch of men laughed as they relived and impersonated my misfortune over and over again. We seated ourselves at huge tables filled with a shocking amount of food at each, shoulder to shoulder with neighbors in a very tight squeeze which for me were complete strangers of course. We waisted no time in filling our plates. The Tamada (Toastmaster) fiddled with the microphone and soon, the people were drinking too. Everyone drank with the Tamada, and every table had a junior Tamada who kept the wine flowing, and if that still wasn't enough, it was perfectly acceptable to make a toast yourself, as long as you weren't interrupting a toast of anyone else's. We all gorged on the food but never made a dent. If something was low, they brought more out in an instant. It was the most prepared food I have ever seen at one time. Women walked around with huge trays of food, grabbed a bundle of khatchapuri with their hands, placed the bundle in the stainless steel tongs, then used the tongs to transfer the reinforcements onto the plates. If there was no room on the table, they simply dropped plates of kababi on full plates of vegetables, stacking the food ever higher. If it was a game of Tetris, we were losing horribly. Some men sang folk songs with the volume at 11 during the meal which made conversation almost impossible for me, but the men nearby would flick their neck as a sign it was time to drink again. If I 'forgot' they would pick up the glass and place it to my lips for me. How thoughtful of them, I would have thought, if I wasn't otherwise thinking how annoying it was. After everyone slowed their eating to a casual picking, the drinking horns appeared. Men stood up, and as if to unzip and prove their manliness, filled the huge horns with wine, toasted to the bride and groom, then chugged it back, politely refilling the horn for the next super man. From what I saw, all participants had massive bellies and could clearly hold their drink. The men near me joked that I should try; annoyed and understanding what a silly show for boys it was, and being confident as I am in myself, I bolted up snatching the horn in my grasp and downed the wine like my proof of masculinity depended on it. Folk songs began to slowly transition into Western pop songs only to be interrupted occasionally by the Tamada in giving another toast.

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A few men from my table who had wandered off to socialize came by to introduce me to a boy cutely overdressed, in comparison to the others his age, in a nicely-fitted black, silk suit, bought special for this occasion, I presumed. We shook hands as he pulled me in for a greeting kiss and spoke a few quick lines where I could only pick up on 'dalie', drink. He beamed and me with a cheeky sparkle in his eye as I sensed an excessive number of people were watching our interaction. The people around us quieted until a man handed me the huge horn filled to the rim with wine. It was explained to me, with great effort, that the groom had missed my toast to his matrimonial longevity and asked, if I may, to repeat the gesture. Reluctantly, I ultimately agreed, asking where the groom was so I could perform a second toast. The man pointed to someone behind the boy so I walked over to say hello, only to have my elbow grabbed, spinning me around, spilling a bit of the wine, which was refilled to the rim and handed back to me. The man pointed to the boy again. He's the Groom? Whoa long list of expletives was I ever surprised!

"You are a child!" I yelled unable to control myself. "Ramdeni ts'lisa khart?" How old are you? I asked, and he flashed eighteen with his hands. "Tkveni tsoli?" Your wife? I asked. Fourteen-Fifteen, someone said.

I gave a cheesy speech, rolling out everything I was told on my wedding day and everything I have learned since. He understood nothing, I am sure, except when I raised the horn and drank its contents with great respect to him, tipping the horn upside to prove it was done to the last drop. Some in the crowd applauded and if any shred of obscurity had existed before that, was blown out of site at this demonstration. He pulled me in with another exchange of kisses on the cheek and we embraced like old friends. I sat down for only the briefest of moments just as the music resumed to a Shakira song before being grabbed by the Groom's father and pulled onto the dance floor. I chuckled as we made are way through the crowd. The overhead lights dimmed to allow the dance floor strobes and neons to take full effect. They have no idea what they just did, I thought to myself. I owe that restaurant money for damages because I tore that floor up!

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The rest of the evening just blended into one giant smear of bodies on a dance floor and when I wasn't dancing, I split my free time between the mafia table 'talking business,' and the head table talking about soccer, Canada and Georgia, after the mandatory five questions were out of the way of course: What is your name? Where are you from? Do you like Georgia? Do you like Georgian girls? How much money do you make?

Rauli, miserable from having not taken a sip of wine all night, scooped me from the clutches of his associates of the Martvili branch (a town nearby Abasha where I lived) who passionately insisted I come visit sometime. I found Chabuki among the mob and for a guy who insisted he didn't drink (for health reasons) was a stumbling mess. He clambered around, and demanded we take a drink together before leaving, and seeing no reason why not (Tsitso wasn't there), we did. He hung off me while we walked downstairs to the car in relative silence, hopping into the back seat of the Mercedes with me. We left the wedding comparatively early, although it was closing in on 2 a.m. with still an hours drive back from Kutaisi. The next thing I realized, Teona was shaking us awake as we idled outside the gate of the Chorgolashvili home; my face was resting against the cold glass of the window, and Chabuki leaned across the back seat and had been sleeping on my shoulder. I staggered into the house, Chabuki doing much the same in tow, and flopped onto the bed without even bothering to undress.

I realized before falling asleep on the way home, Chabuki had stopped in to the pharmacy to get a replenished supply of his medication. He was pre-planning on his getting drunk taking advantage of a night away from his wife.

The alarm on my phone rang like a air horn being blasted point blank while it simultaneously felt like someone shot nails into my eyes. I yelled at the inanimate object to fuck off, and rolled over. There was absolutely no way I was able to teach screaming children today, at least not without having to attend a funeral later in the week, too.

Posted by CRBackman 05:02 Archived in Georgia Tagged wedding wine excursion georgia mafia kutaisi ghvino imereti kortsili drinking_horn Comments (0)

The BROjormi Excursion Pt. 3

Vardzia, Saturday

We got up early, not unlike we had done the previous morning. Derek took less than fifteen seconds before finding something that gravely upset him. We packed a day bag, volunteering Derek to carry it then set off for the day with the intention of arriving in Vardzia in a packed marshrutka.

We grabbed some breakfast at a market along the way to the marshrutka station across the suspension bridge and bumped into the man who was so persistent with us the day before. We said hello, he pushed down on his Russian jeep to prove how tough it was, and urged us to hop in. A hundred lari, split six ways, and we could stop as we wished along the way to Vardzia; we threw our bags and hopped in. Derek sat up front, as he has a way of chatting up the locals as if their wasn't a great language divide, while three of us sat in the back seat and two others sat even further back on two fold-down stools amongst the bags.

The drive became more beautiful the closer we came to Vardzia. The landscape changed quite drastically, several times it seemed, from quaint farmland, to rolling hills, to spiking rock towers, to bustling townships then reverting back to abandoned medieval communities. One such fortified town, Khertvisi Fortress, rested on a hill high above the passing road. As high as the hill was, the walls rose equally high giving the structure an imposing stance from the road. We were all thrilled to have stopped for a closer look, except for the Brit who had been born in Ireland and raised in England who's family, I assumed by his nonchalantness, owned three or for such Castles dotting his homeland. A group of goats acted as our tour guides as we walked through the walls and around the towers, even finding a throne, the ancient toilet. I climbed up and around everything I could, scaling a tower wall, where I climbed into a hole and down inside of the tower itself, squeezing through a hole to the outside of the entire fortress.

I had such an affinity for castles as a child, building them with Lego blocks, cardboard models and even tree forts I built or salvaged had to resemble castles. I came from a country comparatively in its infancy with no significant European history beyond a few hundred years; I was a Canadian kid from the far west, a child to parents who were not travelers at the time; to me, castles were only experienced through books and movies. To be able to touch the stones that people placed so long ago, in this case 10th- to 14th century, according to the design of a single person was fascinating to me. To walk where they walked, imagining when it became new to the landscape, was a thrill: A young woman carried a basket of headless chickens through an archway; a man stumbled out of a shack selling spirits; a soldier guarded a doorway with a pike; children ran about playing and wrestling; a old woman hiked up the steep river embankment with buckets of water. To another, however, the fortress represented a place to stretch their atrophied legs.

We took some photos, one in particular, where for whatever reason we decided to go shirtless in the bright sun. I hit the timer button on my camera which was positioned just-so on a rock, ran up the hill to the others, turned, smiled and saw a small group of locals waiting to continue so they didn't ruin the shot. It looked like a yard sale with five guys clothes scattered around the property. Goofy Chris had an emergency bathroom break which took him away from the photo opportunity; it was the longest I'd seen him unable smile or giggle. Georgian food, hearty and heavy, certainly had a way about it, we agreed.

Only another fifteen kilometers or so brought us to the base of the cave city of Vardzia. Originally built as a fortified city by King Giorgi III in the 12th century, Vardzia grew to become much more when King Giorgi's daughter, the famous Queen Tamara, transitioned the site into a bustling holy site, home to over two thousand monks in its peak. According to the guide book I read as we parked the mint Russian jeep, Vardzia contained "113 cave groups, with 409 rooms, 13 churches and 25 wine cellars" which spanned 13 levels up the cliff face.

We climbed the paved walkway before reaching some of the first caves and I thought how difficult it was to imagine Vardzia in its heyday, compared to the fortress we had just come from. In the 13th century, an earthquake shook the cave city, crumbling much of the outer walls, exposing many of the caves, chambers and corridors. This, and a constant onslaught of invaders made Vardzia hard to defend and the cave city eventually succumb in a final battle and looting by the Persians.

Our decision to rise early was the obvious one as bus loads of kids eventually made their way to the historical site. Vardzia was soon engulfed in tourist activity that reminded me of bees in a hive, buzzing around collecting up history like nectar. It was brilliant to see the cut marks from chisel work that had carved out entire rooms, cellars and churches inch-by-inch into solid rock. The sun was bright in the sky, hot with a gentle cooling breeze, and hanging over the safety railing soaking in the landscape, Vardzia never became unimpressive or boring to me, wishing I could only stay longer.

We stopped for lunch just across the river and was much cheaper than eating at the base of Vardzia. We sat at benches in the shade of a big leafy tree which gave us a magnificent view of the entirety of where we had just explored.

Back in Borjomi hours later we showered and set off for food again. Touristo, the restaruant we'd gone to before without power was on the way and we decided to stop in again. The power was on this time, and he skipped about and smiled and regaled us with the warmest of welcomes. We took a seat in the booth nearest the door and he pulled up a chair, leaning into us as we ordered. We asked for a round of 'ludi', customary to our group, and pointed at the menu when we didn't know how to pronounce the name of the food we wanted. He flashed a massive smile and clapped his hands in appreciation. When our food came out, already having brought out our beer, we noticed a tall glass bottle with clear liquid. He expressed his appreciation to us and wanted us to toast with him with a shot of chacha, his treat. Kababi dominated my plate when the familiar chirping of Derek began to escalate interrupting the meal. As it turns out, goofy Chris in mustering up all his cleverness, ordered Derek a plate of boiled pig entrails.

We finished the chacha, paid our bill then went over to Taverna Nia to cap the night again. We were greeted much the same as they displayed big smiles and bobbed their heads urging us to 'modi, dajeki', come, sit. We finished the night in a private room of the Taverna where we relived the past few days. This trip had quietly become one of the best Georgian weekends so far.

Posted by CRBackman 05:00 Archived in Georgia Tagged georgia chacha borjomi vardzia Comments (0)

The BROjormi Excursion Pt. 2

Borjomi, Friday

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.

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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.

Posted by CRBackman 04:58 Archived in Georgia Tagged mountains wine georgia caucasus tlg chacha ghvino borjomi vardzia Comments (0)

The BROjormi Excursion Pt. 1

Kutaisi, Thursday

Only after recovering from the ridiculousness of Akhuti was I comfortable with the idea of venturing out again; I was most excited for a decent hot shower. To begin planning the details of our next excursion, a web of phone calls were made between six friends in the TLG Group #43: Chris H., Chris P., Zach, Jon, Derek and myself. Initially, more people than the six who made the journey had been invited, but obviously it had not worked out for them to attend, likely unable or unwilling to take the Friday off from work such as we were eager to do. In the end, six made for a great number, allowing for a variety of personalities yet still small enough to interact with the locals without looking like an intimidating ex-patriot mob of buffoonery.

Coincidentally it was going to be Derek's birthday the weekend we had all set aside for our getaway, or perhaps I could admit we chose this particular weekend because it was Derek's birthday, irregardless, the dates of his birth and our getaway were much in the same. Ultimately settling on a choice within a group of friends is never easy, no matter how simple the decision should be; what restaurant, what movie, what toppings on the pizza, etcetera. The choice not to extend invitations to female friends of our group was easy and all agreed upon and only made the process of choosing where to go infinitely easier, but by no means seamless.

Though it was late in the hiking season, I wanted desperately to return to Mestia, a collection of villages in Northwestern Georgia, Svaneti region, within the tall peaks of the Caucasus Mountains which separate abusive mother Russia from her formerly adopted Georgia. I had the others opinions to consider however, and understood there were many other worthy destinations I had not experienced in the country. As a group, we had to also consider the logistics of our 'eqskursia', such as; cost, geography and time of travel (as were traveling from different areas of the countryside), and the coordination between one another.

Zach quickly rose to the occasion by firmly suggesting Borjomi, a vacation spot in the mountains of the Caucasus minor popularized by the Russian elite back when Georgia lived under the roof of the USSR. It was here that natural mineral springs were found and thought to possess healing powers, after a governor's daughter was healed there. With skepticism I thought, by simply replacing the hourly consumption of fiery, homemade vodka with mineral-rich water was all that was needed to heal the girl; and thus gave the water supply its otherworldly healing reputation and supplying future generations with continuously flowing placebo effect. How satisfying does a glass of tap water taste after a night downing a few too many? And how much better is a single Gatorade seem compared to water at reversing that pesky hangover? Other than Borjomi, the only other solid plan we agreed upon was a day trip to Vardzia and to use Kutaisi, Georgia's second most populace city, as our meeting place Thursday evening after work.

On the Thursday of, goofy Chris and I met with as-to-be-expected difficulties when we tried to catch marshrutkas out of our respective town's to meet up before heading down to Kutaisi together. His marshrutka was white, he told me, and it had left Senaki and would be driving through my town soon. Then is wasn't. Then it was? He called back again to tell me this time it was in-fact leaving, but the driver was hesitant to make the trip on account to a near empty bus, and this had caused him to slowly troll for potential passengers on the way. I sat on the curb of Abasha's main road unable to estimate when the correct mini-bus would troll by me; I sat waiting for a white marshrutka to drive by with a sign in the window that read 'KUTAISI'. The tricky part wasn't in reading the sign fast enough before the bus zipped by, it was reading the sign fast enough before the bus zipped by, in Kartuli script. Three angry Georgians drove away from Abasha in white marshrutkas before finding the one Chris was on, having waived them down, peaked inside to see no obvious sign of a gangly, blond kid towering over locals, wearing a goofy smile and giggling; like a beacon of untarnished positivity among the stone-faced, macabre locals. We arrived in Kutaisi in common fashion; cramped, uncomfortable and questioning what possessed these men to drive the way they did.

Though far later to arrive than we originally anticipated, Chris and I were still hours ahead of the others. Zach had a long trip out of the mountains in Adjara leading up to his meeting with Jon and the British Chris in Batumi, before all set off to Kutaisi. Derek's departure, whose village was close enough in proximity to both big Chris and I in Samegrelo, had been wonderfully postponed when his teachers caught wind of his birthday and threw him a Supra celebration, complete with drinking horns and ceremonial bowls, called 'ganskhvavebuli'. Chris and I reserved some beds at the Hostel Kutaisi, negotiated a better price, then set out to grab a bite at a nearby restaurant from the hostels recommendation; which ended up being quite expensive with easily forgettable taste.

With the understanding that we had plenty of time before any one of the guys showed up, Chris and I set off to find the Bagrati Cathedral somewhere resting on a hilltop in the city of Kutaisi. The easy way would've had us ask a taxi to take us there, but with nothing but time in our schedule to somehow fill, we decided instead for the excitement of walking, in combination with the thrills and comfort of public transportation. We walked for a while in the November rain and had nearly finished crossing a bridge when we looked up river, then up the hill beyond to find a large 'iglesia' with an ugly blue tin roof. That's probably it there, we agreed, which means we've been walking in the wrong direction for some time, we agreed again. After a few moments of speculation we saw a woman hustling, trying to motivate her son, and get herself out of the downpour. She stopped at our plea for directions and told us we needed to get on the number one bus. At that moment the number one bus was mushing through the puddles toward us pulling away from the curb on the other side of the street threatening to leave us stranded in the wet. Calmly, she waived it down for us by crossing in front of it flapping her wrist to the ground. We hopped aboard and motored on.

After disembarking the bus, correcting another slight misdirection and a small walk up a lovely cobblestone street, we arrived at our destination. Bagrati Cathedral was both, larger than I expected and more interesting; to see where the tattered blocks from the original construction in 1003 joined with the sharp edged portions of recent restoration after "a Turkish explosion brought down" the structure in 1692. Most of it had been rebuilt except for what the sign on site called a 'patio' on either side of the main hall. Here, huge columns the size of impressive old-growth cedars common back home were stumps rising only a few feet from the ground where one could imagine how the columns used to support what would have been a lovely open-air, semi-covered promenade. At the large front doors, I could see original blocks with fantastically detailed crosses and totems carved into the stone. Left, above the door, perfect circles exhibiting a Celtic-like inner design, chiseled with unbelievable precision trumped the right side, where only plain circles, to give the illusion of symmetry, were restored. A lack of local artist skill or financial backing prevented any attempts at recreating the same detail, I supposed. Around the left side stood a horrid, modern abomination and was likely one of the reasons Unesco had added Bagrati to its World Heritage in Danger list. The cheap, brightly colored, hideous tin roof was likely another reason, we speculated, which didn't fit at all with the cathedrals demand for grandeur.

The real intrigue of the site lay fairly innocuous, East of Bagrati, or directly behind the 11th century cathedral. These ruins are considerably older than Bagrati, dating back to the 6th century, ruined in 1769 in a battle between Imereti (a region in Georgia with Kutaisi as its capital) and Russian forces "as they fought to take Kutaisi from the Turks." We climbed the walls, timidly at first, until we saw heavily used paths within. Standing on top of the wall I could see a church still erect in the center, chained and locked from the outside and the remnants of an impressive medieval wall. Nearer to us, however, between crumbled stone walls that would've once been corridors opening into various chambers and overgrown with vegetation, lay a magnificent wine cellar. I jumped down, imagining what it must have looked like fifteen hundred years ago, pretending the walls still stood and I was walking between them. In the wine cellar itself, a collection of huge clay pots lay submerged in the soil. Grass had overtaken the floor except for neat circles where the buried clay casks made it easy to spot. This is where the monks, after collecting the grapes, beginning in early October, would have mashed them, poured them into the pits, covered with a lid, then further buried in sand where it was left to ferment. When the wine was thought to be ready, the sand and lids would be removed and a canteen or jug on a rope would be lowered into the mixture and resurrected containing the blood of Christ.

After exploring the ruins Chris and I did our best to return to our Hostel, with expected difficulties. We saw the number one bus driving in the opposite direction from where we had originally come, and thought this was enough to get us home; take bus X from point A to point B, to return, take bus X from point B to A. We were mistaken. I wondered, as I often did, why things couldn't be so simple here. 'It's just Georgia being Georgia.' We hopped off and walked back in the drizzle where we met three of the guys, making five.

We eventually received a call from Derek, who was the only one yet to arrive of our half-dozen, who said he was now in Kutaisi. We waited for him to show at the Hostel and let him settle in a bit. Then, as was a great moment of excitement and show of gluttony, we went out and absolutely punished an unhealthy portion of McDonald's. This was one of the most bitter-sweet moments of my life. My body was never so confused as to whether I felt comfortably satisfied while congruently uncomfortably guilty.

After McDonald's that evening, we washed down the regret with a 'ludi' at a local brewery. Upstairs was large and awkwardly spacious with only half a dozen tables within what felt like an airplane hangar. I somewhat regretted my lapse into making quick work of a Big Mac meal when I was in a country with so many culinary positives. I set out to regain my sense of travel, to experience something local, which I had lost as soon as I entered the golden arches. I ordered authentic, a local beer by the name of 'kvass,' while the others ordered something more familiar. It was just gross. It tasted like bread dough which had been mixed with grape juice and left on a counter until a birthday when it was legally allowed to buy pornography. I wanted a lager. I wanted a lucky lager in a cramped bar in a small town on Vancouver Island, in beautiful British Columbia. I was failing miserably in my attempt at adventure, I missed home this night, and I allowed myself an evening to pout, but I promised myself I would recalibrate for the rest of the weekend.

Posted by CRBackman 04:55 Archived in Georgia Tagged cathedral georgia kutaisi marshrutka imereti bagrati Comments (0)

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