Georgia on my mind, part I: Tbilisi to Mestia
Getting to Georgia is complicated. From Western Europe, all flights seem to arrive around 3 or 4 in the morning and fly through either Istanbul or Prague. We chose Prague and we had an eight hour layover there so got to explore the city a bit. I hadn’t been to Prague in six years or so, but I remembered the interesting things and so was able to guide us to Charles’ Bridge and the Astronomical clock. We ate at a restaurant recommended to us by a friend who had lived there, delicious Czech-style pub fare, and we found ourselves with WAY too many Czech crowns even though we’d taken out half of the recommended amount, so Austin bought a 1960s Russian-made watch. We took a walk up to the castle after stuffing ourselves and then hopped back on the bus to the airport.
Upon landing in Georgia, we were immediately approached by hordes of men offering ‘taxi, cheap’, but opted to share a ride with some Germans. Immediately upon leaving the airport, you’re faced with a huge portrait of George W. Bush. The highway to the airport is called “George W. Bush highway”, which Americans usually find hilarious. He was the first sitting president to visit the country after its independence. Georgians also tend to really like Americans because of our mutual dislike for Russia. I want to stress that Georgians, having been oppressed for long periods of time by governments who did not at all represent the Georgian people, very rarely dislike anyone and don’t seem to judge a tourist by the government that supposedly represents their country, but by that individual’s attitude and behavior while traveling. So they don’t judge American tourists by the actions of their government, which is a really refreshing thing to see (I did once see a sign in someone’s front yard that said “Yankee go home! Fuck USA!”, but seeing that sort of thing only once in a month while traveling is pretty rare). Also, the fact that I’m Canadian was kind of lost on
them; whenever I said I was from Canada, they would say “oh! America!”, and then raise a toast to the USA.
We found our hostel, unmarked to avoid the taxman, and its owner sitting outside in the dark, waiting for us at 4:30 AM. The shabby outside of the place hid a rather nice interior, with a newly tiled bathroom, hot water, and very creaky, Soviet-era beds. We slept until mid-morning, and then got up to explore Tbilisi. I hated it as soon as we left the hostel’s quiet street. The traffic is noisy and there is way too much of it going way too fast. It’s nearly impossible to cross the street, very much like being in Asia. Georgia is really in the middle of Asia and Europe and wants to be perceived as European, but the traffic situation is quintessentially Asian. And the noise level, the lack of pedestrians’ rights, the complete disorganization and chaos of the city, no traffic lights, all very Asian. After one more night in the hostel, we relocated to the house of a couch surfing host and her family. They lived outside of the center, in a much more peaceful area somewhat sheltered from the busy street below. Their apartment building, as they usually do, looked like it was abandoned from the outside, but when we stepped into her family’s apartment it was beautiful. And thus we were introduced to the Georgian spirit of hospitality. They take having guests very seriously, and we were fed delicious homemade food and plied with delicious homemade wine. Our host’s parents didn’t speak much English–her father could actually, with her help, maintain a conversation, and was able to give us great advice about our upcoming mountain excursions. Her mother and sisters cooked and cleaned while the father had us taste every kind of wine he’d made–all whites,
and all really delicious, not sweet, and very strong. Our host had a Polish guest who’d planned to leave but had fallen in love with the place and was staying longer than expected, which didn’t seem to bother our host one bit. It wouldn’t have bothered us at all, had the Polish girl been more fun, but she reminded us quite a bit of the last Poles we’d met, whiny and needy and rather entitled. We made some quiet jokes about Polish people being complainers but we were soon to re-learn how wrong it was of us to judge an entire people on two or three of their representatives. Georgians don’t do it, even about Russians. Our host explained to us how they will host Russians, feed them, treat them as well as they treat everyone else, but this comes from the tradition and pride of hosting. They will reserve judgment but with Russians, particularly, keep their guard up simply because of history.
Tbilisi turned out to be a nightmare. Loud, chaotic, uncontrolled traffic with no stop signs and no concessions made to pedestrians (crossing the street is difficult and dangerous). Georgia wants to be allied with Europe rather than Asia, but the traffic situation certainly gives the country an Asian feel. We had to spend all our time looking for camping gas for our stove. We went to open-air markets, high-end sports stores (which in other countries would not be high-end, but the average Georgian can’t
buy the kind of outdoor recreation equipment I take for granted everyday). No store posts their hours or their products on the internet, though when they had phone numbers we had our host call to ask, but most of our search was conducted on foot and we spent hours each day walking the chaotic concrete jungle of the Tbilisi suburbs, all the while being constantly shouted at “taxi! taxi! taxi!”. It felt like Turkey or Morocco but without the gross sexual harassment. Coming back to our host’s everyday was a saving grace. If we hadn’t had that small quiet space filled with lovely, welcoming people, I think I would have left the country as soon as I could have. I was honestly thinking about finding a cheap flight to France to just hole up in Aurillac until our flight back to the US. We also considered hitch-hiking out, across Turkey and back into Europe, so harrowing were the dirty, hot Tbilisi days. It really reminded me of a dirtier Hanoi, with its constant horns, poor beggars, piles of trash, unrelenting noisy traffic, and lack of pedestrian amenities.
After three days of constant searching (with here and there a break to visit a church or the botanical gardens, brief respites from the incessant honking), we finally found camping stove gas (the most expensive we have ever bought, in any country, ever!) at a hostel run by Polish people (Polish people were to come up again and again throughout our travels). We bought four containers and returned back to the apartment triumphant and ready to leave. We had planned to take the overnight train to Zugdidi the next evening, so went to the train station (another chaotic journey) only to find, after being pushed out of line and cut in front of quite a few times, that the night trains were sold out for the next few days. And so, after much debate, we decided to find a bus
(called a marshutka, and more of a mini-van than a bus) to a village on the way to Zugdidi, camp there, and then hitch-hike the rest of the way. We went back to our host’s house, packed up, and caught a metro to the marshutka gathering place, where there are a million people hawking their wares, from cheap t-shirts to fresh fruit, and men yelling out destinations. We found, with some trouble, a marshutka heading in the right direction and boarded it. Once it was full, we left. I breathed a sigh of relief as we finally left the chaos of Tbilisi behind us.
We found that the marshutka, even after reaching its final destination, continued onward through some villages, and as Georgians began to thin out and we were the last people left on the bus, a woman asked where we were headed and where we planned to stay, in relatively good English. We told her we had a tent and that we were hitch-hiking to Zugdidi. ‘That’s cool!’ she said, and gave the driver instructions to leave us close to the highway but in a place with decent camping. He didn’t quite do that, being unwilling to drive any
farther, but we found a roadside restaurant where we managed to communicate that we wanted something to eat (lots of places don’t have menus and so if you don’t know what to order you’re kind of shit out of luck) and they gave us ‘kebabi,’ a kind of meat roll in spicy tomato sauce. We slept behind the restaurant, among piles of trash in the woods up above the very noisy highway, and hitched all the way to Zugdidi the next day, where we met up with some Polish kids who were there working as volunteers for the summer. They were teaching summer school, in English, to kids in the city. Zugdidi is a weird place because more than half of its population is refugees from Abkhazia, a region that’s been taken over by Russia. As a result, there’s very little work and the streets are usually filled with people with nothing to do. There’s also quite a lot of poverty. We had a fun night with the Poles and were reminded that you can’t ever judge a nationality based on a few examples (though these guys did assure us that Polish people are big into whining, which I thought was funny because these particular Poles were some of the least whiny people we’d met on our travels). We drank beer in the park with them and some of their Georgian friends and got to know our hosts a bit. They ranged in age from 18 to 29, some were well travelled, and some had never before been on a plane. One, a nineteen year old hairdresser, had never left the country before and didn’t even have a passport. Georgia and Poland have some sort of deal where Poles can come as tourists without a passport, and so he did. It was a very strange choice, as a young gay man, to come to Georgia, one of the most homophobic countries I’ve visited. Especially since he was placed in a rural area. He loved it though, and the people there loved him. He never wanted to leave. Another one of the volunteers was an 18 year old intellectual who loved that we were traveling with copies of the New Yorker. We gave him some, and I’ve never seen anyone so happy to get some pre-read, tattered magazines. He had just graduated high school and wanted to perfect his English so he could go to university in the states and some day be a diplomat. He thought of America as the intellectual center of the world (I guess, in some ways, it is, despite higher education being prohibitively expensive) and that Americans were thoughtful, articulate, well-educated people. He is in for a rude awakening when he gets there, but if he sticks to the Ivy league crowd maybe he won’t ever have to discover the truth and can continue holding the USA in such high esteem.
We did some shopping at the open air market, learning what foods were generally available and which ones were good for backpacking. You really have to re-learn how to shop and cook when you enter a new culture. I don’t think Georgians shop for food very often, since all of them are subsistence farmers. Once you get out of big city centers there really aren’t grocery stores or restaurants, so you have to come prepared. Once we’d stocked up, we headed off to Mestia, and our adventure began.
We were trying to find our way out of town, when a car screeched to a halt beside us and three men got out. “Where are you going? What are you doing?” they asked. We said we were trying to get to Mestia and they replied “get in the car! We’re police!” and showed us their badges and guns. We were a little apprehensive about getting into the car with armed strangers, but we had heard of the police being super helpful to hitch-hikers. And they were. They were friendly and talkative, giving Austin cigarettes and chatting about Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, and home-made alcohol (cha cha). They drove us to the end of their jurisdiction and told us to wait there for the next police car, who would drive us to the end of this district, and so on, in a police car relay all the way to Mestia. We got impatient waiting for the next car and eventually stuck out our thumbs and made it to the next village. A woman came out of a bank to ask us what we were doing and wished us good luck, explaining that very few people go to Mestia as it’s a long drive on a treacherous road. The road was finally paved last year, but even so, the region remains inaccessible once it snows, and the road is famous for being steep, curvy, and a harrowing drive. We got lucky and were picked up by a big, Tony-Soprano-looking guy in a very nice BMW who was pleased to hear we were American and not Russian. His name was Alex and he was a Svan, a native to the region, on his way home from Tbilisi. He was a sort of police man but we never quite figured out exactly what kind. He’d made money working in Moscow for eight years
and described Russians as ‘cold people’ and said he didn’t like it there because ‘if you have money, you are right, and if you don’t have money, you are wrong’. He asked if we were hungry, and when we said yes he took us to a restaurant that appeared, from the outside, just to be someone’s house. We had matsoni, a home-made yogurt, and kubdari, a kind of meat-filled fried bread. ‘Do you like alcohol?’ Alex asked, and we said ‘well, yes, we do.’ And he returned with a big bottle of vodka (Ukranian, honey-pepper flavored) and we learned that what we’d heard about Georgian’s drinking was true. I was hoping we weren’t going to drink the whole thing, but we took shot after shot, toasting to family, friends, America, Georgia, family again, fathers, mothers, America again, and within 20 minutes we’d finished the bottle. Austin and I both thought ‘thank god that’s over’ but Alex came out with another liter and when we said ‘no, no! We’re too drunk’ he said ‘you’re welcome!’ and ‘don’t worry, I good driver’. And so we had to finish the other bottle. Refusing a drink is quite rude in Georgia, and the vodka was actually delicious, and I wasn’t driving, so what the hell. By the time we got back on the road we’d each had at least ten shots. Alex insisted on paying for the meal and also informed us, exuberantly, that we’d be staying at his house tonight, as his family’s guest, and he wouldn’t accept no for an answer, nor would he accept money. We were so drunk and had no place to stay and of course we said yes. And I, in my drunken state, thought nothing of getting into the car with him and driving up one of the most treacherous mountain roads in existence. It was the greatest drive of my life, actually, so beautiful and so fast. Alex went sailing over rocks that lay in the road (Georgia hasn’t yet discovered those metal retainers that keep rocks from falling off cliffs onto highways), flying around blind corners, blaring terrible dance music and talking on his iPhone the whole time. I think the trip took two and half hours but it felt like forty five minutes. I have never been so drunk prior to two PM before. This was the most dangerous thing I’d ever done in my life, getting into a fast car with a totally inebriated driver, but it turns out that drunk driving in Georgia is pretty normal. Marshutka drivers are often wasted, and the Svans are especially known for driving up the road to Mestia, drinking the whole way. Along the cliff-side road there are shrines to people killed on the highway (probably due to drunk driving) and the tradition is to stop at each shrine and have a shot of cha cha in honor of the fallen driver. The irony of this is totally lost on the people of Svaneti.
When we pulled into Alex’s house, his family came out to greet us. He has two daughters, ages seven and eleven, a wife with long dark hair, and they live with Alex’s mother and father, as is the tradition. The girls were excited to see their dad and no one seemed to think it too strange that he’d picked up two strangers and was drunk. They gave us coffee and home made cake, and Alex kept nodding off over his coffee and so eventually went to bed. They showed us our room and Austin immediately went to sleep while I decided to take a walk to the tourist information center. I got a map and talked about the best three-day backpacking trips and then realized that I was hopelessly lost once I got away from the main village square and that all the houses and their towers looked the same to me. I asked kids on the playground if they knew Alex’s family and spent nearly an hour walking around in circles. I was jumping up and down, trying to look over somebody’s fence to see their house in case I recognized it, when a blond woman in her forties came out of the house and asked if I needed help. I said yes, I did, and explained that I had gotten lost. She tried to help me but it was hard to figure out where I was staying when I couldn’t tell her the name of anyone who lived there except Alex and his daughters, all of whom had very common names. She led me up and down gravel streets in her high heels until it began to pour, and then we went to her house and she gave me more coffee and cake. I used her cell phone to try to call Austin, but he wasn’t answering. I explained that my husband was drunk, and she said ‘oh! It’s so hard for us women! All the drinking!’ We talked, I drank more coffee, ate more cake, and kept trying Austin until finally he answered and he was able to ask one of Alex’s daughters their surname, and it turned out that they lived right next door and were cousins of the woman who had rescued me. I had a triumphant return home with hugs and laughter and we were soon served dinner. Delicious potato salad, meat stew, more kubdari. Georgians eat a variety of dishes at every meal, it seems. There’s no appetizer, entree, etc, but just a grand smorgasbord of whatever they’ve got. Luckily, Alex still hadn’t gotten up and so there was no alcohol. The family served us separately from them; we ate at a little table while the women and girls served us. It felt strange to be treated like hotel guests, but the kids
seemed excited that we were there and practiced their English and showed us their iPad mini.
The next morning we ate breakfast, again a smorgasbord-style feast including a ratatouille that is better than any French ratatouille I’ve ever had, apparently a traditional Georgian dish. The food there is fabulous, and the vegetables are more flavorful than vegetables anywhere else because without industrial agriculture, all vegetables are basically garden vegetables. There isn’t milk because although everyone has cows, they have no way to preserve their milk so they make delicious matsoni yogurt instead. The meat tends to be tougher since they let their animals live out their lives before they kill them, but there are great ways of stewing the meat until it’s tender. There are lots of walnut-based sauces, unique spices, and grapes growing everywhere. Even in cities, balconies are turned into grape trellises, and the grapes are tasty. In Svaneti we had the best apples we’ve ever tasted as well. It’s amazing how shitty our food has become with the rise of industrial agriculture. Now instead of delicious local tomatoes in season, we can eat insipid shit all year round, and lots of it. Thanks, chemical companies. In Georgia, 55% of the population works in agriculture, but this doesn’t mean that they have jobs they get paid for in the sector. It means that everyone is a subsistence farmer. Families generally have one member who has what we would consider a job, like in Alex’s family, he works in Tbilisi while the rest of his family farms and gardens in Mestia. This worker pays for things like utilities (if they have electricity), cell phones, cable TV, and gas. Everyone else maintains a little garden or farm with some animals, and that’s what the family eats. And it’s delicious and high-quality because it’s always in season and always local. The only thing we didn’t like there was the cheese, which tended to be way too salty for our tastes.
After breakfast we said good-bye to the family, kind of at a loss for words. We didn’t know how to repay their hospitality but we made them a little thank-you card with our email addresses so that if they ever came to North America (very unlikely) we could help them out (though they would have to share the table with us and not be treated like guests in a hotel). We said good-bye and Alex insisted on driving us down to the road to Ushguli. Ushguli, the highest village in Europe (if you consider Georgia Europe, which sometimes I do not), was our ultimate goal but we could not get any Georgian to understand that we wanted to walk there on mountain paths, not be driven there on the road. Alex offered to drive us but we told him, repeatedly, that we wanted to walk. Instead of dropping us off near the hiking trail, he of course dropped us off on the road. And when we asked other Georgians where to go, they directed us to the road and away from the hiking trails, explaining that the road was much faster. They really just don’t have the concept of walking for pleasure and just want to help you get to your destination as quickly as possible. So we said goodbye and thank you to Alex and we were on our way.