Georgia: The Sounds of Silence
19 December 2020
Every 90 days, Nate and I have to exit the "Schengen Zone," which includes the vast amount of European nations, in order to not be deported...or sternly talked to. I'm not sure which, but it's a theory I do not wish to test. On the recommendation of some of our Couch Surfing hosts, we set our sights on the country of Georgia. Georgia is a small country wedged between Russia to the north and Turkey, Armenia, and Azerbaijan in the south. We were told that Georgia had incredible wine and cheap food, so it sounded like a place we could hang for awhile. Unlike the state of Georgia, the country required a little more than a midnight train to get there. It was more like two midnight trains and a long-ass flight followed by a 4am ride in a soviet era car to our hostel in the capital city of Tbilisi.
We eventually arrived, and began the process of slowly figuring out the place by exploring in ever-expanding concentric circles from our hostel. We started with what we knew, which was all things edible. I knew from a previous trip to nearby Ukraine that Georgia was the home of the khachapuri - an eye-shaped pizza topped with lots of cheese, a raw egg yolk, and butter (see photo, top middle). Nom nom nom. We consumed every version of this that we could find. There were other giant eye-shaped breads, shoti, that could be purchased for mere cents from street-level windows off the sidewalks that lead to someone's basement. Shoti is made in traditional ovens where the dough is smacked up against the inside wall of a stone oven. It's kinda awesome. See for yourself through the miracle of Youtube. To go with all this bread, we bought loads of tomatoes, cucumber, and cheese. We ate this a lot as our breakfast because it was so dang tasty (see photo, top right).
For dessert, there were many grape-based delights like fruit leathers and something called churchela that appears disturbingly like a candle but is actually a bunch of walnuts strung together and dipped in some sort of grape-juice based wax (see photo, top left). We learned that these snacks were created so that soldiers could tie them to their belts and have something long-lasting to snack on while gallivanting about the country-side. Of course, we washed everything down with homemade wine that comes in shady-you-might-go-blind-if-you-drink-this, recycled plastic drink bottles. You can opt to be fancy and drink wine out of a kantsi, or goat horn, but oddly those seemed like the more unsanitary of the two options (see photo, bottom right). Wine, we were told, was invented in Georgia. Since everyone and their mother sold it and because it was so incredibly good, I believe them.
Finding the food and wine was almost as fun as consuming the food and wine. We wandered into some delightful stalls with characters as colorful as their assorted vegetables. Georgians are a smiley bunch of people, happy to use what English they know to make us feel comfortable and help us spend our money. In fact, we had no problem parting with our money for such a delicious (and cheap!) cause. Once we were even given a watermelon for free. We went for a walk around the city. While waiting for our turn to cross a busy street, a man unloading a truck full of watermelons casually handed one to Nate. Nate tried to hand the watermelon back using facial expressions that he hoped expressed "Thank you, but I don't want to buy a watermelon." The man gestured in return in a manner that expressed "Take the damn watermelon; It's a gift, you ungrateful ninny." So the watermelon joined us on our 2 mile walk. We named her Melly. You can see Melly in the photo above, bottom left.
Tbilisi is an unbelievably photogenic city for one having such a troubled past. The country is constantly being invaded and bullied. Russia, in fact, currently occupies two large regions in the north which they took by force during a 2008 war with Georgia. A Georgian we met working in a wine shop told Nate during an interview that all Georgians are warm and smile, but their eyes always remain sad because of the conflicts they have endured. The city did, by extension, seem to have a weighty solemnity to it as we passed through flea markets filled with trinkets from their Soviet-occupied past, bent-over grandmas wrapped in black babushkas, and old cobblestone alleys flanked by shanty balconies draped in grapevines.
On a free walking tour, our guide pointed to some balconies and announced that they were the original "social network." He explained that the balconies connected neighbors together. They were used daily for gossip and during war times to help people escape from Russian soldiers. Then our tour guide took us to sit under a shade tree and whistled several musical selections from opera to pop to his captive and somewhat bewildered audience. Nate and I politely applauded while exchanging bemused glances that read, "Well, that was different."
After wearing out our welcome in Tbilisi, we decided to get on a train to travel west to a tiny town called Borjomi. Nate and I arrived at the train station with plenty of time to spare, found the right platform, and waited with a few dozen other sleepy passengers. As the train approached, everything changed. In an instant, everyone was crowding the edge of the platform jockeying for the front. As the train slowed, people began throwing...yes, throwing their bags into the train cars, presumably before the train car's occupants even had a chance to vacate their seats. This was followed by a chaotic stampede of people trying to both get on and off the train at the same time. It was pandemonium. Nate and I stood in the background, too stunned to move. Once on board, everything was made clear. The trains do not have a seat for every ticket sold, not by a long shot. Nate and I passed through car after car without finding anywhere to sit. Finally, a kind looking older woman caught my eye and motioned for me to sit where her bag was currently occupying the seat next to her. At the same time, an elderly man in the adjacent row did the same for Nate. We sat down gratefully, once again silently exchanging looks that read, "Well, that was a little apocalyptic."
We made it safely to our destination, but in our confusion about where to get off since we couldn't understand the station announcements or see anyone with whom to pantomime, we accidentally left our precious Melly on board. As the train pulled away, our faces looked toward the car we'd just left in a way that expressed, "Nooooooo, Meeeeeelllllly."
Nate had read that Borjomi is world re-known for it's natural spring water, which is reported to have healing powers. Borjomi has an entire theme park for this water...and that's it. Naturally, and for lack of anything else to do besides drink wine, Nate and I checked out the park. As soon as we entered, we saw a crowd of people around a well under a green umbrella. We approached and saw that there were two women down inside the well area filling up people's bottles with water from the well. This was the magical spring water, and they were doling it out for free! Nate joined in and had his bottle filled. He drank it and believed in the powers. I drank it and believed it tasted like fart. The rest of the park looked every bit like a back-alley street fair that had been abandoned because zombies forced everyone into hiding and was now occupied by the lone survivors of the planet: a domesticated zombie-human hybrid. There was astroturf, rusty trailers with that balloon-shooting game, and blaring house music that everyone just seemed to tolerate. After walking for about a mile, we did come across a natural-spring pool where kids played and adults seemed more relaxed. We paid to take a dip in the magical powers, but I kept looking at all the kids around and wondered how urine might dilute the ph-balance of farty, miracle water.
From Borjomi, we waved down a mini-van called a marshrutka to continue west to the next stop. After we entered the marshrutka, there was only one seat left beside the driver, but the driver kept picking up more passengers. It was like that story a professor/priest/motivational speaker likes to tell about the jar that they fill first with rocks and asks the audience if it's full. The audience foolishly says "yes," but the speaker proves them wrong by adding sand into the crevices between the rocks. The speaker will then asks if the jar is now full. Again, the unenlightened masses agree that it is indeed. Finally, the speaker fills the jar to the very brim with water illustrating their ignorance. This is followed by some life truth that I can't remember. Passengers flowed in like sand and water filling the aisle and everywhere in between. I would have very much liked to look at Nate in a way that silently told him "I have a clever analogy about this bus ride," but he was way is the back of the bus behind a whole bunch of swaying rocks.
Kutaisi was our next stop. While the city was larger than Borjomi, it didn't have that much more in the way of tourism. We visited an old orthodox church where I was made to wear a babushka, and we visited another creepy, soviet-era amusement park. That's all I have to say about that; silently or otherwise.
Ureki was our next stop. It's a tiny beach village, but people flock here to experience the black sand beaches, which are reported to have -- you guessed it -- magical healing powers. There was apparently an official way to go about being healed by the sand which involved being buried in it, but this was expensive and silly when we could just roll around in it ourselves, as Nate demonstrated below. When we weren't sand cookies (Trademark Tim Sanchez), we played charades with the other guests in our hotel, most of whom were Russian and couldn't speak English. We enjoyed a shared kitchen where we would skirt around each other with shy smiles and offerings of cooking oil and coffee. We said nothing and communicated everything.
Nearly twenty days into our Georgian adventure, we arrived at our final destination: Batumi. Batumi was anything but silent. We had a fantastic couch surfing host who took us around to the see sights and, ironically, a silent film. This city has a lively beach front with all the bells and whistles of Las Vegas if Las Vegas had a bunch of creepy soviet-era amusement park rides. I spent a lot of time on that boardwalk jogging, walking, and people-watching. On our last night, Nate and I took a stroll to enjoy the lights. At one point, a little girl about the age of 7 or 8 ran up to me and hugged me tightly around the waist. I mean, this girl meant business. She peered up from her iron-clad hold without saying a word, but her meaning was loud-and-clear: "please give me money." I, in turn, look at Nate with my own silent pleading. Eventually, we were able to pry off the little one as gently as possible and send her on her way taking a bit of my soul with her.
I scratched my head a lot while trying to figure out how to write about Georgia. There were so many themes from soviet-era death traps disguised as amusement park rides, chaotic adventures in navigating the public transportation system, the magical healing powers of natural resources, or even the deeper story of a nation trying to prove its sovereignty and join the European Nation and main world stage. What came out through the writing process in the end were the silent moments. A lot transpired in all those sounds of silence throughout our trip in Georgia: confusion, amusement, relief, pity, awe, exasperation, and more I'm sure. As we stored the moments away, we became a little more fortified as travelers. It was a successful trip, and one of our first where we truly came in without a game plan. It felt good to be able to navigate a new land and culture with just our instinct and connections with people, silent or otherwise. So, I guess the only thing left to say is, "So long, Georgia, and thanks for all the wine."