Sunday, October 22, 2006

Georgia On My Mind

I love Georgia, so much that I am writing this post in Georgian font. The country is beautiful, the people are the most hospitable on the planet. I loved my trip. Why then did it take me almost a month to post the blog? I don't know, really. It was one of the best vacations I have had. It was such a stark contrast to Russia, as most things are. OK, backstory first. Our little travel club (me, Roma and Tony Blair) decided to go to Georgia, the very next day the Georgian military fires on a helicopter carrying John McCain. Yeah, really. So we rethink our decision -- basically chicken out-- and decide to go to Armenia. However, the flight to Armenia is prohibitively expensive, so we re-decide to go to Georgia. When we start telling people, specifically Russian people, they go nuts: The country so dangerous, the people there are crazy criminals, but if you do decide to go, can you bring me back a bottle of wine?
So now that we have decided, we need to find a place to stay. Georgia, like most developing economies, Russia included, has a real problem with tourist accomodations. Basically, they have accomodations for high-end businessmen/investors or people with relatives in the destination country. The regular Mabel and Otis from Peoria cannot be accomodated. So we hit the internet and found a woman, Irma, who owns and rents a house in Tbilisi. She gave us a great rate and from the pictures she posted the house looked good. She also agreed to provide us with tour guides (her sisters and father), for a nominal fee. So off we go to Georgia.

We touch down and head to the largest airport in the largest city in Georgia, Tbilisi. Thi international airport in the capital city is probably no bigger than your local Best Buy store. When we entered you could see the exit about 50-60 yards ahead. We cleared customs, no problem, got our bags and found our host, I believe his name is Miranda's father.

As we are making our way to the car, a young man joins our group and starts to carry some of our bags. His movement was so smooth, that we thought was an acquaintance of our host. This guy then proceeds to tell us "I love black people". Well, so do I, and I am beginning to fall in love with this country. Then a gypsy girl approaches Roma (ah, the irony - for those of you not clued in, Roma is the official name of the gypsy people, they are properly called "The Roma") and asks for money in Russian and English. Roma says no about a thousand times, but the gypsy girl is relentless. We are at the car and Roma breaks down and gives the girl money. At the same our "I love Black people" guy sticks his hand out and asks for a little "help" since he just helped us. Ohhh, "love" means "exploit" in Georgian. We give him money, too, and we are off to the house.

Look who we ran into on the way to the house. Georgia LOVES George Bush. The current Georgian President Mikhail Sakashvili (almost all Georgian surnames in "dze" or "vili")came to power after the bloodless "Rose" revolution forced the Russian supported president out of office. Since then, Georgia -- at an enormous cost, has oriented itself towards the West and away from Russia. Russia, as always has been sensitive to disrespect, percieved or real -- I also think they are still a bit angry about the whole Stalin (Iosef Dhughashvili) thing.

In response, Russia has tried to cripple Georgia's economy, by imposing a ban on all Georgia wine, allegedly for health reasons. Georgia has been trying to court Western investors and break into Western markets to make up for the lost of the largest market for its largest export. They are actively trying to join both NATO and the EU. Good luck with that, Georgia.

Anyway, we reach the house, which is quite impressive. The house has a small trellis covered portico, with, of course, grapes growing. The grape fragrance is sweet, tart, heavy and heavenly. We open the door and look to our left into a large, spacious kitchen, directly in front of us is a small full bath and to our left is a very large, open, sparely furnished living room. Upstairs, there is another common area with a TV, a "full" bath and two bed rooms. There is a small balcony overlooking the kitchen. Over, the house is big, clean and neat.

We drop our bags and head out to dinner with our tour guides, who had been waiting at the house for us. We go to a place called Khingali's Garden. Khingali is a national Georgian dish, like a gigantic meat-filled ravioli. Khingali are best eaten with beer. Men in Georgia have khingali eating contests and have been known to eat hundreds. There is a specific set of instructions for eating these monstronsities. First it is shaped like a garlic bulb, so holding the inedible stem, bite into the khingali, then suck out all the juices, then eat through the "bulb" and drink some beer. Each of the khingali is about the size of a small woman's fist, so needless to say they are quite filling.

Our tour guides order more food for us and after the khingali we switch to drinking wine. We ate the khachapuri (cheese bread), 3-4 entrees, 2 salads ,3 bottles of wine, 2 orders of khingali. There was so much food, that we had to put dishes on another table. The final bill was $45 TOTAL. Oh, yeah, I am really loving this country. The food was incredibly delicious, the veggies were so tasty I was sure they had spent that morning on the vine.

We retired early and rested for our trip to wine country the next day.

Our hosts pick us up at 10 am and we head out to the wine country in the east and a small village called Singnari, the hometown of our host family.

The Georgian wine country is beautiful and out in the country the real soul of the people is on full display. We stopped to ask directions from a woman selling fruit and ended up touring a vineyard, eating figs straight from the tree and grapes right off the vine at the vineyard. We then washed it down with water from a spring. I told my travelling companions that I could actually feel the Hepatitis A kicking in.

We travelled further, stopping to take pictures and fill up the LNG tank of the drivers car. I tried real hard to not think about the big canister of flammable gas just inches away from my very flammable hair. We tried to get a winery tour and our first attempt was unsucessful, but then we happened on a winery that was more than happy to let us tour their facilities. After our tour, which was interesting but far from informative, we got to sample -- everything. They gave us new white wine, which was tasty. We sampled undistilled wine that was in the middle of the ermentation process, a sluggy mix that looked a whole, whole lot like vomit. Surprisingly it was also very good. The also gave us cognac, which I liked a whole lot. They offered cha-cha which is the Georgian response to vodka, grappa and the like. My travelling companions sampled it, but I passed. We hadn't eaten lunch yet and we were all on the equivalent of our 5th or 6th shot.

The winery guys were thrilled that we wanted to take their pictures. They weren't really all that busy because the day we visited was som kind of holiday and they were basically sitting around when we showed up. Note the guy in the back with the "cool" jailhouse pose. The guy standing up on the end on the right -- in the black vest -- is wearing, honest to God, FUBU. For those of you who don't understand why that is funny, the joke is not for you.

Then, because this is Georgia, we got stuck in an enormous traffic jam -- of sheep. There were sheep, literally, for as far as the eye could see. And guess what? There really are black sheep. I saw them, honest.

After the winery tour (and sheep jam) we made our way further into the wine country and to the village called Sighnari. Here there are is a university and the second longest wall in the world, after the Great Wall of China.

We took long, twisty road up into the mountains. At the top you could look out over the valley and see the Caucasus mountain range.

This part of the world figures prominently in a very famous Greek legend. Prometheus stole fire from the gods and gave it to people. As punishment for his crime, the gods tied Prometheus to a mountain and a giant eagle came each day to eat out his liver, creating agonizing pain for Prometheus. Because Prometheus was immortal, his wound healed each night so tha the could endure fresh torture the next day. The Georgians say that Prometheus was tied to a mountain in the Caucausus range.

There is also a statue representing Georgian power, a sword in one hand for the enemies and a jug of wine in the other for friends.

This mountain village was stunning. The vista, the people, everything. On of our hosts told us that it was possible to purchase a "house" here (the quotes are mine, not hers) for $2,000. I immediately told my husband that I wanted to buy a summer house here. We could come 1x year and rent it out the rest of the time, it would still be a bargain.

We made it up to the top and had lunch at a restaurant built into the wall. Here are some photos of the wall itself.

After lunch we visited our hosts' grandmother's house/vineyard. Grandma lived further in the mountains, in a place that may not have had an official name. Her place had massive trellises of white and black grapes, persimmon and fig trees. There was a pig in the front yard and a garden next to the pigs area. The pig didn't really have a pen, per se, he was just tied to a tree. Grandma came out to greet us. When we asked to take a photo, she went back into the house, combed her hair and gussied up before she would allow us to take the picture.

Due to all the wine at lunch, I had to use the "facilities" at grandma's and I asked accordingly. I thought it would be interesting to see the inside of her house. Instead, I was directed around the front storage building, down a path to the bathroom.

I have not used an outhouse, so it truly was a novel experience. There was, thank God, toilet paper and it was clean as it could be, given that it was an outhouse in rural Georgia. Grandma lived right next door to her brother and his wife. Uncle gave us some home-made white wine, that he mouth siphoned from a large underground storage container. The wine we tasted was a little sharp, but otherwise flavorful. That was one of the most interested days of the entire trip.

Friday, we toured old Tbilisi and visited several churches. The downtown area is incredibly beautiful.

Then we did the sulfur baths. Georgians tell the story that a famous hunter was shooting pheasants in the area near Tbilisi. The hunter shot a bird. The wounded bird fell into a warm spring, was healed and flew away. The hunter decided to found a city at the point of this miraculous occurrence. Hence, Tbilisi was born. Tbilis means warm in Georgian. The sulfur baths are much like the Russian banyas except there is a hot pool in addition to the cold pool and the hot pool is full of sulfur waters. You would think that the rotten egg smell would be oppressive and overwhelming. In fact, it was not. I enjoyed the sulfur bath, and I would recommend it as an experience, but I still prefer the Russian banya.

On Saturday, we went host-less, which was our first mistake. Our second mistake was deciding to take the metro into town. We found the closest metro station quite easily, but because the Georgian alphabet (one of only 14 alpabets in the world) is difficult to read, we got lost. Here is the metro sign we tried to decipher.

So we ended up about an hours walk away from where we wanted to be. The upside is that we got to see interesting parts of the city on foot. The downside is that taxis are dirt cheap in Georgia, so it was sheer stupidity (or the optimists among us could say adventure of spirit) that prompted us to take the metro. Two things to note: 1) taking pictures in the Tbilisi metro is forbidden, not sure why, but pretty sure the that the policeman who told us that wasn't kidding. 2) Georgians are a collaborative people, if you as a Georgian a question, say what time is it? He we gather together at least three other friends/acquaintances/passers-by and they will discuss the question, sift through possible answers, agree to a common answer then appoint a delegate to provide the answer. It happened many times during our stay and it never ceased to be funny or amazing. I am sure that Georgians are not even aware that they do it. It is just the Georgian way.

After our tour we lunched and then headed to the open-air bazaar and purchased some gifts and art-work. We then headed down to the English language bookstore and check our email at the free internet connection. The accompanying cup of coffee was $5 but it was worth it. The name of the bookstore is Prospero's and it is on Rustaveli Ave, but set back from the street. Look for the yellow and blue sign. Here is a statue of Shota Rustaveli the vaunted 12th century Georgian poet. I bought his epic poem, which is still in print.

Later that day we headed back for the house. Little did we suspect the madness that ensued. We had had some hot water heater problems -- namely no hot water. The host jury-rigged the heater and gave us some complicated instructions on how to use it. We followed the instructions to the tee-ish. When we came back home, I washed my hands in the downstairs sink and turned the water off. I came upstairs to watch some TV. Roma goes out onto the balcony and says, "Wow, where is all of that smoke coming from" The next door neighbors are looking up at us and frantically gesturing. Ohhhh, thats us...we're on fire!!!! Roma, Tony Blair and I run down stairs into the bathroom to find that the hot water heater has overheated, exploded and is expelling smoke (from the burned out wires, innards, etc) out into the neighborhood. By this time the neighbors are now pounding on the front door. In their defense, the houses in the neigborhood are literally stacked on top of each other, so a fire ignored at our house would quickly become a fire fought in their house. We let them in, explain --in our best Georgian/Russian/hand-signal patois -- that the hot water heater exploded, the water was off and that we had already called our host family. The woman and her two young sons still looked a little wary but left the premises. We, on the other hand are a little shook. What if the fire is now in the walls? Should we turn of the electric? Is the danger over? What if there is water in the walls?
So we call Miranda's dad and he comes over to assess the situation. His assessment is that there is nothing he can do. He also believes there is no further danger. He will call a plumber on Monday (it was Saturday night when he said that, we were scheduled to leave on Sunday afternoon). Meantime, Roma and I head out to purchase a case of Georgian wine to split between the three of us. We go back to Khingali's Gardens, the restaurant from the first night and buy every bottle of the vintage we drank. We head back to the house and begin packing. Our Georgia trip is almost over.

Sunday morning, Tamta meets us to take us to her apartment for a farewell dinner. We drive out about 30 minutes outside of Tbilisi to huge blocks of apartments. The cab driver lets us,and all of our luggage, out in front of Tamta's building. We enter and start climbing the steps because the elevator does not work. About 4 flights in, Tamta remembers to tell us that they live on the 12th floor. This is sheer madness. Roma and Tony Blair are carrying my luggage, which is a good thing, because I am just barely making this climb. We finally reach 12 and are warmly welcomed into their apartment. The apartment is very spacious and has a large dining room with a piano, a breakfront and a table that sets 8 comfortably. The table is laden, literally laden with food. I cannot make out the color of the tablecloth underneath.

We sit down and immediately begin eating and drinking. There is so much food, that it gets to be a bit uncomfortable. Even trying a little bit of everything would result in downing the equivalent of a 5-course meal. Everything tastes amazing. There are meat dishes, one called ostri or "spicy hot" is my particular favorite. There are fish dishes, mushrooms, potatoes, cheese, vegetables, so, so much.

So we eat and drink and toast and it is just a international love fest until...somebody brings up Stalin. Our host asks us what we think about Stalin. Now for most Westerners this is a slam dunk, no-brainer. Stalin was evil, he killed 20 million of his own citizens, he was the quintessential bad guy. We proceed to say this, because it is common knowledge -- everybody knows Stalin and Hitler were the dynamic duo of 20th century bad guys. Well, apparently Georgia did not get the memo. Because our hosts had nothing but good things to say about Stalin (he was smart, strict but fair and always looked out for the common man). When we said Stalin was evil, our hosts faces fell to the floor. It was awkward and embarassing for me and my fellow travellers. Cultural differences have an annoying habit of catching you unawares.

We muddled through for a few minutes and then joy returned to the table. Our hostess was a former music teacher and she played the piano for us while her daughters sang. Then our host a former historian and poet, read from his book of poetry. It was wonderful to be in the company of such an interesting and loving family.

Soon it was time to go. Our hostess cooked us -- from scratch -- a piping hot khatapuri to take on the plane. It was such a fitting way to end our trip to the most hospitable country in the world.

We got back to good ol' Rus around 10 pm Sunday night. Monday afternoon around 2 pm, Russia closed its border with Georgia. Timing? Luck? Who knows, but we were fortunate to experience Georgia up close and personal. I am hoping against hope that the tensions de-escalate, relations normalize and the borders re-open. I want to go back to Georgia at least once more before I leave Russia in April.

This is my favorite picture of Georgia. I think the image is symbolic and evocative -- beautiful, different, elegant but a bit run-down, past its prime, but still full of potential. I love that the door is just slightly open, beckoning.


Blogger bryjamom said...

Wow, what an amazing experience! I am truly jealous. :) Can't wait to see you in a month!

7:18 PM  
Blogger tereska said...

Sheree, It took me a while to read this entry, but it was wonderful.I almost felt like I was there with you (except the puthouse). Looking forward to seeing you during the Xmas holiday.

6:38 AM  
Blogger tereska said...

I meant to spell "outhouse"

6:40 AM  
Blogger Rapho said...

Hi Sheree, I was glad to fid your article - nice! I will give a link to this article from my blog. I hope you have no problems that I take your fabullous photo (the swordman) - to give the link ...

Thanks and best regards, Rapho

12:43 PM  
Blogger Aaron said...

Beautiful pictures! I wish more people could see - as you do, and your Russian interlocutors did not - that Georgia is a beautiful place with a history and a culture. There's no reason to write it off as a post-Soviet state...

2:54 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Georgian military fires on a helicopter carrying John McCain."

Pity, that you write only what Russian (government controlled) TV says.

sick Russians, everybody knows, ask Mccain if you want, it were the Russians who shot that helicopter, it was organized by Russians when one Armenian shot a granade to George W. Bush in Tbilisi, this dirty spirited Russians try to damage the reputation of Georgia, unsuccessfully

7:23 PM  

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