The Meskheti folk dance group performing in Akhaltsikhe, May 30, 2012.
On our last day in Akhaltsikhe, Sean took us to see the original city of Akhaltsikhe. McKinze had to work, but first we all stopped at the tone bread shop.
Sean poked his head in the window and ordered a loaf, which cost a princely sum of 70 tetri (about $0.44). It was fresh from the tone oven, so it came wrapped in a few pages of an Avon magazine to protect our fingers from the heat. We tore off steaming chunks and devoured the whole salty thing in the shadow of the Queen Tamar statue.
Then it was time to hike up to the old city. It’s on top of a hill and the mosque, synagogue, church and walls still stand in one form or another. The Georgian goverment is pouring money into into rebuilding and expanding the area into a tourist attraction. It looks like the emphasis was probably more on making it a pretty tourist site than on historical accuracy.
Nothing prevented us from walking onto the construction site, so we did. Apparently, no one was in charge of keeping civilians out, so no one bothered to tell us we shouldn’t be there. We just kept going, expecting to be kicked out. Besides getting a lot of stares, no one seemed to care. Some old bits of the original buildings were just strewn about.
It’s hard to tell from the picture, but this fire was huge and hot (the pieces of wood were about the size of railroad ties). We joked that it was to dispose of the bodies of the workers who perished due to unsafe construction practices.
Some fancy people arrived, along with photographers. We asked one of the workers about them and he said the man in uniform was “Chief of Border Patrol.”
Alicia expressed interest in seeing the cemetery, so we walked over the hill and checked it out. It seems that it is tradition to engrave a portrait of the deceased on the headstones. We didn’t feel like we should take photos, so you’ll have to imagine the dead looking on; some with pleasant smiles, others with stoic gazes, a few with cigarettes eternally dangling from their fingers. There were also small shelters and tables for picnics.
Just in case you forgot the Soviets were once in charge…
On the way back to town, we were hot and thirsty. And so we bought the most delicious orange Fanta. Instant time warp back to our childhoods.
And then it rained again.
After exploring the cave city of Vardzia, and despite the thunderstorms that had been rolling through the valley all morning, we had our taxi driver drop us off at Khertvisi Fortress. There has been a fortress on this spot for almost 2,000 years, although the walls that currently stand are “only” 700 years old.
It started to sprinkle as we hurried up the rocky hill. Some cattle guarded the entrance. Judging by the fresh cow pies we had to avoid, they also maintained the grass inside the walls.
We stood in the rain and watched the valley emerge from the mist. The roving patches of sun and blankets of rain shifted the colors before our eyes.
Fat droplets started to fall and we ran down the hill to the taxi.
As we approached Akhaltsikhe, our driver pointed at a sign for Sapara Monastery. We didn’t plan on going there, but knew there was no way he was going to throw in the side trip for free, so we asked, “ra ghirs?” He pulled off the road, put on a pair of glasses and wrote a large number on the piece of paper that showed our previously agreed upon price. We laughed and said, “ara, ara, Akhaltsikhshi.” He scribbled a slightly smaller number on the page. We hesitated, but repeated our previous statement. He wrote one more number. Well, ok.
The Lada’s engine roared to life and up the gravel road we went. Or careened, or hurtled, or whatever the appropriate adjective is for the things he was able to do with that car. It was truly amazing because back home this would be something that would be undertaken at a quarter of the speed, and maybe only then with four wheel drive.
At the top of the mountain, Sapara emerged from the trees in all of its ancient glory. It was silent except for the lizards patrolling the stone walls, the hum of the bee boxes and the splashing of the spring water.
We stayed longer than we intended, and of course our driver tried to extract more money from us by the time we returned, but we finally agreed on a price that was more than fair. Vardzia, Khertvisi, Sapara… it was such a full day! And it ended with a rainbow. What can we say? Georgia loves us as much as we love it.
On the 48th day of this thing that we’re doing, we decided to take a day trip out of Akhaltsikhe. Our friends told us that the monastery and cave homes at Vardzia were definitely worth the trip. We didn’t have to walk more than a block from our temporary home at Hotel Meskheti before we heard a mustachioed taxi driver yelling “VARDZIA! VARDZIA! VARDZIA!” at us all-too-obvious foreigners.
He gave us a price, double what we wanted to pay. I showed him the money I had planted earlier in my left pocket, which he laughed at. I added a little bit out of my right pocket. He shook his head in feigned disgust, but as we started to walk away, he conceded and waved us inside his Lada, an aging but mighty Soviet car with an orange paint job.
After our driver filled up the tank (which seems to be standard practice after your vehicle is full of passengers in both taxis and marshrutkas), we attempted to make some friendly small talk, but only managed to determine that he was Armenian. Next to a gold embossed Jesus card were two pairs of glasses hanging from his visor. We would glance at these three objects from the backseat over the next hour as he swerved through the mountains, bounced through potholes, and slammed on the brakes to avoid hitting a baby calf – after which he gave a big smile and said his only two English words: “no problem!”
After a while we started to see a few scattered caves in the landscape, the entrances obviously carved by hand. When we came around the final turn, there was a large group of them half way up the opposite cliffs. Our Armenian friend pointed and said, “Vardzia.” After pulling into the parking lot, he finally made use of one of those pairs of glasses, scribbled some numbers on a piece of paper and smiled at us. Apparently the deal struck back in Akhaltsikhe only included one hour of waiting, two hours (the proper time needed to really see the site) was going to cost more. I decided we could haggle later. There was a fortress we could stop at on the way back and maybe that could be included in the new price.
I won’t give a full history lesson about Vardzia. I could look up a bunch of stuff on Wikipedia and pretend it was retained knowledge from our visit there, or you could do the same if you are really interested.
But one thing that makes Vardzia special is that it is still a monastery. Monks still live there in some of the caves. Near the entrance to the Church of the Dormition was a skinny guy in a travel vest and a fishing hat who seemed to be either a freelance tour guide or volunteer. He was hanging out with a mama (Georgian priest) and attempted to translate for as questions were asked about where we were from, how many kids we (don’t) have, and his curiosity with my tattoos – all with big smiles and laughter.
We spent some time trying take in all the painted walls in the tiny 800-year-old cave church before the man with the hat motioned us to follow him. He took us further back into a cave behind the church, around a couple turns, a long dark tunnel and two locked gates. We didn’t know exactly where he was taking us, but he was talking the whole time (mostly in Georgian) and we heard the word ts’kali (water) repeated. He finally flipped on a bare light bulb and pointed down a dark open well and said “70 centimeters” (which I think should be taken as 70 meters?). He dipped an old plastic cup into a bucket and said, “holy water,” then put it in my hands. An ounce of hesitation — less about potential microbe ingestion and more about the sudden somberness of being offered holy water from an ancient well — and it was down the hatch. Ice cold. Not exactly the climax to The Last Crusade, though I did appreciate the humble orange plastic grail.
Honestly, I felt more like Dr. Jones getting back into that orange taxi.
A few years ago, in an effort to get businesses to report their sales correctly (and thus pay their tax obligations), the Georgian government required every business to use electronic cash registers and use them to enter even the smallest transactions. To boost compliance and public support, they started a new program that incentivized consumers to expect and ask for a receipt with every transaction. Each receipt has a unique code number on it, and when you text the code in, you receive a reply that says whether or not you have won a cash prize. Apparently, the prizes can be up to several thousand lari. It was fun, but the only message we ever got back said something to the effect of “unfortunately, you are without winning…”
Also pictured: sunflower seeds from the an old lady who on a stool outside her door all day with a washtub full of them on her lap. 10 tetri per scoop ($.06).
Sean and McKinze planned for us to take a trip to Borjomi National Park, a one hour marshrutka ride away. Borjomi is famous for its mineral water springs. The park is situated in a lush forest that spans a section of the Lesser Caucasus mountains and the Mtkvari River gorge forms its southeast border.
Its website says that Borjomi National Park is “one of the largest in Europe – it covers more than 85,000 hectares of native forest and sub-alpine and alpine meadows, home to rare species of flora and fauna. A network of trails invites you to experience the stunning variety of blossoming plants, breathtaking views and a magical atmosphere.”
Unfortunately, the rain that poured down all week didn’t want to take the day off just for us, so we saw none of that.
We tried to wait it out by having an early lunch at a great little pizza restaurant, but the bad weather persisted. We thought we’d start on a trail anyway, and managed get through the family-oriented playground area before we got thoroughly wet and cold and decided to abort our mission.
Sean knew of a restaurant nearby and we ordered some pints of Natakhtari and set our shoes by the fire and spent the rest of the time snacking and making the most of the afternoon.
We caught a marshrutka home just in time for the sun to come out.
While we were in Akhaltsikhe (a not-quite-correct-but-easier way to pronounce it is, “Akh-alt-seek-hay“), we spent a bit of time at McKinze’s office. As we mentioned, Sean and McKinze are Peace Corps volunteers (PCVs), and PCVs are assigned to non-governmental organizations (NGO) who have requested assistance. McKinze’s NGO works specifically on womens’ issues like domestic violence and health care access.
Mckinze showed us the mammography equipment that was donated so that her organization can provide free breast health screenings. It is an old machine, but the only one in the region.
There is also a sewing room at the NGO office, which is used by women who are escaping domestic violence situations. They make clothes and sell them so they can support themselves.
Sean and McKinze also have a weekly American Corner where they lead a group of school children in reading a news article in English and discussing the new words and concepts. The two sessions we were sat in on were attended only by a few younger girls; the older students were busy with exams. We also enjoyed imparting an extremely important part of American culture (at least in my opinion): the art of Scrabble.
One of McKinze’s coworkers owns a restaurant, so they treated us to a huge lunch one day: a pile of khachapuri and tubs full of khinkali.
One afternoon, McKinze and I and several other workers from the organization piled into the director’s vehicle (literally… it involved lap-sitting and no seat belts) and traveled to a little village outside of Akhaltsikhe. The purpose of the visit was to tell the village women about the health services available to them in Akhaltsikhe and to perform free PAP smears at the village’s ambulatoria. (This is why Sean and Tony were not invited.) The presentation was given in the front yard.
The exam room:
One of the nurses:
After the talk, there was nothing for McKinze and I to do, so we took a walk through the village. It had been a rainy week, but there were blue skies and sunshine that morning.
But a giant bank of rainclouds hovered in the distance, waiting to pounce.
This village has little indoor plumbing or heating, but satellite is pretty easy to get, so it’s not uncommon for a household to have a latrine in the back yard and 1,000 TV stations in the front room.
As we sat on a bench next to the road, waiting for things to wrap-up, an old village woman wearing a red headscarf and a heavy dark sweater and skirt trudged over to us with a bowl of apples. Her tattered slippers kept the most of the muddy road from seeping into her black stockings. She grinned as she offered us an apple, half of her smile strong white teeth and the other half gleaming gold. We had watched her sprinkle the bowl with a hose a moment ago and wondered if our digestive systems were prepared. It would be impossible to decline.
The three of us ate our apples and chatted a few minutes. McKinze translated as the woman told us about her children (after inquiring about our own status as mothers, of course). It was one of those moments where you’d love to whip out your camera to document, but you tell yourself it’s better to stay still and soak it in. We had privately guessed that our new friend was well past eighty, but from the ages of her children, we knew she was only in her early sixties. It’s a hard life here.
When it was time to leave, we said our goodbyes, and the woman flashed her gold teeth again and we told us we were kargi gogoebi. Good girls.
After a few days in Leliani, we said goodbye to Eleni and Charlie early in the morning and a marshrutka hauled us the long and bumpy way back to Tbilisi. Kamran was headed on a weekend trip to visit his fiancée, so he came with us. The radio blared a mix of Georgian patriotic songs, American power ballads covered by Russian singers, and Backstreet Boys. In Tbilisi, we said goodbye to Kamran and hopped another marshrutka headed for Sean and McKinze’s town, Akhaltsikhe, in the Samtskhe-Javakheti region, near the Turkish border.
While we waited for it to leave, human pop-up ads shoved their wares into the open door and shouted words we didn’t understand. A boy selling paper saint cards passed one out to each passenger, waited a moment, and then collected the cards from those who didn’t offer him a coin in return. An old woman selling packets of sunflower seeds and tissues appeared. A packet of tissues is one of the most practical purchases one can make in this part of the world. Alicia asked, “ra rghirs?”
The trouble with knowing only how to ask questions in another language is that you won’t understand the reply. But that’s really not too much of an obstacle, if you think about it. If you’re asking for directions, even if you have no idea what the person is saying, they will gesture and point, and you can head in that direction until you find someone else to point and wave, and if you’re lucky, they might even escort you to your destination. If you’re shopping and ask “how much?,” the seller knows you’re interested in buying, and you can hold out the coins you think will be sufficient to cover the purchase, and they will pick out the ones they need. There’s a level of trust involved, but the risk is negligible.
The woman hunted through the coins and pulled out 20 tetri. A bargain! Soon we were off, and this section of highway was much better than the eastern part we had just traveled. It took several hours, and this driver’s radio was mercifully broken. We wound our way through the lush countryside, past Stalin’s hometown of Gori, through Borjomi National Park, all the while passing innumerable cows and crumbling Soviet factories, apartment buildings and bridges.
A heavy thunderstorm descended on us as we passed through the most mountainous sections of road, but the reduced visibility and slippery road did little to slow the driver’s pace. The Mtkvari river heaved with rushing, muddy water from the daily rains and Alicia tried to imagine the best escape route if the marshrutka ended up floating in it.
As always, we arrived safely, and McKinze took us to the cheapest hotel room in town (per our request) at the Hotel Meskheti. It set us back 30 lari per night. Just over $18. Hotel Meskheti, with its wood floors, enormous windows and high ceilings, must have once been a grand place. You can see where the crown molding used to hang. Now, there is mildew near the floor under the peeling wallpaper, it smells like stale cigarette smoke, and the requisite tiny burn marks sprinkle every piece of linen and furniture surface.
But it’s clean, and that’s really all that matters. Well, there are certainly parts that have a thick coating of grime, but nothing that you need to actually touch. Later, we would realize that the mildew on the walls is only because the floors are enthusiastically and obsessively mopped at every opportunity. If you can ignore the myriad cosmetic failings, it’s actually fairly pleasant.
The location is central, and if you remember to flip on the switch at least two hours before you want to shower, there will even be plentiful hot water. But don’t forget to turn it off when you’re done, or the landlady will be sure to instruct you (via charades, unless you know Georgian or Russian) on the proper usage every day. How can she know you forgot? Somehow, she knows.
Sean and McKinze gave us a great start in Georgia with our weekend in Tbilisi, and they planned to share one of their favorite places-and people- with us by sending us to Kamran, Eleni and Dato in Leliani.
McKinze put us on a marshrutka and told the driver to drop us off at Kamran’s office in Leliani. Since Kamran is apparently a famous person in Georgia (we say that only half joking), the driver knew exactly where that was. Leliani is located in Georgia’s far eastern Kakheti region, which is famous for winemaking and fertile fields.
It took several hours to get there, and on the way, two ladies, a mother and daughter named Nino and Nunu, pointed at animals and objects along the way and tried to teach their Georgian names to Alicia. They thought it was hilarious when Alicia resorted to crowing when she was unable to communicate that she wanted to know the Georgian word for rooster (mamali). Just before we got to their town, Nunu handed Alicia a gaudy pair of earrings. Unfortunately, the only thing she had to offer in return was a mandarin orange fished from the depths of her bag, but she tried to express her appreciation for the ladies’ interest and kindness with many grateful repetitions of didi madloba. Literally, “big thanks.”
At last, we reached Leliani and met Kamran. Kamran is one of Sean and McKinze’s fellow Peace Corps volunteers. He’s from North Carolina, has been in country for two years and was recently approved to extend his service for a third. Eleni and Dato are his host mom and brother. The three of them live on a 100-year-old farm that has been passed down through Dato’s father’s family (now seven years deceased). On the other side of the mountains to the north is Russia, and Azerbaijan is a few short miles to the east.
Eleni works the farm, taking care of the animals, baking bread, making cheese and keeping the dining table heaped with the labor and bounty of her hands and land. Dato was recently honored with directorship of a local school. Kamran works at the youth center just up the road from the farm.
The house is large and airy, with tall ceiling and enormous porches that make it easy to imagine its splendor in earlier Soviet times. The well runs constantly with cool mountain water, and travels through a gutter along the length of the house and empties into a small stream that runs through the front yard. The detached bathroom is large and luxurious by local standards – it has an electric water heater for the shower and a washing machine.
A garden, vineyard and cow pasture cover the property behind the house and are populated by dozens of chickens, a pregnant cow and calf, and several bee colonies. And Charlie.
Charlie Chaplain is Dato and Eleni’s loyal dog who guards the chick crates at night and lives on table scraps and large hunks of puri. Eleni says he is “an American,” although his true lineage is unclear. He was born in Tbilisi, either to American owners or perhaps to a dog that they had brought with them from America. Charlie was initially suspicious of us, like any good farm dog should be, but was quickly won over when he realized Alicia was a reliable source for belly scratches.
After a quick tour of the farm, Kamran took Tony to their wine room, where they dipped wine the color of apple juice from the kvevri – large clay jars for aging and storing wine, buried to their tops – and into pitchers for the table. Alicia noted the wine’s color and naively asked if it was “like a rosé,” which Kamran found extremely amusing. Nearly every household in Kakheti makes their own wine using whatever grapes their ancestors planted in their vineyards.
That evening, we were treated to a feast – a supra. Kamran assisted with expert translation. Many toasts were made. To God. To mothers. To children. To future children. To siblings. To America and Georgia. To the dead. To friendship. Our glasses were constantly refilled with the golden wine at a wonderful and terrifying pace.
We ate fried chicken, khachapuri, bread, tkmali (spicy, sour green plum sauce), generous slices of cheese, and greens and herbs. All sourced a few feet from where we dined. In the United States, there is a big trend towards locally sourced organic foods, and “slow” foods prepared with care from scratch. In Leliani, this is not a new thing. It is Eleni and Dato’s reality, mostly unchanged for centuries, save for the added luxury of propane burners and the ice cream bars we had for dessert.
I’m afraid we were too exhausted from our whirlwind weekend in Tbilisi to truly communicate our appreciation of it all while it was happening. We struggled to surpress our yawns and clean our plates and absorb this new country and these new friends.
To look at this with an American eye, our hosts may seem superficially “poor.” But Eleni is truly rich, and we will always be grateful to have been recipients of her family’s lavish hospitality and friendship.
Watch the video we made:
If you want to read more about supras, food and winemaking at Eleni’s farm, you can read what Sean and McKinze have written:
- Kamran’s dramatic engagement supra
- Cooking lessons with Eleni
- Annual grape harvest and winemaking (scroll down halfway)