On our last night in Akhaltsikhe, we went with Sean and McKinze and a few other PCVs to a traditional Georgian dance recital. Just before the concert, the heavens opened and it poured. We sat in a cafe across the street and watched people scramble in with umbrellas and newspapers and whatever they could find to shield themselves from the deluge. Finally, a few minutes before the advertized start time, the rain let up and we walked into the theater to find our seats.
The theatre was of Soviet construction. Completely utilitarian and no space wasted on silly things like aisles. There would be no bathroom breaks. Each row spanned the entire room, which was surely filled beyond any (non-existing) fire codes. We sat in the clamor of mothers talking on their cell phones and excited children shouting to one another for about half an hour before the lights dimmed and the hostess for the evening took the microphone and announced the first act. The beginning of the program didn’t actually silence the room; everyone was far too amped up to give their undivided attention to the stage.
I’m not sure what we were expecting. We knew it was a dance recital and it was important enough that they were selling tickets. It turned out to be a genuine treat of almost three hours of dance and song.
Apparently, Georgian dance is a big deal to just about everyone here. The kids, who ranged from what looked like six years old all the way through high school, threw themselves into the choreography with an astounding amount of enthusiasm and precision. Even though we were in a back row, we could see the pride on their faces as they performed their steps. The girls’ slippered feet carried them, floating, in graceful circles and the boys hopped and kicked as fiercely as they could manage. Some of their steps required them to bounce around on the tops of their feet with their curled completely under. We weren’t sure which would burst first — their tortured metatarsals or their parents’ hearts.
A crackly sound system and an out of tune guitar didn’t stop a group of young guys from belting out their patriotic songs. They drew deep breaths and drew up each note from deep in their bellies. The audience recognized every ballad after the first few notes filled the air and they and hollered and clapped along in approval. The singers grinned the entire time, as if they knew how much their friends and sweethearts adored them at that very moment.
We knew the program was drawing to an end when a horde of children bearing bouquets began to gather near the stage. They got closer and closer and eventually some of them started to impatiently climb the stage and group off to the side. There was a false start with the bouquet-giving as half of the deliveries were made after the second-to-last song and some of the dancers had to think quickly to get rid of their blooms before the music started up again.
It was a long evening, but we were completely amazed and impressed by everything. Yet another experience we felt privileged to witness in Georgia, and yet another example of someone showing us how to love something new. It’s the best kind of contagious.
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 thin notebook that easily tucks into your pocket or bag quickly becomes a helpful little friend.
You can use it for jotting down hostel wifi passwords, drawing pictures for waiters when you don’t know the right words, or writing down the name of the viscous, pale green homebrewed potion that you don’t want to forget.
You can draw little reference maps so you don’t have to cart around a guide book or unfold a city map that’s dedicated more to advertisements than to actual cartography.
Sketch a striking art piece so you can look it up and read more about it later.
Keep track of your friends’ flight details…
…and a fill up a cheat sheet of key words and phrases to study when you’re waiting for a bus.
You can use it to scribble down the words and numbers that Nino and Nunu are trying to teach you while you bounce down a rough Georgian highway.
And you can practice your alphabet and keep track of a friend’s restaurant recommendations.
You’ll use it so much, it will become tattered and start falling apart. Time for some duct tape.
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.