Our first introduction to Georgia came before our feet even hit the tarmac of Tbilisi International Airport. We were waiting for the boarding announcement for our connecting flight in Istanbul. It was delayed by 30 minutes and everyone had gathered at the gate. It was midnight, there was an unexplained delay, and everyone clumped towards the front. It was not a matter who arrived first. Rather, it was who wanted to be first. Despite the late hour and the jostling for position, all the Georgians were happy. They were going home.
As we were two of the only three obviously non-Georgian or non-Russians on the flight, most chose to stare at us to pass the time. The stares are always overt, with no attempt to pretend they were looking elsewhere. To many cultures, including ours, this would be a terribly rude thing to do. But in Georgia… well, why would you not stare at the utskhoelebi (foreigners)? God gave you those eyes for a reason.
At arrivals, we stepped into a crowd of people staring back at us and briefly felt like red carpet celebrities, but of course they were anxious for their own friends and family to walk through the door. The only blonde in the crowd was easy to spot, even though she is only five feet tall. McKinze and Sean gave us huge hugs and we piled into a taxi. Or maybe it was just an opportunistic kid who had a car and needed gas money. Either way, we were soon hurtling down George W. Bush Avenue (yep) towards downtown and the Peace Corps office. White lines? Merely a suggestion. We decided that either the drivers of every single vehicle on the road had hit the chacha hard that evening or the rules of the road were very different here.
Tony noticed a large glass building that resembled an American style car dealership, until you read the huge POLICE sign, written in both Georgian and English. McKinze explained that a few years ago President Saakashvili fired and replaced the entirety of an overtly corrupt 30,000 member police force. It was one of his more successful and beneficial initiatives for the country. Part of the overhaul included new police stations with glass facades as a symbol of transparency.
After a sufficient recall of traveler mortality statistics had passed through Alicia’s brain (motor vehicle accidents are at the top of the list), we arrived safely. It was 4 a.m., and rather than paying for a room for the remaining few hours of darkness, we would just sleep on the couches at the Peace Corp office.
But first, Sean suggested a bedtime snack of khachapuri imeruli at the cafe across the street. If you can imagine tangy, salty, homemade cheese stuffed into a leavened dough, baked into a flat, oily, disc and cut into pizza-esque slices, that is your basic khachapuri. Alicia was certain that the recipe had to include a generous squeeze of lemon juice, but Sean said that flavor was all in the cheese. Tony and Sean each enjoyed a pint of Natakhtari, not certain if it qualified as a nightcap or as breakfast.
(photo courtesy of Sean Fredericks)
We caught up with each other’s lives, and they told us about what they had been doing during the nearly two years of service as Peace Corps volunteers here. The sun rose, the birds awoke and we finally walked back to the office and slumped into the couches for a few hours of rest.
When we awoke, we grabbed our bags and walked to the guesthouse where we’d stay that evening. It always feels good to find the place you’re sleeping and then leave your heavy bags behind. Our 34 liter backpacks are about half the size of the average backpackers’, and conform to even the strictest airline carryon maximums, but they’re still a ball and chain after a short distance.
We left the leafy courtyard and took the subway to the old city district, to a restaurant where we would have our Very First Georgian Meal Ever. (And the people rejoiced.) The preview of the early morning khachapuri was enough to get us excited for all the wonderful things we would soon be experiencing.
The fastest way to both of our hearts is through our stomachs and Sean and McKinze made sure it was love at first sight. They ordered puri, salty bread; lobio, mashed beans baked in a clay pot; kitri da pomidori salata, cucumber and tomato salad, always with lots of onions, parsley and salt, and sometimes with dill, basil, jalapeños or walnut sauce; two kinds of khinkali, large pasta dumplings filled with either mashed potatoes or ground beef, pork and broth; and khachapuri acharuli, a huge bread boat filled with tangy cheese, an egg yolk, and a slab of butter.
We started in on this new type of khachapuri. McKinze instructed us to rip off a chunk of bread, stir it up, and eat. Sweet mother of heaven.
Sean taught us how to eat the meat-filled khinkali. Hold it bellybutton side down, take a small bite from the edge, then suck out the broth. An expert khinkali eater keeps his plate dry. The bellybutton is edible, but most people keep them on their plates so they can count how many they’ve eaten, and so they can save room for more khinkali. The vegetable salad was a welcome break from the heavy (and heavenly) salt, fat and carbs, and would be something we would continue to order with almost every meal.
We felt only a little remorseful as we waddled out of the restaurant. We would pack a lot into this weekend, and the first day had barely begun.