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.