Georgia On My Mind
The border crossing went smoothly. Yes, we were right, there is no longer a visa requirement for US citizens. We only get a small amount of pleasure in knowing how guilty the border guards are going to feel when the message finally gets through to their remote border crossing. They won’t know that we got a wonderful Lada ride out of the deal. The lesson for us is don’t assume that just because they wear a uniform, they know what they are talking about, and try and have a phrase book for every language you will encounter. (Do you know how hard it is to find a phrase book for small languages like Azeri and Georgian?)
A few kilometers down the lovely rural road to Tbilisi, we saw several people selling produce beside the road. Since we had only junk food with us (and a leftover hunk of farmer’s cheese) we decided we wanted a couple of tomatoes. Language again: we ended up with a kilo of tomatoes, way too heavy for us to carry far, but at least they were cheap, $1. Something about the way one of the old women moved, her face, her gestures, and the way she kept forcing more tomatoes on me, made me think of my Mother, and also my only living aunt, Nellie. It really touched me, and I wanted her to know. I looked at her, pulled a finger down my cheek to indicate a tear, and said, “Momma.” The women all understood and looked at me lovingly, and the men missed the whole thing. It made me feel very welcome to Georgia.
Memories of Mother, Aunt Nellie and Tomatoes (Sadly, Aunt Nellie died a month after our return)
Farmers cheese, bread and tomatoes; gourmet lunch on the road
We typically avoid the police on this tour, but for some strange reason I thought the Georgian Traffic Police might know where we could find a road map of Tbilisi. “Look honey, there’s a police station, let’s stop in and see if they can direct us where to buy a map of town.” Wrong. A committee of ten looked over our small scale map and decided we couldn’t find our way to Tbilisi (we were in sight of it) and would need an escort the twelve kilometers to the edge of town. “How embarrassing,” Bob kept saying over and over again as people gawked at our short parade with blipping lights. We’d tried to decline the offer, saying how slow we were. The end of the day is a tough time to push hard, especially with a stiff headwind. The police driver didn’t have a clue about drafting, as every time we got close enough for a windbreak, he would speed up again. We were relieved to be left alone again at the city limits.
Tbilisi, Georgia is an enjoyable city with an old ambiance and beautiful architecture; the only downer was many street beggars in the city center, not always so poor, and targeting Westerners. One adolescent girl grabbed Claire’s sleeve, tugging hard and not letting go, in the middle of heavy pedestrian traffic.
Georgia is not a very big country but quite lovely with villages and farmland lining the road to Turkey. It was on the northern, and latest incarnation of the ancient Silk Road; It is host to the Baku/Tbilisi/Ceyhan oil pipeline, symbol of the new Silk Road. President Bush visited just a couple of weeks before to officially open the unfinished pipeline.
In a part of the world where countries too often define themselves by religious preference, Georgia is Christian and lets you know at both borders with huge crosses on hilltops; to perhaps give any Muslim considering entrance pause. For their part, the surrounding Muslim countries make sure there is a mosque with tall minarets clearly visible. Turkey is officially secular, if socially 100% Muslim.
We learned that in Georgia, people mostly eat out for special occasions and in large groups. In Gori, we ate the liver soup that one elderly couple might have been saving for their own dinner had we not walked in to what could have been their dining room looking hungry (yes, I was hungry enough even to eat liver soup). Truth is, there was no menu, but through gesturing we found out that some type of soup was available and whatever it was, it would keep us going.
In Borjomi, we felt a little self-conscious as the only other diners at a restaurant hosting a high school graduation party of 20 or so. We were spectators to toast after toast, watching as the young faces grew flush (the tradition is bottoms up and drain the cup, mainly because it’s not very good wine). We were thrilled when one young couple demonstrated a complex and spirited traditional folk dance. The music was earsplitting as we all clapped along to the pounding music. A little later, the kids must’ve felt sorry for us, because after some uncertain glances our way, they circled around us with cell phones in hand for some memorable group photos of their graduation party. They broke the ice and started in with questions of these two strangers in their midst. They concluded with “There is no place like Georgia!” Their patriotism for a land about the size of Bob’s home state of West Virginia reminded him of how most of his classmates still feel the same connection to home soil as they did as graduates. As for us, we pedal on toward Turkey and new people, new food and music, new soil.
Our last town in Georgia made very clear the Soviet dominance for so many years; it is not a pretty picture, but more complex than at first look; people make the most of the cards dealt them in most places; in America we were dealt Aces.
Akhalktsikhe, Georgia: The last town before the Turkish border, and with the help of locals, amid much arguing and gesturing, we found THE hotel in town, a 20 Lari ($10) down-the-hall stinking squatty potty, no shower, cold water hotel ($2 in China). We walked around the potholed town center in a dripping rain between slate gray buildings; young men stood on crumbling sidewalks looking beaten, dangerous; vendors braved the wet selling cigarette lighters, cheap radios; anything for a few more Lari before darkness descends. We bought tomatoes and carrots for dinner, twenty five cents.
Back in our single hard bed room, I drink a cheap Georgian beer and gaze out the window at the Soviet era apartment block through the waning rain and gathering gloom. It is a tableau of a former, not yet liberated, life under Communism: clotheslines, mops, jugs of home-made wine, rust-bleeding concrete balconies; a babushka beats on something like wool, shreds it and hangs it to dry; a woman finishes hanging clothes, they sag the line in the soggy air; another babushka drinks wine and eats bread and stares into the mountains drifting with shards of stringy charcoal cloud; an old man limps the short length of his balcony repeatedly, as if exercising, indomitable spirit; three women lean out and talk, echoing between the buildings, gestures of question, of resignation; a Doberman paces and barks from a second story balcony, his babushka comes to check; she has been a victim; a tabby cat makes his rounds along lower balconies, looking for food, he later appears in our third-floor toilet; the only children to grace my tableau, two girls, play with a tattered badminton birdie, and one racket; a man joins the wine drinking woman, lights a cigarette to salute the end of rain; several people appear on balconies and talk all at once to anyone, anyone; and just as suddenly they become quiet, they wander inside leaving a lone couple eating sunflower seeds, they spit over the edge, the husks flutter into the mud.
It is how I imagine Eastern Europe shortly after the breakup, beaten, left alone in a world they know nothing about. I wonder if the older ones were good Communists, rewarded for their patriotism with an apartment to pass on to their children; there are few children or grandchildren, and no money for upkeep. Their asset slowly bleeds iron oxide and sags toward an uncertain end. I wonder if it will be different in Turkey.