Tuesday, November 25, 2014

the wedding part 3: the reception

Folk dancing at the wedding
We ended up having the reception at a large restaurant called Dzveli Kalaki. I had chosen it a few months before, with the help of our bridesmaid in absentia, Salome. We went to several restaurants, trying to find my key ingredients - place for live music, no cheesy Georgian or Russian pop music sang by a guy at a Casio keyboard, and good atmosphere - and settled on this one, though it meant that my friends couldn't play their music. For that component, you would have to have rented out whatever place you were in. But with the location of the restaurant - way out on the highway - and with the number of our guests easily outnumbering the seats of the main hall, it was like we rented the place, as we were virtually to ourselves, except for one or two other tables taken by some parties of Jewish and Russian tourists.

The food was excellent, the price was more than friendly, they let our friends (like my godfather and Teo's father) bring the wine, and there was a live folk band and a guy named Boris Bedia who sang karaoke songs - he sang very well, don't get me wrong, I just can't understand the Georgian tradition of restaurants hiring only vocalists to sing over karaoke tracks. But again, he sang quite well, and much to my amusement, he sang Tom Jones' "Sex Bomb". Here's him singing it:

Also, my friends got to play as well. Most to my pleasure, my friend Shota Adamashvili learned Tom Waits' "Hold On" to play for our first dance. I had arranged it about a month ago, begging my old friend to learn it. It was the song that I imagine caused Teo to fall in love with me in the first place. It was one of the first songs I learned on accordion, and back when I was stumbling through verses in the dark underground of a bar named for the Italian movie "Amarcord", I was playing that song for her. She was there, waiting on our mutual friend Salome to show up, and I was looking at her and watching her and dying to meet her as beautiful as she was. And then when Salome came in and sat with her, I was elated.

The "first dance"
I've written all that about meeting Teo before. But it was my rendition of "Hold On" that really brought us together. And with Shota coming to the wedding, and with Shota being one of our favorite singer-guitarists in Tbilisi, it seemed only natural to ask him to play it for us, to surprise Teo. 

However, even the best laid plans of mice and men can be torn asunder by one idiot or another. So as she was pulling me on to the dance for and as I was resisting, I didn't want to break the surprise. "Why won't you come out and dance?" she kept calling. One of her friends had decided it was the best time for our first dance and played some weird tango which seemed to be played from a MIDI track from a Casio keyboard. "Hold On" then became more our second dance, but whatever, I'm still counting it as our first. When they called our names to dance the tango, I was resistent at first, not wanting to have a first dance that wasn't Shota playing "Hold On", but finally after Teo's insistence of not wanting to offend her friends, I relented.

"I've got something better planned!" I cried out as I was yanked onto the dance floor. And so we faked our way through a tango, I trying to recall the one-two-big steps I learned a long time ago in some class in Denver, a life that seems completely alien to me now as I write these words in Prague. My plans were breaking away, but nevertheless salvaged. "Damn your friends, damn Georgians! I will not consider this our first dance. I will consider our next dance as our first. You'll see and you'll agree. Damn it!"

Some of the guests from the groom's side
But all in all, it was a success of a night. There ended up being quite a few people, though I hadn't thought of inviting all my friends. My parents were there, as was my closest fellows at the least. One of my friends was able to dance with loads of ladies and kept quoting it as the best night of his life that he can remember, though I doubt he remembers much of that one. There was dancing - Teo surprised my parents with her Georgian folk dancing skills - singing, and only one moment where my fair new bride was worried about there not being enough xatchapuri - there was, I had ordered more than enough. 

Then the night wrapped up and ended at Betsy's Hotel. The hotel was the first hotel famous among visiting journalists, and is also famous for their modestly priced happy hour on Fridays, where now Peace Corps volunteers find themselves. I went there because I knew of their pool and how Teo loves pools, so I wanted that to surprise her. They gave me the room key earlier that day and I walked into the room. It was right across from the elevator and stairs, and the balcony was shared with three other rooms. I went back down. "Do you have another room available maybe that's a little more private? It's my wedding today, you see."

"One moment," she said and she went back behind the door to work her magic. She came back with a card to a different door. "This should be better."

Two huge balconies, overlooking the city roofs of Tbilisi. During the day, you could see all the way to the distant titan of a mountain, Kazbegi, the head permanently white from glacial ice and mist blowing off. So small from there though, following the gentle curve of Earth all the way to our bedroom. Yes, two balconies, a living room, a bedroom. Far from what I paid for. That was the room I brought my new wife to. You guys can guess what happened next.

Monday, November 17, 2014

the wedding part 2: a baptism and a wedding

Preparing for the Baptism
The Baptism took place in a side chapel. We had to wait for St. Mary's Mass to end, but it allowed for us to gather under the shroud of solemn music, with the chanting of the women from the other room. Getting baptised with me was an infant, who seemed quite a bit more terrified of the procedure than myself. But then the infant got dunked in the tub of holy water a bit more extremely than I was, with water only getting splashed on my face. I had invited my old host father from Bolnisi to be my godfather, as he and his family were the family that I had while living there, and I always feel to be one of the family when I visit them anyway, so might as well seal that deal.

After the Baptism, it was time for the wedding. "Do you have the rings?" the priest asked. Teo brought hers out. Immediately, I understood the classic movie wedding moment where the rings where somebody forgot a ring. I checked my pocket without purpose, as I knew exactly where it was - in my desk at home. In all my anticipation and excitement about getting married and looking proper and whatnot, I forgot the single key non-organic ingredient to having a wedding - the ring. "Shota!" I called over one of my closer friends and endowed him with the task of a quick retrieval. He ran off, jumped in a taxi and got the ring. Meanwhile, we just waited around with the bums continuing to harass everyone for money. You'd think after the third or fourth time to say that, "No, I haven't got my wallet, I'm getting married," they'd take a hint or something. but those guys were professionals.

The wedding begins in the Sioni Cathedral
When Shota arrived with the ring, the wedding finally begun. It was a typical Georgian Orthodox wedding, which is to say, completely strange to me. The weddings I had witnessed in Georgia before were factory weddings held in the bigger and more "important" cathedrals, where 20 or 30 people would be married at once. Here, we were the only ones, which was why I had wanted one of those obscure churches to begin with. But here, we were in the key historic church of Tbilisi, alone with our ceremony. The Church of the Dormition had existed for some fifteen hundred years, but with the building of Sameba not far away, it had become somewhat forgotten by the masses. We stood in a line in the center of the great hall, our best men and women to our right and left, Teo and myself, and the priest stood before us conducting the ceremony.

The crowns over our heads
The priest stepped forward to us and continued with the chanting. He took out two crowns and put them on our heads, as though we were the king and queen of the mass. Then we drank some wine - the Lord's blood - and the crowns were held above our head by our best men and maid of honor. With our hands in the priest's, we were led around the stand with the golden covered Bible three times. We were holding lit candles, and the hot wax kept dripping down onto my hand, it was all I could do not to drop the candle, as I assumed everyone else - Teo, the best men and bridesmaid - were having an equally difficult time with this. But then, before we could scream out, it was over. 

At the iconostasis
The priest took our hands and led us away from our friends and to the iconostasis - that part of older churches, usually made of wood, that blocks the altar so the ritual of transubstantiation is hidden from the gathering. The priest told us, "This is something I make everyone I marry promise." He turned to me, getting Teo to translate, "I want you to treat Teo as you would want your son-in-law to treat your daughter." And then to Teo, "I want you to treat Shawn as you would want your daughter-in-law to treat your son." These are hypotheticals sons and daughters, of course.

During the entire ceremony, I was beaming. I couldn't help but to smile. And this made the priest happy as well, as every time our eyes made contact, he cracked a smile and nearly started laughing. He might have never seen anyone so tortuously and idiotically happy to wed, or perhaps he was just amused about getting to baptise and marry a foreigner, there was no way to tell.

I wasn't really sure at what point we said the "I do's", as they were speaking some ancient dialect of Georgian that I couldn't even begin to fathom translating myself, but I meant it in every way I could, even lacking the understanding of when I was agreeing to what vows. I just hope that there was nothing to do with child sacrificing or cannibalism, which I'm fairly certain there wasn't. The candles extinguished and the guests lined up to welcome us into our new lives as one. 

Monday, November 10, 2014

the wedding part 1: religious fandango and hunger

The wedding itself was more than I could have imagined my wedding to be. We were first thinking of a small obscure church, and then having the receptioon at a small place, and then of course, being a musician with tons of musician friends, I wanted to at least have them perform a few songs. And I didn't want all the Georgian traditions to be overwhelming - I'm a fan of supras, or big Georgian feasts, sure, but also I was having lots of non-Georgian friends and Georgian female friends and for them and for myself, the toasting after toasting and the absolute totalitarian control expressed by the toastmaster can get a bit overwhelming - not that the control is ever realized, but it is certainly expressed.

Also, I had a baptism to do. Although I'm Roman Catholic, that doesn't seem to be good enough for the Orthodox Church to grant permission to marry one of their faithful - though the Catholic Church has no qualms administering sacraments to the Orthodox faithful. This meant I had to get a second Baptism, or an anabaptism, so to speak, in order to complete the nuptials with Teo at a Georgian church. And as I'm a sucker for ancient mystical ceremonies, I went ahead and pushed having a church wedding. For me it was merely a reaffirmation of my faith, as I've always understood the Orthodox Church as a sister church to the Catholic Church, nor do I really recognize the Great Schism - the foundation laid by God cannot be broken by the likes of man, no matter how much they insist. I'm undoubtedly making some gigantic theological blunder and would be condemned by the lot of white beards in their chat-tabernacles somewhere, but I`m going to take the Tupac way out and simply say, "Only God can judge me."

Sioni Cathedral of the Dormition
The priest that was going to conduct our wedding was from Teo's village, and said we could do it at some church in Vake, one of the non-touristic but nice neighborhoods of Tbilisi. But then Teo wrote to me one day informing me that it would be at Sioni Cathedral of the Dormition, which was one of my favorite churches in Georgia. The Cathedral was originally founded by the Georgian king, Vakhtang Gorgasali, who had founded Tbilisi in the 5th century. The structure itself is hard to date though, having been destroyed and/or damaged by invading Muslim forces from various countries and by earthquakes so many times that it must have been rebuilt as many times as there are bricks to make the cupola. However, the vicious cycle stopped in the 18th century, so it's at least 200 years old, though parts of it are as old as 1500 years. The outside itself is rather plain, but the interior, from floor to vaulted dome, is covered in beautiful and colorful murals depicting scenes from the Bible and from the lives of the saints. Ikons are displayed as throughout as well, as typical in Orthodox churches, with flickering candles lit before them signifying those who have sent their prayers upward.

The saint and his folks at the former Bina
We were early, so we found an overpriced cafe on Chardeni, where we were met by one of my friends Olajide. The place itself used to be called "Bina", Georgian for "apartment", and was decorated like an old Soviet apartment owned by a member of the Party. Bad grandma's wallpaper complete with pink and purple flowers, puffy chairs, heavy wood tables, displays of fake china, the works. The only thing lacking was the thick smoke from bad, smuggled in Marlboros, an overflowing ashtray and a gigantic plus-sized babushka serving up the cabbage soup, here replaced by a 0 sized pouty girl wearing see-through white clothes and hot pink underwear. After having our over-priced import beers to help calm the nerves - my mom, as ever in Georgia on the verge of crying and my dad and my friend Joseph warning me of the perils of women, we went on to meet everyone at the church.

As we waited outside for St. Mary's Mass to be said and for the Baptism to be started, my friends were gathering around outside. There wasn't any sign of Teo and I started to get a little worried. I wouldn't have expected a wedding to also run on Georgian Maybe Time. As we waited longer, we fell victim to the beggars that surround ever church in every land. I'm not opposed to beggars, except in moments of captured situations, like cafes and churches. They kept coming up, asking only for money, not particularly caring if we were there for a special moment in our lives - nor caring if I didn't actually bring a wallet to my wedding. They kept joining in and bothering everyone. I wouldn't have minded if they would stayed and chatted - but the only thing off their lips was money. The lack of money makes some nearly as terrible as the excess of money - for to them we were not people, but simply a means of procuring cash. Hunger - whether it's from one with a small, barely fed appetite, or of a monstrous, endless appetite - destroys the souls of many all the same.

Seeing the bride
At last, Teo and her friends appeared. I can't speak much of what filled me upon seeing her. I won't lie and say that there was a magic light that appeared and made her glow, but I would say the truth if I were to say that's how it appeared to me. And what joy I felt made my normally dour face spread into a smile, and stay into a smile, on through the night. The moment that I had long been anticipating had finally come.

Monday, November 3, 2014

the pre-wedding pseudo-bacchanale

After the trek through Svaneti, we went to the Martvili area, back into the heart of the Samagrelo region, where we would spend the week with the bride-to-be’s family in a village. The highlights were the tamada at Teo's house, who was a neighbor that magically showed up whenever alcohol was brought out as though he had some sort of radar set up in his household set up to detect pouring wine. On the third day we were ready to pass out and die from all the gregarious intake of food and alcohol. At any moment we would sit, Teo's mom would immediately start bringing out xatchapuri and cakes and mountains of food - and then the tamada would show up and start pouring the wine. It became too much for us weakling Americans, and even I - with the combination of the excellent hospitality and the terrible heat - was at my lowest state, as though kryptonite had been shoved into the hands of your beloved super drinker.

One night of many
During this pseudo-bacchanale, we took a break and saw some sights around my then fiancee's town in Samagrelo. First a quick trip to Kutaisi, in the neighboring region of Imereti, to cover Bagrati and Gelati. Bagrati I've already discussed to some degree. Gelati, I think, is even worthier of mention. Gelati is nearly as old as Bagrati, dating back to the time of David the Builder in the 11th and 12th centuries, who decided to build a "New Athens" - a new center for learning and religion - this decision being made in the later mentioned monastery at Martvili. The place now is under renovation, but not in the same manner that brought to me and UNESCO such contention as Bagrati. The renovations at Gelati seem a lot more suited and faithful to the original form of the monastery, and preserve the old and mysterious tone of the places. 

Gelati monastic complex
As is the custom with Georgian taxi drivers, our driver didn’t seem to know exactly where Gelati, our first stop, was. We ended up driving for a good thirty minutes through the outskirts of Kutaisi, asking ever birja-dwelling kaci where it was, and all of them pointing vehemently, “That way!” We kept going that way, and at a curious sign, saying Gelati was both to the right and straight ahead, we turned toward the right. As our station wagon lugged and blugged its way through a narrow, unpaved roads, with houses in various shapes of disrepair, I began to loudly doubt our choice of journey. “I don’t think this is the right way, guys,” I said. We stopped. The driver got out and consulted a woman standing on her balcony in nothing but a towel. He then nodded and brought us back to the sign where we chose the other direction for Gelati.

As for Bagrati, having been there before, I took over as navigator and let the guy know where to drive. I always feel silly having to tell Georgian cab drivers where major touristic monuments are, but that might be just me. I did leave out in my past blogs about Kutaisi what was beyond the wall right beside it, and this time, as I was there with my friend Joseph, I was feeling a bit more adventurous. We climbed up the wall and looked down at a huge complex of ruined castle, with one small chapel standing in the middle in a protest against time. There was no way to get down to it from on top of the wall, but then we found a path that went past Bagrati and around the wall so that you could walk among the stone ruins. This was, I found, probably the most interesting thing for me at Bagrati.

The castle ruins next to Bagrati
My next choice for our journey were the Prometheus caves. The Prometheus caves were discovered recently and were named after the Greek god who was allegedly chained down at the feet of Mt. Kazbeg for an eternity of vultures picking out his eyes because he brought humans fire. The Prometheus caves are evidently huge and you have to rent a boat - yes, a boat! - to get through them. This really for me was the highlight of the trip, since I had never been in a cave on a boat. As we were driving there, the driver kept asking us, “You are sure you don’t mean Sataplia? I’ve never heard of Prometheus.” And several times again he had to stop the car to ask directions. Finally, we found the caves. Evidently you can be there on any day but Monday, and it was a Monday.

“I can drive you guys to Sataplia,” the driver offered.

Inside the caves were lots of pretty lights
So, instead of the awesome, underground Styxian cave, we went to the nearby Sataplia, which I'll label here as the "children's cave". The Children’s Cave, to round out it's title, even comes complete with dinosaur footprints and the tour includes standing next to man-sized statues of the giant lizards for photo-ops. It was like being at some cheesy Russian wedding photography shoot. The Georgian name of “Sataplia” was given due to some cave bees creating gigantic sucrose catacombs of honey in the cliff sides. Well, when we were shown the outer layer, they didn’t appear so gigantic, but “gigantic” is a relative term and bees are quite small.

Next up, was the Martvili Monastery. The site was on top of a hill and had been used for religious purposes long before Christianity ever came to that soil. The pagans had used the huge oak tree at the summit as a site for worshipping earthy gods and sacrificing children, as you do. When the place became Christianized, the hill top residents chopped the tree down to get people to stop doing their pagan practices there and they decided to build a church. The current church dates back to the 12th to 14th centuries, and is one of the better preserved/restored complexes I've seen, retaining all the dark mystical attributes I've come to respect about the Orthodox religion.

Below Martvili
The last stop - it was quite a full day, yet to be topped with more eating, drinking and the tamada guy showing up - was Martvili canyon, a half-mile long canyon will with water, where you have to pay a guy to take you on a slow drift through the rocky trench. Be sure to buy some beers in advance and to shell out some 25 to 40 lari for the boat ride (per boat, not per person). It's well worth it though, since the place is beautiful and serene, despite the loads of local tourists that won't get out of your way for the perfect shot of the waterfalls.

As we floated down, one of the boat guides, a large 12 year old, got sick, jumped out into the freezing cold water and started coughing and/or vomiting. He crawled out onto a bank and we didn’t see him again. But this meant, as we were down one guide, I had to take the oar and continue our tour. After which I regretted not having loaded any beers onto the craft, but sometimes we must suffer for beautiful things.

After the three days of touring, eating and drinking, the next day we headed back to Tbilisi, so the real wedding event could begin.

Monday, October 27, 2014

a cheap copy of switzerland

Mestia from the ethnographic museum
There are some surprisingly good things about Mestia, though the renovated main square is not one of them as I mentioned at point in the last blog. Much of the town is still old, dotted with ancient defensive towers that the Svans have been using to protect their families and livestock for a thousand plus years. The town extends around the valley, some of it yet invisible from the first parts of the city. There's also an extensive ethnographic museum in a newly built building overlooking the towers - it's much better done and organized than the one in Tbilisi even, so definitely worth a visit.

My original plan was for us to drive a short way out to Zhabeshi and then hike back into town, taking a full day of just soaking in the beautiful mountain landscapes, with the towering Tetnuldi (16,319 ft) at our backs and the even more impressive double jagged razor of a mountain, Ushba (15,453 ft) at our front. Those altitudes seem impressive as they are, even to a Coloradoan, but even more impressive when understanding that Mestia itself isn't that far above sea level, resting only at a lowly 4,921 ft. For an Americans, an easy reference is Denver. Mestia is lower than Denver, and much closer to mountains that are taller than anything in the Rockies. This makes for a complete feeling of isolation and claustrophobia in these valleys, since everywhere are walls of stone and impossibly steep forests.

This intensity of landscape though is what makes it all the more beautiful as well, and which also served as a natural protection against foreign invasion, making Svaneti the safest place to keep ancient Georgian treasures. Of course, rather than defending against invaders, Svans found that they had to constantly defend against each other, being a fiercely territorial and sensitive lot of people, a magnified Georgian race, so to speak. Strabo, the Greek geographer, wrote in his Geography, of a people who he called the Soanes (most likely the Svans), that of the people in the Caucasus, the Soanes were "the foremost in courage and power." This was the land where the golden fleece, of Jason and the Argonauts fame, as Strabo continued (and as well can be further read about in the ethnographic museum): "It is is said that in their country gold is carried down by the mountain torrents, and that the barbarians obtain it by means of perforated troughs and fleecy skins and that this is the origin of the myth of the golden fleece."

My family and friend weren't really up for a day long hike, so then we opted to drive up to the much closer Tsvirmi, though we found the prices to drive there and back were the same as Zhabeshi, about a negotiable 100 GEL, as Tsvirmi is nearly a straight up drive, whereas Zhabeshi is horizontal. But if one is to be seen, Tsvirmi has a better view and more archeological sites, though neither really lack in Svan towers and ancient ruins mixed with some modern houses, if that's what your after.

Our host at Sana Guesthouse hooked us up with a driver, his childhood friend, to get us there. He drove us in a new four wheel drive van that seemed to be a cross with a jeep - a necessity driving along the old horse roads of Svaneti. Unlike our last driver, who taunted us with terrible Russian and Estonian music playing non-stop on his video player, this Svan driver had a much more refined taste in music, playing Leonard Cohen and Bruce Springsteen. Not sure how a Svan got interested in that music, but it was a great relief being able to listen to excellent music while traipsing around Upper Svaneti. 

The main highway now is almost complete to Zhabeshi, but further out, you need a car that can take rougher roads (read my much older blog series about that). When we met him, he told us the prices and said, "Why not just go all the way to Ushguli? It's 200 GEL there and back, and if you only come to Svaneti only once, then you have to go there." He is right, of course. Ushguli is the most expansive of the ancient Svani cities, and the most undisturbed, as it also is, in second place to Adishi, the most remote. It served as the ancient capital of Svaneti, where the kings and queens of medieval Georgia had their summer residence. After some discussion, we opted to go there.

Ushguli, near the ethnographic museum

View of Ushguli from the black tower
In Ushguli - which is actually a collection of four villages - we visited the ethnographic museum, which is itself in a tower, each floor holding various religious treasures. The museum's collection itself isn't that noteworthy - the better items have been removed to the Mestia museum - but what makes the museum a must see is that it itself is in an ancient tower! With terrible carpeting! After this, we saw the Lamaria Chapel and monastery, which is up on a hill overlooking Ushguli and completely overwhelmed by Mount Shkhara. Then we went to a local cafe - Ushguli is surprisingly full of them, a few more are added every year - and got my folks converted to the joys of ostri, a spicy Georgian meat stew. 

We got back from Ushguli with still some daylight left, so my friend Joseph and I decided to walk through Mestia, away from the vague disappointment we felt about being close to Seti Square. The further we got, the more satisfied we got, as we discovered a renovated part of town, Lanchvali street and its surroundings, that - instead of tearing apart the old and building something completely different - renovated the old parts and made them modern. That is to say, they were cleaned up and made whole, with electricity and all that jazz. The towers loomed over us at every turn, and there was even one tower open to the public, with a rooftop hatch at the top so you can come out and sit on the roof. Seeing this part of town refreshed my idea of Mestia, and if renovations of that style continue throughout the town, it will be an amazing place to visit.   

View of Lanchvali Street

View of the public tower
Svans, if you're reading this, forget Seti. Grow Lanchvali.

With the growth and spread of the style of Lanchvali street, adding some restaurants, cafes and maybe a bar with some live Svani music - you know, just some old guys singing accompanied by a pandori and a drum, later another bar with live rock music - then you'll have something to compete against Switzerland in tourism with. Tourists don't don't come looking for a cheap copy of Switzerland, tourists come because they want to see a healthy and vibrant Georgia. Grow your culture, don't sell it out.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Svaneti: a brief introduction

Many of the most beautiful places in the world are also some of the hardest to get to. As though Georgia weren't hard enough to get to from the Western world (only the terrible and infamous Wizzair offers anything affordable from Europe, and from the States you can forget about coming cheaply), the Georgians decided to put their best regions behind the cloaks of exotic mystery that lie behind insurmountable mountain passes. But then, part of the allure of Svaneti isn't just the beautiful mountain panoramas, ancient ruins or dauntingly pronounced name, it`s also the way there. Both the journey and the destination are wrapped up in one single package of adventure.

The Inguri River
Svaneti is inhabited by a people called “svans” (pronounce “swan” like a German and you’re close enough). They’re known for extremism, thinking slow, cutting a guy for looking wrong at his wife or sister, and having their own unique language, though in the same language family as Georgian. Being high up in the mountain passes, it’s also one of the “purest” of the Georgian stock, rarely being successfully invaded or conquered, and has often in the past led a somewhat quarrelsome existence with the Georgian “mainland”, though at most times did serve some sort of servile role to the crown of Georgia, and always served as a sort of religious escape, even to the extent that the Georgian kingdoms often stored their religious treasures there during times of trouble. The famous Georgian king, a woman named Tamar, even had a summer residence there, in Ushguli, keeping them loyal to the crown with her yearly visits.

Though there's a new road to Svaneti, no one can yet rightly call it accessible. And maybe Svaneti should never be easily accessible, as it might dilute the austere and traditional Svani culture that still exists there - though it is certainly in its death knells, the last battles of this survival against the beast of globalization are being fought in the streets of Mestia, the capital. The road there is three hours up from Zugdidi, with only nearly broken down marshrutkas making the way (20 GEL each), or Megrelian taxi drivers eager to make a deal (100-150 GEL for the car). And of course, that's from Zugdidi, one has to get there as well, and the only way for that is by marshrutka from Kutaisi or Tbilisi, or by train. I've discussed well enough in this blog the thrills of both of these methods of travel. All of this, sadly though, means that most visitors to Georgia are forced to miss Svaneti. But again, maybe that's better for the Svans, since tourism has a way of destroying some cultures. And anyways, who really wants to be inundated with tourists? It's of course a trade - tourists mean money and development, but it also means an endless flow of annoying entitled people who often don't really care about your environment or culture.

The road to Mestia
The road to Mestia is beautiful. There are no other words. It starts in the lowlands of Samegrelo, right near sea level, following up the sometimes broad, sometimes raging, Inguri River to its highest point at the summit of Mt. Shkhara, some 17,000 feet up. The Inguri is dammed in the middle point by a gigantic hydro-electric plant that is one of the largest in the world. It also serves as the border between the breakaway region of Abkhazia and Georgia proper, and as such is lined with troops and sharpshooters from both sides. When our taxi drove us, access to the sight of the dam was closed as someone had just been shot. The zone is one of the older "frozen conflicts" caused by Russia, forgotten by most of the world as Putin has now stirred up trouble closer to Europe's heartland.

Mestia is an odd town. On my first visit, I hated it. The center had been wrecked by reconstruction, many of the older, architecturally relevant buildings had been torn down and they had constructed something that looks like a loose mockery of Aspen, Colorado, which itself looks like a loose mockery of Switzerland. When I told my then host, who was of the family responsible for the construction, the Japaridzes, how I felt, he was naturally angry. "Maybe we want to look like Colorado," he rebutted. And in his rebuttal, I could hear what was tacit, the thought "because we are backwards and you are forwards." He could never imagine how all those people of Colorado simply dream of a place like his, of historical buildings that date back thousands of years, of their own historical root of architecture and culture. We Americans have to constantly invent new things in order to define ourselves and can sometimes cause the lack of a real concrete definition. It’s no shame to already have a defined culture, and it’s no shame to redefine that culture, just be sure to keep standing on one’s giants and to keep building upward.

Colorado or Svaneti?
Today, those buildings are all finished and most of the construction downtown has waned. All of those new buildings are, for the most part, empty, except for a token amount of restaurants and bars - about three or four total. Some of the construction mysteriously lags onward, but it's been cleaned up and organized much more than since last I was there. Not exactly progress as promised, but still, progress. There’s no place for breakfast, and only a Baltic/Ukrainian owned bar for after hours partying, but the interior there completely lacks inspiration, so that’s not even that worthwhile a visit. There’s another place on the wretched main square - Seti square - called Laila, but with the absurd tourist prices that’s hardly worth a visit. The better food can be found on down Stalin street, in one of the newer buildings. Not really sure the name, but it’s definitely got solid khinkali, and good Svan specialties like kubdari (meat pie) and chvishtari (corn bread made with cheese) and beer not at exorbitant tourist prices. Also was recommended by our host at the guesthouse, and I only personally witnessed Georgians eating there, so must be legit.

This time I had come with my family and my friend, for a short stay of three days, though two of those days were a bit taken with traveling there and back. So really, just one whole day, which isn't at all enough for visiting Svaneti, but again, you take what you can get. We stayed near the center of town, at the Sana Guesthouse (30 GEL per room with two or three beds per night), right up from Seti Square, the aforementioned ersatz Swiss section of town. The Sana is a nice place, or going to be nice place - the owner constantly working on some improvement project, so this is a gaurantee. The bedrooms are all quite comfortable, but the lounge room isn't quite finished, still in need of some paint on the walls. The bathroom is nice, along with a balcony with a nice view of the town, especially perfect for long talks at night with beer, which is how my friend and I passed our evenings.  

Monday, October 13, 2014

I'll be your lover on the line

(cont'd from last week)

My first steps into the wagon were like entering a sauna, an experience I normally enjoy, complete with booze, birch branches and the cold pool. But here was different, here the humidity was not pure spring water rising from the bosom of our fair Earth, but rather sweat dripping from the pours of an angry Russian lady who was busy arguing with another conductor about allowing her screaming and whining child to ride free. It was from the sweat of the three Adidas-decked "athletes" drinking beer and laughing in the first cabin. It was from the sweat of the running and screaming children, who were back and forth wrestling up and down corridor. All the annoyances of Eastern European train travel combined. Except for gypsies. At least there were no gypsies.

Wait, those are gypsies! Too bad there weren't any gypsies then!
Once we got settled, the chaos died down a bit, but the heat didn't. It robbed everyone of the will to live, and came something akin to the ill-fated sauna contests of Finland, where the winners are determined simply by who is the last man standing. Most people were hanging out the windows, trying to breathe, but the sadistic conductor, ever with inspiration from the Marquis de Sade himself, kept returning and yelling at people to get back in their cabins. Then he would close the windows to keep the heat going. As if to add on the top a little bit of icing of hope - so that he could later crush it - he reassured us that the air conditioning would come on as long as the windows were closed.

And the air conditioning came on.

After we were soaked in sweat and the room was dripping, the air conditioning slowly began its labor. At first it wasn't felt, but like the outbreak of a terrible plague, it was on us before we knew to take action. For some reason, the train conductor decided not to hand out blankets - blankets can be expected in trains across Europe - and just left us with a pillow. We slept in our wet clothes which soon became traps of ice and chill. Several times during the night, when I would wake up, I thought I could see the frost from my breath. The experience seemed to replicate that of someone dying from influenza - intense heat one moment, intense cold another, never feeling the same temperature, never comfortable, and too weak to do anything about it. It was a replication of an experience that could be described as the opposite of awesome.

At last the train arrived in Zugdidi. None of us had slept any and we left the train like miscarried babies, shuffling our feet in a world of such light that we weren't yet prepared for, confused by the new reality that had descended upon us. Even harder yet - no one was speaking a language any of us knew. Here they spoke Megrelian (fun fact: when Russians say "Megrelian", they add a mysterious "n" saying "Mengrelian"), which was, of course, not at all related to Russian, and though a Kartvelian tongue, has very little to do with Georgian. Though at least everyone speaks Georgian just as fluently, they like to collaborate behind your back in Mengrelian.

I went directly to the restroom after our stop. The bathroom structure seemed to come out of Sleepers, something like Woody Allen might picture the future of public toilets. The outside was like a dome with small little pods connected to it, and it was all painted bright blue (forty years ago, now it was painted a dirty and chipped not-so-bright blue). I walked in and found myself in a dark, circular room. There were no sinks here, no thought of sanitation. Instead I found myself in a kind of fecal panopticon, where I could see all those using the toilets around me. The toilets themselves were squatters, which meant that several were occupied with men squatting down. They seemed to me to have the same glazed over look of concentration that cats or dogs have when they empty themselves. In that moment, the ultimate illumination of how basically animal we are was summed up to me. Why even bother with this podlike concrete creation? Why are we not all simply shitting in a field without shame or embarrasment? Was our first sin, our original sin, not that of pride, but rather of claiming that we were ever anything more than mere animals? And we pretend ourselves kings over nature, sitting on porcelain thrones, wiping ourselves with feathery, triple-ply toilettes.

I left my existential crisis in the bathroom and joined the others. We walked over to the marshrutka stop, which was also crowded with taxis. None of the marshrutkas were the modern ones I had seen years ago. All of these seemed the typical white, aged Ford Transits that seem to be moments from breaking down and rolling off a cliff, with the cigarette smoking driver deftly rolling out minutes before take off, shrugging and getting another beer with his comrades.

My mother, from her last trip to the Caucasus, had been wise enough to develop a fear of such machines - whereas I take some sort of weird, masochistic pleasure out of them, especially when a beer is in hand. They're like riding a motorcycle, except there's absolute zero control of your fate, there's no comfort, no wind, and well, actually it's nothing like riding a motorcycle. No, it's more like riding a cattle car to a concentration camp. There's nothing fun about it. There's heat, chickens, puking babies, and bad Russian pop music - that's what always comes to my mind when I think of marshrutkas.


My mother wanted to avoid them, so we opted for one of the taxis. The first guy offered us 100 lari. That sounded good for a two-and-a-half hour drive into the mountains.

"Okay, let's go."

"No, I don't feel like driving. If I were, that would be the price. Go with him."

He pointed me to a smiling, gold toothed man. "120," he said.

"But that guy just said 100."

"He does not have a TV, I have a TV," he said, pointing inside his 15 year old Chevy station wagon at the television that was installed on his dash. "It is luxury."

"Er," I said. "100?"

"120, no less, have TV." He then addressed all the other drivers in the area in Megrelian. There seemed to be some consensus that nobody would take us for less, and that it would be him taking us. I began to see the futility of it.

"What is he saying?" my parents asked.

"He wants 120."

"But you said the other guy wants 100. Can't we go with him?" my mom asked.

"No, apparently not."

"Why is he wanting 120?" my dad asked.

"He has a television. Look," I looked around at all the drivers watching us, realizing our fate was sealed, "I think we'll just have to accept the 120."

In the end, the extra 20 for the television was worth it. On rotation was a music video of the highest class and quality, and without that ride I would have never been exposed to this Estonian music sensation, which played on repeat no less than twenty times:

So remember, when in Georgia, if you're offered a ride for 20 more lari than necessary because of a television, you say yes!