Georgia on my Mind

BATUMI/KUTAISI/BORJOMI/TBILISI, GEORGIA: June 29-July 7, 2013

Leah: So long story short, due to Shengen visa requirements and the fact that we’ll be spending 2.5 months out of our allotted 3 in Finland, that left us with little to no time to see some of the other countries we had wanted in Eastern Europe. Instead of being bitter, we turned our sights east and decided that with Georgia right across the border from Turkey, why not head to this country of 4.7 million in the Caucasus region of Eurasia? Granted, we knew practically nothing about the country and speak no German, Russian or Georgian, but why not just cross the border and see what happened from there? Hence, late one afternoon we bade Turkey farewell and walked into Georgia (one of the easiest overland border crossings of the trip), catching a marshrutky (little minibus similar to the dolmuses in Turkey) the few miles into the Black Sea resort town of Batumi.

Coming from eastern Turkey, we were immediately blown away by the new development, sculptures and relaxed laissez faire attitude of this seaside oasis nestled against the hills. Apparently during Soviet rule Batumi was a fashionable resort area and sustained a boom economy at the end of the 19th century thanks to its location as the railway terminus from Baku, Azerbaijan that carried a fifth of the world’s oil production in the day. Now that the border with Turkey is once again open (and given the illegality of casinos in the former) Batumi’s stature as a picturesque, cultured city with plenty of food, nightlife and beach to go around is firmly cemented.

We stayed at the D’Vine Hostel for a few nights, where we had the chance to come across quite the cast of characters. We soon realized that in addition to playing host to USAID and Peace Corps programs, Georgia seemed to be a clearing house for disaffected US residents in their late 20s or early 30s who decided to come to Georgia and teach English as part of the TLGProgram sponsored by the Georgian government.  With two roundtrip tickets a year anywhere in the world, a monthly stipend and placement in an often rural village, who could blame them? However, the last thing we had expected to see was a former Soviet region crawling with Americans, so we were a bit taken aback at first—just goes to show what we (don’t) know.

The heart of Batumi was a delightfully walkable area and we found ourselves strolling along the boardwalk taking interactive pictures with the sculptures and statuary, marveling at the peacocks in the aviary and gazing in amazement at the monuments and art installations many of which seem to have sprung up since 2010. Nighttime took it up a notch, as colored lighting illuminated rows of palm trees and the recesses of charming fin-de-si├Ęcle buildings, a manageable urban canvas providing a darling stroll past vendors, families and a mix of languages—everything from Turkish and Polish to Russian and Georgian.  We even took in an illuminated fountain display set to music; while nothing in comparison to Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, they played everything from the Pirates of the Caribbean theme song to Janis Joplin and even projected imagery on the cascading water. Still pretty cool.

Oh yeah, and then there was the food. Our first night in Batumi we were escorted by the young married couple who own and run D’Vine Hostel, Dan (American) and Nina (Georgian), to try a typical Georgian dumpling dish called khinkali. While they vary slightly depending on the region, they’re essentially dough artfully wrapped around a meat filling which is then boiled and served hot, producing a little pocket of broth inside the dumpling. The fillings can also be vegetarian in nature—potato and mushroom are particularly divine—which are just as tasty. They actually reminded me a bit of the Chinese soup dumplings often found at dim sum joints, except that khinkali are a bit bigger and are traditionally eaten with the hands. In fact, if you can slurp and munch your way through a serving without any of the delicious broth dribbling onto your plate you’re pretty much a pro. Feel free to check out Steve’s masterful demonstration on how to eat them here. We’ve also fallen in love with lobiani, a pastry folded around mashed beans and black pepper which we eat for breakfast or lunch, and ostri, which is stewed beef in a tomato sauce, usually sopped up with fresh Georgian bread. Besides, any culture which features fresh cilantro in traditional dishes receives high marks in my book, and not just because it reminds of the Mexican cuisine we miss so much.

Nina and Dan also told us to try khachapuri, the “achapuri” variety of which is a caloric bomb and heart-stopper that qualifies as a national dish here. Rich cheesy dough is molded into the shape of a boat (almost canoe-like in appearance) and then filled with handfuls of cheese, giant cubes of butter and often an egg, which is added right at the end of baking so that it cooks to a lovely soft-boiled consistency. You then attempt to take down the whole thing in one sitting, although pre-booking your angioplasty at the local hospital is highly recommended.  We gave it a go for breakfast and this may have been the only time on the trip that I was physically unable to finish what was on my plate. I removed the half stick of butter and much of the cheese, but I still couldn’t do it. In fact, the thought of attempting one again makes me a bit nauseous; while delicious, there are some things that should only be served in minuscule portions (and maybe with a side or vegetables of fruit to at least add the pretense of healthy eating?) Either way, no complaints on the food front here.

Our next few stops took us through Kutaisi and Borjomi before we stopped in the capital of Tbilisi. Given our time restraints (we only have a few weeks before we fly to Bulgaria) we weren’t able to get as far north as we wanted, so we stuck to a southerly route for a blend of culture, outdoors and cities. Kutaisi was chosen for its location on the way to Tbilisi, as well as for the Bagrati Cathedral and Prometheus Cave. The cathedral holds watch over the city from Ukimerioni Hill and dates back to the year 1003 AD. It’s currently under restoration, although UNESCO doesn’t seem to agree with the process and added it to The World Heritage in Danger list due to threats to the sights “integrity and authenticity.” Either way, gorgeous views, sweeping  domed arches and literal piles of history meant that we enjoyed it just fine. The Prometheus Cave was also quite spectacular, especially since it’s a relatively new tourist sight (only having opened in the last few years). The 1.2 km-long cave was only discovered in 1984 and an hour long guided tour—albeit quite rushed—took us past astounding cave formations, the ambience dramatized by mood lighting and music. I could have easily spent hours wandering down the path and sitting and staring, but alas it was in and out, although we were glad we went. 

It was also in Kutaisi where I learned that a long-awaited book about Jayna’s life, murder and her killer’s trial had finally been published, which would color the next few days for me. Back when we were in Panama, I learned through a mutual friend of Jayna’s that respected journalist Peter Grange had been reaching out to her friends and family in attempts to piece together a book. Those of us who were contacted thought long and hard about whether to expose ourselves and our precious memories to a journalist, but in the end many of us decided to move ahead with interviews after reading up on Peter and realizing that healing can also come from storytelling and reminiscing. So back in the summer of 2012 I hauled myself out of my hostel bed in the pre-dawn muggy heat of Panama City, emotionally prepping for what was to come. I sat hunched over a grainy and slow Skype connection with Peter for several hours as I poured out my J stories, from first meeting her on Semester at Sea in 2001, to her antics at my wedding nearly nine years later. There were frequent tears, much laughter and Peter’s professional but probing questions kept me at ease throughout; I could tell he was interested in J as a person and not just a story (especially since he had already spent so much time face-to-face with her parents).

Fast forward almost a year later to my discovery that his book had recently been released, and I knew that while it wouldn’t be easy reading I had to see Peter’s finished work for myself. So there I sat for an hour at the hostel (it’s a quick read) pouring through the Kindle version of the book, soul sick at having to read the murder scene descriptions again, but also grateful that Peter’s research included new interviews and other information the public hadn’t been privy to in earlier reports. How does one even begin to discuss reading a book about a best friend’s murder, let alone attempt to review it? I can’t and I won’t, but I think Peter did a wonderful job of both honoring J and presenting the facts, especially given the fact that an entire book could be written about just her life. However, reliving all of 2011-2012 again was not easy and as I mentioned, it set the scene for our next few days in Georgia.

Coming from the hustle and bustle of Kutaisi, our arrival in the lushly green small spa town of Borjomi by marshrutky was a welcome change for the senses. We settled into our guesthouse and made our way down the (one) main road to the natural springs which made the town famous. The Borjomi spring water tastes salty/sour and a bit like a sulfurous mud to me, so it’s definitely a love it or hate it scenario. We filled up a water bottle and each took a swig, only to promptly retch into the bushes and dump the rest out-blech. The stroll through the rest of the long park took us past amusement park rides, food vendors, waterfalls and curtains of greenery, and even over a rickety wooden bridge or two. I may have indulged in a stick of cotton candy bigger than my torso, while Steve’s construction brain marveled at the cement run-off from a nearby resort construction site ran straight into the river. Either way, it was a charming walk and we capped it off with a visit to the glass-enclosed tourist information center where we met Artur, a Georgian with impeccable English who lavished us with glossy brochures, transport timetables, advice, a CD of traditional Georgian music and his personal cell phone number in case we needed anything, anytime, anywhere. Well done, Artur, you may have even New Zealand’s dazzling iSites beat by a landslide!

The next day we had planned to take in Borjomi Park for a long day hike through one of the largest national parks in Europe. It also happened to be the 4th of July and the two year anniversary of us returning home to find our beloved dog, Minger, dead on the side of the road. Not an auspicious start to the day, especially given the fact that I’d also suffered miserable nightmares and was still processing Jayna’s book. Queue second lowest point on the trip (after losing each other in San Jose, Puerto Rico). I was a snot to Steve and in a terrible mood, but we still trundled off to the start of the trail (sharing a ride with an American father-daughter backpacking duo) and headed off into the trees.

We fed off each other’s energy and soon I suffered an unprovoked total meltdown, hurtling the backpack to the ground, stomping in puddles like a toddler, screaming like a banshee and running down the path in a flurry of hot tears and lava-like anger. I missed my dog, I missed by best friend and I felt alone and completely broken, lashing out at the only person I could—Steve. That tipped him over the edge and we walked completely separate from each other until we realized two hours later that we had been hiking up the wrong damn mountain. Still not talking we backtracked and figured out the correct trail, which happened to be completely uphill again through tight switchbacks and muddy quagmires. I’ve been one some tough hikes before but even at the worst time on the Inca Trail or the Kepler Trek I still wanted to reach my goal and always rallied. However, I had completely shut down emotionally and physically and I honestly didn’t have it in me to keep going. Also didn’t help that the trail kept climbing with no plateaus and I was weak from dehydration and lack of food. Regardless, for the first time ever I learned what it felt like to tackle a physical task when my heart and mind weren’t backing me.  

Steve: Yeah, so how do I follow that except to say that’s how it happened. After our trail snafu we found ourselves on the correct trail but with waning motivation. Leah wasn’t doing well emotionally which I found immensely more difficult to deal with than my burning quads, hamstring and never-quite-the-same-again torn-Achilles-calf. When we hit the turnoff for our trail to finally turn into a descent we were worn out and needed a few moments to reboot. In true heavens parting fashion we poked through a clearing and were rewarded with soaring views across thickly wooded valleys and mountaintops. We took five and with renewed energy made our way down the mountain (which in many ways was more demanding) yet the majestic surroundings pushed us along our way. In due time we made it back into town where the well-earned burrito kebabs, cold beer and soda made for one of the tastiest meals on the trip.

Exhausted but mending from the previous day’s exploits, we took an early morning train from Borjomi to the capital of Tbilisi. For 2 Georgian lari (the equivalent of $1.20 USD) we sat back in an outdated and dirty, yet altogether comfortable Georgian Railways train that saved us (and my aching legs) any anxiety from the rigors of martshruka travel. It might have taken a bit longer but we still arrived around noon where we walked around a bit before meeting our Couchsurfing host. Out of sheer necessity we might have (note “might have,” we are not actually admitting to it) stopped at a McDonalds for a few hours to get into the air conditioning, link up to some Wi-Fi, and maybe eat a gross and expensive chicken wrap.

Where do I begin with our Couchsurfing host? Henrik is a tall and lanky blonde Swede, not exactly who we thought we would Couchsurf with when we first began the search for Georgian Couchsurfers. Although not a Georgian, we couldn’t have picked a better host. He had actually just arrived to the city about a week prior and was still living out of his suitcase since he’d been busy both hosting and starting Russian language classes. You see, our buddy Henrik probably ranks as one of the most obscenely travelled people we have ever met; you name it and he’s probably been there, might have slept in a pyramid once, and might have spent a week on a Yemeni cargo ship where he was personally detained while the government tried to figure out why he had a visa and how to get this Arabic-speaking Westerner out of their country. And don’t get me started on languages…yes he speaks the requisite Swedish and English as most educated Swedes do, but he also spent a year learning Arabic, is currently learning Russian to assist in his new job, and he probably speaks Spanish and French as well as we pretend to (although he probably wouldn’t admit it). He’s the kind of person we’d love to despise but he’s so friendly and engaging you just can’t. (Leah: Let me just add that he also gave us his bed while he slept on the couch, in addition to cooking us a Swedish egg/potato/onion breakfast our first morning there. Generous to a fault!)

This brings me to his job. As part of his global studies masters program, he is currently in Georgia to work as an intern for the Swedish embassy. So while he’s not a native Georgian, he’s been to Georgia several times, will be working in one of its numerous consulates and even wrote his bachelor’s thesis on Georgian politics. He is truly in love with this city and country and therefore made for a phenomenal host as his fervor spread over into our walks and talks throughout the city. He guided us from cosmopolitan Rustaveli square down to the grand and gilded Freedom Square and over to Old Tbilisi, where ancient brick churches and Narikala fortress loom over ultramodern architectural feats such as the Peace Bridge and the Presidential Palace. When we weren’t chatting about Georgia, life, or travels we were usually in between bites of the cheap and delicious Georgian food that we took to every night of our stay. I may be packing the pounds on again as I’ve become obsessed with ostri , a hearty meat stew flavored with tomatoes and cilantro; in her own right Leah has taken to lobio, a bean and cilantro stew cooked and served in an earthenware pot that with a tortilla could be mistaken for Mexican food.

During the days when Henrik was studying, Leah and I made our way back into downtown Tbilisi to fill in the gaps and check out all the places our host had suggested. We climbed up the fortress which afforded magnificent views of the city below—for the record we might be the only people to have climbed up and then taken the gondola down—and made our way over to the massive Mother Georgia statue that rather bustily (is that a word?) watches over her fine city. We spent time in several of the city’s well-appointed museums such as the Modern Art Museum, The National Gallery and the Georgian National Museum, the latter of which had an informative if not altogether depressing exhibition on the Soviet occupation of Georgia from 1921 through 1991 (every picture ended with the date in which someone was shot). (Leah: We even tried to take in the newly released Lone Ranger movie, seeing as how my ridiculously talented friend, Amanda, slaved her butt off over it as the post-production supervisor and will be named in the credits, but alas it was only showing dubbed in Russian. I tried, Manda, but it will have to wait!)

I should also add that—in the efforts for full disclosure and to paint an honest picture for ourselves to look back on in this blog/journal—we might have gone to McDonalds again. Twice. For cheap ice cream (and clean bathrooms and free wifi) and because Leah might have become obsessed with the fact that McDonalds in Georgia have camembert nuggets. I can attest they’re really good but I am now ashamed to have gone to a Mickey D’s three times in three days (allegedly). Leah wouldn’t let me tell Henrik (sorry you had to read about it) and this might be a new low in our travel timeline. Allegedly (Leah: Okay, but for real? Camembert nuggets? Gooey, cheesy concoctions coated in high class bread crumbs laced with seeds and other crunchy bits? If I hadn’t bought them at this place I usually avoid, I never would have known they were from the golden arches.)

Steve: We will be heading back into Georgia for a few days after a jaunt into Armenia but for now this is goodbye. You can be sure that we will be keeping up with our linguistically daunting but ridiculously likeable Couchsurfing host—we really have been blessed to have met the fine folks that we have—and will be reserving a special place in our travel exploits for this uniquely beautiful country. For once we’re not talking about the U.S. when we say that we’ve got Georgia on our minds…

CLICK FOR PICTURES OF BATUMI, KUTAISI, BORJOMI AND TBILISI.

Post a Comment

Ellen Mann July 8, 2013 at 9:46 AM

So much to comment on in this post!
1) The food sounds amazing, except, of course, for the cilantro.
2) I got the book and read it, too. No words really besides horrible and heinous and why did I read about it all over again, but it was a nice tribute.
3) I had a fit very similar to yours (throwing a backpack and everything) in the same region (mine was in Russia)!
4) Shirtless, Steve?
5) Mickey D's cones are the best traveler's bargain out there. And camembert nuggets?! Seriously, there is NO SHAME!

Leah July 13, 2013 at 6:02 AM

1. More for us
2. Yup, pretty much sums it up
3. Yay, I'm not the only crazy one!
4. He likes to rock it in the wilderness
4. Thank you for the validation

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