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.
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-siècle 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!)
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!)
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…