Notes on Georgia: A Wild, Wild Country
I arrived in Kutaisi, Georgia mid-morning on a dreary Monday morning. After landing, the Pilot got on the intercom and calmly announced, “Thank you for flying with us and have a good day in Poland.” Quickly, everyone on board had a miniature panic episode thinking the plane had taken us on the wrong route before he corrected himself.
I found the highway out from the airport and started my hitching journey. I had no idea what to expect because it was my first experience with hitchhiking. I didn’t even have cardboard with me. I figured anyone driving on the two-lane country highway leading away from the smallest international airport I had ever landed in would surely be on their way to the city center.
The first car that stopped for me was a man, about 50 years of age, and he was big; big head, big belly, rough-looking skin, and enough common sense to know where I wanted to get to without having to overly communicate it.
I hopped in and swung my backpack around to my lap. From what I understood, it was going to be a little more than half an hour before we reached the city. But I didn’t realize that the ride from the airport would be right through the middle of small-town Georgia.
Everything was run down; half-collapsed buildings, rusted junk in the middle of empty fields, cattle unfenced on the shoulder of the highway, and old cars without engines lining driveways of the few livable houses we passed. We passed at least twenty abandoned gas stations. Honestly, how many gas stations does one country highway need in such short proximity from the city?
I never learned the man’s name or anything about who he was – he didn’t speak English, not even a lick. He turned the volume up a hair so that the classical symphony music would drown out the slightly awkward silence. The silence is never as awkward when both parties are aware communication is virtually impossible, especially while driving. I wondered what possessed him to stop for me anyway.
Before arriving in Georgia, I had done some research about the country. This was the first time I was leaving the western world and certainly the furthest I had been from home – some nine-hour time difference.
I had learned that English was sometimes hard to come by in Georgia so I was somewhat prepared for it. Nevertheless, I tried. “So do you live around here?” as we were arriving into the city.
I pointed to the houses so maybe he’d get a clue to what I meant. He thought about it for a while before flipping an abrupt U-turn that made me grab onto his seat’s arm-rest.
I waited for an answer for five minutes because he gave off the impression that he was still processing my question. Sure enough, we pulled off to the side of the road and he pointed up a hillside road towards a small, beaten-down neighborhood, “My house”.
At first, I thought maybe he was inviting me to his house. I read before I came that Georgian hospitality is second to none and it’s not uncommon for locals to invite travelers to stay at their house.
He leaned up in his seat to look out of my window. I still couldn’t tell what to do. I leaned up as well and put my hand on the door handle. Were we getting out? Soon after, he turned the car back on and continued on back the other way and dropped me off in the middle of the city.
He said out the window at me, “Hostel” and pointed up the street a few buildings away. He drove away and just like that, I was alone.
You would never know the hostel he dropped me off at was a hostel. There was no signage outside of it; there wasn’t even a front door entrance. I took a chance and opened up a tall, solid green iron gate and stepped inside and proceeded to follow the sidewalk to the back garden where I finally saw in bright, colorful letters “Old Lviv Hostel” spray-painted in street art fashion on the back fence.
I knocked on the door even though it was cracked open already – it felt like I was breaking into someone’s home. No one answered. I stepped inside and was greeted by another hostel guest from Uppsala, Sweden. He seemed like a cool guy but we only spoke briefly before the hostel owner, David, greeted me and the guest from Sweden left the hostel.
David didn’t speak English very well despite owning the international hostel for over two years. Most of the time he spoke to me, I shook my head with a smile and acted like I had the slightest idea of what our conversation was about.
I couldn’t fault him for his English because, because like I was later told, Russian is the English of the east and he knew Russian fluently as well as his native Georgian.
Despite our language gap, I still found him to be a tremendous guy. Accommodating, fun, and social – he didn’t think of the hostel as a money-making business but rather an experience and opportunity for him and the guest to meet interesting people from all over the world.
I made this observation about him at dinner as he was enthusiastically showing me pictures of him and his guests dating all the way back to the previous year and telling me all about the people. I was quite amazed he was able to recall all of this information as I wasn’t even able to remember his name despite it being one of the easiest names to remember I was going to encounter for the next few weeks.
I unpacked my bag and assessed what my drunken self had forgotten to pack as I had been clubbing in Malta the night before and only had ten minutes to pack when I got home before my airport transfer picked me up.
I brought the clothes on my back plus one extra change of clothes. I forgot toiletries of all kinds. I brought an umbrella, luckily, because it was useful for the first few days in Georgia. I would later get a rain jacket as well.
I decided to head to the center of Kutaisi to get some food and necessities for the week. The city was a massive disappointment; completely underwhelming.
I walked around a bit, but I couldn’t find anything to see or even look out for a few minutes. I don’t understand how it’s the third most populous city in Georgia, there’s nothing there! It’s very village-vibey.
I decided to venture away from the center for a while. I shambled down the muddy, crumbled asphalt, sidewalk-less roads (as most of Kutaisi is like) until I considered myself lost.
An interesting gazebo on top of an apartment building caught my eye. It also seemed to be the highest point in the city so I decided to see if I could climb it.
Instead, I ended up in a decaying apartment building that housed six different flats and went five stories high. It was my first moment of culture shock during my first trip outside the Western world.
Here was an apartment building that likely was the home of 6 families – children, elderly, working-class people. And yet, in the western world, IF it even met structural safety standards, it would be nothing more than a squatting home or abandoned building altogether.
There were cracks in the walls all the way up the staircase I climbed. Chunks the sizes of basketballs were missing from the cement walls and staircase as if someone shot cannonballs at it.
There was no lighting – I had to use my flashlight in the middle of the afternoon. To think about entire families working to live in a space like it was a world unfathomable to me.
I started to get a bit spooked that someone would come out and see me snooping around their apartment building and not be able to communicate with them my innocence so I decided to forego the difficult climb up a hanging ladder to the gazebo. I headed back down and out into the rain and mud once more.
At this point, I had still had little communication with locals besides briefly asking a few bank tellers if I could exchange British Pounds for Georgian currency, Lari, without any luck. Getting back closer to the city center,
I was getting a bit hungry and still had a small shopping list of things to buy. It was then that it occurred to me how unique the Georgian alphabet is. From a calligraphy standpoint, the curved nature with long-swoops to every letter, I don’t think I’ve come across a more beautiful written-language.
There were very few English translations in Kutaisi. Since Georgians don’t even use a Latin alphabet, it made it difficult to distinguish a restaurant from other buildings without walking in the door or peeking in the window for an extended time. Luckily, I ran into a sizeable farmer’s market in the middle of all the action. Even on a rainy day, this covered market was bustling.
As soon as I walked in, I started getting haggled as anyone does in most farmers markets. I realized this was not going to be as simple as I thought to find some food for the night. The language barrier made it a bit difficult to know prices and I hate over-paying for things.
I pointed, they would write the price on paper, I’d convert the price in my head to a currency I knew better, I’d determine if it was a fair price, and I’d make a decision; a fairly complicated process for something as simple as a fresh food market. I realized I needed to learn some Georgian phrases that night.
I did learn a few phrases in both Russian and Georgian from David which were all helpful and noted the pronunciation of how I would guess to spell them.:
Skolka – How much? (Russian)
Nasdarovie-eh – Cheers (Russian)
Spaciba – Thanks (Russian)
Bodischi ,Shen la-parakob inglisurad? – Excuse me, Do you speak English? (Georgian)
Maudlobe – Thanks (Georgian)
Even the most basic of phrases can go a long way in cutting down on some confusion at the language barrier.
With my shopping list taken care of, I headed back to Old Lviv. David was in the kitchen when I returned. He asked if I wanted to join everyone in the hostel for dinner. I thought there’d be a large group with us if the whole hostel was going. Turns out, there were only 4 people in the hostel total that night.
David took Marius, Giorgi, and I out to El Depo – a smoky bar about five minutes from the hostel. Marius was another guest of the hostel from Vilnius, Lithuania. Giorgi, well, I don’t really know what he was doing at Old Lviv. He was a local but didn’t really work with David besides occasionally putting a clean sheet over a bed. I think David liked him and let him stick around.
Luckily Marius was able to speak a bit of English which made communication that first night a bit easier. He translated for me most of the night because he was able to speak Russian as well which both David and Giorgi spoke fluently. The depth of those kinds of conversations is never too deep. I felt responsible for the amount of work Marius had to do and continually told him he didn’t have to translate because, honestly, the conversation wasn’t worth translation.
For the rest of the night, I was just about silent except for the few times they asked how my khinkali tasted. Khinkali are traditional Georgian dumpling-like snacks that Georgian religiously eat as meals.
The only way I can describe it is a dumpling-sized pasta bag of meat and spicy liquid. You eat them with your hands and must be prepared to make a mess a handful of times before you learn the ways of the khinkali.
We had a beer each, Giorgi had two, and enough khinkali to keep us all sated the rest of the night. The total bill: under $11. David paid for it all which was the equivalent price for all three nights I was staying in Old Lviv which proved to me he was not running the hostel to make a profit. It was my first taste of extremely exceptional Georgian hospitality.
I went to bed early that night to prepare myself for an early morning hike in Okatse Canyon with Marius in the morning. We planned to hitchhike so we got up early to give us more than enough time to catch a ride during rush hour.
We woke up to the news that the canyon is closed due to April snowfall. Imagine that. With nothing else tempting me in Kutaisi, I wanted to move on. I was off to Tbilisi.
I didn’t have much time, Tbilisi was a three-hour ride away and I didn’t want to waste an afternoon on the road. I had to get to a good hitching spot before the rush hour was over. I packed my stuff and got out of Old Lviv only slowing down to tell David to expect me to be back in the next few weeks.
I had to catch the city bus to the end of town. Public transport is weird in Kutaisi. There are no bus stops – or at least none that are marked. I figured there were common stops but only locals knew exactly where.
I saw a group gathered curbside outside of a market with a bus coming in our direction. As soon as I saw the bus start to slow, I hurried over and hopped on board.
Riding on public buses in Kutaisi is different too. There are no ways to indicate that you want to stop except standing near the driver at the front. I sat near the front and to my surprise, the driver slid a cigarette out of the carton and started taking hits off of it inside the bus.
This was bizarre. Even more uncommon, the driver wasn’t wearing any sort of city uniform. It’s almost as if a local man who owns a school bus single-handedly started up a public transportation system in Kutaisi.
I learned that in Georgia, you only pay when you get off of the bus and it’s more of a “pay what you think your ride was worth” type of fare – or at least it seemed. I got off and threw half a Lari (or about twenty cents) into the hand of the driver and he was moving away before I even got two feet off the bus.
To my greatest dismay, as soon as I got off the bus I heard several men’s voices yelling “Tbilisi! Taxi to Tbilisi ten Lari!” which is a lazy, wannabe hitchhiker’s most tempting solution. A three-hour car ride for less than three dollars? Well, that’s just too irresistible.
I paid the man, piled inside with a dozen other locals (it was a van), grabbed my book, and five minutes later we were on the road.
We climbed a fairly steep, and to my surprise, a snowy mountain pass in order to get to Tbilisi. We stopped for a pit stop without a word being exchanged. Everyone piled out of the van just as they had piled in two hours earlier.
There was a tiny mountain hut with a bathroom and coffee stand but you had to sludge through ankle-high muddy, snowy slush in order to get there. I decided to get out and check out the area.
I never knew how long we’d be stopped so it forced me to stay near the bus. There was a German couple on board and together we were only non-Georgians.
After 20 minutes with no headcount, we zoomed down the pass, cigarette smoke filling the van. The driver drove like a mad maniac, not slowing down for bends and weaving in and out of slower cars. By the time I finished a short chapter of On the Road, I looked up to see flat land, no snow, and sunshine for the first time in Georgia
With Tbilisi came sunshine in the great blue sky and a change of perspective in my mood about the journey. I was let out at the central transportation station in the country’s capital. This place was bustling.
Taxis were jammed into the lot parked inches away from each other. New arrivers squeezed between cars on foot trying to get out of the mess. And about a million deep voices of drivers were screaming about their taxis to various cities throughout the country.
I exchanged some Euros into Lari with a man outside of the flea market and inside I went for some Georgian bargaining opportunities. Clothes are extremely cheap in Georgia and my backpack was virtually empty due to my drunken packing, so I figured I’d take advantage of the situation and get some clean clothes.
All of the booth owners inside were women. Georgia is still very unequal in terms of gender equality. But it’s not a pressing issue like it is in the West. I looked around for any cute girls I could bargain/flirt with, but all women were sixty years old with excessive amounts of wrinkles.
“Hi, skolka?” I asked the first lady I spoke to how much the socks in front of me cost. “Dva lari,”, she replied. “Shen la parakob inglisurad?”. “Mmm – no.” She told me she didn’t speak English. “Skolka?” I said again as I flashed fingers up and down to indicate to her that she can use finger amounts.
She held up two fingers and grabbed another pair and held up three. We weren’t speaking but I could understand she was offering one pair for 2 Lari or 2 pairs of socks for 3 Lari.
I bargained with two other women under the flea market tent in similar fashions – whether it was writing down the price or using finger methods. Anyway, I came out of the market with a rain jacket, a sweater, and three pairs of new socks for the equivalent of about fifteen dollars.
I made my way to the metro which I found out was the easiest way to get to the city center. I looked for a young person to ask which stop to get off at thinking the chances were better someone my age would be able to speak English. Luckily, I found a guy roughly the same age as me that understood what I wanted to know.
I rode the metro in the same car as him but on opposite ends. When my stop arrived and the door to the train opened, I took a glance up at him hoping he would be looking and could confirm it was the correct stop. Sure enough, he knew what I wanted to know and gave me the nod to get off with a slight smile.
Before I left for Georgia, I never really study this region’s geography. I had thought Georgia was in the Balkan region and I was extremely ready for that because I had never seen more beautiful girls than the week I was in the Bulgarian Balkans.
However, Georgia is actually quite far from the Balkans in the Caucasus region. At one point I was going to be within 600 miles of the civil war danger in Aleppo, Syria.
For a brief second in Kutaisi, I considered switching plans and making an adventure to witness the danger and potentially volunteer in whichever way I could. I asked around for a way to get there and looked up visa restrictions.
It turns out a visa is needed in advance to enter into Syria. So I sided against going to Aleppo.
The difference between Kutaisi and Tbilisi is truly night and day. It is evident that most of the country’s money goes towards building up its capital. Tbilisi means “warm spring” – named after the plethora of natural springs in the region. Tbilisi is also the cultural hub of the Caucasus. And honestly, the city blew me away.
I found a hostel not too far from the city center and decided to stay there. The receptionist, who was not the owner of the hostel, couldn’t communicate well at all in English. She showed me around the hostel during a silent and slightly awkward tour.
I asked if I could pay for my stay using Google Translate to relay what I wanted to ask. She replied (by typing) “No, you can pay later.” This was a common theme as I asked her again each night and she wouldn’t let me pay until it was midnight on my last day and I told her I was leaving a six o’clock in the morning.
I immediately headed out for some exploring. My first impressions of the city as I was searching for a hostel were trumped by these impressions. Tbilisi seemed like everything I ever loved in many cities bottled up into one city.
The history, the scenery, the traditions, the prices, and the atmosphere; all of it works together so well in Tbilisi. I decided I was staying in Tbilisi for the rest of my adventure that night.
I witnessed a stunning sunset from the Bridge of Peace over the Mtkvari River. I waited until the stars came out so that I could see the lights turn on in this spectacular area of the city. That decision didn’t disappoint.
Lights turned on to highlight at least seven mountainside monasteries/ cathedrals that could only be seen by rotating 360 degrees around the entire bridge. In addition, the bridge itself which is one of the coolest pedestrian bridges I’ve ever stepped on is pretty nice-looking at night.
The big lights of the casino nearby tempted me as I’ve never been tempted before to gamble. However, my stomach had a different plan for the night and I followed it to quite a fancy restaurant just up the street; Kala.
There, the waitress asked me if I needed a table for two to which I replied, “No”. She still brought me two menus as if she was telling me I looked supremely lonely. The truth was, I was feeling alone.
I figured I would spend a majority of my time in Georgia alone and I was alright with that. With as hectic as Malta had been getting before I took off on my own, I was definitely craving some time with my own thoughts.
I had traditional Georgian soup; chakapuli cooked with tarragon, plums, herbs, and white wine. It was good but not filling. I sat around waiting for the live Georgian musical performance to start up in the café/restaurant. I had a beer and listened to the music. That was a good night.
I called it an early night for I was waking up for a free walking tour in the morning that would change the dynamics of my Georgian adventures.
I met the tour group in Freedom Square the next morning. There were only six of us on the tour so we had the chance to personally meet each other. It was nice to be around English speakers for a while.
Jeremia was a German from Dusseldorf. He was 28 years old (as a matter of fact, everyone on that tour was 28 which made me the youngster of the group), I spoke with him the most throughout the tour.
Axel was also there. Axel was from Paris, France. Axel was a guy who notably enjoyed a bit of madness in his life from time to time. Axel was crazy.
Then there was the gang from Minsk, Belarus who came to Georgia together and had been planning the trip for half a year; Natasha, Dima, and Julia. Thank goodness I met these guys.
They saved our ass in so many situations because they were able to translate Russian for us. In addition, they had a lot of plans for the rest of our time together in which Jeremia, Axel, and I came to Georgia on a whim and are naturally pretty passive people.
After the tour, we went out for some khinkali and beers at Pasanauri Restaurant in Old Town and became friends instantaneously (if we weren’t already friends after taking ChaCha shots (60% alc. Vodka-like Georgian alcohol) at eleven in the morning with each other while on our tour).
Being older, they had experienced a lot of things such as marriage, divorce, real jobs, and other things in life that I had not even begun to think about at my age. At times, it made it hard to assimilate to them.
Like they mentioned several times throughout our time together, they had lived and been through there wild years of life and we’re getting to the point where life slows down a bit.
We ended up spending the entire day together which culminated in an excellent sunset dinner on top of a mountain. That day was strange at some points.
As always when a group of strangers naturally come together, there were points when you could feel the group growing closer and then there’d be moments of silence when no one really knows what to say to their new friends.
During our climb up the mountain, as we took pulls from wine bottles, Jeremia and I discussed his current life situation. The engineering company he was working for was treating him like shit and he had just given his boss an ultimatum before he left for Georgia. He told the company that they could either give him the promotion he deserved or he would quit.
I was quite surprised because he saw either fate of the ultimatum in a positive light. I had pinned Jeremia as a straight-arrow sort of guy on that first day but this changed my mind about him.
His plan was to travel the world for six months if his boss decided the company didn’t need him. I admire this kind of move, especially at his age in life. He said it’d be confirmation that he isn’t letting the responsibilities of life get the best of him.
We proceeded to make plans as a group throughout the rest of the week including a few day trips. It sounded fun. We made our way down the mountain in complete darkness and parted ways to our own hostels. I was glad we were all at separate hostels. It gave me a chance to escape and do my own adventuring after we split up each night.
Back at my hostel, there were only two other guests in the sixteen-bed dorm with me. I didn’t learn either of their names, but neither spoke English so it’d be quite difficult to get to know them.
It was strange for me to come across hostel-stayers who don’t know English because in the western world it is the universal language of communication. In the East, it’s a different story and there aren’t as many western travelers
It’s always a little intimidating going to sleep with hostel strangers when you haven’t got the chance to gauge their character even a bit. I suppose I was also a bit on edge because I had been told numerous times to be weary in Georgia because it’s not entirely safe.
This isn’t true. Since 2003 after their civil war, Georgia (and Tbilisi in particular) has been securely covered with law enforcement and a very safe place to live and travel.
To this day, police officers still ride around at night with their lights on to remind citizens of their heavy presence. Matter of fact, it must’ve been deemed safe enough to European standards because the day I arrived in Georgia was the first day that Georgians were allowed visa-free travel into the EU.
The next morning I awoke with the sunrise shining through my hostel room window. I got a terrible night of sleep. The bunk beds in Waltzing Matilda Hostel in Tbilisi are simply the worst I’ve ever experienced in any hostel. It feels as if there is only a thin sheet separating you from the mattress’ springs and the wooden slats that the mattress sits on are spaced out so far you can practically fall into them if you’re not careful.
After preparing myself for the day, I made my way to Old Town to get some pictures of the beautiful area in ideal sunlight. I was in a bit of a rush because I planned to meet the gang from yesterday later in the morning.
While I was in Old Town, I knew I looked like a typical tourist. I hate looking like that. I try to blend in everywhere I go, but alas, I needed them for the blog.
I made my way to our meeting point, Dry Bridge, at about mid-morning. I had heard about the Dry Bridge Flea Market in which locals put on but tourists make popular.
I decided to check it out because I heard there were a lot of fascinating things on sale from people’s home there. One man’s trash is another man’s treasure type of thing. It’s no exaggeration, there was a ton of stuff to browse through and at one point it became a little overwhelming.
As I walked through I saw everything from old Soviet war medals to vintage Russian film cameras to junk like used tennis balls. I started talking to this man who had his own stall.
His English was understandable and he had a lot of interesting things at his stand such as U.S.S.R. war artifacts and propaganda, Georgian alphabet typewriters, and tusks which Georgians traditionally drink up to two liters of wine at a time out of.
He told me a story about each of the items for sale I showed interest in and informed me about how he came across each. I put my bargaining skills to the test and managed to save myself ten Lari.
I bought a vintage film camera off of him merely because it was a Russian brand and I thought it was cool to have a different alphabet on the front of the camera.
I met the gang and we were off to the small village of Mtskheta just 12 miles north of Tbilisi by taxi. Taxis are very inexpensive in Georgia. We paid our driver in total 50 Lari ($17) to drive us around for the entire afternoon; pretty good when you split it between six people.
The only problem was we had to cram seven of us into a tiny four-door cab. While we were strangers yesterday, we were sitting on each other’s laps today. I love that aspect of traveling. It accelerates the intimacy of all friendships by 100%.
Mtskheta was small but beautiful. Jvari Monastery, one of Georgia’s oldest buildings built in the sixth century, sits on top of a mountain that overlooks the village.
It was our first stop on our tour of Mtskheta. Although usually monasteries and cathedrals don’t draw my attention, the view it offered of Mtskheta and the surrounding mountains was beautiful. One thing about the whole Mtskheta side-trip was that it was flooded with tourists.
While fun, I was ready to move. Or stay and stray away from the crowds. We sat in the yard of the cathedral as most people rushed into the cathedral to get their photos and scurry away.
It was peaceful to sit in the green grass and get a chance to get to know my new crew. Dima and Julia went off on a separate tour around Mtskheta as a couple (they were dating for two months prior to coming to Tbilisi).
Jeremia, Axel, and I asked Natasha all about her yoga and spiritual healing camp in a remote part of India where she sat in the same room and healed as John Lennon and The Beatles. I got the feeling that everyone withheld opening up the entire week, but even still, I ended up having some nice conversations with them.
There were moments when I felt open to them and I could feel the conversation elevating to a personal level, however, it never quite got there. I don’t think they intended to remain fairly closed off the entire week and I still feel like I got to know each of them to a degree, however, it never got to a heavy, personal level. They would probably say the same thing about me.
After lunch in the mountains, an uncomfortable, stuffed ride home, and a nap in a park in Old Town, we made our way up to the Kartlis Deda – or the Lady of Tbilisi. The rail car is shockingly cheap – something like thirty cents. I would ride it multiple times just for some of the best views of Tbilisi.
From there, perhaps our most personal moment proceeded. Just the four of us – Jeremia, Axel, Natasha, and I. We hiked up the fortress (totally recommended) and paused for several peaceful moments – taking in the city and my favorite view while the sun was setting.
It was there when we finally sat down and talked. The conversation just kind of happened. The entire week, I think they always saw me as the group “baby”. Being six years younger than them, I suppose I understood.
They were so amazed that I had experienced so much in this world at such a young age. I told them I was scared for the future and growing up, getting a real job. They assured me that they were the same as me when they were at this point in their life. I wished the sun danced on the horizon for just a little bit longer that night.
I thought a lot about our conversation that night to myself. The way all of them had their own way of speaking about getting old and living in the moment put perspective on everything I’m doing with my life. Axel said,
“Forget about yesterday, don’t think about tomorrow, and live today – you don’t live when you stay comfortable. These moments are living.” Natasha added, “I used to strive to advance myself when I first started my career, but then I realized I have other passions more important to myself than what other people want from me”.
All of these thoughts from them were exactly the way I was attempting to live my life.
They taught me that with a real job, even when you’re on holiday, you’ll always be working. They would go home to their respective hostels, hotels, and Airbnb’s at night, get on the computer and work until the wee hours of the night.
It was the first group of people I had met while traveling that didn’t look forward to returning to the hostel after a day of adventuring to access WiFi and start drinking to get fucked up for the night.
Jeremia, whom I previously mentioned I saw as a straight arrow kind of guy, told the story about how he met his former wife in Columbia on his semester abroad.
They then moved back to France and lived there for five years before splitting up. He said he married her because it was easier than dealing with visa issues. Those are the kind of life moves that inspire me; I didn’t think I could ever be inspired by marriage.
At that moment, we were all with each other. One thing I’ve noticed throughout my travels is that group connection like that doesn’t happen as often as one would think.
I’ve connected with individuals because one-on-one face-to-face interaction is common. The times when everyone in the group is with each other – not in the world of the internet or entertained by something in their digital palm – is rare. And when those moments happen, they are truly special. A moment you could live forever in and be whole-heartedly satisfied.
Our biggest issue throughout the week was decision-making. Everyone was too passive and it caused us to move very slowly and strategize for hours on decisions worth $0.40. I, too, was at fault.
For me, it wasn’t the money that mattered so much as it was the philosophy. These taxi drivers knew we were tourists and would charge us more than the locals because they knew we could pay. While the taxis were still cheap, it was aggravating so we would hold out until we found a fair driver.
We climbed down the mountain and went out to get one of the fanciest meals I’d ever eaten; $7. During dinner, Axel showed us his previously unspoken about the talent of magic tricks.
He performed an entire show for us that lasted almost half an hour. He proceeded to perform the same show multiple times throughout the week at bars and the winery – convincing people that they wanted to give us free drinks in order to see more. It was pretty cool.
I went home early that night while the others went out.
The next morning we were off to the Khareba winery; one of Georgia’s largest. It never feels as adventurous to travel with a group but damn does it make it easier. I certainly couldn’t manage to make all the day trips that I did if I wasn’t with this group.
Our taxi driver didn’t speak a lick of English. Luckily, he spoke Russian fluently which is how we managed to hire him for the day and learn from him as he guided us through multiple villages and monasteries on the way.
He would do some religious hand gesture every time we were about to cross a bridge as if every time we were passing over one we were truly risking our lives. It was a bit disturbing. He drove down the middle of a two-lane highway the entire time and I’m still not sure if he knows he was doing it.
Our first stop was the Bodbe Monastery in Sighnaghi. He stopped at the top of the hill and pointed to the mountains in the distance, “Russia”. It was a surreal moment thinking my travels had brought me within a few miles of Russia – and we were about to get closer.
We hopped back in the car and continued our journey. I tried to play the Celebrity Game with the crew. This is generally a fairly simple game; however, everyone struggled with it. Either the language gap or the fact that most of the time I play using American celebrities caused problems.
In the next village we stopped in, I decided to wander from the group a bit to do my own exploring. Bad idea. Before I knew it, I was lost without the group in sight. I hadn’t the slightest idea how long we’d be stopped over in this village.
I started to worry that this group of people I hardly knew wouldn’t look for me too hard and decide to move on without me. The minutes kept on flying by. By now, I had been lost from the group for about thirty-five minutes.
I wasn’t actively looking for them very hard because I had been distracted by the beautiful views the village offered. Picture-perfect red-roofed homes lined up on a mountain ridge with the mountains of the Russian border in the near distance.
There were no other tourists in sight which meant I’d have a difficult time finding an English speaker but it was nice knowing that we finally escaped the tourist route.
When I finally found the driver gazing into the distance, I was unsure if it was really our driver. I approached him slowly, stood in his peripheral vision about ten feet away and waited for him to notice me.
When he did, his eyes got big with a smile and he let out a big, “AHHHHHHH!” Apparently, he had been searching the village for me.
Without saying a word, he dragged me into a building that I assumed the rest of the group was already in. I didn’t know what the building was but it ended up being an art museum.
What are the chances this small village had a three-story museum? It cost me two dollars, but besides that, I was bummed I was wasting valuable Georgian time in a museum so I snuck off and found a rooftop balcony that I had to climb thru an open window to access but spent the rest of the time there in solitude listening to the chickens and roosters crow.
I didn’t want to get lost from the group again, so I climbed back into the museum and joined the group right as they were leaving.
“Life and art; art and human are inseparable.”
Georgian’s hospitality showed by our taxi driver that day. He brought us homemade wine for lunch and was patient as we took him on a twelve hour day across the whole country for $75.
Normally, that wouldn’t even cover the price of gas it took. He waited patiently with us until the last second dropping us off – all with a calming smile – great guy. I couldn’t understand anything he was saying but we all still agreed he was a genuine guy.
I was impressed he knew every road without a GPS. We winded along mountainside, country road where cattle grazed unfenced along shoulder-less roads. Our van buzzed within inches of them without even slowing,
He would pass cars on two-lane highways between on-coming traffic and the slower vehicle; turning them into three-lane highways. There were a few instances when I held my breath and braced for impact.
Whenever we made it out alive, we’d give each other a wide-eyed look as if to say, “What a mad man we trusted our lives with!”
For lunch, I decided to be a little adventurous. Cow brain? I was surprised to see the menu in English and even more surprised that the cow brain was edible for the cheap price of $3. When else would I get the opportunity to eat something so exotic?
I ordered it, ate it, and it wasn’t half bad. I was a little worried it’d give my stomach problems on our long journey home, but thankfully it didn’t. Next, we were off to the winery to do my first ever tasting tour.
I was a bit nervous about the wine tasting. All of my friends were older and had so much to say about wine we had tasted earlier in the week. One was French – the connoisseurs of wine tasting.
They seemed knowledgeable and had a sophisticated taste for wine while I still drank it out of a carton at the cheapest price I could find while I was in Malta. I didn’t even know how to properly taste wine – I had to Google it and watch a YouTube video the night before just so I wouldn’t seem like a total goon.
Looking back, I was a bit foolish and overly worried. Wine tasting went well but I still say it isn’t exactly my cup of tea. Our tour guide was cute, though, so I enjoyed it more than I normally would. Axel put on his magic show and got her to pop open another bottle for us in addition to earning us all Cha Cha shots.
Pretty soon, the sun was going down and we made a short hike up the mountainside to a luxury restaurant with a view. As we sat on the domed-roofs that Tbilisi is famed for, we experienced another moment together.
No one was talking but you got the feeling that we were all together. Like our minds were on the same wave and everyone was linked at that moment. It felt like we were in some kind of vineyard empire paradise.
I was thinking about the friendship I had made with these guys in a matter of three days and why on earth I was fortunate enough to be there in that moment at the border of Russia. Something in me thinks they were thinking the same thing.
As it was getting late and we told our taxi driver we only wanted to take a look at the view, we decided it was past time to go down and make it back to Tbilisi. We piled in and started the rush home. Bussing started to feel like hitching it at this point.
Back in Tbilisi, we went out for a beer or two. After about an hour, we walked Natasha and Marie home and Jeremia, Axel and I started back home as well. It was Jeremia’s last night, unfortunately, because I think that walk home was the most we had ever bonded. It was a brief moment for guy time and each of us started opening up about various personal things in our life but mostly relationships.
Axel’s best friend from Florida had committed suicide a few years back. Before I knew that, I asked where his best friend was at the moment. He pointed to the sky and said, “That selfish son of a bitch”. It was the first time I had thought about the effects suicides have on friends and felt a bit of Axel’s pain personally.
Anyway, Axel had come to Georgia to visit Marie who he had befriended through his best friend in Florida but never met in person. They had supported each other through their grieving and became close to each other as a lasting effect of their dead friend.
Pretty soon, without ever meeting, they had formed feelings for each other and now that Axel was in Georgia, he said it wasn’t what he had imagined.
Marie didn’t know English very well and it was difficult to communicate solidly in a conversation. She was shy because of it. He said she is completely different online because she is more confident with her English when she is typing.
I felt bad for him and the only thing I could do is listen to him and agree. It was extra difficult because he was unsure about their friendship after he left and it was sort of his last hold onto his dead best friend.
Speaking to Axel, giving him advice, and him listening made me feel mature beyond my age and it was the first time I think I was seen as more than just a kid that was six years younger than the rest. Even Jeremia made a comment on how wise I sounded. I felt respected.
We parted ways and Jeremia and I exchanged the typical, “You’ve always got a place to stay in Dusseldorf” and, “As well to you in Malta”. Truthfully, I don’t know if I’ll ever see him again. That’s just the way it goes on the road. But I’ve learned that if you want to see someone again bad enough, there’s always an opportunity in the future.
The next morning we were all up and at it early. We met where we had been all week with our bags packed and ready to set off for a night in the village of Vardzia. The cheap bus arrived in the town we had originally planned to stay the night in (about an hour outside of Vardzia), but we did the math and it didn’t make sense to stay in the town because of bus schedules and such.
There were taxi drivers about ready to get in a fist fight over who was going to be taking us to Vardzia. I suppose when business is slow, you have to do everything you can in order to make the money. Other taxi drivers explained to us during the altercation that one of the men in the fight was from Armenia and didn’t respect the customs of Georgian taxi services.
Each time we were in a taxi, the driver would tell us certain things about the area we were in and take it upon them to become a tour guide in addition to driving us to where we needed to be. This guy was no different. And, in fact, he even took the liberty of making sure we found a place to stay in Vardzia.
He stopped outside a farmhouse about a mile outside of the infamous cave and tunnel system. In the heart of the mountains with a rushing river and the caves in view – this place seemed so perfect.
The owner of the home said he would let us stay there and cook us breakfast and dinner with all the wine we could handle. He was also a beekeeper and offered us fresh honey. All for under $20. Wow.
The girls still weren’t sold and went to go check prices at a nearby resort, but as for us guys, we loved the idea of this authentic stay. When the girls came back and reported that the resort was $400 a night, our decision was made. I was excited. Quickly, we unpacked our stuff and hopped back in the taxi and rode the extra two minutes to the park.
The cave system was massive. I couldn’t even begin to formulate my thoughts about the place while I was with everyone. So I snuck off by myself and wandered the caves in solitude. It was raining so there were only a few other people in Vardzia that day which made it more intense.
I found a cave that didn’t have a trail or stairs to it that required a bit of climbing to get to. No one would find me in there. It was warm, dry, and quiet. I envisioned myself falling asleep in there. I sat down. I tried to contemplate what it must’ve been like to live in the caves; without all the luxuries we call necessities today.
I don’t think I could ever envision the struggles or realize the time it must’ve taken to build such a complex and structured community in the 12th Century. Vardzia was truly one of the most unfathomable places I have ever been to.
The thing about it, though, is that it is all the same. You can spend the entire day wandering each and every cave or you can spend an hour and get the gist of the whole park. After about three hours of exploring, we were ready to get home and get out of the rain.
We made our way down to the valley and to the General Store at the bottom. It was just closing. All the employees were stumbling out and into a carpool van that was dropping everyone off. They were all helplessly drunk.
We were able to catch a ride in the community van for free. They crammed everyone into the back, standing up, holding on to each other, bracing ourselves for the short ride home.
We were dropped off outside our farmhouse and started up the long driveway. We were welcomed by a group of four men who had already started on the wine and homemade vodka. Immediately, we were told to sit and handed a cup of each along with bread and cheese.
Thank goodness for Natasha. She sat there and translated the entire conversation between Axel, a local man (about 50 years old), and I. The rest seemed content to listen to the entire thing. Soon after, two younger men showed up. They were about my age. Although there was room to fit a few chairs, they sat away from the table and listened. They never spoke unless spoken to.
The wife came out from the kitchen and I tried to be gentlemanly and offer her my chair. She acted surprised and looked at her husband before smiling and shaking her head in a “no” manner. Following that, the husband told Natasha something to tell me.
I found out in the villages of Georgia when there is a word of foreigners in town, they are invited to sit at the dinner table with the eldest men of the village and talk and tell stories.
The youth and women of the village aren’t invited to the table and therefore not a part of the conversation. They are obviously expected to sit around and listen, however.
After hearing this, I felt a lot more pressure. This became an event. More and more villagers showed up and formed a circle around us. I became drunk. I hadn’t eaten anything the entire day. They kept giving me shots of vodka.
The time came for a group cheers and it was a tradition to let the guest make a speech of sorts. Axel put the job on me because I was the native English speaker. Natasha was nowhere to be found so Dima had to translate for us. I stood up and called for everyone’s attention.
“I want to take a moment to speak of my sincere gratitude to you and your wife and all of the people in this village. You have been nothing but welcoming to my new friends and me and have shown us what true Georgian hospitality is.
Before coming to Georgia, I read about how special the hospitality is in Georgia but never thought I would come across it until now. My time in Georgia has been nothing but excellent and it has become one of my favorite countries in the world. Cheers to strangers becoming friends and kind-hearted Georgians.”
Dima translated what I said in about five words of Russian. Our host responded. Dima’s face went red as I asked what he said. “Well, it was probably my translating skills, but he said what you said wasn’t too good.”
You know when you’re slightly drunk and the slightest embarrassing thing to happen will be the biggest buzz-kill? That’s what happened. Immediately, I felt embarrassed and couldn’t get over the fact that one of the most meaningful toasts I’ve ever given was disappointing.
Later in the night, we toasted to the women around us, and I stood up and prompted all men to stand up which he told Natasha he appreciated. So, at least I was able to make up for it a bit.
After the sun went down, the five of us hitched a ride to the hot springs down the road. I was very drunk at this point. They hadn’t stopped feeding us alcohol since we arrived, and I read before coming that it was offensive to turn down alcohol that has been offered to you in Georgia.
Under the Georgian stars with a serious alcohol-induced buzz, soaking in a natural hot tub in the middle of the Georgian mountains with great people I had become unusually close to within four days; the moment was surreal.
The moment had gotten so surreal that I wasn’t even capable of taking it all in. I swear Natasha was flirting with me that night. Everything was happening so fast and all I wanted was to freeze time.
When we returned home, most villagers had left. A few remained but had moved the party inside. Dinner was hot and ready. To be honest, I can’t even quite remember what was served.
As soon as I sat down, the husband was making a video call to his son who has been living in San Francisco for the last six years. He directed my attention to the screen and for the next thirty minutes, I was talking to his son.
Luckily, the son spoke English very well. He was a great guy, but I wanted to spend the moment with the people I was with, and I think he could read that from me.
There came a time when it was just the five of us foreigners speaking to us and the locals grew silent. They listened even when they had no idea what the conversation was about. They laughed when we laughed. They acted like they knew what was going on and kept filling our glasses when they went empty.
By the end of the night, I was hammered. As we were going to bed, I noticed the wife was still doing the dishes. She cooked the entire night for us and never joined us in the dining room. I thought the nice thing to do was help her finish up the dishes. I approached her and signaled that I wanted to help.
She looked at her husband seemingly looking for approval. Natasha said, “Adam, it’s her job to do the kitchen duties. That’s how villages like this still operate. She has no problem with it.” I understood this, but it was still hard for me to walk away. After all, what kind of life is that?
I grabbed a few dishes and began to help dry. As the others laughed and shot videos of my drunken self doing dishes with her, I could feel she appreciated it and felt respected because of it. I gave her a hug in which she awkwardly grabbed my arm and gave me an eighth of a hug.
Then we separated and we went to our bunk room with the rest of the wine in hand. Axel, Dima, and I finished the wine by the end of the night. There had to have been at least three liters left after a whole day of drinking.
In the morning, you could see the exhaustion on our faces. It had been a long week of traveling all over the country. We were on our last leg of the trip and I think all of us realized that within a matter of hours we would be saying bye to each other for good.
I went downstairs to join them for breakfast. The husband of the house offered me wine. . . really? Well, it would be rude to say no. Then he offered another one, and another one, and another one. I was still drunk from the previous night.
It didn’t take much to get me wasted in the morning. After I finally had told him I’d had enough, he offered fresh milk that he’d gathered in the morning. It was the first time I’d ever had anything that untouched and fresh. It was good. You could certainly taste the difference between it and supermarket milk.
After breakfast I was so drunk I couldn’t even focus on the task of finding out how I would get to the airport that night. However, it was kind of nice. One thing about traveling is it can be as stressful or relaxing as you make it.
I have a bad habit of over-worrying about things going wrong while traveling. Even though, in my experiences, I’ve found that things just have a way of working themselves out while on the road.
The taxi to take us away from the farmhouse and Vardzia arrived at the farm in the early afternoon. I was rushed. I ran to give another awkward hug to the wife and rapidly looked for the husband. I never found him.
Sooner than I would’ve liked, I was in the taxi driving out of Vardzia and I was never able to tell the husband thank you for one of the most authentic traveling experiences I had ever lived.
I will not soon forget that night in the village of Vardzia. It was so real, and that kind of thing doesn’t happen often. I was so fortunate to run into an opportunity like this and will forever be grateful for the lovely couple who hosted us in a moment’s notice.
The time came when the group had to split ways. Axel had to make it back to Tbilisi for his flight. The three Belarusians still had a week left in Georgia and were headed to the coastal city of Batumi next. As for me, I had to beeline it back to Kutaisi for my flight in the middle of the night.
It was sort of an awkward goodbye. Axel had loaded his luggage into his taxi and then came to say goodbye. Before he reached us, we noticed his taxi driving off. He was calm at first, thinking the taxi would make its way back. It never did and kept on going.
He started sprinting after it as the rest of us yelled at stand-byers in hopes that someone could get the driver’s attention. Luckily, he was only turning around to head the opposite direction a few roads down. However, he could’ve at least told Axel before giving him a near heart attack. We quickly said our goodbyes and he was off.
I exchanged goodbyes with my friends from Belarus and just like that, I was all alone again.
I had forgotten how lonely it was to be alone in a country with few English speakers. I was truly lucky to make friends on this trip or else I would have been completely isolated. For the remainder of the ride, I spoke to no one, I communicated with no one, and I listened to music through my headphones, uninterrupted.
I was the last one in a packed bus taxi to exit the bus. I had been riding for the entirety of the route through the mountains. When I finally started to recognize the area, I knew I was back in Kutaisi. As soon as the driver made a complete stop, I was hopping out without a single word being exchanged.
I was hounded right away, being offered a taxi ride to my hostel by three different men. I said I didn’t need a taxi because I knew the city bus was practically free. However, I didn’t know which direction to take it or where I could catch one.
Luckily, one of the men took care of me. He hailed the bus and made sure the driver knew exactly where I needed to get off. However, once we were moving, I figured out where we were and was able to navigate my way back to the hostel on my own.
I had expected a quiet night to myself back at Old Lviv. I got the opposite. I walked in expecting to see David. I just hoped he remembered me. No David in sight. Instead, at the reception desk was an older gentleman that spoke zero bits of English. He didn’t know who David was. Luckily Merle was there. A girl from Berlin who also knew David, but she, too, didn’t know where he was.
Then Qui from Bologna, Italy arrived. It was getting late – about nine o’clock at night. He was arriving in Kutaisi for the first time. He mistook me for the hostel owner because I had been sitting at the reception desk trying to print something.
Suddenly, I felt like a long time friend at the Old Lviv hostel. I was helping Qui find a bed and explaining to him that the owner of the hostel was nowhere to be found all while I was trying to solve my own problems – checking into my flight and a printing boarding pass.
Merle asked if I wanted to join her for a drink. I planned to stay up throughout the night since I didn’t even have a bed in the hostel so I thought why not. I invited Qui and soon we were in search of a bar.
I took them to El Depo, but to my surprise, the bar I had eaten in just a week prior was in total renovation mode. And even at 10 pm, there were still people inside working on it. I was shocked.
We continued onto the city center with no luck. It was a Sunday night, after all. Instead, we settled for the small café only a few hundred feet from the hostel. It was cheap, but closing soon. We made it quick and got some beer from the market down the street.
We brought it back to the hostel and I started leading drinking games. Tatianna and Lajos from Kiev, Ukraine, and Budapest, Hungary, respectively, joined us around the kitchen table. I showed them a few games before David finally arrived home. He recognized me immediately and greeted me with a hug.
Not long after, I was making my way to the airport and my days in Georgia were done. It was one of the best trips I’d ever been on and definitely one of my favorite places my travels had dragged me to.