There was a gathering in Tbilisi a few days ago, as one of the volunteers had a birthday and his girlfriend wished to throw him a surprise dinner for Saturday night. After tossing the idea around for a bit, I figured since I wasn’t doing anything in Kutaisi, I might as well join everyone in Tbilisi. I hadn’t seen most of them since the orientation week back in early March, and it might be interesting to touch base with them now that our time in Georgia is winding to a close. Any time that Tbilisi is mentioned, however, worries about funds come into play. Our volunteer stipends are stretched thin when marshrutkas, hostels and meals pile together in the big, expensive city. And so I departed Saturday afternoon, planning on one evening in Tbilisi, and heading back Sunday afternoon.
The marshrutka ride into Tbilisi was a typical journey. A marshrutka, for those of you who are unaware, is basically a minibus (most of them are modified Sprinter vans), that has altered the seating. I think they usually have about 20 seats. When I got on, the large, burly driver got into a heated argument with some of the other large, burly passengers. Much yelling and bellowing, charging into each other’s faces, wild arm gesticulations. Quite amusing to watch really, and imagine what they were bickering about. Maybe the price.
It was stiflingly hot out, so I picked a seat by a window so I could be guaranteed some air flow. You never know how hot and stuffy it will get, and they always get cramped. A three hour bumpy drive is uncomfortable enough, but then throw in cramped quarters, miserable heat, and stuffy air, and you have an all-around unpleasant experience. An open window is a rare treat when the rest of the bus is terrified of the dreadful draft. Fresh air, wind… oh dear. That’s how you catch a cold! So I had my window open, enjoying the breeze, and was a bit upset when either of the people in front or behind me reached in to shut my window every few minutes. This was why I picked that seat, and endured the suffering of no leg room as I was cramped on top of the tire, just so that I could control the air flow. I wanted to go Georgian male on them, and start gesturing wildly and yelling: BIG NOISE! LOUD ANGRY NOISE! FROM ME! DIRECTED AT YOU! ANGER! LOUD NOISES! I HAVE BECOME UPSET! RABBLE! RABBLE RABBLE RABBLE!!! I thought it would have been funny. Instead, I just waited until I couldn’t breathe, and opened the window again.
Once in Tbilisi, I met up with some of the teachers before the scheduled birthday dinner. The evening which followed was was a pretty typical “expat teachers in the big city night.” Dinner, drinks, followed by wandering around to various bars for the rest of the night and spending more money than I cared to spend.
Sunday things began to get a bit interesting though. Some of the teachers left to head back for their various towns, and a few others decided to stay out for a bit. The remaining teachers decided that there really wasn’t a rush to get back, so why not stick around Tbilisi for another night? Instead of going to a hostel for the night, though, we went to a favorite spot of one of the teachers. Very inexpensive. He had found an abandoned building at the top of a hill, and since the weather had gotten warm, we could sleep there tonight. His favorite Tbilisi place to stay. He’s a pretty hardcore camper/mountaineer, and Georgia is the 55th country he’s been to, so he’s a solid guy to have around when traveling in new places. I’ll henceforth refer to him as the Irish lad.
As is to be expected, sleeping in an abandoned building doesn’t provide the most restful sleep. We were up early Monday morning feeling very unrested. At this point there were three remaining wanderers. The Irish lad had to get back to Gori, where he lives with his host family. Myself and another girl (henceforth known as the Albuquerque girl) had to get back to Kutaisi. But we were in no rush, so we decided we’d all head in to Gori together. I hadn’t seen it yet, and it is Stalin’s hometown, after all, so I should check it off my list.
Gori is a pretty small town, and makes Kutaisi seem like it has a lot going on. The main attraction is the Stalin museum. I didn’t go in, as it is quite expensive, isn’t well documented in English, and is extremely biased. The only recognition of Stalin’s darker side is in a secret room (which you have to ask specifically to see, but even then doesn’t offer a fair picture, as I’ve been told by those who have gone in. Excuse me, can I see the atrocity room?) I did walk around the museum though, and saw Stalin’s birthplace as well as his private train car.
Aside from Gori’s Stalin fascination, there are one or two restaurant/cafe places, an old fortress, and there’s a depressing fun park (guarded over by a Stalin statue) that’s similar to Kutaisi’s depressing fun park (basically a carnival sort of place, but all the rides are in various stages of disrepair, having been left to rust.) While the Irish lad went to teach his lessons, myself and the Albuquerque girl went to explore the depressing fun park. It was quite a lot of fun. Children’s playgrounds or abandoned theme parks are always fun places to mess around.
(Trying to climb the hand crank powered ferris wheel)
We rode the broken rides, but eventually were yelled at by some Georgians walking around, presumably the staff of this abandoned theme park. Well, the rides are all abandoned and broken, but it is still a popular hangout spot for the youth. We guessed that by having fun and laughing, we were probably breaking the rules of Gori. The park is for sitting on benches or walking and looking at the ground whilst smoking cigarettes.
Once the Irish lad finished his lesson, we met back up and went to his host house. His host family isn’t too keen about him, so they paid no interest to myself and the Albuquerque girl either. We collected the Irish lad’s tent, and headed back out to get some khinkali for dinner. Having eaten khinkali and thus exhausted Gori’s nightlife opportunities, there was nothing left to do but to bed down. The two of them had sleeping bags, and with the Irish lad’s tent, we headed up to the field below the Gori fortress to camp for the night. My two companions had done this a number of times (rather than trying to pile guests into his host house that isn’t keen on guests in the first place). After making sure the night guard at the Gori fort wasn’t watching, we set up the tent and bedded down for the night. Once again, I woke up horribly uncomfortable, wondering if I’d actually gotten any rest at all. In the morning, we packed up the tent, waved goodbye to the fortress guard who had been watching us for some time, and headed for the road.
And so now it was Tuesday morning, and the Albuquerque girl and I needed to get back to Kutaisi for our lessons. Her lessons started at 11, mine at 1. If we were lucky, we might get there with enough time to make ourselves look semi-respectable after a weekend of hoboing around Georgia. There’s no direct marshrutka from Gori to Kutaisi, which makes travel a bit difficult. Options are either a slow train that leaves at odd hours, jumping from marshrutka to marshrutka, or hitchhiking. Tbilisi had been quite expensive, so why take the extra time, hassle and cost of marshrutkas, when hitchhiking would be way cooler?! It would fit in with the hobo trend of the weekend as well. So we departed Gori and walked down the main road leading to the highway, where we hoped to catch a ride Westward. It was about a 45 minute walk to the highway through the scenic Gori outskirts. We passed a couple of dead dogs, plenty of live stray dogs, and a dead chicken. The Albuquerque girl told me that back home she liked to explore abandoned buildings, but here it’s system overload.
Once on the highway, we stuck our thumbs out, and not five minutes later, a van stopped with four guys in it. They couldn’t take us to Kutaisi, but to a village where we would eat breakfast, and then they would take us to Khashuri, which is a town that has a road leading to Kutaisi. They were all managers from a juice company – HIPP Georgia. They make apple juice concentrate, and turn it into either juice or baby food. One of them spoke very good English, and could explain what their company did. I think he was the unofficial English teacher for the rest of their branch of the company. He hadn’t started learning English until he was 50 years old. They had heard of the program we are teaching with, and had applied for volunteers to work with their company. They are just a small branch of a German company that requires them to learn English. But they haven’t found volunteers, since it’s a private company and our program works with public schools and government programs. But we told them we’d do our best to try to find them a teacher.
They took us to a small village, where the apple juice factory was one of two factories (the other a sugar factory.) They told us that in the Soviet era, there used to be 28 factories in this village, but the Georgian economy couldn’t keep them running, and now only two work. They gave us breakfast at a hotel which is connected with the factory (they live there during the busy part of the year.) It was a great breakfast: tea, coffee, eggs, cucumbers, bread, jam, salami… fantastic! We knew we’d be pushing it to get back in time for our lessons, but how could we refuse hospitality from these guys who picked us up, gave us a meal, and offered to drive us a bit further? It was well worth a small detour.
They then drove us to Khashuri, and put us on the main road going West. We stuck our thumbs out and started walking. But this time we weren’t as lucky, and had to walk maybe 30 or 45 minutes before someone stopped for us. It was a sweet, janky old Opel. The man spoke no English, and I basically have zero Georgian. But the Albuquerque girl has learned quite a bit, so she was able to communicate with the guy that he was heading to Kutaisi, where his wife lives, and he would take us there. It was a really hot day, and we’d been walking in the sun for some time, and were quite hot. But again, the deadly draft! This guy had his window opened barely a crack, so me and the Albuquerque girl each opened our windows just a crack, so as not to upset the guy. He had a handkerchief and kept dabbing his face, so I assume he was a bit toasty as well, but he wasn’t interested in opening the windows. I was sweating buckets. And then I realized just how this guy was dressed. Black pants, a black button up shirt, and a wool sweater. This guy is inhuman, I thought, sitting in his sweat lodge of an Opel, roasting in the sun without any airflow, and wearing a sweater of all things.
We rolled in to Kutaisi around noon, and I had just enough time to run back to the dorm, scrub myself clean, and hurry to class. Steven. How was Tbilisi? Why do you look tired? Where to begin?