Travel is not always easy and fun. Several hours prior to our red-eye flight from Warsaw, Poland to Tbilisi, Georgia, we must have eaten bad mussels. I now agree with Anthony Bourdain’s advice to never order mussels in a restaurant.
A Junior High wrestling team from Georgia surrounds us in the tiniest airplane seats I have ever seen (LOT airline).
Pillow fights and constant yapping prevents any sleep, and the overcrowded flight takes four hours instead of two due to the no-fly zone over Ukraine. Uh oh, enter the nausea.
After passing through the lengthy line at passport control in Tbilisi, I start blowing chunks between two ATMs enroute to the bathroom. About ten seconds ago, it took all the willpower that I could muster not to yak on the passport officer. Marilynn’s upset stomach relieves itself in a “different” manner, but not before she spots the shyster cab driver who follows me to the sticky floor bathroom. That shyster does well at spotting the weak one of the herds – me. Somehow, we end up in the backseat of one of his cohort’s cabs anyway. We arrive at our guest house accommodation, where the driver shows us a silly cab meter on his smartphone charging four times the normal cost of an airport ride. Marilynn knows what the cost should be, and of course I refuse to pay. We walk away without paying until he finally agrees to a fair compromise. This weak one of the herds feels a bit stronger now.
The travel angels bless us with a six o’clock early check-in. After two hours of sleep, we forced ourselves awake to adjust to the Tbilisi time zone. Off we go.
Fortresses, churches, statues, and sculptures cover the hills, with plenty of sidewalk cafes and restaurants. This colorful city has a fascinating history, and we look forward to learning more about it after meeting up with our tour group tomorrow.
For now, we sip coffee and devour the only food that our stomachs can manage, “Imeruli Khachapuri” a Georgian cheese filled bread. This perfect mixture of bread and salty fresh cheese cures our digestive ailments.
Russia occupies twenty percent of Georgia in two separate territories. A complicated relationship to say the least. Graffiti displays a predominant feeling about the war with Ukraine, at least from the younger generation’s perspective.
Evening descends and our stomachs can now manage a Georgian beer, as well as “Khinkali,” small pouches of dough wrapped around ground meat or mushrooms. The technique to eating these tasty morsels includes holding it by the tied-up end, taking a small bite, and then sucking out the liquid inside before munching the rest of it. We eat the “handle” of it as well, unaware that you are not supposed to eat that part, which tastes like undercooked gnocchi.
Group travel is not our favorite way to navigate new surroundings. Nervous about meeting this group, the travel angels bless us again. A woman from New Zealand represents the only other person on this tour.
“I am Russian,” our tour guide says. “But I do not support war. This tour company would not hire anybody who supports war.” (I shall not use our guide’s name for obvious reasons) He gets hassled when crossing the border back to his home in Russia. He quoted a recent encounter with a passport officer, “Why would you travel to Georgia? You know they do not support our military action in Ukraine. Our men are being killed.”
Our turn. “We are from the United States. But we do not support Trump.” So, there you have it, politics laid out on the table and over with. The four of us go to dinner and get along well right off the bat. Good thing because we will be together for the next ten days.
We share a delicious meal of “Pkhali,” a traditional dish made of eggplant, spinach, cabbage, beans, and beets combined with ground walnut, vinegar, onion, garlic, and herbs rolled into colorful balls, and a typical Georgian salad consisting of tomatoes, cucumbers, parsley, ground walnuts, and other herbs.
We finish dinner with a shot of “Chacha” which Georgians make from solid remains of grapes. People also refer to it as Wine Vodka due to the high alcohol content. “Gaumarjos!” The Georgian toast. And you never toast with beer, except if you are with your enemies.
Tbilisi dates to at least the fourth century and ranks as one of the oldest cities in the world. Throughout history, Georgia has been attacked and occupied by many, including the Mongols, Khans, Ottoman Turks, Roman legions, Soviets, Russians, and more. Its land position bridges the east and west. A tour of Old Town Tbilisi provides glimpses into the past.
A four-hour, scenic train ride through mountains and valleys brings us to the city of Kutaisi the second largest city in Georgia and one immensely proud of their wine making history.
Georgia represents the first known country to make wine, dating back 8,000 years. We owe appreciation to them for transforming grapes into wine, by fermenting them in clay pots buried in the ground. To bring a bottle of store-bought wine to a Georgian’s house for dinner is an insult, as most everybody makes their own version.
Stray dogs, quite large and friendly, get along well with each other and roam all the streets, as well as country and mountain trails. Some of them have ear tags, which indicate vaccination and sterilization (Perhaps I should have an ear tag too).
Others have owners. All the strays receive food handouts from most citizens. During the cold of winter, banks allow dogs to sleep in ATM rooms in warmth. Pharmacies and other businesses, even city buildings, do similar. Ani, our local Kutaisi guide, explains that the dogs are a part of their community, and they take care of them. The strays are even welcome in Kutaisi’s bustling, colorful market.
What fun to eat sausage and dunk bread into the spicy sauce, the only choice on the menu, at a standing table in a one-hundred-year-old restaurant, “Bikentia’s Kebabery.”
The “guys” standing at the table next to us down large glasses of Vodka in gulps without coming up for air. Our stomachs, although fully recovered, could not handle that on our best day. But you must love a restaurant that serves only lemonade, beer, and Vodka for beverages!
The size of Georgia equals roughly the same size as West Virginia, but with much higher mountains. We are constantly walking uphill and have not even reached the mountain region yet. Tomorrow, we will travel over rough twisty roads to reach the Greater Caucasus Mountains. Time to hike, the main reason we enlisted on this tour. You must wait for the next blog post to see and read all about it.
Thank you, Abundant Universe!