Some of the most exciting travel moments happen when you wing it. Knowing little about Georgia, I’ve often found it difficult to know where to start. So the other day I picked a place on the map and hopped into a marshrutka (Georgian bus) heading north. The time flew by as I got lost in conversation with some new friends. That’s another wonderful benefit of travel, expedited friendships with some of the best people. We couldn’t see much out of the windows along the way due to heavy rain and fog, so I had no clue what was coming. Then BAM. I’m smacked in the face with enormous mountains covered with snow surrounding me from every angle. These are the things that remind us what the awe in awesome stands for.
Here’s an easy way to say no to drugs kids. Pass on the molly, head for that nature high. My head was on an adrenaline-induced swivel; I couldn’t choose a direction to stare at. I did my best Julie Andrews impression, spinning in circles to the music that the scenery surrounding was singing. The air up there was so crisp and cool. I just kept walking, staring and smiling. I would later find out that this would only be the proverbial tip of the iceberg. I just got sucker punched by beauty and the knockout punch was still to come.
A magnificent monastery from the 14th century rests at a peak over 7,000 feet high overlooking this small mountain town. Feeling inspired, I did something I never do. I hiked to the top. Once I got up it became obvious that this was something that I never do, as the sun was setting and overzealous indoorsman over here hadn’t thought of how he was going to get back down. The wind was freezing and the only light was the city lights and afterglow below. Oops. Time to curl up in a corner of the monastery and wait til morning.
Just kidding. An Israeli family came to see the sunset from the monastery and drove me down. The Israeli-American alliance pays off this time.
By morning I had already forgotten my foolish ways. I packed my bags and began hiking towards a town in the mountains that I had heard good things about. I was told that this trek would take about 3 hours and that I would pass through several small towns. No need to pack a snack, I’ll grab something along the way.
Now define small town here Georgia. These were not towns, but a conglomeration of historical homes, castles and times forgotten. The type of town that you wouldn’t really want to live in, but you can’t stop taking pictures of. I tracked down a shed selling a smattering of provisions. Hungry? I ate my first Snickers since Halloween 1996 and kept going.
The route was spectacular. Turned out to take closer than 6 hours, not 3. And yet I wasn’t complaining. Beauty was literally behind every corner. I’m a sucker for winding roads. Winding roads flanked by mountains, lakes and rivers? Do with me what you will Georgia, I’m yours. Whether it be aesthetic or symbolic, there truly is something special about a winding road. Hope unwritten around the bend.
About an hour outside of Juta, a man in a car stopped me and told me to get in. Thanks Georgian OG, my legs were really starting to shake. Oh wait, you drive like a maniac and the curved road began to slink up the steep edge of a canyon. Of course. Well, hold on and don’t look out the window. I looked. It was scary. I arrived. Fear fades and fantastic comes to the forefront.
What lie before me made my arrival in Kazbegi feel like puppy love. Anthropomorphic feelings be damned, I was falling in love with this mountain. And as fate would have it, this mountain loved me back.
I hiked to the lone building that this valley high up in the hills held. Immediately I felt warmth, both literally and figuratively. I walked towards the fireplace and was welcomed by the employees, a young man and woman along with an elderly woman that represented everything a Georgian grandmother from the countryside would seem to in your imagination. Only my imaginary grandmother didn’t take such joy in pouring shot after shot of Georgian mountain moonshine (Chacha) down my throat. I didn’t take issue. But, I digress. The 3 of them couldn’t have been more different nor any better. Distinctly beautiful people.
After I came down from my ocular high, I began to wonder what I was going to do up on this mountain alone. Sure, there was the staff, but there’s something strange about being the only person hanging out who isn’t getting paid for it. And just like that came a swarm of Georgians. A group of 10 friends and 2 men traveling solo as well. Now the party can begin!
And just like that, it did. In my experience, when you’re in the middle of nowhere the party begins as soon as the sun settles down for the evening. And this was no different. Around 6pm I was invited to sit down for a shot of Chacha. Once again I was filled with figurative and literal warmth. The former from the downright poetic cheers performed by our toastmaster (it is a Georgian tradition to have a person designated to perform toasts for the evening) and the latter being the burning sensation that filled my body after gulping down my generous cup of Chacha.
Toast after toast followed by shot after shot. You could feel the friendship filling the room like a fiery furnace fills a room with warmth. There was nowhere for us to go and frankly we wouldn’t have wanted to anyways. Fast friends formed again. We sat in a circle around the fire, listened to soothing music, told stories and laughed the evening away. The next day we bathed in bewonderment, enjoying the scenery and our company. Literally lacking agenda, I decided to stay another day.
However, my friends had other plans. One by one I watched them leave and wondered what I would do. It felt like that moment you realize that you’ve stayed at the party just a little too long.
Wrong. It was just getting started. Just as quickly as the room was drained of the previous evenings occupiers, a new wave of wide-eyed Georgians wandered through the door. And this time the sequel was every bit as good as the original.
However there was no slow burn to this evening’s festivities. These people came to party. The soothing tunes were a thing of the past. The stereo began to blast and everyone was shot into a dance trance. And believe me, I hate to dance so it definitely felt like I was in a trance. It was one of those moments that make you understand the idea behind an out of body experience. Everything just flowed and felt right. There goes that mountain high again. Only this time I’m pretty sure there actually were drugs involved for some. Don’t worry mom, 90’s propaganda campaigns paid off and I just said no. But, I was still flying high as a kite on euphoria.
Dancing, laughing and drinking the night away, another group of fast friends was formed. Georgians are famous for their hospitality and it’s for a reason. I felt right at home, like a part of the crew. Only I come from a different country, am constantly confused and speak with an accent. Imagine Fez from that 70’s Show. And yes, I was just as hilarious. And charming. I think. I mean, I didn’t quite understand half of the conversations taking place, which did nothing to dilute the euphoric feeling. When you’re in a place where you don’t understand the language it can send you deeper into your mind as you daze off to the linguistic equivalent to white noise. Feeling at peace, my surroundings sent me towards a feeling of enlightenment.
The night lasted long and took many turns. It had everything from dancing to pulsating beats to acoustic sing-alongs surrounded by the signs of shenanigans and obvious overindulgence. It was a puzzle piece evening. The kind where you only see the full scope through everyone’s anecdotal piece of the puzzle served with a side of laughter the next morning. Next up? The epilogue.
Everyone was aware of what precious few grains of sand were yet to fall from the hourglass that was our time together in this amazing place. Yet, we were prepared to squeeze every last drop, once again, both literally and figuratively. Story time outside over drinks led to more dancing, laughing and singing inside. Some people went off to hike, while others sat and stared at the scenery before them in an awestruck gaze sending them into a daze. It was the perfect ending to an unforgettable weekend.
We packed our things, said goodbye to those we would be leaving behind and began hiking down the mountain. As we were heading down, two mountain men from the town below that had spent the weekend with us said that they didn’t want me to head back to the capital and that I should stay with them in their town for the night. Keep in mind, this is all being conveyed through translators neither of us spoke one another’s language. I said that I couldn’t stay because I had to go back to Tbilisi. The translator turned to me and said that they said there was no way I was going back to Tbilisi that evening.
Initially I was annoyed at being forced into friendship. I asked what we would do, seeing as we couldn’t communicate. The girl translating said that I would be very drunk in no time at all and that maybe they would stab me. In a friendly manner of course. Great, nothing beats a good old fashioned stabbing between friends. Maybe a contest to see who can get the deepest puncture wound. I convinced myself, however, that this would be the right thing to do. To say yes to whatever came along and soak up the story. I said goodbye to my friends and went into the house with the mountain men. As we stood there staring at each other I believe that we both got cold feet. For the first time we were communicating, albeit nonverbally. So, I said goodbye to my mountain men amigos and got back in the car heading to the capital city. Tbilisi ho!
We were 6 people to a 5-person car. Crowded, but not completely uncomfortable. In fact, it was almost cozy. It made me feel like the adventure wasn’t quite through. I was out of range for cellular coverage all weekend and when my phone regained coverage I received several messages from my family that had been sent throughout the weekend informing me that my brother-in-law was on his deathbed. Without a doubt one of the biggest buzz kills I could imagine. But, it didn’t defeat me. It actually brought the bond I felt from the friendships formed to the forefront. As I sat cramped in the corner of the car with a slow, steady stream of tears falling down my face I truly felt that I was amongst friends. Beyond the obvious signs of distress shown by the waterworks I was putting on, they could sense in my voice that something wasn’t quite right. A hand on my shoulder. A pat on the leg. A soft wink of the eye towards me signifying solidarity There was no doubt, I’m amongst friends.
My trip into the mountains exposed Georgia’s inner and outer beauty. Yes, the landscape is so beautiful it’s beffudling. It’s hard to imagine that such magnificence exists. But, it became secondary to the inspirational imprint of intimacy impressed upon me by the Georgian people I befriended. We all sing in the shower. We dance in the kitchen. We do this when we are alone because we feel safe, comfortable and free. Not surprisingly, I sang and danced my heart out in those mountains with those people, those friends. Surrounded by Georgia’s inner and outer beauty, I felt safe, comfortable and free. Georgia, you exemplify beauty, thank you for accepting me as one of your own.