Trains ran by our window in the early hours of the morning. We rose to a scent of winter gently floating through a curtain obscured balcony, not noticed in the excitement of the previous night. The morning light, filtering through with a purity brought only by fresh snow fall, called us to step out, we were greeted by an image of winter wonder, snow covered tracks and cotton covered pines dotting the mountains hemming our little city in.
The previous night at the beginning of dinner, our friend Ren had told us: “I’m just waiting for you to fall in love with Batumi. It has a magic; things happen here that don’t happen anywhere else. Don’t worry, soon enough you’ll feel the Borjomi Magic.” The fresh feeling on that morning was a silent omen, sitting quietly on the corner chair of our room waiting to be taken with us, waiting to introduce us to the beauty and joys to come over the next two days.
We set out of the hotel, were joined by another TLG friend, James, bought some tonis puri and borjomi mineral water, and began walking to the main area of town, debating wether we’d be able to make it to the train supposedly running to Bakuriani before it left. Bakuriani is a small resort town known for its ski slopes. None of us had been there before, and it was close enough that Nathan had decided it would make a fun day-trip. Nathan made good use of his Russian, and we found quickly that there would be no more trains for the day. As is ritual for us foreign travelers in this small country, we headed to the local marshutka station and began asking about in a mixed jumble of Russian, Georgian, and English for the next marshutka to Bakuriani. Soon, the six of us, Nathan, Ren, Adam, James, Alex, and myself, hopped on a larger marshutka with two reclusive Georgian men, and began an ascent into the mountains of Borjomi.
As we began the steep climb up a twisting mountain road, the gentle morning snowfall quickly indulged itself into letting go of its restraint, and brought out its best decor for us, its winter guests; I’ll just say, it’s hospitality was more than generous. The white-furred pines, showing coy glances of their green skin, seeped the only fresh color into the landscape. The road quickly became two inches of hard-packed snow. Beautiful, but treacherous, and our laughter in the marshutka over miscellaneous remarks and shared jokes quickly moved to irony at our situation as the vehicle began to fishtail around several hairpin turns. “See, that’s the wonderful thing about Georgia,” James quipped: “You think you’re going to die; but you usually don’t.”
A few cars dotted our paths, unable to follow the slippery slope. One laid in a ditch. Cars sledding down raced the snowflakes past us into the valley. Eventually, we came across a stopped marshutka. We pulled over, and our driver, assumably a friend of the other driver, got out to help. After a few minutes, the other marshutka began again up the mountain, and we followed closely behind. If I haven’t mentioned it before, Georgian drivers love to play leapfrog on the highway; it figured, friends or not, that it was only a matter of time before we passed the more slowly moving marsh in front of us. Lo and behold, around a particularly sharp, blind turn, we pulled into the left lane, and revved to pass. We were just past the other marshutka, when turning the corner, we saw a small, soviet-era car hurtling towards us. He swerved towards the mountain as we turned out of his lane, and Nathan and Alex braced against their rear-end driver’s side windows as the car collided with our tail-end, gashing the rear taillight and siding with it, and sending us sliding towards the cliff-side. We came to a quick stop, and everyone got out.
The damage to our marshutka was little; enough that our driver could pick the two biggest chunks up in his hands as he went to shout down the other fuming traveler for…apparently being in the appropriate lane in such dangerous weather. The ill-fated car had continued out of sight around the curve; I was thankful to be able to passively avoid its carnage. I followed the ensuing argument as best as I could over the two hours it lasted. The car’s operator had valid, sensible points: “What were you doing passing in the other lane around such a curve!!!! Especially in weather like this where it’s dangerous enough to be driving carefully!!!!! It was a blind curve!!!! How could you be so stupid!!!!!” Our driver, in true Georgian fashion (sorry to the Georgians reading this blog, but you know it’s an acceptable generalization to say that Georgian men often yell at each other about everything from the mundane to the seriously insulting; when we first arrived in the country, my one friend concluded they were like mismanaged three year-olds at times; throwing a temper-tantrum about anything, and then forgetting about it in five minutes) shouted back, claiming it was not his fault, and saying that the other man should have been driving more carefully. The other marshutka had stopped with us, and a few old women emerged from it, took part in the argument, argued about it amoung themselves, and then tried to pull me into the argument; even when I told them quite clearly I didn’t speak enough Georgian, they still thought I could help. When calls for the patrol police began to be requested, we figured we had some time to goof around.
Adam emerged from the marshutka into the fresh snow-fall in much the same way that a four-year old steps into a snow drift for the first-time, eyes and mouth wide sparkling in wonder and a smile as genuine as a small child’s kiss. As an Australian, he had only been in some small snow once before, and had never been in a storm. He began prancing, laughing, and singing, throwing snow into the air just to watch it as it fell on his head. Nathan, of course, walked over to the mountain wall: “wow, check out these stratifications!” I burst out laughing. Adam picked up some snow to through at Nathan; three inches out of his hand, it burst into powder. “Adam, were you trying to throw a snowball?” I asked. “I thought they flew!” “You have to pack it first my friend.” I picked up some snow to teach him how. “Hey Nathan!” I launched it towards the back of his head as he turned around. Of course (I use that phrase a lot with Nathan, because he beats me in most things), he whips around, catches it in front of his face with his left hand, and throws it right back at me. James, from up-state New York, began making a snowman on the side of the road. “Woah guys!!!” Adam shouted, “you can actually see the snowflakes! Like, the crystals!!” He wondered at the caught stars on his scarf. “I thought that was only in drawings!!” Alex, turned to me, “and now I wonder what the Georgians are thinking of us crazy foreigners…” James turned to hop on the marshutka, “I’m just wondering what they’ll think of my pagan statue on the side of the road.”
We gathered in the marshutka, shielding ourselves from the wind. Nathan and Ren produced a bottle of home-made vodka, and began passing it around as we toasted to our safety, the snow, and our travels together; taking the moment to enjoy our company and the secretly beautiful times life gives us when we surrender to its accidental collisions.
The rest of the marshutka ride (“oh man! We were only ten minutes away?? We could have just walked!!”) was uneventful. We pulled into the center of town past the main Bakuriani hotel, tovlis babuas sastumro (grandfather of snow, having the dual meaning of snowman and Santa Claus in Georgian) and departed through the snowy streets to try to find the local train station, hoping that we could enjoy a train ride back down the mountain to Borjomi later that day. Strolling through this picturesque winter town was a pleasure in itself; icicles hung from every roof (Adam climbed and perched on a few fences to harvest them), and laundry hung out to dry had become ice, providing splashes of color amoung the mounds of snow. At one intersection, Adam decided to make his first-ever snow angel. With slightly sound logic, he decided that he didn’t want to get his clothes wet, so he took off his jacket and all of his shirts, laid down in the snow, and made a perfect snow angel. I’m still not sure which was more entertaining, his afterwords comment “Wow, it really does look like an angel,” or the faces of the few Georgians driving by who saw him lying bare-chested in the snow.
We made it to the train station, and could have sworn it was abandoned. Aside from the strange mural designs and a poor freezing puppy lying on the steps, we couldn’t find any sign of life. Eventually, I opened one door to find a room full of Georgian men sitting around and chatting. I asked if another train would be coming that day. Nope. But the one man did open the main room of the train station for us to get out of the wind for a time. Nothing interesting there, except for old hilarious safety signs, and a room filled with buckets of tar, cogs, railroad switches, and various heavy tools.
Don't Try to Headbutt a Moving Train
Back in town, we stopped at a Teremok to warm up and finally eat our first meal of the day. Each of us stripped off either wet gloves or socks and laid them on the space heater to dry. Oh blinis, how wonderful you taste, sweet or savory, as the heavy snow continues to blanket the windows.
Stomaches satiated, we left planning to take a chair-lift to the top of one of the surrounding mountains; but first, we wanted to insure that we would have a ride down the mountain later in the day. A marshutka was passing us, so I flagged it down and asked the driver when the last marshutka of the day would be heading to Borjomi. He must’ve not understood, because he only said “come with us.” No, no…I want the next one. “There will be no next marshutka. The roads are too bad so I am the last one driving down today. No one else is crazy enough.” Well, we decided to cut our plans short for the day and head back down to Borjomi rather than get snowed in indefinitely in Bakuriani. Tovlis babua hotel sure did look nice though…
The drive down was inconsequential compared to the drive up; we only started fish-tailing a few times. The snow had calmed down to a pattering when we pulled onto the main street of Borjomi. The next step in necessary travel plans was to find a place to sleep for the night. We did not feel like shelling out a lot of money, so Ren pulled out her guide book, and we found the address for a good-sounding homestay. For those of you not familiar, a homestay is just a house where the family has an extra room or two and is willing to take guests. It’s usually cheaper and more exciting. Of course, the directions read something like: “off the mainstreet across from the tourist information center, up a steep staircase, and over the side street with the slippery wooden steps. The house has a big dog, but it’s nice to visitors.” After climbing a few wrong steep staircases, we assumed we had found the correct house because we stumbled across a house with a large German Shepherd sitting in the yard. We tried calling both numbers provided in the guide book…and neither went through. Out of other typically American distanced options of first communication, we had no other choice but to walk into a stranger’s yard. Half of us played with the dog while the other half shouted gamarjobat? and knocked on the door. A man came out, and we asked for the name of the owner mentioned in the guidebook. He told me that she was no longer taking any other guests; she had either moved or run out of space. I asked if he knew of anyone else who could take us. He asked me inside as he started asking his other two friends if they knew anyone. A typical Georgian conversation ensued: “Do you know anyone?” “Lika might still be taking guests.” “I’ll call her, do you have her number?” “She’s your cousin!! Don’t you have her number??” Several phone calls later, he told us to come with him. We followed him up the stairs and onto another side street, under the stares of every neighborhood, many who had probably been called for advice and wanted to come watch the strange group of foreigners, James and I in long trenchcoats with gray hats, Nathan and Alex with their long, unruly hair, Adam with his snow-awed smile, and Ren carrying her hole-y rain boots rather than wearing them.
A gate was opened, and we were welcomed in by a smiling Georgian man and his wife. We walked through a small driveway behind their two story house, snow-covered firewood lining the entire rap-around porch, to the broken steps leading up their hill of a backyard. A separate building was revealed, with a small kitchen, bathroom and bedroom downstairs, and a larger room with kitchenette and fireplace upstairs. Behind were bee-hives, a decrepit shack, an abandoned dog house, and broken qvevries scattered throughout the yard. The man introduced himself, I’ll call him Misha, and his wife, who I’ll call Gvantsa. “The room downstairs for the girls and the room upstairs for the boys, don’t worry, we’ll bring more beds.” I didn’t mind sharing two double beds with the boys; I knew it was going to be a cold night, considering the inside was no different in temperature than the outside. We settled a price, and immediately Misha stoked a fire.
As we were getting settled, Nathan and Adam set off for a guliat in the woods. I ran downstairs to ask Misha if we could borrow some more firewood. He said of course, and then invited me into the house, where he was seated around a table with three of his friends, ya know, supra-ing. Of course, I was invited to sit down, and began giving toasts with them. After a few really good toasts, when they were starting to really become interested in this strange foreigner who happened across their home by chance today, but knew a significant amount of their language and culture, they brought out the wooden horns. After one, I decided I should finally take the firewood upstairs, Misha asked where Alex was, so I asked if I could invite them all down to the supra (thinking of course, that the meal really wasn’t part of the price negotiations, and I didn’t want to invade). He said he would be delighted.
The four of us descended on the table, new fried potatoes were brought, and Alex and I laughed at how fortuitous the entire two days had been. I was just as incredulous as she; how could so much beauty and luck fall within such a short period? It was James’s turn for the horns. I jokingly picked up a vase and asked if we should use it for him. Instead, a carved wooden horn with the figure of the father from the Georgian film “Father of A Soldier” (ჯარისკაცის მამა) was brought for him. We drank Vakhtanguri; what we did not realize though was that the figure was hollow. James’s eyes burst wide with shock when the wine kept flowing from the mouth of the q’ants’i, which was at least thrice the size of mine.
Having had much to drink that day, I quickly became tired, so retired to the open room to sleep off a bit. At one point in my nap, I hear Nathan say, “don’t worry, I’ll take Misha to get toilet paper.” Later, there’s a knock on the door; the others have returned to the room. Gvantca opens the door and asks if we know where Misha is. I think I responded before falling asleep again. Apparently, while I was sleeping Misha, started getting a little too friendly, so Nathan took him on a long walk. Meanwhile, his wife kept getting more and more upset with him. By the time I woke up, Misha and Gvantsa had retired to the house.
I woke up to the sound of a harmonica. I rolled over to see a young bearded man I partially recognize simultaneously playing a harmonica and guitar, as a stranger and Nathan are gathered around him singing. I look around the room, we are all gathered, along with four newcomers, three of whom I vaguely recognized having seen them on the Kakheti trip. It turns out that other TLGers had arrived in Batumi. I rustled myself and journeyed out with Alex into the icy streets to procure some sausage and bread. She quickly revealed her Eastern European roots as she kicked us all out of the tiny kitchenette as she whirled dull knives in a fury, determined to make us the best snacks possible given the circumstances. We could still see our breaths in the room, despite the fire having been roaring for hours. We spent the next hours hudled together, singing, talking of religion and politics and what, exactly, our lives had become since coming to Georgia. The night wore on, and tired. Our new friends took leave of us in the early hours of the morning, and we, cold and contented, all snuggled under duvets on the two pushed-together beds as James (AVS to the max!!!) recited Shakespearean sonnets as we succumbed to our exhaustion.
And Alex still had four full days left in her trip. (You know what that means…more to come!)