Sunday, January 10, 2010

Christmas in Tbilisi

10 January 2009


I’m digging on the quietness of twelve seventeen in the morning on January tenth, two thousand ten (It is a new year, isn’t it?). Well, I guess the rumbling of the radiator in the corner is the only other noise besides the sound of my typing, but at least the other noises that exist on a piece of property with six people are yoxdur (nonexistent) at the moment. Like I said, I’m digging it.

Tonight, I’m gonna talk to y’all about a little trip I took with Charlie these last few days. The title of this entry says it all, and, I must say, it was a kick ass trip. Couldn’t’ve asked for anything more out of about forty-eight hours in the capital of Georgia, and let me tell you why.

I met Charlie at the Oğuz bus station at about eight o’clock on the morning of the sixth. It was a cold day, and we were glad to be in the heated marşrutka headed for Şəki at eight fifteen. Upon arriving in our neighboring rayon, we immediately hopped on another marşrutka bound for the beautiful (and sexy) rayon of Zaqatala, which is just a couple rayons over from Georgia. We ran into a bit of turbulence at the Zaqatala bus station, mainly due to our own stupidity. When we got there, I quickly asked the dispatcher how we could get to Tbilisi. He told me we had to go to Balakən, the next rayon over. No problem, I thought, and we went over to the Balakən van and saved our places with our sleeping bags (totally legit). Then we went to a nearby store and grabbed a snack or two for the road, but once we got back to the bus station, the van was leaving, full, and I angrily banged on the driver’s side window and asked where our sleeping bags were. The driver didn’t stop or open the window and just pointed behind him (which pissed me off), and, lo and behold, our sleeping bags were sitting there on the sidewalk in front of where the van was parked. What a bummer. Luckily, these marşrutkas leave frequently, so we simply saved a couple spots (with our sleeping bags, again. Still totally legit.) on the next van and went and had a pot of tea at a çayxana (You see where this is going.). Surely they wouldn’t leave without us again. Well, yeah, we clearly didn’t learn our lesson the first time because the damn sleeping bags were sitting on the sidewalk again, and we were left behind again. Oh, how foolish of us. The third time was a charm, though, ‘cause we simply sat on the van and didn’t move once the next one came around. A few minutes later, we were in Balakən, a rayon, up ‘till now, seldom frequented by Peace Corps volunteers, quite beautiful, if I may say so myself.

We took out some money in town and were soon at the border, which we passed through easily. This was the third time we’d done this, and we’re still amused by the contrast between the Azerbaijani and Georgian border patrols. On the Azerbaijani side, men (and boys) in military garb, hoisting large guns and smoking cigarettes, take a look at your passport, don’t check your baggage, and let you though at their leisure. The Georgian side is a bit more, eh, organized. We all stand in line, the officer quickly stamps our passport while sitting next to a fancy computer with a camera we have to look at for identification, and our bags get scanned by some high dollar machine from Japan. We quickly were through the border and haggling with the Azerbaijani-speaking cab drivers about rides to the town of Lagodekhi (the first rayon you hit in Georgia).

Once we got in town, we began deliberating over how we’d get to Tbilisi, which is about two hours away (depending on how fast you drive). We initially thought to take a marşrutka, which was just seven Lari (the Georgian currency), but we were discouraged because we wanted to get to the city as quickly as we could and the van wouldn’t be leaving for another forty minutes. We then discussed the possibility of taking a taxi to Tbilisi with nearby cab drivers who surrounded us as if we could restore sight to the blind. We cut one driver down to a decent price (thanks for Charlie’s Russian skills), but after we put our bags in the trunk, he was in no hurry to leave. I suppose he was waiting for more passengers to come along so the trip would be more worth his while. Can’t blame him, but we eventually decided, after waiting a little while, that we might as well take the marşrutka, and that’s what we did. And before the marşrutka headed out of Lagodekhi, we had the good fortune of meeting an adorable, sweet, girl who was born in…(cough)…the nation just below Georgia. Her name was Christiana, and she could speak five languages, including Polish (I couldn’t even tell you what Polish sounds like.). She was excited to meet handsome, charming Americans like us, and helped us with purchasing a bag of chips at the store. You never know who you might come across.

The drive from Lagodekhi to Tbilisi was pretty awesome, if anything, because we got an intimate glimpse of the rayons of another country (And I’ve come to realize, also, that everything looks cooler if you’re listening to Dark Side of the Moon while viewing it.). We got into Tbilisi at about five or so, and used the cell phones of two kind gentleman before finally meeting our CouchSurfer, Vasi, near her apartment right next to Vake park. Now let me tell you about Vasi. Oh yeah, and if you’re not familiar with CouchSurfing, it’s a global network of individuals that willingly host travelers for free in their homes. Pretty sweet. Anyway, our hostess, Vasi, is a twenty-six year old badass who works for International Orthodox Christian Charities. Yep, we got extra lucky this time around. We came to Tbilisi to check out Orthodox Christmas, and our CouchSurfer just so happened to be a committed Serbian Orthodox Christian, and a sweetheart at that. She took us in, was very pleased with the wine we bought her, and provided us with hot showers when we desired (hell yes).

Shortly after putting our stuff down, Vasi walked with us down the road and showed us where we could find something to eat. She eventually returned to her apartment (It was cold.), and we soon found a little eatery, where we ordered up a couple beers and some cheese and bean xajipuri. As we were sitting there, eating and shooting the breeze, a gentleman, who spoke great English, asked us where we were from. The guy’s name was Shalva, and he’d lived in Atlanta for a number of years. He was a heck of a nice guy, so nice that he bought us dinner (more than once). He was also friends with the president of Caucasus University in Tbilisi, and he randomly picked me up from a restaurant one night and drove me to his office so I could meet him. We ended up seeing Shalva a few more times during our stay in the city.

After dinner, we chilled in the apartment and chatted with Vasi before Charlie decided to take a shower and Vasi went for a nap (with good reason, considering what Georgian Christmas entails). We left for midnight mass at about ten forty-five, because Charlie and Vasi were going to have confession with the priest before mass started. Well, that didn’t pan out so well because once we got to Vasi’s church, everybody, and I mean everybody, was there. May I add that, although I’ve lived in three Latin American countries and middle Tennessee, Georgia is undoubtedly the most Christian place I’ve ever seen. The churches are packed, and you can only guess what Christmas is like. We waited outside the front door of the church like we were waiting to get into the hottest club in town. We had a feeling we wouldn’t be able to squeeze in, but, I’ll be darned, we made it in the church and mass started soon after. We were packed so tightly in the sanctuary that we didn’t even have to try to stand (May I add it was standing only, the standard Orthodox style I’m guessing.). Charlie couldn’t even cross himself, at least not all the way.

The service was beautiful, fully loaded with incense and a thousand and one Georgian chants. I even started singing along after a while, although I had no idea what the words were. Sometimes I just had to look around at all the people there. There’s something profoundly beautiful about the Orthodox tradition. The idea that all the people, everyone in the neighborhood, is in there, standing together in one place, was moving for me. The fact that the seventy some odd years of the churchless Soviet era has been followed up by this kind of commitment to church life is pretty amazing.

After Vasi received the bread and wine communion mixture from a golden spoon, we headed out of the church and received free shots of wine and little pieces of bread and met Vasi’s friend who works with her at I.O.C.C. This gentleman’s name was Archel, and he was a class act who took us around the city after church. We first went to the massive Sameba church, which was beautiful and boasted some of the best chanting I’d ever heard. We hung around there for a little while, and Charlie pointed something out about the Georgian Orthodox tradition. It seems like, for Protestants and Catholics, at least, church is a pretty formal place. You go into the church to worship, not necessarily to socialize. We noticed, however, that this humongous church was full of people who were either praying, chanting, venerating (a hobby of mine), or just hanging out. Plenty of folks, particularly teenagers, were sitting on the floor, just chatting. It kind of gave a different meaning to what we initially conceptualize as the worship space. That night, it seemed more like a community center (That is, a community center where people waited to pray for healing by the remains of a saint like they were waiting to get Jerry Garcia’s autograph.).

After that, we headed to a restaurant to bring in the birth of Jesus in genuine Georgian fashion, by drinking vodka and easting delicious food. The restaurant was packed with people, old and young, participating in post-mass revelry (I think you’d do the same, too, wouldn’t you?). Mind you, it’s three o’clock in the morning at this point, and seeing as I’d gotten up at six in Oğuz, I had to order a Turkish coffee to keep up, and I’m glad I did, ‘cause we got our good eatin’ on and our good drinkin’ on. We had some kind of chicken soup that was simply to die for, pork kabobs (That’s right. Pork kabobs.), two kinds of xingali (round dumpling like things with meat or cheese inside), beer, and vodka. Couldn’t complain about that. When we were finally bursting with gastronomical pleasure, we rolled out of the restaurant, and Archel dropped us off at Vasi’s apartment. We ended up chatting ‘till almost seven in the morning, and I crashed hard when we finally hit the sack.

We got up the next day, and after a little breakfast, we went to Vake park and hiked up to Turtle Lake, a beautiful body of water with some nice restaurants around it. I tried to run up the hill towards the lake, and was humbled by nearly keeling over from being so winded. After a cappuccino by the lake, we headed down the hill and met a good friend of Vasi’s. This was an interesting situation because this girl couldn’t speak English. However, she lived in Barcelona for some time, so she could speak Spanish. While hanging with her, I comically stumbled through my, now, crappy Español, which was kinna funny.

We ended up spending much of the evening with Vasi and her friend. We walked around town with them and came back to the apartment and hung out some more. She eventually headed out, and we stuck around the bachelor pad and drank way too much together, and we all ended up crashing around…I don’t even remember what time it was.

The next day, we casually got up and had a lovely breakfast, which included bacon, another pork product. Archel came over briefly and ate with us and chatted, and Charlie and I soon after got our stuff together and headed out the door. We hugged Vasi, our new best friend, and rolled over to where our taxi to Legodekhi would be leaving from. We crossed the border into Azerbaijan once again at around six that evening and ended a pretty dang good trip to Georgia.

1 comment:

Vasi said...

Love it! I think this is the first blog I have ever been in. Thanks to you, now I don't have to write a journal entry about your visit. Your blog says it all. I hope you stay longer next time you visit.