Tuesday, October 11, 2011
Ch’a-Ch’a and Mountaintops
In my first three weeks living in the village of Supsa I did not leave except on a few day trips to Poti and the beach at Grigoleti, neither of which are further than 15km away. I had not seen or conversed with a native English speaker in person in those three weeks and drastically needed something new and different. For the following weekend I weighed my options of what I could do to fulfill this need, and I considered a couple options: I could go to Tbilisi, meet up with a few friends, talk in English a lot, spend money on transportation, food, and a hostel; or I could take off and go somewhere on my own to venture into the Georgian wilderness that was one of the great draws in my coming to this country. I opted for the latter. I settled on setting off for Borjomi that Friday with the intention of spending three days backbacking through the Borjomi-Kharagauli National Park, one of the most beautiful and most well-preserved forests in the Southern Caucasus. Not knowing exactly where I was going (relative to other places in Georgia) or exactly how to get there, the father of my host family arranged to have me picked up by bus at the Supsa Police Station, at which point I was told I would have to take another bus to Borjomi and that the driver would tell me where to get off. My host father told me that I had to leave at 10:00, the same time I was supposed to teach. When I pointed this out to him, he just explained that it was no problem. He would tell my students what was going on. People here know their priorities. After a bus ride of admiring the changing Georgian scenery from the subtropical coastal plain in which Supsa is located, to the mountain range that marks the boundary between Eastern and Western Georgia, and to the dry plains of the east, I found myself standing in front of a gas station in a town whose name I can never remember, feeling sufficiently lost and confused. The bus driver told me that maybe someone at the gas station could tell me how to make it the last 30km to Borjomi. Other than that, I was on my own to find the way.
After watching the road for a while, hoping to find a passing Marshutka (the mini-busses that are the most ubiquitous form of public transport in Georgia and, I suspect, most of the former Soviet Union) to take me to Borjom and seeing none, I mustered the courage to ask one of the gas station attendants where I could find a ride. Upon asking a group of men sitting outside the station, I was told that one of them was willing to drive me to Borjomi. Thinking this was just another fortuitous manifestation of Georgian kindness and hospitality I began to take him up on his offer when he informed me that he was willing to drive me for a mere 25 Lari, a real bargain at almost a lari a km (about a dollar every two miles). I’m sure that to them with my long hair and large backpack I seemed like the sort of ignorant tourist who would take them up on their so generous offer, but I had enough sense about me to know that they were trying to rip me off. And so I bargained with them, setting a line at 5 Lari that I would not back down from. They refused to meet my price, and I was all set to walk the thirty kilometres to Borjomi if I had to when one of the older men present, the only of the group who spoke good Russian, had pity on me, took me by the arm, led me to the edge of the parking lot and directed me 100 meters down the road where I could find a bus/marshutka stop. The whole experience at the gas station left a bitter taste in my mouth, as I saw a side to Georgia that I had not seen in Supsa. Whereas most people here are willing to treat guests with great kindness, respect, and hospitality, I met someone that day who was so eager and willing to take advantage of someone he thought to be ignorant and vulnerable from an inability to communicate. It acted as a sober reminder that even here, in a culture so different from my own, people are still people, and there are still those willing to help themselves by taking advantage of others. So often we who are here–I suspect it also happens to those travelling in other foreign countries–tend to idealize and romanticize the new culture and the new experiences, unwilling to really confront the negative aspects or to be critical of things that deserve being critical of.
But that encounter did not mar the trip that was to come. I soon found a Marshutka to Borjomi for 2 lari, much more reasonable than the 25 I had been offered 15 minutes before, and soon I was in the city of Borjomi at the offices of the National Park. There I soon found where I had to go to register to enter the park and receive a map, and was amazed by the service I received. I am used to hiking in America, where the most I have ever done to register to hike is stuff a little piece of paper I filled out in a box, but here, in Georgia, the Borjomi Park has a well-developed system of registry that is comprehensive, efficient, and personal. I walked in to an office, was greeted in English by a park representative who not only knew basic English, but converse with me and answer all my questions fluidly and comprehensively. It was the best English I had heard in person in about a month, and was very refreshing. I loved not having to stumble my way through the interaction tripping over case endings and butchering verb tenses, but being able to express myself fluently in my native tongue. After our greeting, the man sat me down, pulled out a park map, and for the next thirty minutes detailed all of the options open to me for the next 2 ½ days. He showed me all of the trails, explained their layout, the difficult parts, and the ambiguously marked places to me in such a way that made me confident I would not get lost. He was skeptical of my ability to hike the 15km to the first shelter that night (I would not get on the trail till at least 4:30), and thought that making it 10km the last day to catch what he claimed to be the only train out of the village of Marelisi was a little risky, but I did all I could to reassure him that I knew what I was doing. I paid the 10 lari for two nights of camping and set out for the village of Likani and the start of the trail. Likani is only 5km from the Park offices, and though the park officer recommended paying the 4 lari for a taxi, I went through one of my bouts of not wanting to pay for anything I didn’t deem to be absolutely necessary and resolved that I would walk the 5km or, if the opportunity arose, hitchhike the whole way.
After walking along the roadside and refusing the reasonable offers of a few taxi drivers to take me to the park entrance, I eventually waved down a passing large truck hauling some kind of farm equipment, and much to my surprise was being spoken to in English by the driver. I thought I explained to him that I wanted to go to the park entrance in Likani, and he assured me he knew where to take me, and so we set out, conversing in somewhat broken English. It was on this truck ride that I had one of my more interesting, and more negative experiences of the trip. The driver explained to me that he had lived in Philadelphia for a number of years and had driven 18-wheelers across the United States. It was fascinating listening to his comparisons of life in Georgia and life in America, his frustrations with Georgia and its government, and his frustrations with the American government over the immigration process. His English was very obviously gleaned in America, and was peppered with more cursing than I had heard in casual conversation in a long while. I don’t remember all of the details of our conversation, as most of them were overshadowed by one question. At one point the man turned to me and asked “Do you like niggers?” I was so taken aback by this question that for a few minutes I did not know how to respond. I just sat there dumbly for a few seconds trying to figure out how one tackles the issue of race relationships while hitchhiking with a truck driver far away from where he lives in a foreign country. I decided that there were a lot of larger issues I wanted to avoid and opted to just explain to him that I had some very good friends who are black. He responded less harshly than I expected and conceded that there were undoubtedly some good black people, but that in general he saw them as not willing to work and just living off handouts from the US government.
It was only later that I was able to process the implications of this exchange. I do not think that his dislike of black people comes from any sort of true racism, but that for him, the race serves as a scapegoat for the frustrations he still feels about his time in America. He was a poor immigrant who made his way to America through legal channels, finding a good job and a life better than the one he had in Georgia. But as an immigrant he had to fight to stay in America every step of the way, battling to keep his green card and his legal status. He fought and fought to be in America, being given nothing by the government but battling against them, while he saw a group of people without jobs living on the welfare of the US government. This group was certainly composed of people of all races, but in his mind it seems he began to associate it with one in particular. Undoubtedly he met among that group many who were not earnestly doing anything to make their own way through life but who were very comfortable in their status of being cared for by the government. He was embittered by the fact that people without work, living what he saw as an easy life were being given everything while he, a hardworking man with a difficult but good paying job faced the risk of having everything taken away at any moment. It was from this position of anger and contempt that he asked me his question. It seems he created this reality in his mind where it was the black population who were the ones not willing to work and reaping the rewards of the money immigrants like himself were giving back to the US government that would soon kick him out of the country. Through a series of logical connections, somewhat tenuous from an outsider’s point of view, it was the black population who was responsible for his return to Georgia and his return to driving a truck on poorly maintained roads, dodging cattle at every turn, and needing to vent his frustrations to unsuspecting American hitchhikers. His blindness and willingness to draw this caricature of a whole race was still appalling and inexcusable, but I began to understand where it came from. I in no way found him justified in his generalizations, but found him pitiable within them. His was an unfortunate situation, but not unfortunate enough to warrant bigotry. That one question left me with a sour taste for the whole ride, and cast a shadow over the Georgian people in my mind that, fortunately, was soon overcome by the overwhelming kindness of a few others.
I did not have time to discuss all of this with him, as soon I realized he had taken me 10km past Likani (I was, and still am, a very bad judge of distance in kilometers), and I immediately had him drop me off in front of a store in some little village a long ways from my trail. As I got out of the truck and realized how far I was from the trail I became extremely anxious, as daylight was slowly fading and I had a lot of walking left to do. But my anxieties were soon assuaged, as within three cars someone going the opposite direction had pulled over to take me to Likani. We made it to the village, I found the sign to the trailhead, stopped in a little store to buy some bread (for some reason I thought two loaves of bread and some granola bars would be enough food for three days), and I set out on my hike. One bad hitchhiking experience was redeemed by the next, as my second driver not only took me to my destination, but upon seeing me looking at my map of the area around the park pulled his car over and began pointing out all the places I should go in the area. I started my hike with a renewed confidence in the Georgian people.
As I walked up the street to the park entrance, the village of Likani soon yielded to the wilderness of the park, and I found myself in a forest unlike any other I have been in. Once I overcame my anxieties about the late hour of my start and my constant worrying about whether I had missed a turn-off for my trail, I found myself put at ease by the forest. Surrounding me were hemlocks, pines, elms, and a species that looked a lot like ironwood (I can never remember the genus), with a rich understory of mosses, sedges, and shrubs, among them many in the rose family, though without flowers or fruits I could not be certain what they were. It was one of the most mesic forests I had ever hiked through, especially on the north side of the cove that the first 8km of my hike had me scale through a series of switchbacks. It was on this uphill hike, feeling my legs once again burning underneath me, looking out at the cove spreading out below and the opposite ridge looming high reminding me I still had a long way to go to the top that I realized just how much I needed the mountains, how my spirit felt stifled by life on the coast with everything so flat around me. I come alive in the mountains. Many of my greatest memories of childhood through my time in college are associated with mountains, with wilderness, and with seeing the forest below me, both welcoming me to enter and warning me against pride in my humanity, as all of the forests I have loved were there long before me and will be there long after I am gone. I was alone and I was free. Georgian culture and American culture no longer mattered; it was only the wilderness and I. Like a kid in a toy store shown a set of games and toys he had only dreamed of, I was free to explore this forest in which nothing was entirely familiar. Everything was steeper and more rugged than my beloved Appalachians, seeming like a glimpse into what those mountains may have once been, and the flora, though at times eerily familiar, was simultaneously entirely new. I could rattle off genera and families, but was lost as to the species. The trees and flowers invited me in, challenging me to notice the subtle differences between themselves and the plants I have learned. On that afternoon my botanical curiosity was only curbed by the fact that each minute not spent hiking was another minute I would have to spend finding my way in the dark. But regardless of the encroaching night I could not help myself and had to stop for each new flower I passed, puzzling over what it was and what made it grow where it did. My amazement with the forest only heightened as my climb that took me up 1000m in the first 10 km led me to a ridge line on which the mesic cove forest yielded to subalpine meadows and a spruce-fir forest that drew my memories back to a period two months earlier when I was making my way through similar habitats along the Blue Ridge Parkway while doing work for the US Forest Service. While the forest type itself drew me back to North Carolina, the views from the meadows did not have the same effect. The sheer breadth of the forest, expanding in every direction punctuated only by the occasional small village far off in the distance and the ruggedness of the mountains reminded me that these were not the mountains of the home I grew up in, but were the mountains of my new home, the mountains I want to explore and come to know, the mountains of stories by Lermontov, Tolstoy, and Pushkin that captured their imaginations as they were mine.
It was walking along this ridge line through these meadows with breathtaking vistas spread out before me on either side that I began to think about beauty and what it means for a place or a people to be beautiful. It was here that I realized that beauty is not something tied to the senses, but is extrasensory; it is a message communicated from one object to another on a level that cannot be quantified in sights, smells, and sounds, but is a message spoken from one spirit to another. As has often been the case in Georgia I was first struck by the physical beauty of the place: the beautiful views, the flowers and the play of the crepuscular glow through the dark green of the pristine spruce-fir forest. It is not only in the mountains that I have become aware of the physical beauty of this country. The black sand beaches of the Black Sea and their rocky counterparts to the south, the mountains in Ajara rising straight out of the sea, and the lush green of the subtropical west all produce a similar effect. When I take time to stand and look around me I am taken aback by how novel, unique, and beautiful it all is. And I feel the same way about the Georgian people. Whether it is the product of being in a new place surrounded by a people with whom I had had little contact previously or that it really is that Georgians are an especially atractive race, I am perpetually struck by their beauty.
But what I have seen on the surface level of the physical cannot encompass the beauty I have found in this place. In the mountains I was not an observer or consumer of beauty, detached from it and taking it all in, but I was a part of it. I could feel the pulse of the place. With every step I could sense what lay beneath the physical surface of the forest; the beauty I found was not caused by the array of colors or the physical impressions, but was bound up with the internal experience of the place. The beauty was contained in what was communicated between the mountains and the forest and myself. What I experienced left me with an overwhelming sense of peace and fulfillment. In the forest I felt myself being restored, reinvigorated and fulfilled. That park spoke to me in a way that cannot be qualified in the language of the senses but is contained in the affect, the communication from one to another. This beauty is not contained in the thing itself nor in the perceiver, but in the communication, in the act of the affect, and in what is born only of a relationship.
As I found the beauty of the park to be something existing beneath the surface of what is sensed, so I have found the same to be so with the Georgian people. I have met many girls around my own age here of incredible physical beauty, but I have increasingly become aware of a more penetrating beauty contained in the older generation, those people who struggled and labored for decades through the hardships of the Soviet Union and through the age of a nation being born out of the rubble of its collapse. I see grandmothers working twelve hour days in the markets in town just to have a few extra lari at the end of the day to feed their families; I see women living and working at home, doing more to keep the household running and the family together than any will ever recognize them for; and I have seen men forsaking the cultural norms and acquiescing to the position of living off their wife’s meager teacher’s salary but who at every turn are willing to do the work to keep a household running traditionally relegated to the women. In them there is a subtle but powerful beauty that comes through perseverance, devotion, and the fulfillment of what they believe their duty towards their family to be. I don’t mean to glorify the gap that exists between men and women in the country; it is unfortunate that the social structure exists in such that gender roles are rigidly defined. But I have found such strength of spirit in which women approach the life they lead within those social structures and in the men who recognize the need to forsake those same norms.
I think my experience with beauty in the Borjomi-Kharagauli Park is best represented by a gentian I came across my first evening and that I saw everywhere in the high elevation meadows the next day. Gentians have for a number of years been one of my favorite flowers. There is a group of them that have strikingly beautiful but delicate flowers that never truly open up, and these I have found especially captivating. They remain in a closed state, forcing pollinators to crawl in rather than just landing in passing. They do not attract these pollinators with a promise of ease and convenience, but with the mystery of what riches may lie inside. There is something very coy about the whole process. They do not need to bear everything to attract a pollinator, for they are confident enough in their own ability to attract that they can remain almost entirely closed without worrying about failing to procreate. I have a great memory of being in Sewanee, hiking around Lake Dimmick, seeing such a gentian while on a class hike and after looking at it for a few minutes seeing a bee crawl out of the top, covered in the pollen it was given to deliver to the next gentian it comes across. It was a moment of unexpected beauty in which I stood amazed by the flowers ability to hide from the world the amazing process going inside through which it is able to live on from generation to generation.
The gentians I came across here in the Caucasus were some of the most striking flowers I have seen, more vibrant and colorful that any other gentians I have come across. Their flowers have petals that alternate between a vibrant violet and a deep, rich purple that borders on black. In the dying light of the day as I hiked along the ridge line these colors stood out in sharp contrast to one another, with the violet holding on to and reflecting all the light of the day while the darker had already embraced the coming night. The pictures I have hardly do justice to the impression it invoked, as even my own immediate sensory perceptions in that moment do not do justice to what I found in these flowers. While that evening I greatly appreciated the flower for its pure aesthetic value, the botanist in me appreciated it on a very different level. What is beautiful about it was not the colors, but is what lay beneath those petals and what led to the very existence of each of those flowers.
Each one of those flowers is the product of hundreds of millions of years of plant evolution through in never-ceasing process of natural selection. The flower is perfectly designed for the niche it fills, but was not designed in one go; its design was crafted through the millennia by the slow drift of natural selection. Every configuration of leaves, petals, colors, pistils, and stamens was selected over countless other possibilities. Perhaps some of it occurred at random, but I have for a long time and still do struggle with the notion that natural selection allows for “random” configurations. Each of those gentians is filled with a myriad of purposes; every individual feature of the flower served or serves some end. Each distinct feature of the flower is for something. The colors of petals are for the attraction of pollinators, and somewhere along the species evolutionary history those colors that stood out so vibrant to me were selected because they in some way helped the plant better succeed in attracting the insects that do the work of ensuring the continuation of the lineage. The shape of the flower, perpetually closed rather than fully opening, is also “for” something. I do not presume to be able to explain what it may have originally been for, but I wholly believe that it could not be without purpose. It was chosen over every other DNA configuration and the mutations that over generations challenged and molded its shape, offering countless variations to be tested in nature’s laboratory for their ability to contribute to a species’ survival.
This scientific experience does not cheapen the aesthetic experience for me, but heightens it. The fact that we find such beauty in the natural world in things that are for a purpose that has no connection to why we find it beautiful amazes me. The shape of the gentian probably came about as a more effective way to ensure any pollinator would take with it as much pollen as possible, but to us it belies something secretive, something mysterious. For me the true beauty of the flower not only lies into the shape and array of colors but what it took for all of those features to get there. While most of us are not thinking about all of the floral parts or the evolutionary advantage of the sweet smell of a flower, perhaps the millions of years it took to form that distinct flower plays into what is communicated to us in our appreciation of its beauty, lying beneath the surface of what we are consciously aware. We so often stand in awe and respect when we are confronted with great age: the redwoods of California, the pyramids of Egypt, and many of the great cities of Europe are all made more beautiful when you take into account their age, the multitude of years it took to make them what they are and the years that they have endured and persisted. Perhaps some of that same feeling underlies what we sense in something as simple as a flower. In that flower are millions of years of being crafted, molded, and structured. It has inevitably survived ice ages, severe droughts, and other extremes, but persists on in its beauty and delicacy.
But many of these thoughts about the gentian only came about later, for though enraptured in the moment by its beauty I still had a number of kilometers to go before the spot where I was to camp. I pressed on, following the ridgeline upward and upward, witnessing on the way one of the most spectacular sunsets I have seen that set the far distant mountains on fire, coloring the sky with brilliant shades of orange. Following this spectacular sight, I hiked the final quarter of my evening’s walk in the dark until finally arriving at the shelter where I would stay for the night. As I reached the shelter I found that I would not be alone at the site that night, and as I went to find a campsite was greeted with a “hello” from a couple who were sitting at the picnic shelter outside the shelter. I noticed the man’s voice was accented, and I was intrigued to know where he was from, but first I wanted to find a campsite. As I found a suitable spot free from the trash and horse droppings that were unfortunately present in abundance at the shelter (the rest of the forest, however, was very pristine). The man came over to where I was setting up and invited me to come over to the shelter to share tea and brandy with him and his wife. With a hard day of hiking on legs that had not been on a mountain in over a month and that had not backpacked in much longer, and only half a loaf of white bread to look forward to for dinner, I was eager to jump on any opportunity for something hot to drink. And at this point I had not had a real conversation in person in English in a month and was ready to not stumble over every sentence in mediocre Russian or atrocious Georgian.
The couple ended up being Polish tourists travelling around and camping all over Georgia. The man spoke great English, and we conversed about cultural differences between Poland, America, and Georgia, all the while passing around a single cup that we filled with the tea and brandy a number of times before we decided we had had enough. I thanked them repeatedly for inviting me in to share the elixir with them, as my hopes for the wonders of a hot drink at that moment in time were completely satisfied; it was the perfect end to a long an interesting day. As we said our goodnights I lingered in the shelter, thinking about the trip thus far and what lay ahead of me. What had earlier been anxiety about almost everything—finding transportation, not having enough food for the trip, and the fear of losing the trail—yielded to a penetrating warmth of the tea and brandy as well as the sense that in this country everything has a way of working out. Every situation that could have turned out horribly that day worked out in some of the best ways possible. I had taken me first big solo outing out of the village, I had hitchhiked for the first time in a foreign country (and maybe for the first time ever), I found myself in a pristine forest in the heart of the rugged South Caucasus mountains, and my meager supper was turned into a fortuitous meeting of an interesting couple who shared with me the hot drink that I had been yearning for on the walk. I know that whatever the rest of the trip would throw my way things would manage to turn out just fine.
After surviving the torrential downpour that began to soak everything I had with me and that drove me from my makeshift tarp-tent into the shelter in the middle of the night, I set out early the next morning to make it to the top of Lomismta (2200m above sea level) and in all 18 km to the next shelter. I said goodbye to my Polish friends who were heading back out of the park later that day expecting never to see them again and began the day with a nice uphill climb to remind me legs of what they had done the day before and how they could use to be in better shape. Soon the coolness of the spruce-fir forest gave way to a section of fields with the sun beating down upon it, which combined with my heavy pack and physical exertion to make things very warm, driving me to decide to hike shirtless. I mention this not to invoke in you a nice mental picture of me braving the Caucasus wilderness shirtless, but because this detail is important to what soon followed that constituted one of the most unforgettable experiences I have had in Georgia.
In the fields the trail became hard to follow, as it split into a myriad of livestock paths that seemed to have been formed and molded over decades if not centuries and I once again became anxious about losing the trail, especially when the path seemed to lead to a small shack and horse paddock in the middle of the field. But the trail continued and as I crested the next hill I saw a small building and a few people beside it on the top of a ridge in the distance that overlooked continuous forest on three sides. After consulting my map I figured out that this must be one of the old churches present in the areas of the park that are also regularly used by herders and farmers. There was nothing I could think of about an Orthodox Church in the middle of a pasture overlooking steep forested valleys of the Southern Caucasus wilderness that did not appeal to me, and so I set out along the livestock paths that seemed most oriented in the direction of the church.
After reaching the ridge along which the church is located I soon ran into one of the people I had seen from afar. He completely typified the image that comes to mind when I think of a man from the Caucasus; he was stoutly built with a large hooked Georgian nose, had on a ragged turtleneck and the stubble of a number of days in the mountains on his face. He was leading a white horse along an old cattle trail and at the moment of our meeting was sitting on the ridge above me, glaring at me with a piercing gaze that made me feel that I was far from welcome on that ridge. His eyes that stared me down belied a depth to his life, a hard life of eking out a living on the mountaintops. In a gruff tone he confronted me about where I was going and what I was doing. He insisted he knew Russian, but in fact spoke very little; and so I was left mostly guessing at what he wanted from me in Georgian, unsure of whether I could walk to the church a couple hundred yards away. After an exchange that consisted more of charades than words I realized that what the man wanted from me was for me to put my shirt on before even going close to the church. So I did. He then told me to go to the church, and proceeded to follow close behind the whole way. At this point I felt more unwelcome than I have at any other time in Georgia. I sensed hostility in the man’s voice and a reluctance to let a foreigner enter into a land he considered to be his own; but having made my intentions known, I was not going to let his hostility force me to back down from my journey to the church and its view of the valley below that I had set my sights on. My dismay at his treatment of me only lasted a short time as when I finally made it to the church there was nothing else I could think about other than the vista set before me. From the front of the church extended out on three sides valleys of lush green. I was looking out over the park in all the glory of its pristine forests and the dark, mesic valleys that had captivated me on my walk the day before. In the distance I could make out a series of sparsely distributed villages: the only signs of human presence before me. Those sorts of views were what drove me to the mountains in the first place that weekend, and finding myself high above the rest of the world I felt alive, refreshed, and at peace with myself and my surroundings. This sense of peace was only heightened by the church behind me, for the experience of that place, with the church juxtaposed against the picturesque forest below stands out to me as one of those moments when the connection between faith and the natural world becomes glaringly apparent. That church was built on that mountain for a reason, and it was not for its convenience. That church was placed there for the beauty of the mountains. As the beauty of that land serves as a testament of the artistry of the hand that created it, so that church was built to thank that hand, to give back to Him who first gave that place its beauty. The church and the land consubstantially exist in a unified spirit of praise and thanksgiving for the beauty of the forest and the one who created it in all its glory.
As I went to enter the church I found myself followed by four men, the one who bade me enter to begin with, two young men around my own age, and another older Georgian whose appearance also denoted a hard life in the mountains, although his visage was altogether friendlier than that of the man I first met. None of these men said much to me, they just quietly shuffled into the church.
The interior of the church was not like that of the magnificent cathedrals of this country: there were no massive arches or domes, no gilded iconostasis, and few signs of regular use. There were a few icons hanging, one of the Theotokos in a gilded case before the bare marble altar, and a pile of icons to be bought or hung at a later time sitting gathering dust in a corner. The walls were stark white, the altar bare marble, and on the altar sat a stack of small beeswax candles and a few lari offered by passing travellers or the church’s regulars in exchange for a candle to accompany a prayer before the image of the Virgin and her child. It was simple in design, but powerful in spirit. It was clear that the church was the product of people who honestly and truly believed. They did not question whether it was worth it to build a church somewhere so remote, to put money into a sanctuary that would be used so sparingly. And it seems that at least that day their work was not in vain. The peace given me by my hike, the view of the forest, and the experience of being more than a mile high in the Caucasus left me in a state of spirit that prepared me and beckoned me to take time in that church, to offer up a few solemn prayers and to let the simultaneous feelings of joy, solemnity, and quietude wash over me and fill me.
This sense of reverence was heightened as I turned to the men coming in behind me. Up until this point they had said little to me other than scolding me for trying to walk to the church shirtless, and so I did not know whether they had any intention of being friendly or if they were keeping a close eye on me out of mistrust. But in that moment in the church I saw the second older Georgian man walk to the icon in front of the altar, bow, kiss it, cross himself, then proceed to pick up three candles. He took one of them, handed it to me without saying a word, and proceeded to light his own candle, offering up a prayer from the heart to be embodied in its flame. In that moment any wall of mistrust I perceived in the others was broken down and that spirit of Georgian hospitality, a spirit that trusts unquestioningly, shone forth. I took my candle, lit it before an icon of St. George and said some words of thanksgiving for all that had brought me to that point—all the people who had influenced me and all the events that had led to me being in Georgia doing the work I am here to do, and specifically for those that brought me to that church.
I left the church after the Georgians and as I did they greeted me and began to ask me questions—the usual ones about who I was, what I was doing in Georgia, and whatever else immediately came to their mind. It became quickly apparent that none of them spoke much Russian and that I was to understand little of their Georgian, but despite these difficulties I was still able to understand that they were inviting me back to their “apartment” to drink ch’a-ch’a and have something to eat. Not wanting to pass up an opportunity to have a meal more impressive than the half loaf of bread that I had rationed myself for lunch and excited at the prospect of trying more communication with the Georgians I immediately accepted the invitation. We set off, the two older men leading their horses along and the younger ones walking alongside me, and soon reached their “apartment,” the shack I had passed earlier. We sat down around a picnic table and the meal began.
They brought out the usual fare of a Georgian meal: tomatoes, cucumbers, parsley, khachapuri, cheese, and sausage; it was hearty food—exactly what I wanted and needed at that point. And then came the ch’a-ch’a. They mixed two bottles of liquid together, one completely clear (I’m assuming the stronger of the two) and one with a little color and some grape seeds floating in it. I to this day do not know what or why they were mixing, whether they were cutting the strong stuff or just consolidating resources, but I was not in a place to answer questions. Next they brought out our shot glasses: the necks of plastic bottles cut off with the lids still attached, which made for perfect-sized vessels. The meal began with the men forcing all the food I could want on me, handing me pieces of khachapuri and platefuls of vegetables as fast as I could eat them. Things started off awkwardly, as we had yet to figure out how to speak with one another and come to much understanding, but I was content to eat and admire the view from the shack. But then the toasts began. We went through the gamut of typical Georgian toasts, toasting to our families, our home countries, and me as a guest, but there was one toast that really touched me. It was one offered to the brother of one of the older men who had died the year before. This toast was especially touching when I found out who each of the men were. The older man offering the toast is a park ranger who was riding along patrolling the park, and who before that day he had not met the other man, a cattle herder on the mountain, and his two sons. It was the Park Ranger offering the toasts, and he toasted to the other man’s deceased brother to whom we drank. It was a moment in which the men’s rough exterior gave way to something so universally human: sympathy over the pain of a loved one lost. The rough exterior that they both put on could not hide the tenderness of camaraderie that began to emerge among the five of us dining and drinking together.
It was around this point, a few toasts of ch’a-ch’a in that communication became easier. We had no language in common that we could speak with any proficiency, but that ceased to be so important. Through our of experience of eating and drinking together, we began to understand each other better, to see past the layers of language and culture that separated us and to see each other as people, celebrating the act of eating, of nourishing ourselves for a day’s labor. It was at this point that I thought the ch’a-ch’a was to run out, a fact that had me very relieved, but I should have known better. We had exhausted the store of the cattle-herder, but, naturally, the park ranger had brought his own bottle to share with us. Luckily for me the five of us would not be alone to finish the bottle. Soon on the same path I had first come to the shack I saw my Polish friends from the night before heading along the field on the way to the mountaintop. Through a series of words in Russian and Georgian and a few gestures I realized that my new Georgian friends wanted the couple to join us, and so I led them to our table. More shots went around and more food was forced on each of us guests, and all the while I got to serve as a translator, somehow conveying the meaning (or at least the spirit) of each toast to the Polish couple. It was at that time I realized just how little of communication is actually accomplished through words and how much communication depends on the shared experience of the interlocutors. It was only after spending time with the four men, eating and drinking alongside them, that I began to be able to successfully communicate with them.
The change in the Georgians from the time I met them to the end of our meal was amazing. They had opened up, become extremely amiable, and as it was time to say our goodbyes they bid me to stay longer and the park ranger was giving me a thumbs up, pointing at me and saying k’ai k’atsi, which only later did I discover means “good man.” I departed from them with a warmth permeating my body from the joy of such a wonderful and unexpected feast atop Lomismta as well as the strong ch’a-ch’a that was still percolating through my body. I stumbled off through the fields where their cattle grazed along a ridge line overlooking two sides of the forest, amazed by everything around me, struck with the same sense I had the day before that in this country, things have a way of working out and that what I had experienced was not a chance encounter, but something inevitable, an event without other possibility. That day could have had no other beginning than that I would meet those men at that church and that we would have that feast together. From that point forward, nothing else that would happen that day, even the things that normally would make me extremely anxious, would be able to shake my inner peace. I was alone again in the wilderness, filled with the warmth of an experience unlike any I had ever had.
I expected little else to compare to that experience on top of that mountain, but the Georgian people tried hard to match it. After the beautiful weather of the morning and my meal atop the mountain, the whole rest of the day rain fell ceaselessly, vacillating between a nice sprinkle and a torrential downpour. I stumbled down the mountains, forded creeks, slept off the last of the ch’a-ch’a in my body with a nap in a field in the rain, was wetter than I have ever been on a backpacking trip, and missed the turn to my next night’s shelter, but nothing could shake my sense of joy over the trip I had embarked on. I knew that forest was where I needed to be, and with that outlook, the rain became something to be thankful for: it was a necessary part of that place that helped make it what I loved it for. I was filled with a feeling of contentment, of being wholly alive in that place. I was not anxious and restless as I had been in the village, always questioning myself whether I was utilizing my time to the fullest or whether there was much more I needed to be doing; instead, I knew I was where I needed to be, doing what I ought to do.
After having hiked twenty miles that day I found myself walking along a roadbed along a roaring river, with waterfalls periodically falling down the sheer cliffs to my right in the river gorge. It was along this road that I had my next experience with Georgians in the forest that both exemplifies their hospitality and contributed to my belief that here everything has a way of working out. In the dimming light of the day, as I was beginning to get anxious about not knowing exactly where I was, whether I was on the right path, or how much further I would have to walk that night, I came across two older Georgian men standing outside of some Soviet-era approximation of a Jeep. They greeted me with hesitation, obviously unsure of what to make of a smelly, long-haired, unshaven American stumbling through the woods alone with a large pack on, but they asked me a few questions about who I was and what I was doing, and, when sure that I was alone and meant no harm, they greeted me in typical Georgian fashion—they handed me a piece of meat that was more pork fat than anything else, a hunk of white bread, and filled me up three large cups of wine in quick succession. We chatted for a few minutes, these three old Georgian men, a young girl of about nine or ten, and myself, then they sent me on my way, stuffing my pockets with hazelnuts and commanding me not to tell anyone of the encounter. This command seemed odd at the time, but as the road we were on took me to a closed gate at the entrance to the park that obviously meant nobody was to be driving their Jeeps back there, I realized that their relief at me being alone and their last order was a product of them not wanting to get caught trespassing in the park. While in general I would be against people trespassing in such a park, threatening to disturb otherwise undisturbed habitats, I cannot fault people willing to give so much to a passing stranger, filling him with food and drink for the last few kilometers of hiking he has ahead of him.
Soon after this encounter, fueled on by the Georgian wine and hearty food again sitting in my stomach I made my way to the entrance of the park and got permission from the ranger to pass out on his lawn, which may or may not be an acceptable or official place to camp, and weathered out the intermittent rain that had done its best to soak me to the core all day on a long picnic table under a roof that kept me dry. Thus ended one of the most unreal and unforgettable days of my life. I walked along meadows more impressive than I had ever seen looking out over a forest whose beauty was spoken by every tree: a forest whose life has been preserved despite being surrounded by human civilization for hundreds of thousands of years; I hiked twenty miles despite drinking and feasting twice with Georgians I had never met before; and I prayed in a church a mile high in the Caucasus Mountains. I left that trip feeling more alive than I have in a long time; my body was exhausted but my spirit was exhilarated. I was not able to process all of this until I was on the train heading back to Supsa (I happened to stumble up to the train station 10min. before my train, the only one that day, was departing), but when I began to reflect I realized that everything was as it had to be, that in my trip to Borjomi I had had had a brush with actualization, coming alive in my hike, in a weekend wandering alone, in unexpected meals with new friends, and in prayers offed in a mountainside church. It was an altogether singular experience, one I suspect will not be matched any time soon, and one that will remain with me for years to come.
I would also like to mention that on this trip I found my blog's namesake. On day two of my trip I stumbled across hillsides covered in Rhododendron shrubs barely a meter tall, fitting perfectly the description of Rhododnedron caucasicum. It was a wonderful find, but will be even better in June, when I return to Borjomi to see the plant in full bloom.
As a little preview of things to come, I have vowed to write entries more frequently, to write about teaching, and to give some perspective on the aftermath of the Soviet Union in Georgia. Hopefully they won't be too disappointing.