Over the frontier, the road to Georgia
Trip Start Feb 20, 2002
26Trip End Nov 18, 2002
Having only stayed at the monestary in Trabzon, the Turkish city on the eastern side of the country, closest to Georgia, where I had come to have the uber-expensive Georgian visa pasted onto the 4th last page in my soon-to-be-full passport, I quickly packed up and walked through the Russian bazaar to the dodgy looking bus ticket office where I'd booked my ticket to Tblisi, the capital of Georgia a few hours before.
It was raining out side, although I did my best to stay dry before getting to the office, the massive pellets of water soaked me to the bone.
"Hello, where are you from?" the Turkish student asked me as I sat in the ticket office and adjusted my backpack next to me and my day pack between my legs, the safest place for it
"Konya, in south Turkey" Touran replied
The 4 Turkish university students were on their way to their university, in Tblisi as well. We chatted to pass the time before the bus arrived.
"Hey Touran, I hear that sometimes the border police asks for bribes, is that true?" I'd read time and time again that crossing the Georgian border meant fighting your way through countless encounters with corrupt police asking for bribes and making false accusations and arrests, demanding money.
"Yes of course."
"Really?" It *was* true.
"Do you pay the bribes?"
"Yes, I did at the beginning, it always goes faster crossing the border if you just pay, but now I speak a little Georgian and just tell them I am a student and have no money, which usually works, do you have a student card?"
"Yes..." I said thinking of my fake ISIC student card which I had purchased in a dodgy shop on Bangkok's Kao Sahn road months before. The card had saved me hundreds of dollars in entry fees so far but never did I think it would save me on the Georgian border
"Ok, take all your money, hide it. Take the student card and your passport and keep them in your pocket but not too obvious because you may get pickpocketed on the bus. Then take 3 US dollars and keep that as well, you will have to pay for a "Computer Fee" at the border, that is all you need."
I scrounged around for my passport and student card, started thinning out my wallet and preparing my border crossing bundle.
"One last thing, never ever give anyone, not even police, your passport. Because once they have it, then your in for it. They'll not give it back unless you pay some ridiculous amount for some stupid reason they will make up. Just show them your student card."
"Don't worry, we will get you through the border. We will help."
The service taxi finally arrived and we all jumped in
When we puttered up to the bus, I knew that the passed 15 days in Turkey, with it's excellent bus system and tourist infrastructure was about to come to a grinding halt.
The bus was old. A USSR legacy, belching fumes and filled to the brim with passengers. Pre-assigned seats meant nothing here, when we jammed ourselves into the bus, it was every-man-for-himself, chaos. The fact that I had a massive backpack didn't help either. After 10 minutes of shouting, yelling, pushing and changing seats, I was finally settled in, into what, I wasn't sure.
Unlike Turkish buses, this bus was over stuffed with passengers, which all seemed to be smoking, even the pregnant woman with her baby on her lap was sucking away at an endless chain of Georgian cigarettes. The thick clouds of smoke hovered in the bus searching for an escape, but windows shut, unable to open, the bus would remain a tube of white mist for the 20 hour, overnight journey.
The bus wobbled and jumped up and down as we inched towards the frontier
I carefully navigated the isle, filled with people, bags and trash, to flop down on the floor next to Touran.
"Crazy isn't it?" Touran said looking around and puffing on his Turkish cigarette calmly.
"Yeah, wasn't expecting this. "
"In Turkey do you see busses like this? No... this is crazy."
"Yeah it'll take some adjustment... that's for sure, so Touran, is it dangerous in Tblisi?"
"Yes of course" he said it as though it was something I should have known.
"Ok, here is my mobile phone number, if you ever get arrested or into trouble, just call me and I will help. Best you just stay in after 7pm though, there are alot of bad people around."
"Really? Like who?"
"There are alot of Terrorists from Chechnya in Georgia and sometimes they make it down to Tblisi."
"Terrorists? Your kidding."
"No, serious, didn't you know that Terrorists from Chechnya went to fight with Bin Laden in Afghanistan?"
"So be careful
"Police car" he shook the first hand
"Bus" he spread out his hands to show that the tourist bus was in behind of the police escort.
"and then another policy car" he said wiggling his right hand.
"Luc, just be careful very bad things can happen" Touran was paranoid about the country and it's people because of things that had happened to him and his friends, I would later learn that Georgians didn't tend to like Turks too much due to passed wars, this may have had something to do with his concerns.
"Ok, listen I can't sit down here any more... we'll talk later" I said, pulling myself up, slamming into the bus door and slowly wobbling back to my seat.
I opened my guidebook and read feverously. I hadn't had the time to fully read up on the details of the country and had 20 hours to do it now.
"Hello, I overheard you speaking to the Turkish boys, where are you staying in Tblisi?" The Georgian woman sitting in front of me asked stretching her neck around over the seat. She was nitting a blue Georgian shirt and her 19 year old son sat next to her
"Actually, believe it or not, I don't know. I usually figure it out when I arrive in a city. I have a book." I said raising my guide book.
She laughed "You don't know where to stay yet? This is Georgia, there are not many hotels, and they are expensive. I have a big house near the center of the city. If you would like you can stay with us."
The offer to stay with them came so quickly that I was skeptical.
"Uhh, really, thanks. Ummm... let me read my guide book first and then I'll let you know, but thanks."
I was unsure as to how legitimate the offer was.
"I understand, Luc, but you will quickly learn that Georgians are very hospitable."
I had heard that in Georgia people were unbelievably hospitable but I never expected to find a homestay this fast. I'd even emailed 4 agencies and requested homestays in Georgia but hadn't received a reply. 'This could be a great opportunity' I thought.
After consulting the Turkish boys and having half the bus tell me that almost every hotel in my guide book was closed or housed only refugees, I accepted Maria's offer
"Excellent, you will enjoy your time with us."
Just as we finished speaking I noticed the bus driver's assistant walking down the isle collecting mounds of cash from passengers. I ran to the back and asked Touran what was going on.
"It's a bribe" he said smiling in an I-told-you-so way.
"Really, already... what do we do?"
He pulled the bag next to him off the seat and pull me down hurriedly to sit next to him.
"Just sit hear, I'll talk to him, don't say a word."
As the man approached I yanked all 6 of my rings off discreetly and slid them into my day pack.
When the man reached us, Touran smiled and spoke in Georgian to him. He looked a little mad, shook his head and walked back to the front.
"I told him we are students"
"You can't bleed a stone"
"right... so what are the bribes for anyways?"
"Safe passage, the attendant needs the money to bribe the Georgia border police, it's about 200$US per bus."
"... and if you don't pay?"
"Then the bus doesn't go... "
"Damn, why doesn't the government do something."
He laughed. "The government is like the mafia here, they are worse then the border police."
Happy to have survived my first bribing incident, I went back to my seat to safeguard my bag.
After 6 hours, we reached the border, Touran tapped my shoulder
"Come with me, quickly"
We rushed out of the bus into the dark night and ran, along with his friends to the Turkish border to get our passports stamped. Behind us, 50 Georgians followed all rushing to get in front of the queue.
We had been one of the first and the exit stamp was taken easily.
"No problem, this is the easy side, now follow me."
We walked through the gates onto the Georgian side, in the pouring rain, passed giant gates and cammo clad rifle totting men.
"Welcome to Georgia" Touran whispered, eyeing the guards.
"Now is the hard part, come."
My money was well hidden and I was ready
The man squinted, looked through the small hole in the large window and asked me some questions in Georgian, Touran replied for me. "... tourist..." The man looked shocked.
He scrutinised my documents and then threw the passport into a hole in the wall to the next booth.
We walked over to the next checkpoint where a queue had formed. We waited for our passports to be held up by the officer. When a Canadian one finally was called out, we stepped up. I handed over my 3 US $ and waited... tic toc... every second seemed to pass like hours.
Finally after much searching on his computer, he handed me my passport. I sighed a huge gush of relief
"You pass..." Touran's friend quietly said into my ear smiling. "Now go" he said pointing to the customs area.
We walked out and into the rain, into a empty garage where 2 military men sat back lazily in a chair.
Touran pushed the small of my back motioning me forward. "Go...", We both advanced.
This was the hard part, I was told. Where the police would examine all of my bags and demand extra bribes for unimaginable reasons of which I would stand firm and ask for their supervisor, then to see the written law that said I would have to pay.
The men flipped through my passport and Touran nervously spoke to them.
From the hand signals, it looked as thought Touran was telling them that I was a tourist and his friend, coming to visit him.
The guard looked at us. "Tourist? Canada? Turkish?"
This went on for 5 minutes and finally we passed through to the other side.
"Oh my god..
"Really?.. why do you think?"
"Maybe because it is raining, when it snows it is good as well because they don't want to waste time in the cold. Now we celebrate! " We were relieved, he was still in shock that nothing had happened.
We entered the bus as he told me stories where he'd waited 12 hours for everyone to pay bribes before being allowed to pass through.
We'd made it! On to Tblisi!
I sat back in my seat where Maria's son, George was sitting. He looked over at me.
"How do you feel Mr. Luc?" he asked smiling.
"Very good, no problems!"
"Yes, this time it was easy for you Mr. Luc, now sleep, tomorrow morning you will be in Tblisi"
Another round of bribe collection from the bus driver's assistant passed, of which I managed to pass through without paying, and we were off.
-- Saint Maria
When we arrived in Tblisi, the Turkish boys left for their dorms at the university and I followed Maria and her son George home where I was to stay as their guest.
Their house was an old one. Over 100 years old. It had a long hallway, which was covered but opened to the outside, which reminded me of a cottage home. All of the rooms were attached to the open hallway. As I walked in, chickens, which supplied fresh eggs for the family, clucked around my feet. The house had been severely hit during the 2 earth quakes which rocked Tblisi and the cracks in the walls showed proof. Maria, a proud Georgian herself, felt ashamed showing me into the house. She had been in Greece with George making money so that they could move to a new house and hadn't seen her family or husband since. This was her first time back since. When we arrived her husband made tea and we sat down in the large living room. The family had been rich in communist days but since the USSR broke apart, poverty took hold on the large majority of the people. Maria explained that when the USSR collapsed, all their money which was in the bank was seized and that only the rich officials prospered by keeping money and opening legitimate businesses like banks and such
"Luc, I would like you to please stay but we are very poor, we have no hot water because the gas is expensive. When the USSR was still here, gas was cheap and always on, now an American company owns the gas and it is very expensive. "
She reminisced "I remember reading a quote from an American politician visiting. In Tblisi, the rich are very rich, but only 10 % are rich, and of course corrupt. So Tbilisi has many Casino's. One American said 'If Georgia is so poor, then why do you have so many casinos?" she laughed quietly.
"Ahhh life was good before, when communism was here. "
"Luc, if you prefer nicer living, I can show you hotel but if you stay here and would like good food, just buy it and I will cook. Don't buy for us, just for you."
I felt horrible to be witnessing her state of complete sadness.
"Maria, maybe I could pay you a little for a room"
She turned towards me slowly. "Luc, it is not our custom, I cannot take money from a guest."
I had read that even offering money to a Georgian was considered an offense but in the situation, I wanted to offer help
"Maria, I would love to stay here, I haven't had hot water in 7 months, it's ok."
Maria smiled and seemed delighted that I would stay with her family.
"Good! Now you sleep in me and my husband's room. We will sleep in other room."
I jumped in. "Nonono... please I can sleep on a couch really it's ok."
"Luc! Please, you are our guest! You stay how long? One year? No. One week. So you sleep in my room! I insist!"
I soon came to learn that attempting to refuse their hospitality was futile and sometimes insulting and grew accustomed to accepting their unimaginable generosity.
"Now we eat. Come."
We all headed to the kitchen where cheese, bread and an egg had been set out by her husband
"Luc, My husband make this Cognac himself, please drink." It was 7 am.
I had heard of how much Georgians drank but hardly expected a shot of Cognac for breakfast. I accepted and they all toasted to me and for safe travels.
I slammed the hot liquid back, to which, my glass was refilled immediately. It was only after the 2nd drink and I had to put my hand over the glass to stop it from being refilled.
Maria stood up and went to the over to discover that the gas had come on.
"Luc! We have gas. Quick now you shower with hot water."
I was happy to have some hot water because it was freezing cold in the house. Mornings in Tblisi, during autumn, were cold, and a freezing ice cold shower wasn't what I was looking forward to
After showering, I was still slightly buzzed from 2 shots of cognac and 2 nights of non-sleep aboard night busses. To catch up on sleep I passed out for 5 hours as the entire family dropped in to say hello to Maria. 2 years having passed since she was last home, she had alot of catching up to do.
When I awoke, Maria had laid out some delicious foods for us. I sat, ate and talked some more.
Maria explained how in Greece she swept floors for money and sent the funds home to her husband. In Greece she was treated poorly, as a sweeper, but in Georgia, she was an educated, highly respected teacher. She was heart broken and depressed but her friends an family treated her well, something she was having a hard time to adjust to. "It will take weeks before I can be accustomed to this."
"So, Luc. what do you do tomorrow?"
"Well I was thinking about taking a bus to Mtshketa."
"Bus? Nono... first we find you a car and driver then we all go together. I have many friends here."
Maria's kindness was never ending. I was surprised and glad to hear of the car because in Georgia, tourists simply didn't exist.
I had been in the house recovering for the entire day and was keen to walk out into the streets to see what the city was like. Her house was conveniently close to the city center and I prepared for a journey outside.
"You are going for a walk? Oh my... please be careful. Do not take your bag and here..." Maria took a piece of paper, scribbled a map and wrote a note ala I-am-lost-please-help in Georgian for me to take.
"Don't go too far and please come back in one hour. I will be worried while you are away."
"Ok, thanks again..." I walked off. The sun was setting and the old communist-era houses along the road were painted dark, warm tangerine colors.
I walked passed kurdish refugee stalls selling fruits, passed buildings which were half built, relics from construction projects which were halted after the wars which ensued following the collapse of the USSR, and passed crumbling hotels which had since been turned into refugee camps.
When the sun was teetering over the sky line I walked home before dark came
-- French Friends...
Maria was dying to see her old friend and insisted I come along. It was dark outside and Maria demanded I leave my money and bag at the house. I did and we walked off quickly to Manane's house with her.
The street lights were off, Maria explained that the government wasn't paying for the electricity needed for the lights. She took my arm and pulled me into the road.
"Luc, after all of the earth quakes, we walk in road. Away from the side walk." The side walks were full of cracks and holes which hadn't been fixed since the earth quakes.
When we arrived at the communist style, square block building where Manane lived, the lights were off inside the stairwell. Maria flicked the switch several times and cussed in Georgian. She sighed "No money for light."
We walked up in the darkness to her apartment and were greeted with kisses and hugs from an old friend.
"Come in! Come in!"
We sat in the small room which doubled as her bedroom and living room, bed tucked away in the corner, and talked. Luckily, she was a french teacher and we could talk in French.
"Luc, pour quoi est ce que to vien ici?" she said asking why I came to Georgia in these dangerous times.
"Ahhh, j'ai entendu que les gens et le pays est tres fantastic." I explained that I had heard that the people and country were fantastic.
"Tu est tres brave" she continued to explain that Terrorists were now in the city, from Muslim Chechnya and that I should take care.
As we left, Maria explained that Manane was sadened that she could not offer me food because she only had enough for her husband, Manane, although she worked 3 jobs, could barely make enough to feed her family.
"Manane used to be lovely but now..." Maria had a way of coming right out and telling me how someone used to be handsome or beautiful but now they had lost their looks and weren't attractive, something which seemed insulting at first but after hearing her candidly describe her friend's appearances, I became used to it.
-- Micheal Owen!
When I arrived back at Maria's, 6 large men, friends, were huddled around the kitchen table, toasting cheerfully and glowing with a cognac induced happiness.
"Luc! Come and join us." George offered.
Maria and her son were the only 2 who spoke English but the kind family and friends around the table greeted me as one of them and we drank shot after shot, in the Georgian customary way of toasting. One after the other. Finally I made a toast which was translated to great approval from everyone.
The man sitting next to me tapped my shoulder and shouted Micheal Owen! While touching my cheek.
"George, what did he say?" Asking for a translation but I laughed already knowing the answer.
"He say you look like Micheal Owen." I clapped my hands and laughed harder. In Thailand I had been told the same and was in histerics over the comparison.
I told them of the Thailand episodes and they all raised their glasses laughing.
When 7 glasses of Cognac had finally been downed (in 2 short hours), some of the drunken Georgians called it a night. They had arrived drunk and were now pickled. As they left, they all shook hands and kissed each other's cheek.
One of the uncles made sure to have George tell me not to think that they were homosexual and that it was a custom. Something he reaffirmed by pumping his chest and shaking a fist.
As they all left, I, in turn, stood and shook hands and kissed their cheeks.
They all smiled and slapped my back. George turned to me and said "Their
are very honored that you are saying goodbye like a Georgian.'
The kitchen, was empty for the first time since I had arrived and it was late. Tired, I retreated to my room for some sleep.
I had just arrived in a new country and had logistics to take care of, something Maria wasn't willing to let me do alone. "Nono, I will come with you!"
First, Maria and I went off to find a bank which would work with my ATM card, which we found after 2 busses, 3 metros and 1 mini bus. Then to the Azerbaijan embassy. Azerbaijan, the neighboring country next to Georgia was my next stop and I needed to get through the complicated logistics of applying for a visa. Maria's help came in very handy as practically no one spoke english. She translated that I would need a local sponsor for my visa to Azerbaijan, something I suspected and we left to go back home wondering how we could get one. Maria had a friend in Azerbaijan and she thought that maybe I could get a letter from her but I would try to get a reservation for a hotel which would serve the same purpose in the meanwhile.
On the way home, we sat in the bus and talked. Maria tapped my shoulder and turned me around. She had her chin on the rear of my seat and hands cross under it. She was smiling as she usually did, "Luc, why do you go so soon, stay longer. Please" I explained that I had a schedule to follow but was touched by her generosity.
"Maybe, I have to see what my schedule is like. Thank you again for all your help and generosity Maria."
She shook her head. "Please, it is nothing."
When we arrived back at the house, George was sitting in the living room with 2 old friends, eating sweets and drinking Cognac. "Luc, come, sit here." George and Maria had a commanding way of speaking at times which took some getting used to.
I pulled up a chair and sat. George's friend was the first to take the chance to toast. When he finished I asked George. "What did he say?"
"He wishes you safe travels and is honored that you have come to visit our country."
I turned to him and thanked him. After a round of toasts it was my turn. I had to think about what to say. Georgians were toasting masters, when called upon they could spew out a beautiful 10 minute toast without hesitation, when it came to me, I struggled to find 2 sentences to string together, luckily no one spoke english aside from Maria and George, which made me seem like not so much of a dolt.
After I toasted, all shook their heads approvingly and slammed back the drink.
"Very beautiful toast Luc, thank you."
-- Tblisi sightseeing.
Buzzing from the drinks, I retired for an afternoon nap. It only took 30 minutes for Maria to knock on the door with an offer though.
"Luc, we have car now, would you like to go?"
"Yeah sure, let's go..."
Maria's friend had come by and offered to take us around town. We all drove around town, seeing the main sights which dotted ancient Tblisi. Churches, monestaries and mountains, Tblisi was an old city. It is said that Georgia was the 2nd country in history to convert to Christianity, first being Armenia, then Georgia, then the Roman Empire under Emperor Constantine. Although Maria insisted that Armenia was the 4th, I thought that perhaps her jaded view of the Armenia, Georgia's long time enemy, may have been the source of opinion rather than history books.
When we arrived atop a hill overlooking Tblisi, all went quiet. We walked out passed a giant mansion-like building on the edge of the cliff. It was heavily bombed out and was in ruins.
"This used to be a restaurant before the war. After the USSR collapsed the officials went to war with each other and gunned out the entire city, now some is rebuilt but not this. It will take years."
She explained that the hill top used to be full of people having fun, laughing, drinking but now, it was a quiet desolate place. We were the only people there. The lift which used to ferry people from down below to the top was sitting idle. It ceased to work after the fires and was never rebuild.
"Tblisi is full of places like this." George told me in a somber tone.
It was hard to imagine that this quiet sad place once buzzed with life. Now only ruined restaurants, broken glass and ghostly buildings remained.
We quietly walked back to the car and made our way for groceries and then back to the house.
On the way back I got out at an Internet cafe and promised to meet them later.
The Internet was surprisingly fast for a 3rd world country and leaving the cafe I had a warm sense of familiarity which I hadn't felt in a long time.
I walked home, buying some flowers which I'd seen maria ogling the day before.
When I arrived, I gave her the flowers and was met with a surprising protest.
"Luc! Nonono, why do you spend money? Do not buy me flowers... you are my guest!"
"But Maria, it is to say thank you. I know you like them. "
"To say Magaloba!" I explained in Georgian.
She sighed, smiled and accepted them. The unusual protest made me immediately scratch my earlier idea of buying groceries for the family later in the week.
Once the Georgian pride of being hospitable and accepting nothing from guests passed, she smiled and admitted to being happy that I bought her the flowers.
It was miraculous what food Maria could whip up on the meager supplies provided. That night as usual, we ate like kings and queens.
I passed the night away playing chess with George. Apparently for 30 years the world's best chess players were from Georgia, and women at that. This was no longer but the legacy of chess playing still held strong.
Once mentally exhausted from chasing kings and queens across the chess board, I retired and slept.
-- How to get to Azerbaijan?
I awoke every morning to a usual feast of breads, cheeses, sausages, sweets and several shots of Georgian Vodka. Over the passing days Maria had been busy, and so had I.
I had been planning my logistics to get to Baku, the capital of Azerbaijan and was meeting my own challenges. The visa for Georgia's neighboring country was a difficult one to get and I was frantically searching the Internet and visiting the embassy trying to find out just how I could get it. Finally I found a way. By booking a night in Azerbaijan's most expensive hotel and using the email confirmation, I could get a visa. After several visits to the embassy, I finally had the elusive travel document firmly lodged into page 23 of my passport.
Getting to Baku was any other problem. Although my guide book said differently, Maria was sure there were trains to the capital. Before moving to Greece to earn some cash to send home, Maria worked in Georgia's Security Services, Georgia's equivalent to America's FBI. In Georgia, this was a powerful friend to have. After a few quick calls, Maria rushed into my room with good news.
"Luc! We have news."
"Yes of course."
I smiled and rustled out of bed.
"There is a night train to Baku."
"and... I will get you a ticket, through my friends at the security services. It will be in first class. Very safe. You will also only pay half the price as you will be on the train as a security services diplomat!"
"That's excellent! When do I leave?"
"Well, they asked me for a date but I told them that I did not want to give them one yet because I wanted you to stay longer" Maria sheepishly smiled..
As usual, Maria came through. A small bribe to an "old friend" in her office and I was set for Baku.
-- Lazy days in Georgia.
For days on end, I sat out back in Maria's yard, reading, watching the chickens strut passed my hammock which I had strewn across 2 trees and played chess with Maria's husband, Margumi.
Margumi, was a masterful player. He had been taught by a chess grand master and had himself taught chess players, of which, his prize student had won 6 championships herself.
I never did win one single game but hoped to have learned something from my trials.
Time and time again, he would announce "Matt!", which was one of the very few english words he knew and used often. I would look down at the board and ask, "How?", he would then quickly shuffle my peons and men around in various positions showing me that no matter what I did he would win within the next 3, 4 or sometimes even 5 moves.
-- Day Trip
Being with Maria and her family took patience and flexibility. Most of the time I had no idea what was going on or where we were going or what the plan for the day, if there infact was one, was.
That morning, the fierce clucking of chickens shook me from a deep sleep. I walked outside to see Urami tip toeing eagerly and smiling, down to the chicken coop. The chickens had laid a fresh batch of eggs! Breakfast.
When everyone awoke and we sat to munch on some soft shelled fresh eggs, I offered to help.
"George, let me make the coffee today"
"Why?" george asked confused
"Because I can make it."
"I can make it too..." George turned away and went on to cooking with Maria.
No matter how I tried to help, I was never allowed to. From time to time, I would sneak my plate into the sink and try to wash a few without anyone noticing, which would of course incite cries of "Luc! Why do you help? You make me ashamed!"
That day, after eating, Maria informed me that we we off on a day trip.
"We go now, come!"
I had wanted to visit this holy Georgian church since I'd arrived. Unknowing to me, Maria had arranged for Gella to drive the family around for the day.
We visited the holy church, lakes and famous Georgian sites. All the while, Maria added historical insight, George tugged at my sleeve to add commentary and Gella blasted Georgian music on the radio. By the day's end, my head was spinning.
When we returned home, friends were waiting in the living room.
"Luc, she asks how you like destroyed Tblisi?" Maria asked, translating for her friend.
"Ahhh, it's wonderful"
-- Dog fighting
I flipped over on my bed and shouted out,
"Luc, it's George, if you would like to go to Dog Fight, it is now."
"Uhh, yeah sure..."
It was 11am.
"Umm, George, the dog fights are during the day? Isn't it illegal?"
"No of course not. Come!"
We hopped into Gella's car and shuttled off to find the fights. I had always imagined dog fights to take place in grungy basements with big fat men waving 100$ bills in the air, shouting wildly and sloshing back Vodka from the bottle, but not in Georgia.
George explained that every weekend, locals brought their dogs to the fields were they would fight it out. I had little idea what to expect, aside from an interesting experience.
George, Gella, Urami and I drove around town for hours looking for the fights but when George finally admitted that the fights had moved to some unknown location, my adrenaline died down and we settled for watching the fights on his TV from video's he had as a child.
Initially I was shocked and appalled by the fights but once George explained that they weren't fights to the death, simply dogs going at each other for 10 minutes, I realized that it wasn't much different that boxing. Much like humans belting away at each other until one could no longer stand, the dogs did the same but always seemed to be stopped if anything dangerous, like a bite to the neck, was taking place.
Sitting there, the whole family and a smattering of friends sat around the TV and watched in awe.
After a few fights I retired to my room.
-- Danger? Where?
After 5 days in Tblisi, I had a hard time seeing what Maria was so worried about. Despite countless warnings and buckets motherly care poured over me, I began to wonder if the state of worry she and her friends put me in was legitimate or simply concern for a foreign guest. Sure, Tblisi wasn't as safe as say, Canada, but from being in the city for several days, I couldn't see it being worse than, Isreal, India or Burma.
Perhaps ignorance is bliss.
-- Drinking Heavy Weights
Georgians liked, no, LOVED to drink. Drinking was a deeply rooted passion as sacred as going to church.
When I was told that friends and family were coming over for a meal, I knew it would involve multiple bottles of flowing Vodka.
That night, a dozen friends and family sat around the table laughing, drinking and eating. Although English was only spoken by Maria and her son, everyone tried their best to communicate with me and I felt as very much as part of the family.
Umari opened the first 2 bottles of Vodka, immediately tossing away the bottle caps, we wouldn't be needing those.
"Luc, my brother in law asks why you come here,"
I explained that I read on the Internet that the people were one of a kind in Georgia. To which, they all laughed and agreed.
"... He says" Maria translated her brother in law's reply, "Did you not also read on the Internet that we cut off the heads of tourists?"
I laughed lightly wondering why he would say that.
Maria continued quickly, "But Luc, it's ok, just in the north."
"Did tourists get their heads cut off?"
"It's ok in Tblisi, don't worry, just in the mountains, the rebels from Chechnya."
She never did answer.
The night went on and as did the drinking. One by one, a toast was offered by the toast master, which George would translate, and we would all drink, offering our toast in turn.
As per toasting etiquette, a toast was offered to a given subject, friends, deceased, family, hosts, food, country, and then others would toast to the same theme. If one wanted to begin a toast, permission would have to be given by the toast master. After identifying the toast master, I asked permission and toasted to Gella, our driver for 3 days and to whom I was very much grateful. Applause and hand shakes came as all approved of my giving of appreciation. Toasting Georgian style was fun, and something I would bring home to Canada.
I had been mentally preparing for this drinking binge for days and knew how much I would have to imbibe without causing offense. Passing on a toast was seen as very bad and showing that you were drunk, even worse. I held my own for the 20 shots of back-to-back Vodka, mostly because of the large amounts of food which I stuffed back before the drinking began, to act as a sponge vodka. When the guests slowly began to leave I offered to help again.
"Luc, why do you help?"
"Because in Canada, we help each other."
"But you are not in Canada."
"Yes, but I am Canadian." I rushed in to grab plates and shuttle them into the house before George could protest.
When all the guests left, I was under the impression that I was still relatively sober and offered Umari a game of chess and a drink by lifting my wrist and making the "Down the hatch" sign. This offer would be a big mistake.
He looked surprised, smiled and scurried off to get a fresh bottle and some glasses as I laid the chess board out.
We played for 10 minutes and then suddenly the board went blurry. I reached over for the bottle of Vodka and splashed the liquid mostly around the glasses but managed to fill them after a few tries.
The drink was taking hold and I felt as though a hammer had hit me from behind. Everyone but me and Umari was in bed. Suddenly a case of violent hickups kicked in, so loud I must have woken the neighbors. Umari could see that I was loosing it.
"It's ok... just hick ups" I said slapping my chest.
"Umari! Don't let him drink any more!!" Maria shouted from her bed room.
I was done... smashed... liquored. plastered... done
I stood as best as I could, stumbled back to my room, wobbled about for a few seconds and collapsed onto my bed.
George rushed in with a bucket, "In case" he said... and the rest, I couldn't remember.
That night my stomach protested it's contents and I quietly emptied the bucket to dispose of the evidence.
When I awoke the next morning Maria made some coffee and said.
"Umari says you must have Georgian blood in your family, they have never seen a foreigner drink like them."
"Uhhh... thanks, I am so tired though."
"Hehe... Last night, a few times, I come into your room to see if you were still alive."
We laughed and I sipped my coffee, battling my dizzy head.
-- Go time
7 days had passed and it was time for my train to Baku. Maria prepared the usual feast. When I tried to tell her to stop bringing food she would always protest.
"Why you not eat, I know how much you like!"
No matter how much I would eat, she would always say "Why do you not eat! Eat more! Don't be ashamed." I must have put on 5 pounds staying with Maria, instead of losing the extra 10 I'd put on in the passed months.
I packed up my bags and quickly kissed and hugged all goodbye.
Maria and Umari put me in a taxi and joined me to the train station were we were to meet the security services official and be ushered onto the train.
The official spotted us arriving and greeted Maria.
Quickly we rushed into the first class wagon were I paid the officer 60 lari and Maria briefed him for 20 minutes.
"Ok, Luc. You will be safe. This man is your guard, he will stay in your wagon and has promised to protect you. If you have any problems, just say that you are with the security services, this is what I have told them."
I had a hard time believing that a pale faced, english speaking traveller with a Canadian flag on his backpack could pass as a Georgian KGB expat but I went along with the ruse.
"Now, when you arrive in Baku, you must call me. Just 1 minute, to say that you are ok."
"Maria, you worry like my mother!"
Before leaving, Maria passed me a bag of roasted sun flower seeds, bread, cheeses, a bottle of Georgian Vodka and countless other foods and advised me to bribe the guard 2 lari for safe passage. In return he would ensure my passage into Azerbaijan would go smoothly and I wouldn't have to bribe the officials, as is the usual practice.
I shook their hands kissed cheeks and slipped 100 Lari to Maria for her kindness. This, as expected caused a commotion of protest to which she finally excepted.
As the Soviet style, rusting bohemoth of a train chugged away I waved goodbye out of the window to Maria and Umari.
Leaving them, I felt as though I was leaving family. Although Maria flirted with the idea of coming to Canada to work, which of course I offered to help her with, I would probably never see them again.