So, my new friend, Kara, and I make plans to head up to the mountains of Racha with some of her friends from Georgia and Kazakhstan. Common language: Russian. American in backseat: Catching 1/8 of conversation. But actually, the Georgians are funny and hospitable. Pretty much always. They also speak very good to passable English, and are kind enough to try to keep me in the conversation.
We are driving up to Racha in a large SUV. Georgians are the most insane drivers I’ve ever met: The friend who is driving spends most of his time talking, chain smoking, taking calls, and generally not driving. This is terrifying, but I rejoice that he seems to know the roads well and we are surrounded by a couple tons of sturdy German-engineered steel. So, I say a little prayer to the gods of travel, and suck it up.
On the way to Racha, we pass through several towns and cities, stopping somewhere outside Gori (birthplace of Stalin, check) to visit with a priest they know. They tell me stories about how one of the guys was trapped in the area when the Russians invaded in 2008. The main highway through Georgia is well maintained, unlike most of the roads in the country. Georgia is an odd mix–part developing country, part developed-but-decaying country. Ox carts share the road with shiny modern luxury cars.
We stop at Motsameta monastery near Kutaisi to pay our respects. It was built around the 8th Century, apparently to honor two Georgian kings (or maybe princes) who were martyred by Turkish invaders (there’s really quite a bit of that in Georgia’s history). Their bodies are entombed in the monastery. You can make a wish and crawl under their tombs three times to make it come true. I am intrigued and awestruck by the ancientness of this country’s Christianity. I’m no Christian, but devout Christianity imbues every aspect of life here. I wonder what it’s like to be part of a society with such an intense and unified history. As an American, I can’t even imagine it, but it strikes me as incredibly powerful.
There’s holy well at this church (and, really, at just about every church in Georgia). They all have a little plastic or metal cup that you lower into the well so you can take a sip. I look at them like they’re insane and decline the offered drink. The guys laugh and mock me, saying something like “Yeah, yeah, tell us about the biology.” They’ve heard it all, but could care less. I, on the other hand, decide to keep my innards intact, at least as long as possible.
We stop in the village of Tkibuli to purchase lamb and fixings for the night’s dinner. As Kara negotiates with the butcher in rapid-fire Russian, I wander the small farmer’s market. Georgian produce is incredible–no factory farms, no GMOs, just old school, fresh produce in abundance.
We drive up a huge mountain with switchbacks and sheer drop offs that go for miles. It’s breath taking. We stop to pee in a pristine creek that has an outhouse perched over it. The guys throw cigarette butt after cigarette butt out the window, into the beautiful landscape. I ask them why they’re not using one of the used cans as an ashtray. I am again mocked, goodnaturedly, for being such an American. After a long day, we arrive in the village of Nikortsminda. (Which, I want to point out right now, my Lonely Planet says nothing about. Nothing. Bastards.) We talk about the fable of how God created the world, and divided it among all the people, except for one part. He kept his favorite part for himself. At the very last minute, the Georgians (who’d been off drinking and dancing) showed up, and there was no country left to give them. So, God gave them the part he’d saved for himself.
As we talk about this, driving through the Caucasian Range, I almost believe it. Then I ask them, if it’s so beautiful, why does everyone throw their cigarette butts around? They look at me, again, as if I’m insane. I decide to be tactful and drop it.
Also, speaking of good natured: Georgians appear to be good natured most of the time. The exception seems to be if you invade their country. Then, according to history, they will fuck your shit up.
Finally, we arrive in the village of Nikortsminda, where our country dacha awaits. Unfortunately the dacha has been invaded by vermin and is uninhabitable. The neighbor takes us in. Not being familiar with the whole dacha culture, I’ve always associated dachas with the wealthy elite. But, no…a dacha is more often a fairly rustic affair. The one we were going to stay in did not have running water, nor did the one we ended up staying in (which was much nicer, even so).
Once we got our accommodations sorted out, Kara led the preparations for a supra–a traditional Georgian feast. Supras involve a lot of food, a lot of toasts, and a lot of drinking.
There’s a definite pattern to a supra: First, you toast to the beauty of Georgia. Then you toast to the beauty of Georgia’s mountains. Then you toast to the beauty of Georgia’s rivers. Then you toast to the beauty of…you get the point. As the evening wears down, I suspect there’s a requisite toast to the beauty of Georgia’s insects, but I think I may have passed out by that point.
The real point is, though, it’s a distinct cultural practice to sit down with new friends and old. To eat delicious food outdoors in nature. To appreciate what you have and the beautiful place in which you are fortunate enough to find yourself. It’s a good tradition.