Monday, October 31, 2011

Party Vans and Presidential Sightings in Kutaisi

Written on 10/17/2011

This past weekend was a long weekend and we decided after much deliberation to spend the weekend in Kutaisi, the second biggest city in the country, capital of Imereti province. It took a while for my family to figure out how I could get there, but after much deliberation amongst themselves, they decided that there must be a marshutka (public transportation van) that leaves at 9 am from the train station in my city that would take me there. They also decided that this would be the only one that left for the day, so I’d better not miss it. They were at least right about the first part, the time, for it did leave at 9 am. As for being the only marshutka, that seems highly doubtful but I have yet to have figured out the schedule.

I made it in time and made my first marshutka ride alone all the way to Kutaisi. The Kutaisi marshutka pick up/drop off point just happens to be in front of McDonalds, the only McDonalds in the whole city. I find it funny that Americans and Canadians seem to get overly excited when they see a McDonalds when they are abroad. While they would never go there in their own country, suddenly a familiar sight makes them suddenly crave the crap food that they sell. I, on the other hand, was happy to see the free wi-fi and got to make my first phone call to my mother in over a week.

Our first adventure was finding a guest house. My friend had gotten the address (but no phone number) of a guesthouse. We walked over to the crowd of taxi drivers and asked them to take us to the street. It took 5 taxi drivers and about 10 minutes, but they finally figured out where we wanted to go and we were escorted to a taxi and overcharged for the ride. Upon arriving at the address given, we found nothing but a house. No signs, no contact information, nothing. The taxi driver was kind enough to shout out and get the owners attention. I was sure we were at the wrong place, but then the gate was opened and we were ushered in.

Here we were given two twin beds in this family’s house. The woman spoke enough English to tell us the necessities and her daughter spoke enough English to translate her mother’s curiosities about us, everything from where we are from to how much money we make. The price was 20 Lari per night, 10 more Lari could have gotten us a hotel room, but there’s no guarantee that a 50 Lari/night hotel would be any better than this.

We decided to check out Motsameta, a church in the mountains about 7 km outside Kutaisi on recommendation from the woman running the guest house. It took us a while to get ourselves out there, and from there we had been told that we could walk from there to another church called Gelati just 3 km away. We were trying to ask some high school girls how to walk there, and they didn’t know the way, but their family was headed the same way and they asked if we would like a ride with them. We agreed but we had no idea what we were agreeing to.

They pointed in a general direction saying “this is our car”, but I was instead guided into a van, completely chuck full with a family, young, old, grandmothers and small children, at least twenty stuffed into a marshutka. We were shuffled in and family members moved over onto other’s laps in order for us to sit comfortably on a makeshift seat made of wood between two seats where and aisle should have been. Off we zoomed down the mountain road. Though Gelati was only a 5 minute ride away, they were a bit lost too. They drove up, down and all around before they found the entrance to the church. In the meantime the high school and college kids in the van decided to turn their ride into a dance party. “Musica! Musica!” they shouted and the driver blasted the music blaring traditional Georgian music. Despite the lack of room, they somehow found a way to get up and dance in the van as we sped all around looking for the church. “You like khachapuri?” they asked, and the next thing I knew, cheese bread was being pulled out for us to try. I think we were also invited to their home… or at least to go somewhere with them that evening, but we had to decline. I guess this is what they mean by Georgian hospitality.

The party van

Finally we got to Gelati and we said our good-byes. They went into the church to worship and we walked around the grounds, slightly clueless about the church and rather still in shock from our ride up to the church.

Then it was time to leave. We were hoping we could get a ride down with our new family, but they didn’t seem to be leaving any time soon. Now we were stuck, 10 Km from town, high up on a mountain. Should we hitchhike? There were no taxis to be found. But, nor were there people leaving the church either. Then, like someone above had been listening, a taxi drove up. Yes, we paid double what we paid to get up there, but we couldn’t exactly bargain when he was the only taxi around in miles. 10 lari later (which, admittedly, is only 7 dollars) we were back in the city and it was time to meet some other friends.

The rest of the evening was rather uneventful, but involved “pizza” which was more mushrooms than cheese and sauce put together, and beer from a brewery that tasted no different than the stuff from the convieneice store. We called it a night early at 11 not wanting to wake up the folks at the guesthouse when we came in. Of course, they were already asleep and we seemed to walk up a very grumpy fellow when we knocked on the door to be let in.

The next morning we checked out of there and I realized that I only had 25 Lari left so I decided I should probably head home before night. We dropped off our bags at our friend’s guesthouse and we got lunch. Somehow we got separated from our friends again and as we were deciding what we should do, we were approached by some Georgian friends of our friends. We told them we watnted to go to Bagrati, a cathedral in the city and they talked with each other in Georgian and nodded and told us to go with them in their car.

I knew immediately we were going in the wrong direction and after a few minutes I realized that we were going back to Motsameta, the same place we had gone to yesterday. Then, it was casually mentioned that the president of Georgia, Mikhail Sakartshvili would be making an appearance later in the day at the church. It was immediately apparent that something was going on today when we got closer to the church. Police were located everywhere and the street to Motsameta had been blocked off to traffic.

Seeing the mess around Motsameta, they decided to head over to Gelati first. It was nice going with Georgians that we knew because they could explain to us what was going on. Or at least they tried, and sometimes they relied on random strangers with better English to explain things.
They found us head scarves to cover our heads with, this was the biggest reason why we hadn’t ventured far into the church the previous day. Whenever you enter an orthodox church, women cover their heads. With our heads covered, we felt much more at ease walking around the church. The walls inside of Gelati are covered in old frescos from ceiling to floor. The style is nothing like anything I’ve ever seen in a Roman Catholic Church. Another interesting feature is that there is no seating area to hold a service. Worshipers wander in and out, priests wonder about blessing this person and that and worshipers go from relic to relic blessing themselves with the sign of the cross (they bless them in the opposite direction as Roman Catholics, starting with forehead, then chest, right shoulder then left shoulder) and kissing this and that.

One thing we could not get anyone to explain to us was the lambs that we saw many worshipers bring with them to both Motsameta and Gelati. If someone could explain to me why they bring sheep to church with them, I’d be most obliged.

From there it was time to head back to Motsameta and make our way in through the police and the crowds. Our friends brought us into the main worship hall at Motsameta as well (without head scarves, but no one seemed to make a fuss about it) and he gave us some candles to light and put around in various places. The place was packed full of people and there was a long line waiting to crawl under the tomb of the martyrs. Apparently if you crawl under it, your wish will come true. I kind of wanted to do it, but then our friends shuffled us out again and off to see the president. We waited around and there were secret service and security everywhere. When vehicles started racing in, I tried to snap a photo but a security agent saw me before I could even get my camera on. “No photo.”. Then the president came out of his car, crossed through the crowd to look over the cliff behind us, then walked “very fast”, as our friend had warned us, into the church and disappeared for 20 minutes as no one was allowed in. Finally, as we could tell he was making is way out, our friend shuffled us to the front of the line waiting to see him as he came out so we could say hello. We really wanted to get our photo with him, but that didn’t seem likely at this point. Finally he came out of the church and as he (speed) walked along, he did indeed spot us foreigners and flashed us a smile and said something in English which we think was “hello!”. We were satisfied with what we got, neither of us had ever been in the presence of a president of any country, much less been addressed by one.

By now, of course, it was far too late for me to go back to my city. The annoying thing about traveling in Georgia is that intercity transportation often cuts off around dusk, making late returns difficult if not impossible. My friend paid for us to stay at the guest house where our other friends had spent the night before.

The place was called Giorgi’s Guesthouse, and again, the place had no sign, no website, no phone number, just an address that we found on various other travel websites. This place had a very chill hostel feel to it and though my friend went to bed early, I sat up with other guests and chatted. The owner, Giorgi occasionally passed out small shots of cha-cha, Georgian vodka, and we listened to the tales of a retired German professor from Hanguk University of Foreign Studies (외대). It was strange to hear someone talking about the Korea from a different time, as he started teaching there in the 1970’s and taught for 23 years.

Giorgi's Guesthouse

Finally it was time for bed. The next day was uneventful and I headed home before noon. But, if every weekend is so eventful, I will leave Georgia a happy woman.

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