A Travellerspoint blog

Georgia

Near-disaster on Day 1

When it rains, it pours...

rain 75 °F

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My reentry into the world of staying in hostels didn't go so well last night. Despite totaling maybe 3 hours sleep over the last two days, I could not get to sleep. I was staying in a 6-bed dorm with 5 other travellers I did not get a chance to meet because I didn't get in till after 1 am. I am an incredibly light sleeper, so the noises of people shuffling through their stuff, going to the restroom and so on kept me from falling asleep. Oh, and did I mention two cat fights outside our balcony and the drunken disturbance down the street? Yeah, so I went into Thursday half a zombie.

I'd like to think that was my alibi for the disaster I mention in the title. Somehow, as I was out wandering the streets of Old Town Tbilisi, I managed to lose my passport. Not misplace, or forget where I left it. No,I dropped in the street somewhere. When I noticed it was missing, I retraced my entire morning route. I returned to the hostel and told them about it. Before calling the police, the hostel worker made me empty my pockets and bags for her. When I checked with the embassy, they confirmed someone had found and reported they would be turning in my passport. They called a couple hours later when they had it. I jumped in a cab and raced to get it. In 72 previous countries, I had ever lost either my passport or wallet. Yikes. I'd better get some sleep tonight or this could be a rough trip!!

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So, what did I do and see in Tblisi today? Mainly, I made travel arrangements like purchasing my ticket to Mestia -- the scenic heart of the Caucasus Mts. In Georgia. I checked out hotels for when Jenny joins me in mid-July, and I picked out places to visit. Definitely a "light" day on sights, but a potential heavy-weight disaster. I met a lot of the other travellers staying here at the hostel. It was fun gettting to know them. Tomorrow, I am out the door early to take a marshrutka (shared minivan taxi) to Akhaltsikhe. And yes, I even learned how to pronounce that mouthful of a name. Georgians love their consonants! So far, my favorite is Mtskheta...5 consonants before the first vowel!

Hopefully, I'll have more sights to report on tomorrow, along with no dazed mindless mishaps...!

Posted by world_wide_mike 07:40 Archived in Georgia Comments (3)

Deep into the Wooded Mountains

Akhaltsikhe and Sapera Monastery

sunny 81 °F

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Today began with my introduction to the main form of public transportation in Georgia - the marshrutka. This is a large van that functions as a bus, going between towns and cities, and even within cities themselves. You don't see Western style buses on the roads much here, but marshrutky (plural of marshrutka) are everywhere.

A quick early morning walk to the metro station, and six stops later, I was outside the main marshrutka station in Tblisi. My guidebook called it "sprawling," and it was that. Not being able to read the Georgian letters - they use a form of Cyrillic, like Russia - I asked around and quickly found my van. The price was less than 14 Georgian Lari, which comes to less than $10 for a 3-hour plus ride.

The scenery steadily became more mountainous as we drove southwest from the capital. About halfway there, we lost the nice, 4-lane divided highway and were reduced to a potholed 2-lane country road. I'd heard Georgian drivers are, well, nutballs behind the wheel. Mine was aggressive, becoming frustrated when he couldn't pass slow, diesel smoke spewing trucks that coughed along ahead of us. I'd made a vow, though, that I would watch the scenery and not stress out about the driving. It worked, and I enjoyed the ride through steadily more mountainous terrain. Ruined castles and towers brooded atop some hills, while on others patches of weathered stone covered in dark green moss peered out from behind the thick coating of trees. I was the only one of a dozen passengers enjoying the view. I was the only traveller to Akhaltsikhe - everyone else appeared to be Georgian locals.

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The word Akhaltsikhe has two of one of my favorite foreign sounds that we don't use in English. Make a hawking sound like you're getting ready to spit. That is what the "kh" sound is in Georgian. Akhaltsikhe is lucky....it gets two,hawking spits in its name! Once in town, I struck out along the main drive looking for one of two hotels I'd picked out from the guidebook's description. This was actually one of the few stops I did not reserve a room over the internet beforehand. I did have to ask directions to find hotel Prestizhi, but was glad I did. For $30, I got a great room with balcony, bathroom, shower - and most importantly, all to myself! Last night in Old Town Hostel in Tblisi, I'd conked out early and slept for about 4 and 1/2 hours. Once I woke up about 3:45 am, I never could get back to sleep. Mister Snorer in the bunk below me had his sleep apnea kick in then, and it woke me up despite my ear plugs. I was definitely looking forward to my own room!

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Next up was my #1 reason for coming here: Sapera Monastery. I cut a deal with a taxi driver to take me up into the hills on dirt tracks for 8 miles and bring me back. I didn't know how bad the road was, so now I understand the 25 lari price better. The scenery was stunning. I savored the forests, alpine meadows, deep river valleys and green hilltops while getting slung back and forth in the back of the taxi. Sapera is halfway up a steep slope, and the stone walls and tile roofs of the monastery seem to rest at peace in its remote forest. The oldest buildings are more than 1,000 years old, it is a gorgeous, serene place. My taxi driver accompanied me the whole way, soaking it in alongside me and pointing out places to take nice photos from. You could go inside two of the churches, and the medieval era frescoes on the walls were stunning. Georgians take their religion seriously, and the sparse handful of others there were lighting candles, crossing themselves and bowing. Sapera's monks seemed cheerful. In fact, they would fit right in at any gaming convention with their unkempt beards and quirky humor. It always cracks me up, too, when a monk pauses to answer their cell phone...!

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Once back, I decided to explore the castle. Akhaltsikhe means "new castle" in Georgian. To give you an idea how old the land is, the castle was built in the 1100's AD. The castle looms over the town on a steep hill. Right now, it is one massive sprawling cot structure site. The government is pouring millions of laris into a huge renovating project. All of the castle buildings and walls are being completely rebuilt to look brand new. There were hundreds of workers cutting stone, driving backhoes and doing every job imaginable. This has got to be the biggest employment source in town, if not the whole region. There is even going to be a reconstructed village at the base of the castle. In about a year or so, this is going to be a cool place to visit! I played nonchalant and wandered in amongst the construction, taking sly photos now and then. My three day beard growth, dark glasses and (I've been told) Georgian features meant that no one stopped me.

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Afterwards, a nap was calling to me. Having less than 8 hours sleep over the last 4 days added up, and I conked out in the hotel room for an hour or so. The rest of the day was spent exploring the town and finding cool stuff to photograph. So far, the only wifi I've found is at a gas station convenience store. Hopefully, I'll find a better spot and upload this. Tomorrow, I'm off to a highly scenic valley chocked full of historic sights. Stay tuned for more updates....

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Posted by world_wide_mike 19:04 Archived in Georgia Comments (2)

Storming the Castle

Can worldwidemike surmount the "impregnable" Tmogvi castle?

sunny 82 °F

So yesterday's experience with the marshrutka must have been the Cadillac of services. Today began with a marshrutka ride to my guesthouse that I would be staying at for the next two days. Everything started out normal, though this van was definitely more drab and dark. I should have known this would be a different experience when our driver made about six stops to pick up merchandise to deliver along his route. Marshrutka drivers are more than just bus drivers - they are entrepreneurs. The more cargo they can ram in to supplement the paying passengers, the more they make. About halfway through the route, as more people and cargo was piled on, I honestly wondered if they ever turned anyone away as full. Or 14 passenger van had at least 24 folks squeezed together with chickens, produce, luggage and even a spare tire! I wasn't the only one concerned about our overloaded state. I noticed one lady cross herself and pray after four more people crammed on.

I made it safely and "kind of" to my destination. I'd booked Tirebi Guesthouse (http://www.tirebiguesthouse.com/) online through a company back in the capital. As it turns out, the guesthouse has no Internet, so this third party handles their booking and communicates with them via phone. They did not want to give me their number, though, and insisted the host would pick me upon the nearby village. They wouldn't give me his phone number, though. They wanted me to call THEM, and then they would call him. I told the I would not have a phone, though,and explained which marshrutka I would be arriving on. So, no surprise that no one was there to pick me up. Fortunately, I'd seen the sign for the turnoff for the guesthouse about a quarter of a mile before we'd pulled into the village. I simply had to backtrack and then hike the two kilometers to the guesthouse.

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I knew it was also a working farm, but I didn't realize it was "out in the sticks." Guesthouse Tirebi has no neighbors and lives by themselves at the foot of the main place I wanted to see: Tmogvi Castle. I was the only guest, too. My room was nice, with a bathroom and shower - no dorm sleeping, woo-hoo! It was fairly clean, too. Farmer Sergei's directions on how to climb up to the cliff top ruins of the castle were disturbingly vague. I assumed the "path" would be easy to find, though and soon geared up for my climb.

The very minimal path disappeared from time to time,but it wasn't until I entered a meadow of thistles, tall grass and rocks that it escaped me completely. I knew Georgia had snakes, and the rock piles worried me. Sure enough, I did the Heeby Jeeby I Just Saw a Snake dance a few times. I almost turned around. But I would have to recross snakeland to do it. I could see the ruins walls and towers looming above me, getting marginally closer. I finally decided that I may have lost THE path (if there ever was one), but I could do my best to make my own way up. I began zig-zagging upwards, slipping on loose rocks or grass from time to time. After what seemed a long time, I was at the base of the walls.

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One problem, though: this castle was reknowned in the middle ages for being impregnable. The high walls on top of a towering hill made it impossible for attackers to seize. So, just how easy would it be for a 49-year-old history teacher to surmount? Having come all this way, I was determined to try. I circled the hilltop, trying a couple routes but being turned back by sheer walls or dense patches of vegetation that screamed "snake" to me. I did breach the outer wall at one point, but it led to yet another sheer wall. Defeated, like it's medieval attackers, I retreated downhill to a pathway I saw cutting through the valley. I followed it to an actual gravel road, and followed its long loop (threading my way through a herd of cows...thinking, "hmmm,those are male cows - I hope I don't get charged by a bull!"). It soon became obvious this was not the original road I walked to the guesthouse on. It was leading me too far past.

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Eventually, I found another trail which led me back to the farm. I sank down on a bench on the covered porch, exhausted. Sergei's wife brought me a glass of tasty fruit juice. I savored it, watching Sergei (who speaks as much English as I do Georgian) and his 10-year-old son, Giorgi (who speaks some English) amble up from the river. Giorgi translated my adventures flor his dad. They asked if I was still interested in visiting Khertsvivi Fortress, and I said I was. They let me rest for about a half hour before Sergei and I Jumped into his SUV for the 15 minute drive.

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Khertsvivi is a 14th century castle built to guard the junction of two rivers in a narrow valley. It has very eastern stylistic influences, including the triangular crennalations. Although it is unguarded and open to the public to roam, it is more complete than the ruined Tmogvi. We walked around it for awhile, climbing towers and poking into rooms. My body was still feeling my earlier climb, so I wasn't into it as much as I'd normally be. We returned to the guesthouse, where I showered and then took a nap. I'm still feeling the sleep deprivation, apparently. Funny thing, though. Both yesterday and today, when I woke up from my nap, I had no idea where I was for about 10 seconds. I guess whatever dreams I was having seemed equally real to my adventures in Georgia.

I finished off the evening with a family-cooked meal of more food than I could eat in several days. The fried potatoes were excellent, as were the fresh cucumbers and tomatoes. There is no internet here, so I'll send this update later (probably from Armenia on Monday). Right now, my body is telling me to stretch out, relax, and catch up on more sleep!

Posted by world_wide_mike 04:54 Archived in Georgia Comments (1)

Cave Men of Georgia

Mickey and Lessie, where are you?

sunny 85 °F

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Lessie, Mickey and Giorgi

The goal for today was to hike to the cave city of Vardzia. The guesthouse owner had promised me his 10-year-old son, Giorgi, to be my guide for the day. Tagging along were two of his dogs, Lessie and Mickey. I wasn't sure it was a great idea for the dogs, seeing as how we'd be climbing through tunnels and visiting churches. Giorgi was insistent, saying the dogs had made the trip many times.

We started early, 7:30 am, and we're soon hiking steadily uphill. I told Giorgi that without him I never would have stayed on the trail as it disappeared and reappeared. We settled into a marching order, the dogs scouting ahead, and Giorgi pointing out sights. One cool one was a hermit's tiny cave. It had a single, carved stone window that looked up at the looming bulk of Tmogvi castle. I pointed out the route I'd taken yesterday in my only partially successful attempt to storm the fortress. Giorgi was somewhat quiet at first,until I got him talking about his dogs. After that, he chattered away excitedly like only a preteen can. In addition to our companions, Giorgi also had a wolf hybrid, Bimi, who was essentially the farm's guardian. Giorgi was most excited about his dog that lived with his grandfather. Rexi is apparently quite the scamp, winning fights against all comers and devouring the neighbor's chickens.

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After about an hour of scrambling up and down hillsides, slipping on loose rocks, the trail veered towards the river. Walking became much easier and the dogs bounded through the tall grass hunting foxes or rabbits. The path was so easy to follow at this point, even a city boy like me could do it. The scenery was simply stunning. The steep hills rise up sharply on both sides from the Mtvari river. The bare green hillsides with only sparse clumps of trees reminded me over and over of Scotland. For the past 20 years I have told people how beautiful that country was. So, it was like deja vu gazing up at the rocky hills as we hiked through the canyon.

An hour or so later, a cliff face pockmarked with holes came into view. We could see the cave city ahead. Vardzia is a monastery complex carved entirely out of rock. It was built in the 12th century by King Giorgi III and his successor, his daughter Queen Tamar. More than 2,000 monks lived, worked and prayed here during its height. Many Georgians consider it the spiritual heart of their church -- kind of a rocky Vatican in caves. Although some monks still live here, the monastery was all but destroyed when Persians seized it in 1551 A.D. Georgia has always been on the Eastern frontier of Christianity, harassed and sometimes subjugated by Turks, Persians and Mongols.

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It took about another hour for us to get to the entrance and make the winding climb up to the caves. We tried to keep the dogs on the other side of the gate, but they simply went around and caught up. I couldn't picture them climbing around in the caves, but Giorgi seemed unfazed. Most of the caves are bare with only black, smoke-stained ceilings. Some had shallow holes that were used to store large, ceramic wine jugs. Others had stone benches or slabs for beds. The highlight was when we got to the cathedral. It had a gorgeous carved, wooden door which was promptly used by one of the monks to shut the dogs out. Inside, it was amazing. Colorful frescoes on the walls could be easily seen in the dim candlelight. The paintings of saints, Jesus and King Giorgi and Queen Tamar were almost 1,0000 years old. Georgians are very devout Christians, and the room was filled with men, women and children lighting candles, crossing themselves and praying. Even the army soldiers who were visiting the caves and had been clowning around earlier grew solemn and respectful.

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Next, we started to worm our way through tunnels and passages. At times, I had to bend almost double to make my way though the rough, white stone passages. We climbed stairs and ladders, and explored the cave system for awhile. We emerged into the open air high above the valley. We could see the rapids of the Mtvari river snaking between the steep hillsides. The sun beat down on the hillsides making them blaze with green light. It was another gorgeous day, and all of us leaned on the rails and enjoyed the view. Giorgi seemed concerned he couldn't see the dogs, but they came running as we began to descend the ramps and left the caves. We rewarded our long trek and our climb with the lunch Giorgi's mom had packed for us. Strangely, he didn't bring water, so I gave him one of the two bottles I'd brought. I also bought him ice cream, even though he seemed like he was hurrying me through the caves at times.

Sergei had recommended that we visit Upper Vardzia afterwards. Giorgi seemed a bit worried about "big dogs" that lived near the nunnery. He let me make the call, so we been the two mile trek on the road leading to it. A half mile short of the nunnery, we passed a farm which erupted in furious barking. Three large dogs trotted growling and woofing towards us. Our two medium sized dogs chose two dramatically different responses. Lessie took off running and one of the farm dogs shot off in pursuit. Mickey stayed by us, but began whining plaintively. Lessie outran her pursuer and circled back around to join us. The other two dogs approached, but never closed as Giorgio and I yelled at them. The people on the farm watched utterly unconcerned, which bothered me a bit.

This incident spooked Giorgi, but there was little else we could do but press on, as the farm dogs eventually stopped stalking us. Giorgi insisted there was an even bigger dog at the nunnery. He wouldn't take my advice to stay back with the dogs while I went on ahead. When we came to the 1,000 year old church, Giorgi shouted to the nuns. One came over and unlocked the church for us, while another older nun began berating Giorgi for bringing dogs. She pantomimed how they had a huge dog that would rip out Lessie and Mickey's throats. She tossed pebbles at the dogs to get them to retreat. It cracked me up to see a bent old nun with small rock totally cowing two active dogs. As we went into church, Lessie and Mickey huddled under a tree.

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When we came out, they were gone. Giorgi said they probably ran down the road. He didn't want to whistle or call for them like usual for fear of the "big dog" (that we still hadn't seen). Once we'd walked a hundred yards or so, he did call for them, but there was no sign of them. As we got further down the road, I asked if we should go back and whistle for them by the nunnery. He said no - they probably went back to Vardzia. It seemed I was more worried than he was. When we got back to Vardzia, still no dogs. In all honesty, this really put a damper on the day for me. I pictured Lessie and Mickey, hiding out in the unfamiliar woods (they'd never been to Upper Vardzia), too afraid to go back down the road because of the farm dogs. I'd been less worried if they were on their own turf, but this was their first time to that place. When we got back to the guesthouse, after a long, footsore trudge back, I was disappointed to see they weren't back. In fact, when I left the next morning, there was still no Lessie or Mickey.

One thing that had shown up, though, were more guests. Yesterday, I was the only visitor. Today, we had three Israeli tourists about my age or older. They were Jews of Georgian ancestry, which led to me experiencing a tradition I'd read about. Sergei joined the guests (myself included) for dinner. He took on the Georgian role of Toastmaster. This man makes long speeches toasting the health of those present and their families. You must not interrupt or talk when he is toasting. This toast is followed regularly with more toasts - to the countries of the guests, to sentimental notions or anything that strikes the Toastmaster's fancy. Shortly, the guests are given opportunities to make toasts. When it was my turn, I asked for a break in tradition. I had one of the others to translate each line after I said it. The gist of it was something like this:

The leaders of the world say bad things about other people of other countries to keep us apart...
The news of the world says things to make us fear visiting other nations...
It is only when we travel that we truly see these things are lies...
It is when we travel we discover that we are really all brothers...
To travel, and to brotherhood!

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Me and Bimi - the wolf dog...look at those eyes! Are they a wolf's eyes oe what?

Posted by world_wide_mike 05:20 Archived in Georgia Comments (1)

A Rainy Night in Georgia

The good and the bad of international travel

rain 90 °F

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So, the attempt to wait out the wee hours of the morning in a 24-hour restaurant was a complete failure. My train from Yerevan had arrived just after midnight, Friday. I knew if I tried to check in to a hotel that I would be charged for the full, previous day. So, my big idea was to hang out in this restaurant that had wireless internet until it was later in the morning. Then, I could swing by my hotel that I hoped would have a room for me (I'd booked Sunday last time I was in Tblisi, but they hadn't responded to my emails to extend it into Saturday, too). So, i really didn't knowing I even had a room.

The restaurant was fine, the Internet was good, and my friends like Steve, Joe, Otis and others did their best to keep me awake as the clock crawled towards 3 and 4 am. I just couldn't take sitting there anymore after 5 am, though. I decided to walk to the hotel and see if they had 24-hour reception and plead my case. It was easy to find, and I wasn't the only one walking the streets at 5 am. There were plenty of partiers making their way home. Everyone had said Tblisi is a safe city, and this was the heart of the tourist district. So, no one bothered me or even gave me as much as a second glance. There were no lights on I the hotel - a small, family-run one - so, I headed towards a tiny park I remembered nearby. I sat on a bench for about an hour before trying again.

This time someone was up, and they let me in. The man at the desk spoke almost no English, but he seemed to recognize my name. He made a point to acknowledge that I would change rooms on Sunday into the one I'd booked for Jenny and I. I gratefully crashed in a bed and slept until about 1030 am. Later on, when I was showered and ready to do some sightseeing, English speakers were manning the desk. I found out they were charging me for the whole previous day, like I'd done so much to avoid. We argued, and they ended up knocking $30 off the rate, which was much more reasonable. Still, it irked me that it was a room they knew they hadn't rented the previous day. Why not let me check in early?

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So, enough about my pinching pennies - or in this case, Georgian Laris. The day was sunny and warm, but I honestly didn't know where I was headed. I had a few things I wanted to do today, so I ambled towards the main square, still half in a sleep-deprived fog. I hadn't made it down to this part of the city on my first brief visit and was surprised how pretty it all was. My impression from the first time was Old Town was very run down and crumbling. This was the spruced up, reconstructed, tourist-friendly part. I noticed the cable cars climbing up towards Nariqala Fortress, and like any history buff, couldn't resist the lure of a cool castle.

The cable car was very slick - air conditioned, smooth, efficient and cheap ($1 or so). Nariqala Fortress looms over the city from a steep hilltop. It's ruins are not that extensive, but enough to poke around for an hour. You can climb the walls, and scramble up hillsides to the fragments of ruined towers. The sun was baking - it was easily 90 degrees. However, the higher you climbed, the more often you were rewarded with a fresh, cooling breeze. It was just the medicine to wake me up out of my stupor. Tblisi looked bright and scenic spread out at my feet, and I took lots of photographs.

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I don't know who had the idea first, but - like Armenia - Georgia also has a "mother" statue guarding the city from atop a hill. Mother Georgia holds a wine goblet welcoming visitors who come peacefully in one hand and a sword in the other, for those who come with ill intent. The statue looks like concrete, but has been carved and painted to resemble steel plating. I was dripping sweat by the time I made my way to the cable car down. I was tempted by the ice cream seller, but figured my fat body was sweating for a reason, and i didn't need to sabotage its efforts to get back in shape! The blast of air conditioning was heavenly, though, as I floated down towards the city.

Next up was purchasing some train tickets for Jenny and I, as well as visiting the Tourist Information Office to answer some more logistical questions. That completed, I headed back to the room for a nice, air conditioned nap. I woke up to the rumble of thunder. Looking at my watch, I saw it was dinner time. I'd already picked out a restaurant earlier, so got myself pulled together and headed downstairs. I decided against the rain jacket, my mind remembering the day's 90 degree heat. I couldn't imagine suffocating in a rain jacket. Of course, the skies let loose a downpour of biblical proportions about 10 minutes after I'd left the hotel. I ducked underneath an overhang by the entrance to an office buildings to wait it out. The wind began to whip and the rain drops crept closer to my feet. I pressed against the glass of the door and felt the latch release. I looked around inside, saw no one, so stepped inside out of the rain.

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Just I case I was breaking office rules, I kept silent and out of sight. Eventually, I heard a chair scrape against the floor and Vasily came around, doubtless drawn by the sound of the driving rain, roaring wind, and the cats and dogs raining down upon the pavement. Outside the glass door, we could see a river rushing down the street. I said hello in Georgian and gestured toward the hurricane outside his door. This was one of the moments that spice up international travel like an unexpected jalapeño. Instead of of ordering me out,Vasily invited me into sit in the office's comfortable chairs. We sat and talked for the next 45 minutes as the rain raged. He had visited the United States twice while in the Georgian army. He apologized for his English - which was fine - and we had a blast, sitting there talking the rainstorm away. Unexpected moments like this, when you connect with someone from another culture, are just as important to travel as soaring castles, serene monasteries and majestic scenery.

I was even more appreciative of Vasily's hospitality when I saw what his job at the "office" was. He was the armory officer, of sorts, for an armed security guard company. His coworkers began to come in, unload their pistols, and turn in the weapons and ammunition to him. If anybody had a reason to order a stranger out into the windswept, rainy streets, it would have been Vasily. Instead, he opened the door and let me witness Georgian hospitality again.

Eventually, the rain died down enough for me to slosh along the irregular, stone pavement to my restaurant. I said my goodbye and thanks to Vasily, and headed out I to the darkness. A bright spot remained inside me. The next time I'm caught in an unexpected downpour, I'll think back to a "rainy night in Georgia," and a stranger who took me in and made my day brighter.

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Posted by world_wide_mike 11:54 Archived in Georgia Tagged town old georgia nariqala tblisi Comments (2)

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