Saturday, December 21, 2013

two tales from Georgia

I keep meaning to post something about Georgia, even though I left more than two and a half months ago. Part of the problem is that I was there for about thirty days, which is too long to distill into a blog post. I thought I'd limit it to a couple of short paragraphs about two episodes that stick foremost in my brain, and even that ended up being a bit lengthy. Here it is, anyways.


Ushguli is a cluster of four tiny villages up in the mountains. A characteristic of towns in this area are Svan towers, which are tall, stone defensive towers that date back to medieval times. Some are still in use today, and some are in ruins. Since all of the other buildings are of a more modest height, and because the town sits on various hills and slopes, some of these towers have quite a commanding presence. The rest of the buildings seem like they were built and repaired anytime between aforementioned medieval times and this year, but if you look at Ushguli, or certain parts of it, from just the right angle, I think it looks exactly as it must have looked centuries ago. 

It's only about 46 kilometers from Mestia, which is sort of the main town in the area, but the road between them is in such bad shape, it takes about three hours to crawl there in a car. For some reason, lots of people choose to visit Ushguli on a day trip. The scenic drive notwithstanding, this isn't a particularly smart use of time, because more time is spent commuting there and back than in town. The sadder thing about this is, there's really no commerce except for a couple of cafes and small souvenir shop, so most day visitors don't contribute anything to town welfare. At least, that was my impression. The only person I could communicate with was the teenage daughter of the homestay I ended up in, and even then I didn't feel comfortable asking prying questions about town and family lifestyle. Some people seemed okay with the tourists, others not so much. One man who ran a guesthouse was super friendly, even after I established that I was already lodging elsewhere. I bumped into him a couple of times during my wanderings around town, including the morning after the first snowfall of the season (it was September), when he was standing in the road with a small herd of befuddled cows who clearly hadn't expected to find their breakfast buried under snow and ice, and didn't quite know what to do about it. I also ran into him again later that evening as said cows were being milked (by hand). One charming result of the lanuage barrier is that some conversations were limited to simply establishing where I come from, and I was dubbed thereafter on more than one occasion as "California." "Hello California!" Another resident wasn't so pleased to see me after I turned into what I guess was her courtyard, thinking it was a street; the organic layout of town sometimes made it hard to tell what was what. I heard a rap on a window and turned to face a woman who was gesturing at me to go back the way I came. I can understand. It's got to be annoying when your daily existence includes being regarded as a curiosity by a steady stream of gawking, camera-toting tourists. And daily existence in Ushguli looks to be kind of hard. I was invited into one other house other than my homestay that was just one big room for everybody and everything, with a rickety outhouse precariously situated over small waterway running through town. Fortunately I didn't have to use it and put my balancing skills to the test, or expose myself to the chilly breezes blowing through the slats. Lots of folk keep livestock, some of whom wander around the streets during the day, but one morning I found a dead pig in the river. I have no idea how it got there. Maybe it just dropped dead from the cold. At any rate, someone was down one valuable pig that morning, and there was probably no chance of salvaging it at that point.

I ended up lodging with a private family for four nights. The mother showed up when the van arrived to pick up a young German couple who had arranged to stay with her, and scooped me up as a bonus lodger. We followed her like a string of ducklings through muddy streets to their home next to a Svan tower used for storage. We had rooms in the upper level, which was so cold we could see our breath. The bathroom, family living quarters, and a long, low wood-burning stove were on the lower level, through a trap door and down a short flight of steps so steep they were really more a ladder; each step had a semicircle cut out on alternating sides to accommodate a leg. All the taps were left running to keep them from freezing, and we lost power for a good chunk of a night and a day; I figured that out after creeping down the ladder one more morning to use the toilet, and encountered my hostess lighting the stove in the dark - she gave me a smile and handed me a flashlight. Humble abode notwithstanding, she served us two enormous, multi-dish meals twice daily, everything cooked on and in that stove alone. Georgia in general scores high on the Tastyfood-o-Meter, but Nani's meals always come to mind first when I think back on all that gastronomical goodness. 


ritual animal sacrifice 

Seeing this was a result of good timing and a bit of dumb luck. Getting around Georgia (and Armenia) on a budget involves lots of rides on marshrutky, which are minibuses that ply a set route on some sort of schedule. They are pretty easy to manage for longer-haul destinations, but trickier for the shorter, locals runs, especially if connections are involved; destination placards are almost always only in Georgian (or Armenian), no one seems to really know what the schedules are, and without knowing any Georgian or Russian, it's sort of hard to communicate with the drivers. My main impression of marshrutky drivers is that they are almost universally grouchy guys who smoke a lot. I had one completely wasted day in Yerevan because I couldn't figure out the marshrutky schedules and connections for a day trip that wasn't even that far out of town. Which is all to say that by the time I got to Telavi near the end of my time in Georgia, I decided that hiring a tour guide with a car for a day would be a more efficient use of time and money than wrangling marshrutky. The guy I called (David L.) already had a client (E) for the following day, but she was okay with another guest, so off we went the next morning. 

So part of the dumb luck was that it happened to be a Sunday during Alaverdoba. I don't entirely understand Alaverdoba; it's basically a harvest festival, centered around Alaverdi Cathedral, but I think its roots go way back to pre-Christian times. It's still celebrated today with an animal sacrifice. When David was a kid, the sacrifice could happen on church grounds, but that's no longer allowed. People can bring the animal to church to be blessed by a priest, but then need to leave church grounds in order to do the deed. Or have it we visited the cathedral, David pointed out the butchers standing by the side of the road, waiting for trade to drive up. They all hold a big knife to advertise their services. One of them was a grizzled old guy in an apron who had been at his trade for so long that David remembered him from when he was a kid. We hung around a bit waiting for someone to make an offering, but it was too early in the day for much action. Even Butcher Man, with all his years of experience, couldn't predict what was going to happen. I was slightly relieved, and I think E was as well; we both kind of wanted to see it, but also kind of didn't want to see it. Eventually we continued on to our next destination, another church (not a cathedral). Arriving just after the service was finished, we were invited to have lunch with the priest and very tiny congregation in the garden. We even got blessed by the priest. It was a subtle blessing, just words and a toast at the lunch table. It really seems to have been given as a gesture of welcome and well-wishing to guests, more than anything else.

This church is fairly small, located up a hill in what amounted to the burbs, and was surrounded by fields full of walnut trees and grazing cows. And if I understand correctly, it's located on the site of what used to be a temple to the moon. This made the setting all the more appropriate as a family with a live sheep in tow showed up just as we were about to leave. So we had a front row seat to the whole thing. The sheep is led around the church, and blessed by the priest, who recites some words, lights a small candle, and presses it to the sheep's forehead. The family also brings offerings of homemade sweet cake and wine, which are given to the church. (Lunch had included meat, wine, and cake offerings). Then the sheep is slaughtered, butchered, cooked, and eaten, shared with family, friends, and the church, all in a picnic party setting right there by the church (or side of the road, well away from church grounds, in the case of Alaverdi Cathedral). As befits a sacrifice, all must be consumed or given away; the family isn't supposed to save any for later.

David had made sure it was okay for us to watch the whole thing, so we hung back a respectful distance to take it all in. Curiously, as the sheep was being blessed, on church grounds, right next to the church, there was a baptism going on inside the church; I was standing outside but near the door, so I could see and hear one, and hear the other as well. It was simultaneously incongruous, and not. The sacrifice itself was pretty business-like; it wasn't as gruesome as I thought it would be, but it's not something I need to see again. The guy who brought in the sheep simply took a knife, held it down, and sawed its head off. It didn't struggle or make a peep. According to David, this is normal with sheep. I'm just going to have to take his word for that. We left as the sheep was being butchered and preparations for a cook fire were being made, but before we could take off and leave the family to its party, we had to hold up our end of the deal for being allowed to watch - eat some bread and drink homemade wine, both offered from the trunk of the car.