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Published: July 20th 2014
That is its official name. The church-looking building is a condominium. New hotel in background.
The smoke-filled taxi was an old, silver, Mercedes station-wagon. The front bumper was missing. Manual transmission. The wooden gear shift knob so palm-worn that the 5-speed diagram was a ghostly memory. The evening air so mist-ridden it was like flying through a cloud. The driver spoke a bit of German but just a bit. He colored every word with Georgian accents, inhalations and puffs of air. A cigarette perpetually dangling from the right corner of his mouth only added to the bewildering patois. We drove along what passes for a seaside boulevard here. A long narrow park carpeted with sedge-weed and dandelions. He pointed proudly at the new hotels being constructed along the way; Radeesun, Highut, Newvatell he exclaimed, beaming like a newborn's Papa. The towers were brightly lit in pastel hues and stacked into an odd compendium of architectural shapes. From giant podiums to needles. Their tops hidden within the low hanging clouds. Just two blocks away I saw blocky, Soviet-era apartment buildings. Their concrete sides smudged by meter-wide patches of coal-black mold. Their occupants slumped over rusted balcony railings like slack marionettes looking dead-eyed at a passing world. The building facades are a tiered cross-section of outdoor kitchens and
Rust Never Sleeps
Building sits across the street from our guesthouse.
laundromats. Young, bare chested men in knockoff Nike athletic pants cruise the sidewalks trolling for buyers and sellers of pocket-packaged commodities. They call Meth; 'Crocodile' here. We are in Batumi, Georgia and it's a different world. We're really 'Out There' this time.
We caught a bus from Trabzon to get to Batumi. It's a 4-hour ride. A short one by our usual standards. $25 US one-way for the two of us. The bus driver had the annoying habit of steering with his elbows and answering his cell phone every ten-minutes. We pulled out of Trabzon at 10 AM heading east along the Black Sea coast. The steep cliffs of the Pontic Mountains were cloaked in emerald-green tea plants. There is oh, so much tea here. We went through the town of Rize where there are two huge tea processing facilities. You can get a jittery caffeine buzz just by taking a deep breath. The plants grow in serpentine hedge-rows which are harvested weekly by women using long clippers that have catch-bags attached. A woman can collect over 400 pounds of tea in a single shift, which is a good thing since there are some serious tea-drinkers living here. Turkish
2008 South Ossetia War
Georgia was a really busy place 6-years ago. Now take this map and overlay it on the Eastern Ukraine. History doesn't repeat itself exactly, but it sure does rhyme.
men tell me that they drink between ten and twenty glasses in the course of a day.
Interesting note: The area between the Pontic mountains and the Black Sea was once known as Pontus and was the Amazon seat of power. A race of female warriors who ruled this land for over a hundred years. Mentioned by Homer in the Illiad, they fought against the Greeks at Troy and remnants of their culture lasted until the time of Alexander the Great.
As we neared Georgia, the mountain mists grew so thick they reminded me of winter's first snow in the Berkshires. A slender, white minaret rose like a New England church steeple against the landscape. A stark-white metal sliver pressed into soft green milk-glass. Basalt pyramids studded the darkening seas. The rain fell in torrents.
The Georgian border is a bewildering place. The bus driver told us to disembark and enter the new passport control facility. By the time we had navigated our way through the typical land-border traffic jam of horn-blaring buses, trucks and cars to get inside the building we were pretty well soaked. A Turkish official stamped us out of Turkey. We passed along
a long, curving hallway to the Georgian side where another official stamped us in. A Georgian policewoman seemed happy to see our US passports. "Enjoy your time in Georgia" she said with a smile and then ushered us back out into the deluge. We re-boarded our bus and took the short ride that remained into Batumi.
Georgia is not Turkey. Per capita income here is approximately half of Turkey's. Buildings, cars and roads are beat to hell and back. As recently as 2008 Georgia was in civil war with Ossetia and the Russians. Towns were destroyed, cluster bombs dropped, raping and pillaging occurred on both sides. The country has only known relative peace for the past six years. Most people use public transportation. Overcrowded buses charge one Georgian Lari for a ride. Georgian currency is non-transferable outside Georgia so we only exchange $100 at a time to preclude being stuck with a worthless wad of pretty paper when we depart. Current exchange rate is 1.77 Lari per US Dollar. There are three currency exchange operations on every city block. No commissions or fees. Straightforward. They're stockpiling hard currency. They will only exchange for Dollars, Euros and Turkish lira.
Sunset On The Black Sea
The water here is ultra-cold and loaded with Anchovies.
We found our way to a local guesthouse that we had heard good things about. The Gulnasi Guesthouse. Sophia, the owner's married daughter, speaks excellent English and is a wealth of info on what to do in Batumi and how to get around. Unfortunately the guesthouse didn't have any private rooms available but Sophia told us that if we could stay in the hostel dorm for one night we would have our own room the next day and that's how we found ourselves living in a six-bed room with three 20-something room-mates from Belorus. A cute cuddly-couple traveling with a long-haired, bearded fellow that looked like a corpulent version of Brad Pitt playing Jesus of Nazareth. Do you know anything about Belorus? Neither did I. But after a 15-minute Wikipedia cram session I felt quite comfortable with the possibility of discussing Belorus history and its culture. It really sucks to live in Belorus. The only problem was that our room-mates didn't speak any English or German or Italian or Spanish. And so, we just nodded at each other and smiled. I treated the cuddly couple guy for a minor insect bite that he kept worrying at. A Belorus hypochondriac if
I ever saw one. His girlfriend smiled her thanks with every dab of ointment I applied. Later I was feeling less generous. The couple cuddled hard around 2 AM and at 4:30 Jesus stumbled in, three sheets to the wind. I think he was just getting in from the wedding feast at Cana.
Hostel dorms have all the ambiance of US military barracks. There's an unspoken code between occupants that goes along the lines of 'Don't mess with my stuff and I won't mess with you'. In the Army, a barracks thief is dealt with quickly and harshly. I don't know what backpackers are accustomed to but 'quickly and harshly' is still my 'Go To' philosophy. Karen and I staked claim to our beds and stowed our gear. We had left our only two suitcases in Trabzon with a friend so we were traveling lean and mean. We carried day-pack basics only. Just wearing American jeans in Batumi can be considered overdressing so one doesn't need much clothes-wise.
We are the only Americans in the guesthouse. Most of the occupants are from Poland or Russia or Belorus. Russian is the common language here. They arrive in family-sized packs.
Main Drag Through The Old City
Nice place to hang. Good cafes and restaurants with terrible service.
The hostel offers kitchen facilities. The families buy groceries and prepare meals. They eat communally at the umbrella-shaded tables provided in the garden. This is the only way they can afford to take a much coveted 'Black Sea' summer holiday. A room for three runs $15. Small children run riot, adding to the family reunion atmosphere. None of the adults speak English but we are kind to their kids and so we pass muster. A smile is usually enough anywhere in this world.
The beach is a river-stone covered strand completely devoid of sand. Alongside it there is a small, well-attended, SeaQuarium that offers a dolphin show for $8 US a ticket. You can take a 15-minute 'swim' with the mammals for only $100 US more. Big women peddle balloons and inflatable animals outside the main entrance. A few cafes down the street sell local beer accompanied by dried fish or Doner kebab. Shopping for food is done at small family-run markets offering fresh produce and dry goods. Georgia is dependent on imported goods. There are few bakeries here. If you can find one you will discover that they sell a salty, chewy specialty loaf shaped like a canoe
Black Sea Bathers
Yeah. It's all true.
and little else. Cafes will fill the canoe with meat or cheese and put a fried egg on top. Karen calls the one filled with cheese 'Georgian Fondue'.
The east side of Batumi has been reconstructed with a retro Baroque look. Lots of gold-leaf onion domes and stained glass. Open, fountain graced plazas and strange black and gold statues. Nice cafes with few patrons. Service here is abysmal. To get a beverage in a cafe usually entails walking into the back room where the waiters can be found drinking beer and smoking cigarettes. The natives stare at us. Sidelong glances and whispers. Unable to discern where we are from or even what language we are speaking. Unlike the Turks, the Georgians will never start a conversation but if you get the ball rolling they will brighten up immediately. They are friendly folk but clumsy at expressing it.
We ate dinner on Jordania Street at the Shemoikhede Restaurant in the 'nice' part of town . The expensive hotels nearby are bleeding foreign money into the local economy. There is an affluent middle-class emerging here. The eatery we visited has a distinctive European feel to it though it serves only
Everything in this part of town is drab and scuffed up.
Georgian food. Think of huge loaves of bread, ground beef patties, steamed dumplings 6-inches wide stuffed with cheese and meat, potato pancakes, whole spit-roasted chickens, beef and pork. Karen and I hadn't eaten any pork since we left Vietnam 10-weeks ago. Tables all around us groaned under platters of hot food. Men smoked cigarette after cigarette as they downed shots of vodka from one liter bottles and gulped cold beer from tall schooners and filled wine glasses to brimming with homemade red. Every seat occupied by Georgian families. Toddlers sitting happily on parents' laps. Diners dispensing with forks to finger-stuff their faces till they looked like hamsters that had accidentally been locked inside a grain silo. We paid $28 for the huge meal. The show was free.
We walked home from the restaurant. The cobble-stoned streets are well-lit and clean. Soft music drifts out of small, intimate, bars and cafes. Their front doors left invitingly open. Potted geraniums in window baskets. Everybody inside looking chilled and friendly. As we cruised westward away from the big new hotels and the money, things got dodgier. Not so many smiles. Young men in dark doorways selling their goods. Thick-limbed working girls trying
Black Sea Sand
You need some really thick beach blankets around here.
hard to look attractive to the passing drivers. The Soviet-era apartment buildings loomed over the streets. Their ground floor commercial areas abandoned. Showroom windows opaque with years of accumulated dust. Unused sheets of drywall abandoned on concrete floored lobbies. One day the Tsunami of foreign money flowing into the eastern part of Batumi will reach these shores but until then; It's business as usual.
We're heading to Tbilisi tomorrow by train. First class of course! Tbilisi is the capitol and we hear that it's as nice a town as Prague is but who knows? A couple of nights there and then back to Turkey to participate in the end of Ramadan festivities with our friend Tolga and his extended family. We are healthy and well. We plan to be in Bulgaria for my birthday on August 5th. From there we'll work our way through Eastern Europe before heading back to Germany to visit Noah and our Weisbaden friends. We plan on being back in the States for Thanksgiving in New Mexico and then we're off to South America to enjoy their summer season. Highlights of our trip so far; Morocco, Nepal and Turkey.
out to John M. and Noah and Claus and Ulf. Best wishes to Mel who is expecting her first baby in two-weeks. To the family back home and our people in Vietnam and Nepal and Monforte. Stay safe all.
Notes to visitors in Georgia: Use taxis. The fares are cheap and the drivers honest. The local bus schedules are too erratic. Use guesthouses. Regular 'Hotels' are ridiculously expensive. Rack rates here in east Batumi start at $200 US per night. If using trains to get around the country buy your tickets early. Seats sell out fast. There are three trains daily from Batumi to Tbilisi. 0800, 1800 and 2200 HRS. The ride takes 6 hours. 2nd class fare is 33 Lev. Bring cash. ATM's are nearly non-existent here.
Tot: 2.699s; Tpl: 0.09s; cc: 14; qc: 33; dbt: 0.0375s; 2; m:saturn w:www (18.104.22.168); sld: 1;
; mem: 1.4mb