Posts tagged ‘Georgia’
I decided to learn how to make khachapuri, a traditional Georgian cheese bread. I arrived at a quarter passed 11 at the bakery where I usually buy khachapuri to learn from them. The three sisters who run the bakery are refugees from Abkazia, who left their homes with almost nothing but the clothes on their back during the 1992 war. They started the bakery 2 years ago and learned to bake by practice. They work over 12 hours daily and the younger sister tells me that she has not been to the sea for almost 20 years.
I rolled out doe, filled it with cheese and haphazardly pulled it together. Although I enjoy cooking, I’ve never really baked before. I never had a grandmother or other close female relatives to teach me, and my mother hardly baked anything since we came to America. Despite its simple ingredients doe intimidated me.
After two hours on my feet I felt exhausted. Even now as I write this at 9pm, the sisters are still in the bakery. And yet, after only four hours of work I still feel weak despite the rest I took.
“In the beginning we made many errors, we didn’t know how many to prepare and so we were throwing out by the bags… Our feet ached so badly during those first days, now we are used to it” said Sveta as she took the oven-hot khachapuris in her hand one by one and brought them to the show display case in the front of the bakery.
In making khachapuri I was surprised by the amount of margarine used. To make the right kind of doe, the doe must be rolled out and folded, and then rolled out and refolded again, and again. Afterwards it is refrigerated and then rolled out yet again. But before the first folding takes place 4 packs of margarine are applied to the doe (3 kilos of flour are used). The margarine is soft and Sveta uses her hand to sweep it evenly along the whole length of the doe. After it is refrigerated for 15 minutes or overnight if time permits, it is cut into smaller pieces for individual khachapuri.
Then fresh crumbled cheese is added and the doe is sealed shut as if sealing an envelope. It is placed on the hot pan and beaten egg is glazed over the top. After 10 minutes in the oven, you have khachapuri!
On Wednesday I left Tbilisi, taking a small backpack with one change of clothes and a tooth brush with me. I was headed to Tkibuli, a small town 3.5 hours from Tbilisi where one of my couchsurfing guests Petra works. From Petra’s descriptions of Tkibuli I imagined that it was a nice, untouristy town, where I could go to see the “real” Georgia, the kind unaffected by tourism and commercialism.
On the way I met a Belorussian guy and together we stopped in Mtskheta to see the Svetitshkhoveli cathedral and in Gory (the birthplace of Stalin) to see the Stalin museum, which cost 10 GED and included an entertaining nationalistic tour.
In Gory I split with the Belorussian who returned to Tbilisi, while I hitchhiked alone towards Tkibuli. One of the exciting things about hitchhiking is that you never know what kind of ride you’ll get and how long it will take. I’ve had rides in air-conditioned Mercedes on dusty roads that drove me faster and more comfortably than any bus could, and on the other extreme, I’ve sat in the cargo space of lories and gotten to so dirty from dust that I may as well have rolled in dirt.
The ride I caught outside Gory as a medium size lorry that was the slowest car I’ve ever ridden in. At one point, my driver even turned off the engine and let gravity propel us forward, meaning for nearly 40 km everyone on the road passed us. Since I had told him where I wanted him to drop me off, and since he wasn threatening and had shared the delicious peaches he’d bought on the side of the road with me, I didn’t want to hurt his feelings by asking him to let me off sooner on some mountain road to be picked up by another stranger. Plus I was comfortable. Relationships aren’t formed just with friends and lovers. They are entities formed with people you share circumstances with and the relationship formed between me and this driver was a good one.
In Tkibuli, Petra works for the Tkibuli Community District Development as an EVS volunteer and is the only foreigner in the town. I imagined Tkibuli would be a large village with flat homes amidst scenic peaks. But no, industrial high rise apartment blocks obstruct the panoramic view, while the industrial dirty feel of the town is accentuated by the unkept center. The town’s cinema and sports complex have been closed for years, though the swimming pool and hospital remain open. During the Soviet times, Tkibuli was famous for its coal mines and it’s population was relatively well off compared to other Georgian cities. Today all but two of the mines are closed, while the two that work do not run at full capacity. Petra said that most recent statistics claim that 50-60% of the population is unemployed.
Petra’s organization works with people in Tkibuli, Kutaici and several villages in between, helping develop small businesses. Every year they hold a tandem for business proposals. Those who are accepted, receive materials that they need to expand or start their business and pledge to donate half of their proceeds to their community, half in the form of output and half in cash payments that are to be used for financing projects in their community.
On Thursday we visited a farmer in a village, an hour’s distance from Tkibuli, who had been provided with materials to grow tomatoes and stevia. Now that his tomatoes had grown, he was helping finance repairs in the local kindergarten and distributing tomatoes from his harvest to some of the poorest members of his village. When we met him in the village, he was waiting for us with 182 kilos of tomatoes. Petra and I prepared 5 kilo bags of tomatoes for the poorest 50 people in the village and then they started to come, as word in the village spread (no phones were used). Old and middle aged women, men with canes. To distribute the last 10 bags or so we drove to find the people, some of whom lived a distance away. All were happy to receive free tomatoes and nodded happily as they were told about the project. But I wondered still – how effective was it compared with Kiva’s model for business development? This way inspired feelings of gratitude amongst the people who recieved the tomatoes, but it also inspired negative emotions among the few who didn’t and felt they deserved them also. The process by which the poor were selected was pretty arbitrary and at the whim of the village mayor plus the farmer himself who said he knew who was poor and who wasn’t. I wondered whether it wouldn’t have been better for the farmer to pay back in cash which could use to reinvest in more local businesses, rather then through products and services to the community (which sounded good in theory but was actually time consuming and it’s effectiveness on the poverty in the community questionable)?
I missed the night train from Baku to Tbilisi on Saturday night because I was too slow to leave the flat. The station, which is actually only about 15 minutes away, seemed menacing at a quarter to 10 (the train was scheduled to leave at 10pm). There’s no way it will leave on time, I thought. If trains are anything like the post office system here, I’ll be lucky to leave by midnight. But just in case we took a taxi…
The first driver we stopped wouldn’t accept 1 AZN for this very short distance. And then we had trouble finding another taxi. When we finally did it was so late that we paid whatever the taxi wanted, which was 5 AZN. And when we got to the station and ran to the platform, my heart heavy with apprehension, it was with a quite blow that I heard “the train left 5 minutes ago.”
I sat against some wall, out of breath and panting, empty-headed and stupefied at my own stupidity. A half dozen taxi drivers surrounded us, promising that they could drive me to the next train station stop 150 km away for 50 AZN. Leave us alone, I groaned, irritated more by my own irresponsibility than their presence.
Ulrich was bargaining with them on my behalf. Stop it, I don’t want to go, was all I could muster to say. And then I had an idea. We’ve had several couchsurfers visit us from Georgia by hitchhiking from Tbilisi to Baku and then hitchhiking back. The distance is only 750 km and if Ulrich joined me till the border, it might be quite an adventure.
And so it was decided. We’d wake up early the next morning, hitchhike together to the border and than Ulrich would hitchhike back to Baku, while I’d continue by myself to Tbilisi.
We bought some ice cream to celebrate.
The next morning we left the house at 7:30am. I ate 3 eggs, Ulrich had some meet and rice given to us by our neighbor the previous night. In Azerbaijan, when a person dies his/her family lay out a large tent on the street and hold a ceder like meal for relatives and neighbors who want to honor the deceased. We didn’t attend because we didn’t know how.
We took a bus to Yeni avtovagzal, thinking we’d find the highway near the main bus station. It was there but it was completely inaccessible for hitchhiking because there was no spot for a car to safely stop. After walking along the highway for a quarter of an hour we decided to go back and find a bus out of town. The bus took us a mere kilometer further to the parting point for Sumgait and Shamaxi. We needed the Shamaxi direction..
The first ride we got was going all the way to Sheki in the northwest. He was an old funny man. The first thing I said to him was “are you a taxi?” in a haughty frustrated voice because of his white Lada. He wasn’t. He drove us to Mingechuar, which was almost half way to the border. On the way occurred the first of the two meetings we had with police. He was telling us how shitty police are in Azerbaijan, always bothering him, when somewhere outside Ishmaili he was pulled him over for not wearing his seat belt. Ironically, he’d been wearing it most of the time and had just taken it off 2 minutes before the policeman muttered something over his loudspeaker and we stopped. Our driver walked over to the police car agitated and started arguing. Minutes later he came back saying “the swine took away my license.”
We drove to a store. The driver bought some more credit for his phone, called his friend and then drove back to find the police man who was busy laughing with another driver he’d stopped. Our driver ran to him and handed him the phone. Then he got into the police man’s car. He’s probably paying a bribe I said to Ulrich. Before he left the cop he shook his hand and spoke a few gregarious words in parting. Then he told us that the policeman had agreed to be friends instead and returned his license to him…
The other episode we had with the police was less pleasant. The police stopped our driver at one of those narrow passes on the road between the “sidewalk” and a stopped truck. Our driver didn’t turn of his engine, so the angry policeman reached in and turned it off himself. After some yelling the policeman tried to pull our driver out of the car by his grabbing his neck. I tried to “help” by offering the police some candy we had but I was ignored. When our driver left the car voluntarily after some time, another policeman (who’d been observing the whole episode from a distance) came by and said to us in English with a toothy smile “Azerbaijan good, Azerbaijan good.” But our driver’s license was taken and he couldn’t get it back so easily..
Our second ride, which we picked up roughly 10 km before Mingechuar was with two young men who invited us to their home for tea. There the young man’s mother and wife served us tea and sweets, while his young daughter ran around. I ate the most delicious fig jam I’ve ever had. Before we left, they put many of the sweets in a plastic bag for us and gave them to us to take.
In Ganja we were picked up by a group of 3 young people, two Azeri guys and one girl. They had a race car and drove really fast, and I wondered whether we’d have a third encounter with Azeri police. It was the first time I’d hitchhiked with an Azeri woman in the car. This woman, who was about my age, held hands with one of the men, and laughed loudly. She was definitely part of the group, which was nice and unusual, since I’ve rarely seen women in the company of Azeri men who were not their family.
Our last ride to the border happened quite late in the day. It was a lorry driven by a Turkish man who’d stopped for us earlier. But he took too long to stop and as he did so, another car pulled up, and so we were distracted by the other car and he drove away.
He was married to a Georgian woman and lived in Georgia. His job was transporting things from Istanbul to Baku and now he was returning with an empty truck back to Istanbul. The sun was setting.
He left us at the border and said he could wait for me if I wanted to drive with him into Tbilisi. But I wanted to say goodbye to Ulrich and so he didn’t wait. My last meal in Azerbaijan was in a café by the border and it was surprisingly tasty. By the time the food was served the sun had set completely, and I ate in the dark – grilled potatoes, eggplant, fresh white cheese and a salad.
Ulrich and I parted at the border – “Red bridge” and I walked into a small room for an inquisition. “What is in your backpack?” asked the young female border officer. Just a laptop and a book, I answered. “What kind of book” she asked? “What does it say about Armenia?”
She was worried I had the lonely planet, which described Karaback as part of Armenia rather than occupied territory. Don’t worry, I assured her, I’ve spent three months working with IDPs and I have much sympathy for the Azerbaijani people.
Without problem they stamped my passport and I went out into the dark empty alley that separates Azerbaijan from Georgia. An old woman carrying bananas tried to sell some to me. Ahead was a small building full of people awaiting their Georgian visas. “How long have you been waiting” I asked. “3 hours” said one, “4 hours” said another. “At least give us the forms to fill out” pleaded a middle-aged man with the security. I stood around, detesting the dryness in my throat and regretting not taking more water. Then I realized that everyone was Russian and that maybe with my American passport I didn’t have to wait. I approached the patrol and asked. It took her a minute to stamp my passport and there I was ..alone in Georgia. I apologized to the Russians and left hoping to catch one of the lorries I saw waiting at the border.
There were several dozen cars waiting to leave Georgia, but none of the lorries I had seen on the Azerbaijani border were entering Georgia. And the cars I had seen parked outside probably belonged to the Russians who were stucked in the beurocratic limbo without their visas.
A taxi man offered his services. I told him I had no money to pay for a cab. The truth was that I simply didn’t want to pay. I wanted to hitchhike all the way. I wanted an adventure. Not an ordinary taxi ride. He said he’d drive me anyway, so long as I had a coffee with him first. “No thanks” I repeated.
A car pulled up from the Georgian side and did a u-turn, parking right in front of me. I saw some lights flashing from the Azeri side. Someone is finally coming and now this bugger blocking my way!
I ran towards the driving car when it approached. It stopped. “Where are you going? Tbilisi?” “No just a village not far away from here.”
“Are you going to Tbilisi?” asked the man who’s car had been blocking my way. The border patrol was now urging him to move his car and he was in a hurry to leave… “Get in and I’ll take you.”
We drove along the very dark and empty road to Rustavi. All together, it only about an hour to drive to Tbilisi from the border. He drove me all the way to my hostel and here I sit writing this on a sunny Tuesday afternoon surrounded by travelers from Poland, Czech Republic, and America =)