Two other volunteers and I have been wanting to visit the famous monasteries in the area for a few weeks now. We have mostly been deterred by not knowing how to get to the places and horrible, rainy weather. After a bit of legwork (meaning I finally found the entrance to the tourist “cube” ), I found what times and where the marshutkas (mini buses) left for each of the monasteries. Gelati Monastery is about 10km outside of Kutaisi and is one of the most famous monasteries. David the Builder, the beloved Georgian king who is renowned for all of the building projects he began, is buried at Gelati.
Another nearby monastery is Motsameta and since it is in the vicinity of Gelati we had wanted to hit two birds with one stone, but Mostameta is only open on the weekends, and we were free on a Thursday.
So we found the marshutka and set off. I should say here that anyone who ever comes to Georgia needs to experience a marshutka ride. At first the rides were terrifying, but I have become accustomed to the accelerating until you have to break at a turn, the swerving to not hit people, other vehicles or cows, all the while trying not to fall into a stranger’s lap, or have a stranger fall into your lap. After having been in a makeshift seat in the aisle for over an hour with people standing and the makeshift seat falling, as well as surviving the three hour marshutka ride on the winding “road” to Mestia (twice no less), city marshutkas are not as intimidating. Really, the worst driving in the US, can not compare to the average driver here.
Anyway, we get to Gelati, hop out of the marshutka and take in the beautiful view. On one side, Kutaisi is open to plains, while the other side is surrounded by mountains. It is something that, unfortunately, I do not often notice.
We go photo crazy. Being on the top of a hill in the yard of a building that is many times older than my country and overlooks a river valley is magical. I was taken back in time. Our first attempt to enter the Gelati church itself was deterred by some ceremony with a screaming child, a priest chanting, and people walking in a circle with lit candles. Not wanting to be “those rude foreigners” we wandered around the grounds for a while. There are quite a few outbuildings, just as beautifully constructed as the church, but without the paintings.
Each of these outbuildings has some stairway, door or secret passage that was so incredibly tempting to enter. After we went up one staircase that looked less forbidden, we were yelled at and decided that despite there being no signage as to not enter, we probably should not. There are so many times you can get away with the “I’m a foreigner, I don’t get it or understand”. The stairway we first attempted and were yelled at was an outside staircase that led to an apparent storage area and potential apartment for monks who live there. In one building there was a trap door open into a pit of blackness with a ladder leading into it. There was no one in that building and I was incredibly tempted, but afraid I would fall into the pit of despair. The bell tower had a door that was cracked with a stairway that clearly led to the bells… again, I resisted temptation and did not enter. Finally, in the church there was a tiny, narrow, nearly impossible to see, stairway hid around a corner. Yes I was kind of looking for it, and almost went into it. One memory from my previous time in Georgia was being led up such a stairway into a tiny, claustrophobic passage that ran along the entirety of the church. I knew the stairway in the Gelati church was just that type, but I did not want to be disrespectful.
The interior of Gelati is so impressive. The ceiling is much higher than one would suspect from the outside, and it is fully painted in what were once incredibly vibrant paints and gold gilding. My camera’s flash has broken and I will have to rely on my fellow volunteers’ photography for pictures of the interior. In Georgian churches, as in many other churches, there are places to light candles and pray. Georgian church candles are a light brown and incredibly thin. I decided that I needed to light a candle in memory of my Georgian Bebi and Babu. It was a surprisingly emotional moment for me. It was just the perfect atmosphere for remembrance.
After this, we realized it was getting close to 5 and we did not know how we were getting back. So we headed out the main gates to where the marshutka had originally dropped us off. Suddenly, we hear one of my friends name being called. It just happens that one of her Georgian co-teachers was with a class at the monestary as well. They then invited us to not only share their private marshutka but also to eat their lobiani, khachapuri, grapes, and soda. Lobiani is a bean bread. It is khachapuri dough, which is buttery and semi flakey, filled with a spicy bean paste. Delicious.
There was so much food that none of us felt the least bit bad about eating our fill. We then all piled into the marshutka. Of course,being the foreign English teachers, we actually were allowed to sit, while at least four students stood. Shania Twain’s “Feel like a woman” came on the radio and pandemonium broke loose. Every student stood up, started to dance/ fall on everyone because of the curves, and sing along. I am so glad that my camera takes video. I will never forget these 15 year old Georgian girls and boys shouting the lyrics and dancing, it was fantastic.
I have noticed that despite the lack of planning or organization at all, things always tend to work out in Georgia. Our luck at finding a way home from Gelati is just one example of this.