Last weekend five friends and I decided to visit Vardzia.We had heard that it was a must see before leaving Georgia. It is historically significant as well as naturally beautiful. Vardzia is a cave city and monastery built in the side of a cliff in southern Georgia. It was built by Tamar Mepe (Queen Tamara) in the 12th or 13th Century. This was a tumultuous time with many invaders sweeping into Georgia an destroying churches, monasteries and cities. Vardzia was built to be a safe house of Georgian religion an culture. Only a few murals have survived, but they are quite beautiful. There is an active monastery in the area with monks who care for the site and churches.
So we decided to head out Friday right after school. We took a marshutka to Khasuri (half way to Tbilisi) and then stood around deciding how to get to Akahtsikhe (the closest town to Vardzia). As we were standing around we were harassed by taxi drivers vying for our business. It gets really annoying when you are trying to decide what the best course of action is and people are shouting “where are you going?” and “You want a taxi?” at you. They completely ignored our “one minute please” and continued to stand in our circle and interrupt our conversation. (all of the quotes being in Georgian). Finally right as we were getting fed up a random Georgian came up to us and said he would give us a ride for 40 tetri (less than 40 cents). That offer made our decision for us.
We followed the guy over to his marshutka and he explained that there are not actually enough seats because it is not a real marshutka, it is a van with seats in the front and one bench seat in the back. The rest is for cargo. He opened the sliding door and cleared the bench seat in the back. His friends and him had to move a freshly engraved headstone and other slabs of marble…yes they were transporting a headstone. Five of us managed to squeeze onto the seat and the poor Irishman got stuck sitting on the headstone (we did put coats on it to make it slightly more comfortable).
Then we took some photos and began the journey to Akhaltsikhe. The guy who had originally offered us the ride was sitting in the front with the driver and one other friend. He was the most actively involved in trying to converse with us. He asked the usual of where we were from, what we were doing in Georgia, if we liked Georgia, if we liked Georgian food…the typical.
Once we got to Akhaltsikhe we were driven through the city and stopped at one persons house. Our friendly Georgian then told us they needed to make two stops before dropping us off. The first stop was delivering the headstone and the second stop we did not understand. All that we could piece together was that they needed to drive a few miles away to a church. Take note that it is now dark and about 9 in the evening and we have not eaten since before three.
As we left the city were we wanted to stay the night, we began to get a little concerned, mostly because we were really hungry. Then the guys told us that after this stop they wanted to eat and drink with us. The promise of free food pretty much pacified us. We also were not too worried about trouble because we were a mixed group of guys and girls.
Finally, after driving up a steep, rocky, potholed road, and passing through a gate we arrived at a cemetery. This was the second stop. Another car full of Georgian men arrived and they unloaded the rest from the back of the van. They were clearly going to finish up a grave site. In Georgia the headstone is not the only only monument for the deceased. Cemeteries here are consisted of family plots that are usually fenced with beautiful low wrought iron fences. There are then headstones with peoples likeness engraved on them, gravel paths and marble tables.
After they finished unloading the van, they asked us to join them in drinking and eating a bit of mchadi in honor of the dead. In particular they were honoring the memory of a 5 year old girl who passed away in September. It was in general a very surreal situation.
Finally we all piled back into the van with the addition of a jug of wine and an English speaking Georgian. He began to tell us that they wanted to drink with us and eat with us. The drive back was a bit awkward as the Georgians continued to drink and talk about how they “want an American wife”. It is at this point that I realize I am ready to be done with Georgian hospitality because it could go on for the rest of the night and had the potential to become uncomfortable. So after a lot of attempting to explain without being rude, we were back in Akhaltsikhe and they found us a decently priced hotel to stay in. We used the “we are teachers, have been up since before 8, and have been traveling all day and are tired” excuse. Once they left, we found a 24 hour market and had a great dinner of bread, nutella, chips, milk and cereal.
The first day of our adventure was complete.