Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Keshalo: A Tiny Adventure

Some of my police students waxed poetic about Rami's Restaurant in Keshalo, a town about 20 km from Rustavi, close to the Azerbaijan border. Why, even the president of Georgia goes to Rami's!

This recommendation came about after I'd shared with my students that I'd eaten at a Thai restaurant in Tbilisi the prior weekend. Two Georgians, in separate classes, had the same puzzled response: "Why would you go to a restaurant that isn't Georgian?"  One added a comment to the effect, "You could devote your entire life to exploring khinkali alone!" 

Nevertheless, they did allow as how, if I might be interested in Azerbaijani food, Rami's in Keshalo was special, and known for its shampuri. A Georgian version of kebabs.

This seemed to be the perfect excursion to go on with my hostess and neighbors. It was close by; none had been there before; and the trip (marshrutka and cost of meal for all) was affordable enough that I could invite the four of them to be my guests. They weren't quite as engaged as I in this "adventure," but they seemed game.

There was some flurry of conversation at home and at work about which Keshalo we'd be going to. Was that the Keshalo about 20 kilometers away or the Keshalo about 40 kilometers away? The one by the Red Bridge? We got it worked out ... the one 20 km away.

Well, the first week we postponed the trip because it was a religious fasting week. We postponed the second week because one of the neighbors became ill. Which is about when I realized that the enthusiasm for the trip was really just politeness. This week, the third, one of the neighbors had a sick relative. And my hostess indicated she really just didn't want to go. Ara problema. I've learned that if you want to do something, sometimes you have to do it by yourself.

One of my police students had suggested I get this dish at Rami's: Gvidzli reshotkashi. I didn't know what it was, but I was sure it would be delicious.

Another police student showed me where to get the marshrutka to Keshalo.
So today I was ready.

I walked to the marshrutka place, which was essentially a parking spot alongside a road. There was one marshrutka there, passenger door open, no one in sight. I sat on the pipeline that runs parallel to th road (water? gas? natural gas?) and waited serenely for the next step in my adventure.

Presently a large man, kind of beery, sauntered over and sat heavily beside me. I said, "Keshalo?" pointing to the van. He gave a positive response, then rolled out a lot of Georgian, to which I replied, pointing to myself, "Inglasuri." I thought he was the driver. The fact that he seemed a little inebriated, while noted, didn't alarm me too much. This is, after all, Georgia. (I find myself also undismayed when other drivers in vehicles in which I'm a passenger drive at great speeds, hurtling around pedestrians, other vehicles, and turns. I have been thoroughly indoctrinated. Or else there's something in the water that dulls survival reflexes.)

The driver talked to me at some length, and I nodded frequently. When I mentioned I was going to Rami's, he kissed me on my cheek. Then I think he invited me to his house. Really not sure.

One, then another, and another passengers appeared and the driver suggested via body language that it would be a good time for me to board the van. Which I did. As we passengers got ourselves organized into the vehicle, I realized the driver had plopped himself in the back seat, and I wondered at that, then realized, oh, he's not the driver after all. Doh.

The driver did appear and we took off. Damn, it was nice to see a new view of Georgia! Rolling, treeless hills, the foothills of a nearby mountain range. Hills and sky. Eventually, I saw a sign that said Keshalo -- ah, the town! .... we passed a little roadside cafe, then another, and another ... and the town? Well, there were some houses off the road, but .... hey, driver, Rami's. No response. To the driver, Rami's. No response. I tapped the shoulder of the young guy sitting next to the driver. Rami's.

Uh, yeah, OK. We've passed it. So I get dropped off in the middle of town. Which is to say, the middle of nowheresville:

Keshalo, Georgia

I begin walking back toward the cafes we'd passed. I thought, yes, this is all part of the little adventure.

Houses, many of them newly constructed, were set in perpendicular lanes off the main road. They reminded me of houses and compounds in Nazret.

Along the way, I picked up two nicely-shaped, warm rocks in case any dogs menaced. I learned this trick in Ethiopia. The rocks felt right proper in my hand.

I arrived at the first cafe, which looked inviting in greens and blues, a canopied front terrace, and another along the side. Several young men sat around two tables; there were two waitresses. I asked the name of the place, and I heard it, and it wasn't Rami's. I was about to move on, when the folks at the tables invited me so charmingly to have a seat. So I did.

One of the young guys was curious as a child. Took photos with my camera. Tried on my hat. One of the waitresses and some of the other guys perused my phrase book. The other waitress asked if I wanted coffee and, though I was tempted to say no and move on, reconsidered and assented. She brought out a demitasse of coffee and before I could take the first sip, ash from the nearby charcuterie floated about our heads. Some ash landed in my cup. It says a lot (though I'm not sure what) that I didn't flinch the slightest bit when the waitress dipped her finger into my cup to retrieve an ash and, I think, though I carefully didn't pay too close attention (a habit that helps one hold one's equilibrium when traveling), a stray, long hair from same. It was something a family member might do. That we were strangers to each other didn't seem to apply. 
Curious in blue

The coffee tasted swell. 

Finally, I left this happy crew and pushed on to Rami's.

Rami's Restaurant, Keshalo, Georgia

Like the other place, there was a shady terrace in front, and a clever garden in the back, with several "rooms" amidst the trees, each with oilcoth-covered tables. I  found one that felt right to me, sank into a yellow, plastic chair, and breathed deeply beneath the cool shade.

A henna-haired waitress came over, and I could almost hear her think, "oh shit, why did I get this table," when she learned that not only did I not speak Georgian, I also didn't speak Russian. No menus. We figured out pretty quickly that I'd have a small bottle of cold water, then ran into trouble on the food part.

I showed her the texted recommendation of my police student -  gvidzli reshotkashi - and she indicated this was quite large, so we did some more linguistic mucking about, and I said, shampuri, which is the generic term I hear to mean a kebab.

After the waitress went to fill my order, I watched a couple of fat hens, one red and one black, poke around the table, and I thought they'll probably be on someone's plate in the not-too-distant future.

A group of 20- and 30-something men sat at the table next to mine, with the young son of one of them also along. Beer and khinkali.

Presently, the waitress brought my order, which was a thin, flat rectangle of meat. Onions topped it. Wasn't what I had pictured in my mind, but I was sure it'd be good.

A current and future (unsuspecting) lunch

Hm. Tasted good. A bit like liver. A bit like not-quite-lamb. While tasty, and certainly intriguing in that I really couldn't put my finger on what I was eating, I wasn't quite convinced that the rave reviews I'd been hearing were entirely warranted.

I wanted to take some grilled meat to Nino and Giorgi, and I thought I'd take them the dish recommended to me by my police student, and which the waitress had said was too big for one person. But I had a hankering to know what it was I planned to order. Again, I pulled out the text message, showed it to the waitress, and asked, "Ra aris?" (What is it?) She thought I referred to the price, and she quoted me same, but I said, no "RA aris?" which, of course, didn't help at all. So I laid my hand on the table and said "magida" ("table"), to the water and said "skali," my glasses and said "satuali," and then again to the text message, and repeated "Ra aris?" What is it? Still no luck. So I called the police student and asked him. .... and he replied that he didn't know what it was in English, but he would look it up and then let me know the next day in class.

I went ahead and ordered the dish, and when it came out, it was a thicker slab of meat, again flat, again rectangularish, but this time nestled in a beautifully browned and custom-made blanket of bread. I was ready to go.
Rami's rear dining garden

As I walked out of the shady garden where I'd dined, I saw a long, low building with several doors. I went closer to take a look-see and saw that each door opened into a small room with a table and chairs. Private dining. A woman somewhat sternly pointed me to the exit. I wondered if some of the charm of Rami's included its out-of-the-way seclusion for ... whatever.

I wandered out front and asked the waitress in my caveman Georgian where I might get a marshrutka to return to Rustavi. She let me know the "station" was right out front. There was a tractor-trailer parked alongside the road in front of the restaurant. I stood out in the baking sun for a bit, then the waitress indicated it'd be about 20 minutes before the marshrutka went by.
So I sat beneath the shady awning of the front terrace. The man in front of me turned out to be Rami, a congenial-looking guy.

To my left was the butcher, going about his business with a big ol' ax on a massive tree trunk table.He and his customer had what seemed to be a little set-to at the end of the transaction.

After talking to Rami, he said I could get a ride back to Rustavi with the truck driver whose truck was parked out front. Great!

While I waited I took a look at the grilling operation. Swardi is the result beloved by Georgians.

It turned out that the butcher's customer was my ride, a Turkish truck driver. What a ride! First time I'd ever been in a tractor-trailer! And they said nothing happens in Keshalo!

It looked pretty new. The dashboard looked as complicated as an airplane cockpit. There was a roomy sleeping space behind the seats.

The driver was pleasant - he runs between Turkey, Azerbaijani, Georgia, and also does runs into France and Italy. I tried to find out what he usually carries, but we couldn't break the language barrier that far. But I did learn he loves his Turkish home town.

Here's a view of the Keshalo-Rustavi road, from a trucker's POV:


 The driver dropped me off on the edge of Rustavi.

 And I walked about a half-mile to a main drag. Carrying my bag of roast meat, I felt pretty vulnerable to stray dogs, so I kept my eye out.

I was startled at how beautiful the view looked from this heretofore-unknown-to-me Rustavi boulevard:

I saw this interesting old panel truck (bus?) on said boulevard:

I picked up a bus on the main road. It was very full. My roast meat was fragrant. Upon my arrival home, Nino gave it due respect, presenting it with flair as a photo opportunity:

I look forward to learning what it is.

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