Thursday, May 31, 2012

Svaneti, Part 7: Back Home, Not Without Drama

Mestia, Svaneti, Georgia.

Old plan

So remember what I said about planning?


"Zara," our guesthouse hostess, happened to visit with her neighbor on Sunday morning while we had breakfast. She returned with a report that the neighbor had planned to fly to Tbilisi that afternoon, but that the flight had been cancelled. Yup, that meant us, too.

So what would have been a fine day for exploring more Svaneti territory and then a one-hour afternoon flight to Tbilisi, turned into a new plan: Arranging for a way back down to Zugdidi in a chartered marshrutka (2.5 hours) and then a five-hour marshrutka ride from Zugdidi to Tbilisi.

Oh, and did I mention that Kate's flight back to the U.S. left at 5:00 the next morning?

So we had to leave, like, now.

New plan

Zara helped us negotiate a marshrutka price of 150 lari for the ride to Zugdidi (sometimes costs up to 200 lari) while I called Pegasus Airlines and ensured we could get an immediate refund at the Mestia airport.

So who turned out to be the marshrutka driver? Yup, the same guy who brought us up to Mestia.


First stop: Mestia airport terminal. Which reminded me of a caterpillar.


Mestia airport terminal, Georgia.

The inside is modern.

Mestia airport, Georgia.

Mestia airport, Georgia.

I will say that Pegasus Airlines gave a prompt refund in cash. However, the airline takes no responsibility for facilitating return travel for stranded travelers. If flight cancellations were a rare event, I could understand that, but it's my understanding that such cancellations happen frequently. Excellent customer service would dictate that they'd have an arrangement for expedited transport to Tbilisi in such circumstances instead of forcing their customers to fend for themselves at the last minute.

View of Mestia from airport.

Marshrutka from Mestia to Zugdidi

Our driver did his best to get us down the mountain to Zugdidi in good time, which we appreciated.

On the way, he stopped so we could capture this view of a thundering stream. You can't tell the scale from the video, but the log and boulder in the middle of this stream are immense.

Marshrutka from Zugdidi to Tbilisi

Sparrow had already reported to us that her marshrutka hadn't actuallly left Mestia til 6:30 and that it had taken a slow three hours to get to Zugdidi.

Her man-on-the-ground intel told us that the afternoon Zugdidi-to-Tbilisi marshrutkas left at 3:00 and 4:30. There had to be at least 7 passengers on a marshrutka for it to leave, and Kate, Sandy, and I agreed that if we had to make up the cost difference for missing passengers, we'd do so. Thanks to our Mestia driver, we made it to Zugdidi about 2:30 and then .... proceeded to wait .... until .... 4:goddamn:thirty for it to leave. And it was hot. And we knew we wouldn't get to Tbilisi before 9:30 p.m. That seven-passenger minimum business? Don't know about that - the marshrutka evidently wasn't gonna move til every last seat was filled, but we didn't know that then.

My observation of Georgians is that they are not averse to a little drama. So at about 3:30, I went inside to the ticket office and asked, in mangled Georgian-English when this 3:00 marshrutka was going to leave, to which the ticket agent said, in Georgian, something like 4:30, to which I expressed my frustration in English and to which she replied with equal fervor, in Georgian, something unintelligible. We had a little more back and forth in our respective languages, both confident in our righteous high dudgeon, and then separated.

I went back outside and threw some desultory verbal chops at the marshrutka driver, who was standing in the shade with some of his comrades, smoking a cigarette, and he just kind of laughed at me, at which point I called the Pegasus airline person at the Mestia airport, chewed on her ear a little bit, and then handed the phone to the marshrutka driver so she could box him around on my behalf.  He took things a little more seriously then, and subsequently kept me up to date as to the passenger count and his estimate of how many minutes it was going to be before we departed. My fellow marshrutka inhabitants, some of whom had suffered stolidly for nigh on an hour and a half by now, observed the theater in silence.

So nothing really changed, but the performances provided some tele-novelaic relief.

Eventually, we did depart. On the way out of Zugdidi, I took this video. The Zugdidi area is pretty. I especially like the attitudes of the cows. Unlike in other parts of Georgia, where cows have a lie-down alongside the road, the Zugdidi area cows plop themselves smack in the middle of the road, stretch out comfortably, and take it as a given that vehicles will go around them.

At a pit stop before Gori, there was a busload of boys who'd been or were on their way to a singing engagement. They'd chosen this spot as a place for an on-the-road supra, and they sang some polyphonic pieces before eating. I was so glad Kate had a chance to hear this right before she left.

I also saw a couple of  young boys, maybe age 10 or so, buying a bottle of some hard liquor from one of the vendors. Something for the road, don't you know.

Sandy got off the marshrutka along the highway by Gori.

Kate and I arrived in Tbilisi about 9:30 p..m. or so - we said our goodbyes at Station Square, where she got on the metro to return to her guesthouse and a few hours of sleep before her plane left early the next morning, and I hopped onto a marshrutka to Rustavi.

Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Svaneti, Part 6: Mestia, Subpart B

Mestia, Svaneti, Georgia.

The yin

Mestia, Svaneti, Georgia.
Along our walk, Sandy was attracted to a pretty heifer grazing on an incline above the river that goes through town. The heifer was attracted to us, too, ambling up to the fence for a meet and greet. While Sandy, Sparrow, and I attempted to get some good photos of the cow and the river below her, a woman emerged from the shack at the edge of this tilted pasture. She gestured for us to come over by the shack, where I assumed she was inviting us to a spot with a better perspective (because Georgians do such nice things). But no, she gestured us into the shack and .... damn ..... there was a room out back of the shack with one wall exposed to the river vista. There was a table and chairs. The shack was actually a tiny cafe.

Mestia, Svaneti, Georgia.

We immediately ordered coffee or tea and just enjoyed the heck out of a stupendous view from our hidden perch.


Mestia, Svaneti, Georgia.

The yang


Mestia, Svaneti, Georgia.

Outhouse over the mountain spring. Efficient. 

Mestia, Svaneti, Georgia.

Daily life stuff

It's spring and farmers use cattle to prepare their gardens. 

Mestia, Svaneti, Georgia.

A boy sits in a truck.

Mestia, Svaneti, Georgia.


Mestia, Svaneti, Georgia. Tower undergoing restoration.

 Mestia is known for its towers. Families built them as protection against marauding enemies, who were sometimes neighbors. Svans have a reputation similar to that of the mountain folk in the U.S., a la Hatfields and McCoys.

Mestia, Svanet, Georgia. Towers.

Eventually, I spun back to the guesthouse to see what Kate was up to, while Sandy and Sparrow proceeded to check out the towers at closer view. They were supremely fortunate to run into the daughter of a tower family, who gave them a personal tower of her family's tower. Sandy and Sparrow reported it was pretty damn scary at times climbing up ladders that had seen much better days. They felt triumphant when they emerged onto the tower roof.  With permission, here are some of their photos:

Mestia, Svaneti, Georgia. Tower climb. Courtesy of Sandy and Sparrow.
Mestia, Svaneti, Georgia. Tower climb. Courtesy of Sandy and Sparrow.
Mestia, Svaneti, Georgia. Tower climb. Courtesy of Sandy and Sparrow.
Mestia, Svaneti, Georgia. Tower climb. Courtesy of Sandy and Sparrow.
Mestia, Svaneti, Georgia. Tower climb. Courtesy of Sandy and Sparrow.
Sandy and Sparrow found it hilarious that while they were feeling nervous about the climb up, the family daughter was practically sprinting up the ladders with one hand while texting in the other.

Night time walk

Eventually we all reconvened, had dinner, then went out for a night-time walk. We'd hoped for a glimpse of the full moon as it was to be the largest for the year. Unfortunately, clouds obscured the view.

For the next day

For Sunday, we planned a hike somewhere before Sandy, Kate, and I had to be at the Mestia airport for our return to Tbilisi.

Poor Sparrow's plan was to get up super-early to get the only public marshrutka from Mestia to Zugdidi - at 5:30 in the morning, for God's sake. Cost for this marshrutka was something like 15 lari - versus 10x that amount for a chartered marshrutka. Crazy, but that's how it works there.

... to be continued

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

The Next Book

Just made a dentist appointment for when I return to Missouri in July.

A sign that I'm finishing up one book and flipping the pages of the next.

Monday, May 28, 2012

Georgian Decor

I came across an old family photo the other day.

The photo is of my paternal grandparents and relatives circa 1940. Their grandparents or parents immigrated to Ohio from Switzerland.

It hit me that the decor showing in this family photo is very much like the decor I've seen in many Georgian homes.

Note the family is gathered around a dinner table, also evocative of a Georgian milieu.

But you may also note the absence of wine or chacha, hence the rather sedate atmosphere. 

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Svaneti, Part 5: Mestia, Subpart A

Mestia, Svaneti.

Kate, Sandy, Sparrow, and I arrived in Mestia around 10ish a.m.

First impressions

A bit cloudy. Noise from construction. Muddy, gravelly roads from construction and maybe snowmelt. Buildings in various stages of completion. Brand-new hostel on the main square, adjacent to a brand-new tourist office. Small park in the square. Mountains surrounding.


The marshrutka driver who'd brought us up from Zugdidi had attempted to steer us to his (or his employer's) guesthouse, but we weren't in love with its curb appeal and we had him turn around and return us to the town square.

We walked into the government tourist office and asked about a list of guesthouses, to which the rep responded, "Go to the guesthouse your driver suggested. It is a good one."

We explained that we'd already considered and rejected it, thanks. We sought a place with a view and that wasn't too far out of town. We boiled our options to two choices - the new Hostel Seti next door or a guesthouse (I'll call it Zara's) that was in town and had a view. Two of us looked at Seti and then two of us looked at Zara's.

I didn't go inside, but Sparrow and Kate reported that Seti had a nice view, plentiful bathrooms, and everything was very clean and new. Kate and Sandy then walked up to Zara's, about 1/4 mile from the town center, and reported that it had a nice view, spacious rooms with a homey feel, but only one bathroom.

Seti had no meal plan and it was 20 lari per person. The four of us would share a room.

Zara's did have a meal plan and it was 40 lari total per person, 20 for the bed and 10 for each of two meals. We'd sleep two people to a room.

We agreed to go with Zara's and walked to her place.

Mestia, Svaneti. View from guesthouse.

Beautiful view from both an open balcony and an enclosed one. In a country that is still mad for wallpaper, I loved the painted walls, one bedroom in a pristine white, the other in a spring-fresh pink. Sparrow's and my bedroom was huge, with a large dining room table. A couch and two upholstered chairs were grouped around a coffee table.** The windows looked out onto splendid mountain views. Sandy and Kate shared the pink bedroom, which they entered from the open balcony. 

Mestia, Svaneti. One of our guesthouse rooms.

Turned out the food was only so-so. The only bathroom seemed to be shared also with the family, which meant 8 or so people used the same facility. That was a bit of a bummer at times. Plus the water was shut off twice, something that apparently never happens. Who knows.

Mestia, Svaneti. View from guesthouse.

"Zara" was quite pleasant and helpful in sharing information, especially when we needed her assistance in tracking down Kate's camera after our return to Tbilisi. But the reason I'm not sharing her guesthouse name is because of the weirdness that occurred just before we checked out. "Zara" had explained that Svans are proud of the fact that they are "pure," as they don't mix (i.e. marry) with other groups like the rest of the Georgians, as such practices are "bad." Svans are admired, for example, for their white skin and fair hair and eyes.

This was off-putting.

Mestia, Svaneti. View from guesthouse.

A walk around town

Shortly after we arrived at Zara's, it began to rain, and the four of us took it as a sign that we were supposed to just relax, drink some coffee, consume some munchies, and enjoy the view. No feeling guilty for thinking we should go out and explore, hike up a mountain right away, or otherwise do something.

Sometimes we need such reminders.

Kate doesn't need any such reminders. She contentedly opened up a book, stretched out on her bed (which faced a beautiful view through the window), and commenced to reading, fully aware that a nap might ensue.

When the rain stopped, Sandy, Sparrow, and I set to scoping out Mestia.

We ran into a self-proclaimed vagabond from - where? Maybe it was the U.S. Or Mexico. Or Poland. It was all a bit vague. But his intent is to be the best photo-journalist in the world, as soon as he bought a really good camera. Or maybe he already has one. And he was on his way to meet someone - a stranger - with whom he'd hike up a mountain from Mestia. At 5:00 p.m. But in the near future, he had an appointment to get smuggled into Syria. And somewhere else, maybe Afghanistan for a chat with the Taliban, I don't remember. But by the way, he'd been robbed just the night before. Or two nights before. And all of his money was stolen and all he had left was 10 lari. He guessed it was because he'd fallen asleep on a park bench in Tbilisi after he got so wasted drinking. But he'd be OK; he always was.

.... So anyway, we continued our walk.

**Wait!!! Look at the photo of that bedroom. There was no coffee table. Just goes to show the unreliablity of memory or so-called eyewitness reports. There would have been a coffee table between the couch and the two chairs in an American setting, so obviously my brain "auto-corrected" my memory. Sheesh.

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Travel Blasphemy #4: "American" is OK

One of the first questions people ask a foreigner:

Where are you from? 

You'd think that'd be an easy thing to answer.

Am I from the US, the USA, or America? 

I used to answer carefully that I was from the U.S. because, in order to be accurate and respectful, I must recognize that two continents share the name American. To say I was from America would be at best, gauche, and at worst, imperialistic. I didn't want that

Now I use "the U.S." or "America" interchangeably, depending on whichever option my brain pushes forward first. The reason why is in the section below.

Am I American or USian?

Fake question. Because in truth, USian was never an option for me. USian is just stupid, though if you want to call yourself that, go right ahead. I think we have the right to call ourselves whatever we want.

I used to feel awkward self-identifying as American (see first section for why), so I generally reframed my answer as "I'm from the U.S.

But over time, I noticed something interesting. Almost everyone outside of the U.S. refers to people from the U.S. as Americans. And almost as often, they use America following "going to," "visiting," or "living in."

In other words, they don't trip over what is, in my current view, an artificial issue. By artificial I mean that we North and South Americans don't talk about being American (with a larger capital A than is already there) unless we're talking in the context of North America or South America. In other words, the distinction doesn't usually come up in casual conversation. Which is what the question "where are you from"? is -- casual conversation. 

I noticed something else here in Georgia. Sakartvelians don't complain about being called Georgian even though they refer to their country as Sakartvelo. (They do get a mite annoyed about being called Russian.) 

Speaking of Georgians, they don't shy away from calling themselves Caucasian simply because billions of people outside of Georgia, Azerbaijan, and Armenia might also self-identify as Caucasian.

So anyway, I'm American.

But what if this offends people in North or South America? 

Bottom line: All of us have the right to self-identify as we wish.

Friday, May 25, 2012

Georgia's Secret City

Rustavi, Georgia. Arishi Ruins.

This post originally appeared in TLG's official blog, Making a Difference. I couldn't include photos, so I've added them here. 

The city is very old, but most Georgians don’t know that.

It has been destroyed, reborn, destroyed, reborn, and destroyed and reborn again.

In the city’s lone, mostly unknown, museum, lie the plaster-cast remains of a girl. Centuries ago, she died at her doorway, a weapon in her hand, while she attempted to defend her family from invaders.

There are archeological treasures buried beneath the city, but there’s no money to retrieve them.

A thousand-year old fortress stands guard over a man-made lake that feeds into the River Mtkvari.

Rustavi, Georgia. Fortress ruins.

In the spring, the steppes surrounding the city wear a grassy cover draped like the folds of a toga.  Ivory herds of sheep move up and down the steppes and in the floodplain around the city.

A wide, straight boulevard runs through the city, its name changing from Shatava to Megobroba to Kostava at each of three important city sections. There are numerous parks – small, medium, and large – distributed throughout the city. An improbable amusement park with bumper cars is stashed behind modern glass public-service buildings.

Rustavi, Georgia.

The city is so like the country at large – a place of contrasts. It is ugly and beautiful. It is old and new. It has a large population, but possesses a village sensibility.  There is birth here and there is decay. It is a Cinderella city, full of hidden loveliness, but maligned by residents and outsiders alike.

Rustavi, Georgia. New Rustavi.

In the time of Stalin, the city was an international center, populated by men and women from all over the Soviet Union. In this time, one of the city’s heydays, it was a planned community. Workers lived in gracious flats. Each type of worker had his own health clinic, hospital, and health resort.

There was a grand theater.
Rustavi, Georgia. Theater, Pirosmani Street.

Rustavi, Georgia. Youth Park. Remains of a zoo.

A large park housed a zoo, another theater, botanical gardens.

Buildings were designed in the [Stalinist] Empire style, graceful and classic. Trees lined wide streets.

Rustavi, Georgia. Donatsmetalurgi Street.

Rustavi, Georgia.
In the 1970s, on the other side of the river, there was a demand for a lot of housing very fast. So hundreds of block apartments shot up, vertical micro-villages for workers streaming in from Georgia’s countryside and beyond.  Less outwardly beautiful than its older sister across the river, this new addition to the city boasted an internal beauty in the camaraderie of the neighbors.

Rustavi, Georgia. Farmlet in New Rustavi.
Some inhabitants recreated small bits of their villages in the form of pocket farms with tiny orchards, vegetable gardens, and chickens.

When the Abkhazian refugees came, they brought only their memories of a gorgeous land, as most had to flee with what they wore on their backs and nothing more.

Rustavi, Georgia. Miniature church. Shatava Street.
One Abkhazian husband and wife who settled in the not-so-beautiful part of this city recreated a bit of paradise by transforming their block apartment yard into a botanical garden, then building in that yard a petite church, and then in an empty lot next door, creating a tiny fountain park with a tiled pool stocked with fish. In the midst of ugliness, then, an island of beauty, shared with all.

Many people know there’s a new part of this city and an old part. But even life-long residents forget about the third part of the city – its vibrant city of the dead. The city’s massive cemetery, which includes both Christian and Muslim sections, is located on a bluff that overlooks the River Mtkvari valley with views of both the old and new parts of the living city. There’s also a view of an Azeri-Georgian village.

Rustavi, Georgia. Cemetery.

Rustavi, Georgia. Cemetery.
For good or ill, the engraved photographic images of the dead create the sense of a city populated with men and women (and, alas, children) who smile, laugh, drink, smoke, and ponder into perpetuity. Cement picnic tables, trees, flowers, and arbors welcome loved ones still living.

Would-be travelers often ask if a place is “worth” visiting. About Rustavi, I say: For more than a day, right now, no. Maybe in the future. But for one day? Yes!  It’s a worthwhile destination for cyclists (the land is flat – and you can cycle to Azerbaijan from here), architecture lovers, photographers, and historians. It’s a very walkable city. There may be more restaurants per capita here than anywhere in Georgia.

To get to Rustavi from Tbilisi: Pick up a marshrutka in any one of a number of spots, such as Station Square, Didube, by the Polytechnic University, or Samgori. Cost = 1 lari, 30 tetri. Time = 40 minutes.

You’ll enter New Rustavi first, where masses of block apartments rise eerily from the river plain. Get off here if you wish, but I recommend starting your visit in Old Rustavi, which means you’ll continue on the main boulevard until it crosses the river. Get off at the ‘meria,’ the main plaza in front of the city hall.

Some sights to see:
  • Old Rustavi:  The Youth Park, which is along the River Mtkvari and which is home to the ancient fortress and the remains of a zoo
  • Old Rustavi: Metallurgical Factory building at the end of the boulevard
  • Old Rustavi: Rustavi’s History Museum
  • Old Rustavi: A meandering walking tour to look at the Stalinist-era Empire buildings, many falling slowly (and beautifully) into a patina-ed decay
  • New Rustavi: On Shatava Street (main boulevard before you get to the Rustaveli roundabout) – the miniature church and park built by the Abhkazian couple
  • New Rustavi: Amusement park behind the glass public-service buildings that are on Megobroba Street (main boulevard after the Rustaveli roundabout)
  • New Rustavi: Brand new car race track before you enter Rustavi proper, in the auto bazaar area
  • New Rustavi: Hike up the steppes to the enormous cross
  • Between Old and New Rustavi: Walk along the marshes near the river bridge, following the railroad tracks
  • Cemetery: At the Old Bazaar in Old Rustavi, take marshrutka #15, which will take you past the cemetery. (This marshrutka also goes to Samgori station in Tbilisi via an Azeri-Georgian village)

Rustavi, Georgia. Metallurgical Factory.

Thursday, May 24, 2012

Tbilisi: Evening Song

Awhile back, Kate, a TLG colleague and I went to an evening of choral singing at the National Parliament Library off of Rustaveli Street.

The Rustavi Men's Choir performed first. Moving and powerful. A real crowd-pleaser.

Toward the end, we enjoyed a really fun, enthusiastic performance of an American folk song, Jericho. I especially enjoyed the soprano shout-out at about 1:12.

If I'd had more space on my SD card, I'd have captured one of the seemingly dozens of songs that consisted primarily of humming. Perhaps these showcased technical virtuosity to those in the know, but as a simple layperson, all I know is one humming dirge sounded pretty much like the other.

There was one exception, however, that I wish I had recorded. The only problem is it was a very long song, and it was such that its beauty and complexity - the sound "story" it told - required that you be there and let it work into your body and brain, slowly.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Svaneti, Part 4: An Aside on Preservation v. Reconstruction, et al

Mestia, Georgia.

The hype

Georgians swoon over two things Georgian: Barbecue pork (mtsvardi) and Svaneti.  I estimate only 15% of Georgians have actually been to Svaneti, but that doesn't take away from the legend. It is the Land of Beauty, the Strong, the Valiant, the Wild, the Tradition.

Yes, there are hundreds (perhaps thousands) of Svani jokes that poke fun at the presumed dunce-headedness of Svanis. But at the same time Georgians admire how Svans thrive in their harsh climate (and culture). One man I know refers to Svans as "our wild Georgians."

The reality

Svaneti is beautiful. So are Racha, Kazbegi (Stepantsminda), Shatili, and other Georgian mountain locations. Svaneti is not more beautiful than any of these, but it enjoys the greater hype. My point is this: If you're a person visiting Georgia and can't make it to Svaneti, know that if you can get to any of these other locations, you'll see stunning panoramas.

Preservation v. Restoration v. Reconstruction

Mestia, the default Svani village destination, is undergoing massive construction. It seems destined to become what some (including me) call the Disneyfied version of historic Georgian structures, a reproduction of An Authentic Georgian Village.

It is disconcerting to see a building that looks brand new, but which is purportedly ancient. St. Nino's Church in Mtskheta is an example. For me, there is something missing when a building is over-restored. It loses the dignity of its age. 

St. Nino's Church in Mtskheta, Georgia

I don't know enough about the fine points of the terms "conservation" ("preservation" in the U.S.), "restoration," "renovation," and "reconstruction," but from what I do understand, it seems that Georgia's approach is on the pushing-the-envelope end of "restoration" and on into "reconstruction." This site about Kutaisi uses the terms "restoration" and "reconstruction."

From this site, here are some bare-bones definitions: 


Preservation means maintaining the fabric of a place in its existing state and retarding deterioration.


Restoration means returning the existing fabric of a place to a known earlier state by removing accretions or by reassembling existing components without the introduction of new material.


Reconstruction means returning a place to a known earlier state and is distinguished from restoration by the introduction of new material into the fabric.

I don't know the answers. Perhaps Georgia needs to reconstruct (including replicate), but then distress the finished, reconstructed products to make them look older. It's still all smoke and mirrors, but at least it will appear more Authentic.

In Part 5, I'll get back to the actual visit to Mestia.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Georgia: Gurieli Package Art

Gurieli Tea, a Georgian product, has a beautiful design for its fruit teas.

Here is the berry fruit box:

It's a work of art, in my opinion. Gurieli believes it, too:

I bought the fruit tea to see how it would taste as an iced drink, and because I loved the package design so much. 

It was a win-win purchase.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Tbilisi: Drummer Boys

Recently, there was a street music festival in Tbilisi.

These young drummer boys on Rustaveli Street were a highlight. At about the 34-second point, pay attention to the boy on the far right. He wasn't drumming at this moment, but he played an important role of drawing attention to the solo drummer, with typical Georgian movements in performances of traditional dance/drumming: the right hand on his knee; knees apart; the broad performer smile; the intermittent shouts. An impresario.


Sunday, May 20, 2012

Philip and Toby Stories: Part 3: Ridin' the Rails

Philip and Toby were my esteemed great-uncles, known in the family for their story-telling and singing. They were young men during the Great Depression. They often took to the road in search of work or adventure ... not so different for those of us teaching English in Georgia today. 

This is one of Toby's adventures.

Part 3

Go here for Part 1.  
Go here for Part 2.

When we got to El Paso, we went to the jungle, got something to eat, shaved, cleaned up the best we could, slept for a couple of hours and then went to town to try to get a decent meal. We did manage to get some bread and bologna and went back to the jungle. We had a can of coffee (that's what they used for cups). We had talked to so many people about work and knew it was hopeless. The cattle ranchers were laying off there  hands and there was no work in the towns. 

Everyone was talking about going to California, so we decided that's where we would go. Mama was there, so at last I had a destination.

George and I picked a freight we thought was headed west and tried to hop aboard. George caught it. I did, too, but fell off. George didn't know I fell off and kept going. (I saw him six months later and he said he ended up in Mexico.)

I waited and caught a train later in the day. I felt awful alone without George, but soon made friends with some more 'bos and didn't miss him too much.

I finally was on the last leg to Los Angeles and was sound asleep when I was awakened by a railroad bull. He hit the bottom of my foot with his stick. A terrible blow, I felt it all the way to the top of my head. He told me to get up and out. I did. There were six or eight bulls out on the track. They had about forty men all lined up. They said, "Put your hands over your head." I did. They frisked me and said, "Put your hands down." I did. The next thing, we were led to a stake body truck and told to get aboard. We did.

Next we were finger-printed, had our picture taken, and name, etc. Then we were taken before a judge.  He tried us at once and sentenced us to three days for vagrancy. He said if anyone wanted to enter a plea to step forward. No one did. The jail was clean, the bunks clean, and the food good. I slept the whole three days, only getting up to eat. The jailer said it took three days to see if we were wanted in any other state.

I had rested up pretty good and bathed, washed my clothes and when I left, I headed for Oakland, where Mama had a motel.  I took the highway and caught rides and two days later was knocking on her door. ... 

... I saw Tom O* while there . He tried his best to get me to go to Hollywood and try for the movies. I thought he was crazy, and still do on that score, but sometimes I wish I had. I would have tried for Westerns. I could ride and shoot good, but nothing else.

After about a month of nothing to do there, and I had a girl at home, Olivia, I was ready to leave. Ceil [sister] had been ready ever since she got there .... the car was loaded down with things Mama wanted to send home. So with a happy heart, we were headed home.  


I extracted some non-travel-related family bits from the last three paragraphs of Toby's story. I also omitted Tom's surname. Other than that, the only changes I've made to Toby's narrative relate to punctuation.

Go here for an article on "ridin' the rails" during the Great Depression, including an audio from a former hobo

Go here to watch a PBS documentary on "riding the rails" during the Depression. It's part of the American Experience series.  


Saturday, May 19, 2012

Philip and Toby Stories: Part 2: Ridin' the Rails

Philip and Toby were my esteemed great-uncles, known in the family for their story-telling and singing. They were young men during the Great Depression. They often took to the road in search of work or adventure ... not so different for those of us teaching English in Georgia today. 

This is one of Toby's adventures. With the exception of minor punctuation revisions, no changes were made to his written narrative.   

Part 2

Go here for Part 1. 

There was a water tank in the town (I don’t remember the name); and wherever there is a water tank in Texas, there is a jungle, hobo jungle that is. A ‘bo always heads for the jungle! This one had stew cooking twenty-four hours a day. You had to contribute something to the stew and you could have all you wanted. Some begged or stole a hen, some potatoes, some canned corn or tomatoes. Me and George brought a large can of tomatoes. A housewife would always give you a half loaf of bread or biscuits left from breakfast. Most of the people I begged from were hungry themselves, but they would always find something, if only a few stale biscuits. They were never too stale to taste good! 

There was a woman in this jungle who looked like she'd seen better days. Some of the 'bos talked ugly to her, but one man kept them from going too far. Most of them ignored the whole thing and George and I did, too. If it came down to a fight, I would have gotten into it, but I didn't want to. She was still there when we left. 

We caught a train for El Paso and were about about two hours when the train went on a side track. While there, I went to a ranch house about two miles away. I didn't care if I missed the train or not. I was so tired and hungry, anything would be an improvement, or so I thought.  

When I got about a quarter of a mile from the ranch building, two dogs, big ones, came out and dared me to take another step.  I turned around and headed back for the train. It was still there, and it was still there three or four hours later.  

Several freights went by, and then a passenger train, then we left once more for El Paso. It was so hot and dry, I thought if I ever got out of the desert, I would never go near it again. 

We stopped many times before we got to El Paso; sometimes in a town; sometimes on a side track with nothing in sight. When in town, we always got something to eat, not much though. When I left home, I was thin, but by this time I was skin and bones.

To be continued ....

Go here for Part 1.
Go here for Part 3.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Philip and Toby Stories: Part 1: Ridin' the Rails

Philip and Toby were my esteemed great-uncles, known in the family for their story-telling and singing. They were young men during the Great Depression. They often took to the road in search of work or adventure ... not so different for those of us teaching English in Georgia today. 

This is one of Toby's adventures. With the exception of minor punctuation revisions, no changes were made to his written narrative.  

Part 1

During the Depression in 1930, a neighbor boy, the same age as myself, told me about a trip he had made to Texas on a freight train. It sounded like real fun and interesting. At the time, I never had anything to do and there were no jobs to be had, even if you worked for just room and board. I had always dreamed of being a Texas cowboy and thought this is a good chance to try.

George (that was the boy's name) was ready to go again. So was I. I went into the house and told my brother Phil and my Pop good-bye. I rolled up a pair of socks, undershirt, and pants, a pair of dungarees and a shirt, and was on my way thirty minutes after I decided to go.

We went to Long Beach [Mississippi] to catch a freight. There was a filling station across the depot. At one time it had been a blacksmith shop. It was a gathering place for the men and boys of Long Beach to meet and talk about Hoover, the unemployment situation, weather, crops, and whatever the local gossip was at the time. Well, George and I joined them, told them our plans, and the word spread, because when we did catch a freight out of Long Beach, I think all the male population was there to tell us good-bye and wish us well. We could see them waving to us as long as they were in sight.

George knew how to bum food and I soon learned. Almost anyone would give you a nickel for a cup of coffee and doughnuts. If you looked hungry and the owner was the cook and waiter at the restaurant, he may give you a hamburger with it.

We made it to San Antonio without too much trouble. Most of the time we had no idea where we were. We just caught anything going west. Out of San Antonio, we caught one going southwest. It seemed like a good one. As soon as we settled in a cattle car, we went to sleep. It was deep in straw. None too clean, nevertheless, sleep was one thing that was hard to get. When we awoke, we found that we were on a side track near a loading chute for cattle. We must have been there for at least eight hours. We were only about fifty miles out of San Antonio and it was night (it was morning when we left). Time meant nothing to us; we ate when we could, slept when we could, and rode freights when we could. 

We stayed in the car all night. The next morning we were starved and thirsty. We stayed there all day. We were hoping some cowboys would come with a herd as that would mean a freight would have to stop and pick up the cattle car.

None came, but that night a freight did stop and it picked up the empty car. We had been without food and water for at least thirty-six hours and the first town we came to, we got off. The train didn't stop, but it slowed up.

We had about $2.00 between us and ran to a restaurant and had bacon and eggs, coffee, and lots of water.  I believe it cost about a dollar. While there, we asked about work and were told there was none. The people were leaving there, going to California.

To be continued ...

Go here for Part 2.
Go here for Part 3. 

Thursday, May 17, 2012

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Svaneti, Part 3: Road to Mestia

Svaneti: Road to Mestia

When we hopped off the train, there was Sparrow. She and I had been communicating for the past hour via phone, so she knew when we were to arrive and had lassoed us a marshrutka for the next leg of our trip.

Side note: Sandy, Sparrow, and I are with TLG (Teach and Learn with Georgia). Now that I've been in Georgia awhile, it's easy to take for granted the phones we received from TLG when we began our tenures. We can call any other TLGer or TLG staff at no charge. Being in a foreign country, having this phone is a real benefit. Yup, we pay to fill up the prepay accounts, but it's still a tremendous value.

... and off were on our 2.5 or 3-hour drive to Mestia, the best-known town in Svaneti. We paid 20 lari per person for this private charter.

I'll be quiet now and let the photos tell the story of our drive:

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

Georgia: What Does It Mean?

A conversation between my colleague, Sandy, and a co-teacher, "Gwantsa":

Sandy to Gwantsa: "Ras nish navs"? What does it mean? 

Gwantsa: What does it mean?

Sandy: Yes, what does it mean?

Gwantsa: What does it mean?

Sandy: Yes, what does it mean? 

Gwantsa: What does it mean!

Sandy: No, what does it mean!?

Gwantsa: What does it mean!

Sandy: Ohhhhhh.


Monday, May 14, 2012

Georgia: Vodka in the Morning

My hostess, Nely, says:

Ah, vodka is sooo nice in the morning for breakfast. 

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Svaneti, Part 2: The Overnight Train to Zugdidi

Svaneti, Georgia

For the first leg of our journey to Svaneti, Sandy, Kate, and I took the overnight train from Tbilisi to Zugdidi.

I’d been worried about our tickets – they were only 11 lari apiece and the ticket agent had asked Kate (who purchased the tickets) if she was OK with 2nd class, as that’s all that was available.

The tickets from Batumi to Tbilisi had been 20 lari for a 4-bed cabin and 40 lari for a 2-bed cabin, so I fretted about these 11-lari tickets. This is because I’d heard about the dreaded platzkart class, where I had the impression travelers stretched out on bare wooden pallets in a car filled with same.

But Marina, who owns the guesthouse where Kate stayed, pored over the ticket information and pronounced that our beds were, indeed, beds and were, indeed, in a private cabin.

So we arrived timely to the train station, climbed aboard our train car and entered our cabin. Tight quarters, but not terrible. We’d shared the cost of the 4th bunk, so we had the place to ourselves. Sandy volunteered to take the top bunk and Kate and I each had a bottom bunk. No sheets or pillowcases on the vinyl mattresses or for the naked cloth mattress or pillow. I was wondering, "Is this what 2nd class means? No sheets or pillowcases"? But the porter did eventually distribute same.

Having one toilet for 40+ people in a train car is really not sufficient. And the condition of the toilet was foul. People, people: Cleaning supplies don’t cost much. There’s no excuse for such toilets on a public train. They should be cleaned at least once midway through the trip. 

Unfortunately, we couldn't see much out our window as it was pretty grimy.  

But I guess when all was said and done, it got the job done. We slept. We arrived without mishap. And for only 11 lari.  

Sparrow was our man on the ground in Zugdidi; she'd agreed to procure us four seats on the 7:30 a.m. marshrutka to Mestia.

Saturday, May 12, 2012

Svaneti, Part 1: Planning

Svaneti, Georgia

You can't get to Svaneti from here. 

Well, you can, but it requires some planning. Do you take the overnight train from Tbilisi to Zugdidi and then the marshrutka? One marshrutka from Tbilisi to Mestia (in Svaneti)? Or one marshrutka to Zugdidi and then a second to Mestia? Or do you fly? Both ways? One way? In the summer, do you take the retro Soviet plane? Or do you stick with the allegedly more reliable plane via Pegasus?

Kate, Sandy, Sparrow, and I decided on this plan
  • Kate, Sandy, and I would take the overnight train from Tbilisi to Zugdidi. We'd buy all four tickets (11 lari each, or ~ $6.50 USD) for a four-bed sleeper cabin (called a kupay in Georgian) so we could have it to ourselves. 
  • Sandy and I would meet Friday evening (Sandy from Gori; me from Rustavi) at Marina's guesthouse, where Kate was staying, then we'd go to the train station about 10:30 p.m. or so. 
  • Upon arrival in Zugdidi at 7:30 the next morning, Sparrow, who's based there, would join us and we'd all take a marshrutka to Mestia.  
  • For the return, Kate, Sandy, and I would fly back to Tbilisi in the Pegasus plane (75 lari each, or ~ $46 USD), and Sparrow would take a marshrutka back to Zugdidi. 

All of us helped with the planning and execution in some way. Kate devoted a goodly part of a day acquiring train tickets at Station Square and flight tickets at the Pegasus airline office in Saburtalo. Sandy did the preliminary research on the plane situation and also checked out the lodging options in Mestia. Sparrow found us a marshrutka in Zugdidi and met us at the train. Come to think of it, I'm not sure what I did to contribute to this little adventure!

There are some quotes about planning I like:

The plan is nothing; planning is everything. (Eisenhower)

No plan survives contact with the enemy. (Moltke the Elder)

So true.