Here. Let me give you the tour.
Ignoring for now the grim realities of actually driving a car in Georgia, I invite you to sit your virtual tookus down behind the wheel of a virtual 1977 Lada Niva. Your tookus and your Niva are parked somewhere in a town called Zugdidi, not too far away from my village of Jgali. Bear in mind that you're little more than a hawked loogey away from the De Facto Autonomous Republic of Abkhazia, so it would be wise here to stop and ask a virtual local for directions –
and to listen very, very carefully.
Driving northeastward, then, you'll find yourself winding your way up through the lowest of the Lower Caucasian foothills. Strange forests here. Tall trees tilted together like they were half-felled by an asteroid blast hundreds of years ago and kept on growing that way. There's a landslide section up ahead, but you're in a virtual car, so it's all good. Plenty of cows on the road. Plenty of cow shit on the road. No need to swerve. You'll pass villages with names like Kortskheli, Natsatu, Odishi, Chkaduashi, Chkhorotsku
names that are no less formidable when they are written in Georgian. More villages out here than people. No reason to stop. Nothing to see here. Most of these places are every bit as insubstantial as my native Jgali, some of them home to expats every bit as insubstantial as myself.
Eventually, you'll arrive at a piddling little town called Tsalenjikha. For the better part of ten months, this was the closest thing I had to civilization. No reason to stop here, either, but you're free to snoop around a bit if you like.
Something of a Wild West feel to the place. A sinkhole of a main drag lined with crumbling, leering storefronts. A couple barber shops. An internet café, if you want to call it that. A bar that is fresh out of beer. A café that is fresh out of coffee. A restaurant that's fresh out of everything on the menu, and fresh out of menus to boot. A supermarket that is markedly less than super. Slathered onto the rear end of Main Street is a swollen and bustling bazaar, a kind of mercantile tumor whose puddle-pocked alleyways are clogged with maneating pigeons and bellowing babushkas and bootlegged goods so laughably fake not even China could have produced them.
This is Tsalenjikha. Where I used to go of an evening. To let it all hang out. If you will.
On your way out of Tsalenjikha, you'll pass by a soccer stadium. I'm given to understand that Tsalenjikha has a pro team, but in all my time in Georgia I never saw a Georgian man run, so I'm not inclined to think that the team is terribly competitive. On the left, you'll notice a hospital (whose radiology department I owe no great favors). Turning right, then, and heading still further northeast, you will find yourself confronted with a landscape of immense and stultifying beauty
your first glimpse of the Caucasus mountains
but fear not: you'll get bored with it after a couple of months.
the road you're on now
I know better than any road on earth. It is about eight kilometers long and how comes I knows it so well is because I walked it up and down, in snow and in sweat, during the day and well after dark, cool and composed, half-crazed and consummately drunk
and you get to know a road pretty well when you get to see it that many ways.
On the right, you'll pass a little copse of stunted trees bowing as if to drink from a water-filled ditch, and languishing in the ditch is the mossy skeleton of an old Soviet jalopy. The hills flatten into a steady plain for a click or two, columned with tall, proud oaks. On sunny afternoons, some of the less sickly looking free-range bulls like to come out here and kneel godlike in the close-cropped grass, in the shadows of the oaks. Up ahead, cords of thick black cable hang low over the road between a monstrous pair of electrical towers. If you roll the windows down, you can feel the buzzing in your skull. Glancing from left to right and left again, you'll see that the electrical towers go stomping like giant metal scarecrows up into the hills on the right, and up into the whitecapped mountains on the left. And if you're a guy like me, you'll find yourself kind of boggled and daunted and vaguely nauseated by the amount of effort that goes into this whole civilization thing.
You'll pass a village on the left called Sachino. The World's Oldest Woman lives there. Or used to. There should be an asterisk involved somewhere around here.
There's a fluorescent orange blob in the distance and as you get closer, the blob materializes into a backpack with legs, and as you come right up alongside it, the backpack with legs materializes into a lanky old bearded foreigner covered in sweat. That's me. Hey. Thanks for the ride.
Yeah. You'll want to keep going straight. Up ahead there's a bridge. You mind stopping here? I gotta take a leak. And I want to show you something.
This is our river, the Chanistsqali, which I'm told means "Red River," though it isn't particularly red or river-like at this juncture. Not so bad to look at, though.
It flows down from a glacier just north of here, near a place called Squri. All year round, the river is the sort of cold that makes half-naked Georgian men half-grunt/half-ululate in the manner of Tim Allen. The water is so fresh that drinking it once will turn you into a water snob for life: what in the rest of the world passes for water is no longer water to you. It is dihydrogen monoxide and nothing more.
The river is criss-crossed by nightmare bridges right out of Indiana Jones and The Temple of Doom. I used to get vicariously nauseous watching my host brother go running across those bridges, and then I used to vicariously die watching him backflip into the river. He thought it was great fun.
Lucky for us, the bridge we're driving over right now has no trouble supporting virtual cars. You'll see up ahead what looks like a gas station sign. From a gas station that time forgot. "Welcome to Jgali," says the rusted-out sign. But we're not quite in Jgali yet, even though we've passed the sign, because we still haven't left Tsalenjikha. A few hundred meters further along, there is a sign bearing the name "Tsalenjikha" with a red line through it
one of Georgia's more endearing highway mannerisms. Now we are in Jgali.
I think we're in Jgali, anyway. None of the people I've talked to from this part of town seem to be aware that they live in Jgali. Jgali? Never heard of it. Jgali? No, it's up that way, up in the mountains. Most of them would tell you that they live in this or that village, villages I've never heard of, villages that may or may not exist. More villages than people out here.
Check out these houses. Very Georgian. And I'm not talking Colonial.
The word "wall" is open to interpretation in Georgia. The definition of a roof, too, is a matter of much hermeneutic speculation. Slanty roofs sometimes. Flat roofs mostly. Roofs of bark, roofs of rust. Aluminum roofs. Tin roofs. Hot tin roofs. Lukewarm tin roofs. Roofs that look like some fifty-foot bovine tromped through and took a massive crap on somebody's unfinished house. Tiled roofs ...
All Georgian houses hide behind fences. Picket fences, barbed wire fences, chain link fences, rust-iron fences, fences with broken bottles and glass shards superglued across the top, Soviet holdover fences tagged with little license plates that bear the street name in Russian. I doubt the road we're on even has a name anymore.
Most houses have water towers or wells in the front lawn. Water towers range from great big rusted-out vats that stand thirty feet in the air to padlocked wooden boxes a couple feet off the ground. Wells range from ornately siloed holes in the ground to, well, just regular old holes in the ground. We won't get into the toilet situation here. There's a chance we wouldn't get back out.
There is one house that stands out from all the other houses in town. It, alone among the Georgian houses, is not a Georgian house. It belongs in the American suburbs. This is all very odd, because my host dad built it. Which is not to say that my host dad lives in it. No, the dude who lives there I've seen walking around in a suit, sporting an unusually full set of teeth. There are a couple of black BMWs parked out front. Slowing down as you pass, you'll of course wonder who the hell this guy killed to be able afford all this. I never did ask.
There's a convenience store on the left. Keep driving. I owe that babushka five lari for the phone bill.
On the right is a seven foot tall hobo who looks like a giant Bee Gee. Now we're in Jgali proper. The hobo's village sobriquet is "Palma," which is Georgian for "palm tree." But I call him Gibby. I didn't say stop. He'll steal our sunglasses.
Up ahead is a wino passed out on the only known bench in the village. He's swaddled in a bootleg Phat Farm windbreaker. Naw. I told you, we only got one homeless guy in Jgali, and that's Palma. Phat Farm's the P.E. teacher.
Slow up a bit. You're going to miss Jgali. Okay. On the right you've got the church. I'm told it is shaped like a cross from above, but I've never seen it from above. There are supposedly a bunch of human skulls and bones kept inside a display case inside the church, but I've never been inside. The church, I mean. Yeah, I guess you're right. I am pretty worthless.
On the left is what used to be a disco. Currently a crater. I wonder if Palma used to go there. I know he goes there now.
Up ahead is the school where I teach. Those used to be Roman columns, but now they're just kind of rusty metal cylinders that don't support anything. No, there aren't supposed to be pigs and feral dogs in the schoolyard. I'll have to talk to somebody about that.
That's a hospital on the right. I'm pretty sure the doctor's dead.
And that's where I live. Up here on the left. What? Go ahead. You're not going to hurt my feelings. It's not like I built the thing. Windows? What do you mean? We've got plenty of windows. Oh, you mean windows with glass. No, not too many of those. Oh shit. That would be my host mom. Don't make eye contact. Drive.
That was close. Anyway. I don't really know the people who live in these houses over here.
That? Oh. That's a septic tank. Nobody lives there anymore.
What's that sign say up ahead? Ah. Jgali with a red line through it. Well. That's about all there is to it. We're in Squri now. You'll probably want to turn back at this point. We're relatively civil in Jgali, but I can't vouch for the glacier people. Hey. You mind giving me a lift into town since you're headed that way? I gotta, ah, um, diversify my portfolio.