Monday, October 23, 2006

Notes from the Land Without Irony, Pt. 1

good afternoon kidlings,

being that I had five adventure-packed days away from you all, instead of trying to put everything together into one huge blog-post, I thought I'd do five smaller ones, making this a little more bite-sized.

First though-- a mini -post before the post. Patty just left for Sighnaghi again, taking a small coterie of the remaining village harmony campers (those here for six weeks of language, now) with her, and we're now in our apartment, alone, for the first time. I'm coming down off of that amazing high that one gets when on a big adventure, and I'm feeling a little down now that things are more-or-less quiet and comfortable. Tomorrow I'm going to go pay for internet and hopefully will be able to post this, and then for the most part, I'll be getting into the swing of daily life in Tbilisi. Which isn't all that different from daily life in any city, I suspect. You pass a lot of people each day, there's a lot of good things to eat everywhere, people beg, people pass you in expensive cars, there are parks and punks and old women, and men standing around smoking. Most people are busy minding their own business, and you watch out for the few who are trying to mind yours. Yesterday, though, I saw one of those little things that remind me that I'm in a foreign country, and how differently people view things. On our way to find dinner ("our" being k. and her mom, and two VH campers, and myself) we passed one of many Chinese shops -- dark red sign, words in Chinese and English, little red lantern hung out in front, etc. So I stopped and did a little window shopping. Except that this wasn't what we think of as a chinese shop. This was a shop selling things made in china. Stop and picture that for a moment: fake adidas shoes, crappy plastic wind-up toys, ash trays, cheap ceramic cups, fake wonder-bras and chintzy tchotchkes of all shapes and sizes crowded into a little store called "The China Shop." I mean, it's true, I suppose. But unexpected.

Okay, and now on to the adventures:

So, day one was a long one. Twenty foreigners (sixteen Americans and four Brits) -- We drove up from Tbilisi to Barisakho (pron: bah-rees-ah-kho) where our translator, John, dropped off his nice car, and we all climbed out of the marshutka and into an old army-style people-mover, and then took the really bad roads up to Rosta.

Rosta. As opposed to a village, Rosta was more like nine houses clinging to the side of a mountain. The streets were serious-looking, Deadwood-style mud paths. And it was coooold. This was a town that was as unaffected by the last hundred years as any I've ever seen. Cowherds walked by with two dozen cows, occasionally thwacking one with a stick. A man pulled a box from one house to another on a little sled with wooden runners -- I'm assuming because wheels don't work well in the mud. There were cars -- a few of them. But they would be useless for anything other than driving several hours back into the city. That night we froze and had a small supra at the one house with a large enough porch. It was pitch black, and after a few minutes, someone started a loud generator which lit up three dim bulbs -- light, but still no heat. So we drank (a nasty vodka-like moonshine called "spirits") to stay warm, and the Village Harmonies inevitably started up their singing.

Remember about three posts ago when I wrote about the doors that open when you've got Americans that sing traditional music? Scratch that. At least for the mountains. In the mountains, if anyone has died in the past three months to a year, sometimes the street, sometimes the whole town observes a code of "no public expressions of joy." It's an honor thing. So about halfway into the third song and out of the darkness comes a crazed voice shouting and weeping and shouting some more. Later, I learned that it was a string of particularly vicious insults. We quieted. She left. We shivered and drank. In the morning we took a few hours to wander around up and out of the town, up the hillside, before leaving on our next adventure.

Wow. this was a mix of the familiar and the unfamiliar. The lower Caucausus mountains are currently in full-bloom autumn, with all attendant color and glory. It felt amazingly good to kick my way through some leaves, and sniff the wet mulch smell of the air, and look at those familiar dark-russet, gold, fire-red and orange leaves stretching up the hillsides. And then, above it -- snow capped mountain peaks that looked utterly alien and strange and wonderful. Not only were they bigger than anything in the American East, but they fold and buckle in ways that do not look natural to my eyes. These are not the Rockies, that we grow up seeing printed on posters and coins. These monsters look like they are alive and might move at any moment. And they wouldn't so much as notice you if they did. Mountains have a way of reminding one how very small and unimpressive a human being is. Especially when, after thousands of years of habitation, the only village around looked like it could be wiped off the face of the earth by a mountain's careless hand. Anyway, the sun was glinting off of them, and the fog was rolling in and out, and on the hill nearest me, where the village's haystacks rose as far as they clearly could before things got too steep, I noticed that just above the field there was one fire-red tree, and its shedding leaves looked like a shadow of bright red falling down the slope. This tree was so red that it looked, literally, like it was on fire. Like a burning bush. And I wondered if that's what the prophets saw when they wrote of it in the bible, because it certainly felt like God might speak. Anyway, more on that later.

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