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On the Road "The purpose of life lies at the intersection of the heart's deepest desires, the mind's keenest talents, and the world's greatest needs."

This ain't yer average Easter, folks

GEORGIA | Wednesday, 22 July 2009 | Views [3147]

April 17: Family Matters

I spent the 3-hr marschutka ride from Gori to Kutaisi texting a mystery woman whose family I would stay with but whose name I didn't even know. Drawing the old name-blank inevitably happens when you meet so many new people every day: someone introduces herself but you have no idea what she said even after asking her to repeat it twice (the fact that it's a foreign name you've never heard before doesn't help); you definitely don't remember it days later, and now it's too late in the game to ask again without looking like a complete tool. I've been pretty successful at just not calling people by their names and waiting to see what their families and friends call them.

Anyways, when the marshutka dropped me off in an unknown location in Kutaisi, the mystery woman somehow tracked me down through the throngs of people doing their last-minute Easter shopping. Rather than the 30-something stay-at-home mom I had pictured, she was instead an adorable 16-year old named Tako (she introduced herself again, thankfully), sporting a breast cancer awareness ball cap and Adidas track pants. She flashed me a big smile and whisked me off to a waiting Land Rover with the steering wheel on the right. I thought this was a rather curious feature, but she clarified that the owner, her father's friend, had it shipped from England. I couldn't help but raise my eyebrows slightly; he must be doing pretty well. Either that or people in Georgia just have higher standards of living than the 'Stans, which is also a pretty good possibility.

Tako proudly showed me through her and her mother's beautiful home in Kutaisi, ending the tour with what turned out to be my room for the next couple nights. I gaped in awe: it was HUGE and had a real bed with two pillows and its own balcony - and no one else sleeping in there but me! (Ah, the little luxuries...) I was kind of curious about what her father's profession had been to afford them such luxury but wasn't about to pry after learning that he had been murdered by a 'friend' in Moscow when Tako was a little girl.

Tako was eager to start showing off the landmarks of her hometown so we soon set off in the British-wheeled Land Rover. Kutaisi was the capital of the ancient kingdom of Colchis (6th-1st century BC) and appeared in Greek mythology as the home of Aeetes and Medea, and thus involved in the legends of the Golden Fleece and Jason and the Argonauts. It also may have been the homeland of the mighty Amazon warriors. (Ha! I knew I loved Georgia with good reason.)

Our first stop was the iconic Bagrati Cathedral, built in the 11th century by King Bagrati III at a strategic position overlooking the city. It was partially destroyed over the ages by subsequent invasions of Turks and Russians and restorations were still underway, with much of the UNESCO World Heritage Site overrun by scaffolding. Part of me wished they would just leave it as is, walls crumbling under the inevitable weight of time. The ancient, decrepit feel somehow made the cathedral seem simultaneously more whimsical, vulnerable, and powerful.

In the city centre, we checked out the Khareba ("Happiness") Church with its fragrant gardens and emerald green trees, and then the Okros Chardakhi ("Gold House"), where King David IV lived in the 11th/12th century. King David (aka King David the Builder) is often considered the father of Georgia for reviving and unifying its many states after the devastating Great Turkish Onslaught.

After a dangerously big khachipuri lunch, we settled in for an evening of family fun at Tako's house. Three of her little cousins came over and entertained me with traditional Georgian music on their 3-stringed panduris. They were even patient enough to teach me some chords so I could strum along as Tako demonstrated the different styles of traditional dance from around the country.

Although Tako's mom had been busy all day baking breads and khachipuri for Easter, the kids and I joined in the last-stage preparation of the eggs. I had noticed in the markets in Tbilisi a couple days prior that all of the eggs were hardboiled and dyed a deep red and had assumed correctly that they had something to do with Easter, but it wasn't until I was with Tako and her cousins that I was let in on the rest of the tradition. Two people (usually kids, foreigners such as yours truly excepted) would each take a red egg and one would use his to strike the other's on the end; whomever's remained unbroken was declared the winner and allowed to continue on to the next willing opponent. It was not unlike our turkey wishbone tradition at Thanksgiving and it was pretty funny watching the kids run around cracking eggs and declaring themselves victorious.

We had another fantastic meal for dinner but I still somehow found room to munch continuously on gozinakin, impossibly delectable balls of honey-coated peanuts dipped in dark chocolate, while the women of the family drilled me about home life in Canada, including relations with parents, marriage, education, and religion. Usually hosts are too concerned about offending a guest to ask about such topics, but they were refreshingly honest and blunt in their questioning and more than open to discussing differing opinions. I found it particularly interesting to listen to the differences between the generations of women in the family (i.e. Tako, her mother and aunt, and her grandmother) on issues such as a woman's place in the household, and the staunch retention of traditions. At one point, Tako asserted, "We suffer from our traditions!" I did a double-take at her as I realized how true that statement could ring in so many human societies. Traditions are a vital part of society, ensuring the continuity of social norms and values that encourage desirable behaviours and characteristics such as respect for elders, a dedicated work ethic, and environmental stewardship. However, depending on how deeply entrenched they are, traditions also have the potential to be harmful to those who subscribe to them. If a particular tradition makes a person feel uncomfortable, in pain, or restricted from fulfilling her dreams or becoming a better person according to her own personal views, why should she have to perpetuate it? I suppose there is no single clear-cut answer, which is why there are so many heated debates over religious and socio-cultural traditions such as Islamic dress in 'Western' countries, East African female circumcision practices, and indigenous peoples' rights to hunt endangered species.

April 18: Covering all the bases, past and present

The day before Easter, Tako and her father's friends took me out on the town for another round of sight-seeing. The Sataplia Karst Reserve was right up my alley, chock full of subterranean caves, preserved dinosaur tracks, and sub-tropical forests! With its brilliant green foliage and sweet air dripping with moisture, the forest was so thick that I could only hear the calls of the birds and the soft crunch of our footsteps on the forest floor. I stopped often to gaze in awe at little wonders like beads of water balancing on the strands of spider webs like delicate strings of pearls. One of my favourite things to do in a forest is to look closely at individual leaves and trace the lifelines of their tiny veins up through their stems to the twigs and branches connecting their fellow leaves, all the way to the mighty trunk of the tree and down to the roots of the earth, and then zoom out my perspective to the entire landscape comprised of hundreds of these miracles of life. With each breath, I felt more and more filled with that holistic peace that one can only find when immersed in nature.

We then headed to Motsameta, one of Kutaisi's most prized possessions. Though fairly small in comparison to some of Georgia's other churches, Motsameta boasted spectacular views over the surrounding lush hillsides and a similarly impressive history, proving that size doesn't matter. The Tskhaltsitla ("Red") River gushing far below was so named because of the 8th-century Arab massacre that took place on its banks. Legend has it that two dukes of Argveti, Davit and Konstantin, were among those killed and thrown into the river, turning its waters red. Their bones were allegedly retrieved by lions and brought up to the church, where they now rest underneath an altar. Faithful Georgians crawl under the altar three times for good luck.

Founded by King David the Builder in 1106 as a centre for Chritian culture and Neo-Platonist study, nearby Gelati is another Georgian icon with a long line of historical accentuations. King David himself is buried in the monastery, in notably humble fasion in the entrance hallway so that everyone who passes through must step on his grave. King Bagrat III (of Bagrati Cathedral fame) is also buried on the Gelati grounds and current Georgian President Saakashvili was inaugurated here. The main Cathedral of the Virgin, which contains dozens of stunning Christian frescoes, was where Tako's mother and father were married.

Though Tako and I were exhausted, we still had an all-night Easter service to attend so we welcomed the opportunity to gorge ourselves on Georgian delicacies at a big family dinner at her aunt's house. The men cooked the obligatory mtsvadi (pork kebabs) and there were of course several plates of my favourite khachipuri (baked cheese pies) and scores of breads and pastries that I wasn't the only one excited about.

I tried to stick with water as my beverage of choice - I didn't really want to attend Tako's church with a buzz - but the adult family members quickly noticed and happily insisted otherwise, true to Georgian form. The after-dinner wine tradition apparently involved drinking out of curved bull horns, a rather creative way of ensuring that every last drop is consumed (if there's any left, you won't be able to set it down on the table without it spilling). I also had to race-drink one of the larger uncles, something I was clearly destined to lose from the start... what better way to get ready for church than by chugging home-made wine??

Tako and I left at about 10 pm for one of her country's 365 St. Giorgi Churches. As in the Palm Sunday service in Kazbegi the week prior (see "(Un)Orthodox all-nighter"), the polytonic singing was truly ethereal and the only reason I was able to stay awake for most of the night. In this church, the choir was stationed in the balcony behind and above the congregation so that the skin-tingling sound filled the entire church and the hearts of everyone in it. At midnight, everyone filed outside and circled the church three times while the priest chanted and his helpers rang a large structure of bells. I was thankful for the chance to get some fresh air and move my legs, but annoyed at the rather aggressive people trying to push their ways around the procession. We were clearly all going in the same direction for the same purpose; what on earth were they pushing for?! I kept my patience ahead of my temper by chuckling to myself about the rat-race imagery that it brought to mind.

Much like the Palm Sunday service, we emerged from the church at daybreak, but this time without a mind-blowing sunrise over a mountain backdrop. I was, however, in the company of a very special family who had taken me in as one of their own for the most miportant holiday of the year, something that still amazes me to this day.

April 19: Easter Sunday renewal

Tako woke me up early to go to her maternal grandparents' villages outside Kutaisi. According to Georgian tradition, we were to spend Easter Sunday paying our respects to family members' graves. I wasn't quite sure with what degree of morose I should conduct myself, but I soon realized that this wouldn't be an entirely sombre affair. In anticipation of visiting with lots of other family and friends, we had packed a bounty of picnic-style foods and wine, and the mood of the conversation on the ride to the village was just as uplifting as the warm sun beating down upon us.

I was more than a little groggy from the all-night church service, but as always, the countryside soothed my every sense. The birds chirped merrily as the trees unfurled emerald leaves before our eyes; the calves plaintively chased their mothers' swollen udders as the fields of wheatgrass performed a delicate ballet with the spring breeze.

Upon arrival at the village cemetery, I was quick to note the differences (as is typically done when presented with a new scenario). Each family had a small section of the cemetary enclosed by a short cast-iron fence. Usually there was more than one family member in a site; I wasn't sure how the 'zoning' (for lack of better words) within the cemetery worked and didn't feel it was particularly appropriate to ask. People entered their sites through a small swinging gate and paid their respects to their loved ones by placing various symbolic items such as candles, bread, hard-boiled eggs (the dyed red ones), or even wine on the graves, or simply by praying or making the sign of the cross. The headstones were often adorned with life-like engravings of the deceased's face, and sometimes listed what they were well-liked for and other family members' names. I noticed that Tako's father's grave was at neither of the cemeteries we visited, and she later mentioned that she and her mother would visit her father's grave on Easter Monday in Kutaisi. I was curious about the rituals that determined who is buried where and why, and who visits whom and when, but again felt it was not appropriate to ask such details.

Back at Tako's house in Kutaisi, I spent the afternoon doing laundry and having an impromptu dance party with Tako and her cousins. She even taught me some Georgian folk dance, which was not entirely dissimilar to traditional Central Asian dance, but unique and difficult enough to make my attempts to follow suit an object of entertainment for the rest of the family. When I was watching Tako whirl around the room with all the grace of an accomplished ballerina but the pure innocence of a little girl, I couldn't help but marvel at her. She was robbed of her beloved father at a tender young age but refuses to use that as an excuse for anything, and instead seizes every opportunity she can get her hands on to make something incredible of herself. Listening to her impressively firm opinions about women's places in Georgian society, I have no doubt in my mind that she'll grow up into an even more impressive woman and will blaze her own trail through life, inevitably serving as a role model for the next generation of girls eager to break the mold. And of course, she'll be smiling her beautiful smile the whole way through her journey.


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