My first night in Georgia was spent behind a small petrol station, on the grass, beneath a tree, beside a pond with some ducks on it. The roads entered forest the next day, along the coast, through rundown cities, left over from the soviet era. The climbs were almost tropical, cutting through near jungle-like overhang, winding up and down the hillsides. At times the country felt abandoned and wild… as if nature had reclaimed the land. The Russians had packed up and left entire towns, all grey and soviet and windowless and crumbling, to lie like ghosts amid the greenery.
The Georgians seemed to be picking up the pieces but all the while with smiles on their faces. A growing tourist industry was developing national forest parks and protecting lakes and churches in the mountains, whilst home stays were also on offer. But, as usual, this was irrelevant to my journey as I rode straight for the backroads and cut through local villages.
I was wearing my heart on my sleeve again and smiling to everyone I passed. The old days had finally returned and, on the evening of a very hot second day, riding through the light of dusk, I stopped to watch a group of locals playing football. The children saw me at the roadside and began to wave and shout and show off their skills. I smiled and waved back and, with that universal gesture, before I knew it, I’d rolled my bike down to the field, taken off my shoes and was playing for the adults side, scoring goals against the kids. I lost myself completely. There was no feeling of difference. Just grown ups and children playing a universal game, laughing and rolling about an having fun beneath the setting sun. With the midges flying about and the whole village now out to watch the match we played until our legs could play no more, until the last flecks of light had long faded.
The villagers fought over whose house I would stay in for the night, then I was led off down the street and bought to the home of Maria and her kind husband and children. Then came the uncles and brothers and sister in laws, followed by the food, endless plates of home made bread, honeycomb, dried beef, pickled vegetables and sauces. All washed down with wine, lots and lots of sweet, organic wine, straight from the vines in the garden!
But that wasn’t good enough for a guest of honour like me, apparently, and so down came the goat horns. Off the mantlepiece, cleaned out and filled to the brim with wine. The tradition in Georgian culture however, I found out, was to drink glasses of wine in shots… yes, entire glasses… in one go. Maria’s husband was a big guy and of Russian decent which made the drinking game, of locking arms and downing an entire goat’s horn of wine before the other could, a pretty tough challenge. But, by my tenth glass, still standing, the man shouted, You drink like Georgian! You are like son to me. My proudest moment. A few minutes later I was passed out on the sofa.
As far as hangovers go, this had to be the most pleasant I have ever experienced. I stayed for a day at the Maria family home, forgetting about the world back home and learning instead about growing grapes and collecting honey from bee hives. I walked up the forests to a newly built well that supplied fresh water to the whole village and a small waterfall with Maria’shusband and brother before feeding the pigs and chickens in the back yard of the house.
The children, who had hid from me at first, now ran about and climbed on my legs. For all my days, it was one I will never forget. The simplicity of their life was something I had never witnessed in person before. That rural, farming lifestyle. I’d grown up beside farms as a child, the outdoors was a part of me, but the life of a farmer, the growing and eating of your own food daily and the idea that you could exist independently in that way, without shops, without news, without cares or worries, was mind blowing. Life for them was about good food, relaxation, about children and marriage and being faithful and happy to one another.
I remembered a time in Greece when Mary had taught me how to plant onions and grow tea. Those memories were added to this day in Georgia and the seeds of a desire to farm and learn about self sufficiency began to sprout in my mind. The only sad part to the day was when, in the evening, playing another round of football, one of the pigs ran out into the road and was run down with a loud pop! by a huge truck. With the owner in tears, the truck driver distraught and the pig squealing around in agony until its last breath came I could do nothing but stand by the side and watch the scene, merely just a foreign stranger.