Between my arrival in Georgia at the end of January and the end of March, my fellow group 32 volunteers and I heard some variation of the phrase “wait until the weather is nice” in response to every one of our proposed weekend Georgian adventures. Restless, bored and eager to explore we clung to one hope – that spring would transform Georgia into a completely new country. Now that spring has sprung, our wish has been fulfilled. Weekday afternoons in Kutaisi are often spent outside, sitting in one of the city’s parks, catching up with friends, people watching or reading the newest book on my kindle. The solidly black, unchanging winter wardrobes of both the students and teachers have undergone a spring renaissance and now comprise a vivid array of colors and unique fashion trends. Neighbors spend the last few moments of twilight chatting in the driveway or tending to their fields. And the exclamations of children playing pickup soccer provide a joyful soundtrack to it all. Colorful flowers and baby farm animals cover the fields and frolic in the open spaces. And the black rocks on the Batumi beaches have proven to be an excellent place to watch the sunset. Signs of life now ooze from almost every corner of life. And, for me, spring has brought an unforgettable hiking trip and a complete transformation to walks home.
The first hint of spring came at the end of March, and my friends and I used it as an excuse to go hiking in Mitrali National Park, just north of Batumi. On a warm and perfectly clear Saturday morning, we stepped off the Marshutka in Chaqvi and promptly spent thirty minutes waiting outside of a market, only to be told by some Georgians that our bus, due to the lingering piles of snow on the road, wasn’t running yet. Not to be deterred, we started walking up the twelve kilometers of dirt road that separate Chaqvi and the park entrance. The road meandered through increasingly tinier villages, winding along the river and slowly gaining elevation. With the sun finally providing warmth and a blue sky over head, we took the road’s potholes and cow droppings in stride, elated that spring had arrived. Eventually, an empty marshutka pulled up behind us. Inside were two men – one who we had asked about the bus while we were waiting in front of the market and the other, the man’s friend who just happened to be a marshutka driver. For a small fee, he offered to drive us far he could on the road. We happily accepted and piled in. After traversing the bumpy road in the standard Georgian method of marshutka driving, we all stumbled out, feeling a little queasy. Once again, we set off along the road. Though the trees had yet to bloom, the jagged rocky edges of the mountains and the crystal clear river water rushing through the valley created a stunningly peaceful locale. We spent the afternoon fording streams, walking through snow, playing on rocks, avoiding potholes and soaking in every ounce of sunlight we could. Eventually we made it to the park’s visitor center, ready for some lunch, a bathroom and a bed, only to find out that the visitor’s center had only a bathroom and had yet to open. However, if we wanted to continue a few hundred yards up the road, we were told that we’d soon find a hostel we could stay at. A few hundred yards was really like a few kilometers, but eventually we found our hostel and were greeted by one of the cutest dogs I’ve seen in Georgia. This hostel is perched on the crest of a hill and overlooks the snowy mountainous valley; it has a huge balcony, incredible bathrooms and solar panels.
Upon arriving, we were treated to a delicious snack of walnuts, homemade honey and Turkish coffee. It was followed by a lunch of lobio, spicy chicken, potatoes, bread, cheese and pickles. After eating more than we should’ve eaten, we took back to the road, wandering along the road until we found an abandoned Soviet-era jeep, crossed the stream, headed up hill and then followed a single set of footprints heading through a few dozen inches of snow and up to a house at the top of a hill. We used the dwindling daylight and a hole in the base of a tree to play an impromptu game of snowball basketball. Back at the hostel, over another spread of incredible food, we all agreed on two things: one, that this was the best weekend we’d had so far in Georgia, and two, that we’d come back when the weather was nicer.
On almost every Tuesday afternoon this spring, I could be found, alone, walking through the lush, green Georgian countryside, feeling like a bit like Maria from the opening scene of The Sound of Music. Maria took to nature in a desperate attempt to escape the solitude of the Abby and, in a bland dress, belts out the musical poetry of Rogers and Hammerstein with such passion that it stirs something in the soul. I spend my afternoons traversing the Georgian countryside for one of my bi-weekly walks from my school in Kutaisi to my home in Tskaltubo. In shorts, a t-shirt and with my ipod shuffle for company, I hardly resemble Maria. With neither a soul nor a car in sight, but with green grass and yellow buttercup flowers at my feet, rolling hills covered in lush green trees stretching before me, and the leafy trees shaping the landscape until they merge with the blue, snowcapped mountains on the horizon, I feel exactly like Maria. With a wide smile across my face, I usually stretch my arms out to either side, skip for a while, and, even though I am not musically inclined, sing along to my ipod.
It’s been six weeks since my first, frustrating and adventurous, walk home. In that time, spring has taken over Georgia. Endless sunny days have dried out the formerly muddy woods, leaving behind evidence of cow paths or village roads. Naturally, I have followed these paths and, consequently, have established my own, less direct but much more peaceful, walking route from Kutaisi to Tskaltubo. I’ve learned which section of open space on which side of the highway has the smoothest walking route, when to cross the road, and which cow paths lead to other trails and which dead end in clearings surrounded by unnavigable thorn bushes. I’ve found a route that, for the most part, takes me far away from the highway, leaving me invisible to passing drivers, and largely avoids brambly bushes, leaving my legs relatively free of scratches. I am intentional about beginning every walk with a freshly filled bottle of water and my cell phone zipped safely in my backpack. I end every walk by immediately rinsing off my dirty legs in the bathroom, in an effort to minimize the amount of unwanted dirt I track into the house. Although I’ve established a much more peaceful, scenic enjoyable route, it’s quite circuitous and functions like a yo-yo, with the highway representing the yo-yoer’s hand and my walking route, the yo-yo. As such, it is several kilometers longer than the twelve kilometers of highway and still takes me over two hours to complete. But, I love making this trek so much that it has become an integral part of my new life in Georgia.