I had hastily scrawled the word in my notebook, and now fished it out so that I could ask where the baths were.
They pointed towards these brick domes protruding from the ground. I headed that way, jumping from one dome to the other. Asking around, it seemed like they only had private baths, which were really expensive–upwards of at least 20GEL an hour. I didn’t bring a towel so it would be more…much more, if I wanted a scrub too.
I helplessly motioned I had only brought a few dollars. At last, one bathhouse attendant directed me to the public baths.
“Only 2 or 3 Lari!”
“That’s perfect. Show me!”
I followed him through sulphur-smelling corridors. We came out into the public gardens and he pointed me in the right direction.
I stepped inside to a crowd of grinning young adults.
Jackie Chan! Bruce Lee!
I played along, striking the only kung-fu pose I know. “Hiya!”
They threw their heads back and laughed with me, mimicking my ridiculous stance. A man grabbed me and gave me a quick hug. They’re easy to befriend, the Georgians.
I pantomimed: “Shower?” They nodded and motioned me inside. I paid my 3 Lari, then 2 for a rented towel and followed the stairs down to the baths. I paid an additional 10 for what I really came for: a scrub.
I guess old men who love to wander around naked is a universal thing. There were a few younger people too. I stripped down, put my belongings into a locker, and was ushered into the baths.
The sulphur wasn’t as pungent as I thought it would be. I looked up at the mosaic of colourful tiles decorating the entire space, the underside of the domes dotted with jagged colour. A man gesticulated that I should shower first before stepping into the hot baths. I borrowed some guy’s soap and turned on some water. After rinsing off, I sank into the bath’s depths, feeling its heat.
I closed my eyes and relaxed. Time passed, and I couldn’t stand the heat anymore. I stood up and left, but was soon motioned back inside by the fellow who was gonna give me a scrubdown. He indicated I should lie down on a thick marble slab off to the side.
He was pretty thorough, though it felt short. It might have lasted only 10-15 minutes. Afterward I took another quick shower, and left to change.
As I was entering the locker room, a man was waving around a bottle of spirits. He saw me and gave me a glass, indicating I should drink it.
It was really strong. I gasped a “madloba” in his direction and sat down, grinning. He went on to say something about China and Georgia I didn’t really understand, but I gave him two thumbs up because I knew he meant well.
Another man suddenly appeared beside me, holding out his bag of sausage and bread. He mimed I should break off a piece and eat. I was so taken aback by his generosity. The baths were such a social event. People talking and drinking and smoking and eating all at once. Maybe the nudity helps break the ice.
I finished changing and said madloba and kargad to those around me. Smiling and utterly relaxed, I took my time getting back to the hotel.
//photographs taken and post written during Tbilisi Orientation, September 15-23 2012, Group 45, Jackson Tse