Originally, I was going to have my third post be about my routine and other things I’ve noticed in Georgia, but there’s one story I need to tell first.
When I arrived in Tbilisi, I was initially amazed but also disappointed in little ways. One thing that had been advertised to me was how green the country is. I was told that the country was known for its farmlands, vast nature and abundance of farm animals. I had arrived in the city on Jan. 10, so all the plants were either dead or barren, and there were no animals to be found. It shouldn’t have been a surprise to me, but it was a shock. The closest animals I could find were in the Tbilisi Zoo. Even then, the fact that the wildebeest were housed with the yaks was a bit worrisome to me — they aren’t even from the same continent! Despite my shock, I continued my journey within the city and did my best to find stuff of interest among the Georgian post-Soviet infrastructure. As a girl who prefers the outdoors, it was easiest to find things I enjoyed at Lisi Lake, the animal shelter and inside the number of museums within the city limits.
Recently, my friend Mariam has been taking me to her favorite areas in Georgia. We had planned to visit Kahetsi Lake, but the travel agency had canceled with us last-minute. With our bags already packed and a longing for adventure, we approached a random marshrutka, or minibus in English, asked where there were going and if they had room for two more. They were going to Gudauri, a city known for its snow-covered mountains and ski resort, and they had room for us!
About two hours later, we had arrived. It was a bit of a trek, and it took time to get used to walking on the snow. As a born-and-raised Californian, snow is not a normal weather condition for me. It took two ski lift rides to make it to the top of the summit. From there, I felt like I could see the world. I was so small compared to the vast environment. I was happy. We bought lunch at the only café they had at the mountaintop and enjoyed the view.
On our way back to Tbilisi, Mariam invited me to visit her family in Zugdidi the next weekend. The city is on the opposite side of Georgia and would be the furthest I had traveled within the country. I agreed almost immediately. Any moment for adventure can’t be passed up.
On Friday evening, Mariam, her friend Nino, and I boarded a marshrutka to Zugdidi. I didn’t expect the drive to be so long — six hours. Her mom greeted us with open arms and already had a delicious meal prepared for us. Kachapuri wasn’t new to me, but homemade kachapuri was another story. I felt my tastebuds smile the entire meal. She also served this walnut and chicken stew that I still don’t know the name of. This must be one of my favorite Georgian foods. That night (or morning since it was 2 a.m. when we finally went to bed), I slept with a full stomach and Mariam’s small dog curled up against my back.
The next day, we took a minibus to the villages on the outskirts of Zugdidi. I was surprised to see cows, pigs and chickens roaming the area freely. Apparently, they all knew their way home. It was amusing to realize these cows had more freedom than I did when I was first in high school. They could stay out and go wherever they wanted without any real boundaries.
Along the way, Mariam pointed out military bases set up because Russian-occupied territory wasn’t far from us. I have heard my fair share of stories about Abkhazia. The territory was finally declared as Russian territory on Aug. 28, 2008. It was common for Georgians to wake up, realize their town had been pulled into this territory and then forced out and left homeless. It is strange. As an American, there haven’t been any recent issues with territory. I know I will never be able to fully understand that feeling.
When we arrived at the village, Mariam and her mom guided us to their family’s farm. I didn’t expect it to be so vast. They seemed to own most acres surrounding them. Her family was excited to meet me. Almost immediately, they introduced me to their new litter of puppies. I am already adopting my Suzi, but if I wasn’t there is no way I would leave this country without one of those babies. They were so soft. Their fur was barely starting to curl, and their eyes were only half open.
Mariam’s family then insisted we tour the farm. She handed us a pail of hardened corn and ushered us out the door. As soon as we began sprinkling the floor with corn, a horde of chickens and turkeys came rushing to us. They knew it was feeding time. I felt a bit threatened by the turkeys, but watching them eat like chickens made me less nervous. We tried to offer food to the cows, but they seemed skittish around new people and preferred to be away from us. For the next half hour, Mariam’s aunt, Dali, walked us around her land. She showed me where she grew their walnuts, what was almost ready to be picked and where they had their summer hangouts. Mariam had to translate everything for me, but Dali was trying her best to learn a few English words for me.
That evening, they prepared a large feast. I was surprised to see the house suddenly fill. The table was packed with new foods, and the only one I really recognized was kachapuri. They even brought out a bottle of some very smooth white wine. It was the best meal I have had in my three months of living in Georgia. Everything they made was either homegrown or from their own animals. The cheeses were made from their cows’ milk. The vegetables they planted themselves. The grain for the kachapuri had been prepared from their own crops. The only thing store-bought was the wine, and they had already had it for almost a decade. Throughout dinner, they would ask me questions about America, what I thought of Georgia, and if I wanted more wine? When dinner was over, they began family game night. They taught me a common Georgian card game called Joker. I won — I still have no idea how that game works. We played a few more games for the rest of the evening before it was time for bed.
It was then that I realized most of the people were the neighbors. One of the younger girls, a high schooler named Natia, had made sure to get my social media links before she walked two homes down to her own house. She was one of the only other people in the household who spoke English, so it was interesting to learn more about the village from her. She also tried her best to keep me afloat during the games. One-by-one, the house emptied. I was asleep by 2 a.m. again.
The next and final day in Zugdidi, Mariam’s family took me to the lake to have nice pictures taken, and we were off to our final stop. Mariam and Nino were excited to show me the Black Sea. The beach was known for its music festivals. Sadly, those take place in August and I will be back home by early June. We walked for over an hour along the rocky shore. I grew up by the Pacific Ocean, and I could feel the difference between the two grand water masses. The scent was different. That was what I noticed the most. I could sit and enjoy that view forever if I had the opportunity. And just like that, it was time to head home.
Like I said in my previous post, my strongest suggestion to future students planning to attend SDSU Georgia is to reach out to the locals. Talk to your peers. Volunteer if possible. Be open to new experiences. When I first arrived here, I expected to mainly tour the city and local areas with my roommate. Months later, I have become good friends with someone not even connected to the university and have made some of my best memories with her. Coming to Georgia has continued to prove itself worth it.
Arianna Ruiz is a third-year biochemistry major studying abroad in Tbilisi, the capital city of the Republic of Georgia. This is her first time leaving the boundaries of California.