Our VW vans maneuvered to miss potholes and hugged the side of the mountain. Much of the outer edge of the road had fallen away. We were driving the Georgian Military Highway through the Caucasus Mountains. It’s a route used for centuries, part of the Silk Road. A thunderstorm caught us halfway up, and at one point the drivers had to hold their heads out the window so they could see. On one side was a crumbling rock face with torrents of water ripping new gashes, while on the other was a sheer ravine thousands of feet deep. There was no guard rail, and we all just prayed we wouldn’t meet any trucks coming down the single lane.
After six hours of terror we got to the charming town of Tbilisi, Georgia. We were staying in a hotel for this portion of our trip, and while the accommodations were spartan, it was nice not having to pitch a tent and sleep on the ground. I was still not eating, but they had a nice spread for breakfast – hard rolls and apple butter, some fatty meats and cheese, pomegranates and figs. It was the most diverse and plentiful food we had seen in weeks. Georgia in general seemed happier and looser than any other place we had been in Soviet Russia, the people less inclined to follow all the rules.
We went to the zoo and visited the quaint downtown which had a multi-story star-shaped choral riser that was used for Patriotic Concerts. Some years later it collapsed, killing several children who were singing at the time, but back then it was rather impressive and very Soviet. We managed to get our exit Visas stamped for Romania. The three vans were going in different directions once we left Odessa, and my van was going to Dracula’s castle.
On our final day in Tbilisi, I took a hike up in the mountains with another traveler, Ted. He spoke better Russian than I did, and was just as sick of being with the group and Olga’s relentless questioning of where we were going and what we had seen. We followed a faint trail through apple trees up into the mountains. It was idyllic until we heard grunting just ahead. It was a herd of enormous feral hogs. Some of them had huge tusks. They snuffled the air, spotted us, and then four of the primordial beasts charged. We screamed and climbed trees, moving higher and yelling for help as the beasts stood on their hind legs to reach us. “What a way to go”, I thought. (I still can’t watch that scene in “Hannibal” without having flashbacks.)
A thin, elderly man appeared from the woods. He bashed the hogs over the head with his walking stick and chased them off. He then invited us to climb down and join him for lunch. We hiked up a steep incline to a tiny hut that seemed magically glued to the side of the mountain. We met his wife, who had a hunchback and a gorgeous smile that creased her face into thousands of folds. She set the table with apples and hard cheese and went outside to pump well water for us into tin cups. I avoided the water, but enjoyed a few bites of an apple – tiny and tart and crisp. Ted and I sat on stools and talked with them for a bit. The hut was a complete throw-back to the 18th century. No electricity, just a fireplace and a potbelly stove. The couple’s bed was on a wooden loft built above the stove so the heat rising would keep them warm at night. They were adamant about being happy with the Soviet takeover of their country – he had fought in the Great Patriotic War and still had his rifle, which he showed us with pride. They had lost their four sons in that war, but had a daughter who lived in Kiev and grandchildren. Their warmth and hospitality was exceptional. The old man walked us back down to the main track, to keep us safe from the hogs, and we said goodbye. It is one of my favorite memories of the trip.
Our group drove from Tbilisi to the Black Sea, and to a campground that boasted a disco. It was raining again at this point, and what I am sure would have been a charming place in sunny weather turned out to be bleak and miserable. We sat in the disco and watched the locals do the Chicken Dance over and over and over. I was still not feeling well, was tired of travelling, tired of my forced companionship, tired of speaking Russian, tired of being wet and cold and not eating. We still had another five days to go in Russia, but I felt like I just didn’t want to go on.
I went out into the rain alone, and headed to the cliffs overlooking the sea late that night, stumbling a bit as I had taken to drinking vodka again instead of the life-saving Schweppes. As I looked over the Chornaya Morya (the Black Sea), listening to the waves endlessly crashing below me, I was overwhelmed by sadness, loneliness, and a feeling of utter futility. My grand adventure in Russia had been mostly just hard, I didn’t particularly trust my travel companions, and I was just so tired. At that moment, I yearned just to topple over the edge, let go of this world. It was crystal clear, The Answer. I leaned over the edge, and was just at the tipping point when someone grabbed the back of my jacket and hauled me back. It was Ted. He looked at me, shook his head, and told me to come back in out of the rain, it would be better in the morning.
I sighed, and followed him back to the disco, watched the locals do the Chicken Dance, and at some point, fell asleep. The next morning the sun had broken through the clouds, and I felt – better. Not perfect, but not hopeless either. That lesson – realizing that tomorrow will be better – has often helped me in the years since. 2017 has been hard for us, but I believe that tomorrow (or maybe in a few tomorrows) it will be better. It’s a Truth for me. I hope that resonates with you, too
Next week – Romania, Hungary, Vienna, Czechoslovakia, and Checkpoint Charley