Battered by hot wind, and worn down by culture, it was time to leave Dubai. A quick search for cheap flights resulted in a last minute trip to Georgia. As in Georgia the country, nestled between Russian, Azerbaijan, and Armenia. A culture-rich nation strewn with ancient churches, mountains etched by tumultuous rivers, and apparently the birthplace of wine. It sounded like the panacea I craved.
What I noticed immediately on arrival was the humanity. Women would hold my hands in theirs when I stopped to ask for directions. Men would smile and chat with harmless flirtation. After the sterility and apathy of Dubai, this warmth sent my heart soaring. I hadn’t realized until I arrived in Georgia how I missed that simple human connection of feeling welcomed.
My first adventure in Georgia was a drive north on the Georgian Military Highway. This was the main trucking route from Russia to points south; a winding, narrow, treacherous road. It also happened to be one of the most scenic I had ever been on. But before I get into that, a little backstory on the rodeo that is driving in Georgia.
If a pedestrian and a car collided, the pedestrian would be at fault. They would be honked at, yelled at, and no one would stop. In fact, it was so dangerous to cross a street in Tbilisi that all pedestrian crossings were in the form of tunnels that passed underneath the roadways. Similarly, there was no expectation of personal space between vehicles; the roads were cramped and sometimes cars would touch. The best response was to honk excessively. The driving direction was on the right side of the road, but at least half the cars on the road were right-hand-drive (due to cheap imports on RHD cars). This means that half of all drivers trying to pass a truck on a two lane highway couldn’t see oncoming traffic without fully moving into the oncoming lane. It also made traffic circles, left turns, and merging in the crowded streets of Tbilisi very interesting. The best way to be noticed was to honk the horn, a lot. Additionally, until recently, there was no driving test to receive a driver’s license in Georgia. This exacerbated the belief of every driver that they were right, and everyone else was an idiot. Again, this was communicated with excessive honking. And finally there was Georgia’s proximity to Russia, the fact that most trucks on the road were from Russia, and if you don’t grasp the significance you need to google “driving in Russia”.
The man at the rental car office explained all of these dangers to me, and even suggested I hire a taxi to drive me all around the country. In the end, he reluctantly handed me the keys to the tin can that would be my ride. I buckled up, placed one hand in the ready position over the horn, and hit the highway.
My first destination was a remote church in the mountains bordering Russia, but the Military Highway was as much a part of the journey as was the hike to the church. I stopped to watch hundreds of sheep move like a white wave across emerald slopes. I was blown away by the beauty of a scenic overlook, covered in murals depicting stories of Georgia’s history. I passed ancient castles, monasteries, and churches. Farmers sat on the roadside selling their harvest. And the landscape changed from a meandering river valley to dramatic mountains in every shade of green.
Eventually I arrived at the trailhead to the ancient church and began my trek- straight up. The church was built atop a knoll with 360 degree views. The sacred energy was palpable; the place was clearly meant for worship, with or without the presence of a sanctuary. I found this to be true in many sacred sites in Georgia. The architecture and structures built to worship God were dwarfed by a land that naturally aroused a sense of awe and gratitude.
On the way down, still above the village, I came across a woman selling apricots. As hungry and weary as I was, I bought four, and ate all four, breaking a cardinal rule of travel: eating fresh fruit, unpeeled and unwashed. Thus began my next adventure in Georgia- food poisoning the likes of which I had never endured before.
Undaunted by the need to constantly pull over, I continued to explore the remote corners of the country. The northern regions offered up incredible hiking amid green mountains and clear rivers. But to the south lay a steppe region utterly void of trees, extending in an endless sea of dry grasses. Miraculously I managed to stay hydrated and was able to explore the amazing southern region. The dirt roads were rough, requiring frequent route scouting to make sure my bitty car could make it. The words of my husband were a constant reminder: “the most capable off-road vehicle is a fully insured rental”. So, with that assurance, and a good stock of toilet paper, I kept going.
In short, ten days in Georgia allowed me to throw my hat in the ring and adventure like a woman. I powered up mountains even though my insides were under attack. I meandered the narrow streets of Tbilisi in flowing dresses, attracting the attention of men in a way that wasn’t off-putting. Fellow patrons helped me explore the extraordinary cuisine of the land- they laughed as they showed me how and what to eat, and contented in my delight of new flavors. I grew my own self confidence while increasing my openness to others. And most importantly, I drove like a Russian.