This morning started out with a treat. I was making my way out of the hotel as I normally would until I noticed the old guy, in all black, next to a space heater, with his shoes off, passed out between the Christmas tree and the door. Perhaps he’s the live version of Ask Jeeves (founded in 1996 and shortened to ask.com in 2006) but I left him in his sedated seat to his admirable dreams and stepped outside to a black sky illuminated on the ground by blue, white, and gold lights.
I turned right and this guy put his arms up to form an X across his chest to signal that I was going the wrong way on a one-way road. The white Christmas stars faded to yellow street lights as I drove west. As the sky began to brighten I noticed how wet the road still was and that the few cars were on there way to work. I saw some men in construction-orange coats and wanted to join them in standing on the church corner discussing weather, traffic patterns, homemade wine, etc.
I arrived in Poti and figured the direction the sea was straight forward but my first attempt led me into port territory and my lost driving delivered me to a wealthier cemetery. It’s a good thing there are more pedestrians than drivers as I slowly maneuver the car around potholes, like witches’ cauldrons of deep gravel soup, something children would make for their siblings to try. I have a friend from high school who still lives at the end of a street like these, but the holes of destruction are shallow and of the countable variety.
In the lighthouse parking lot is a playground, one that looks like the zombie apocalypse wiped out all the kids in mid-play on the plastic jungle gym and other makeshift entertainment ideas. I believe this belongs to the ‘Monastery named after the Iberin Holy Mother icon.’ Next to that looks like a homeless dog shelter built from a broken desk covered in pieces of concrete wall and a tarp. I’m in no rush to get inside when I can hear the seagulls fishing and the white capped waves; which based on the Beaufort Wind Scale, developed in 1805, suggests the gentle breeze is traveling at 7-10 knots.
All this weather is enticing me closer to the jumping water and cluster of clouds. I’m always more eager, when I travel, to experience the elements of nature vs feeling cold in a manmade space, as if both aren’t events to be appreciated for what they are and what those moments fully contain. With this aura of appreciation around me, I walk up to the lighthouse, the oldest navigational facility on the Black Sea Coast of Georgia, having been complete by British engineers on the River Rioni in 1864.
The red and white striped building is now run by the State Hydrographic Service and consists of 128 tons of cast iron to include 160 steps for a 36 meter climb that gives the light a range of 17 nautical miles. An older man came from one of the surrounding buildings to unlock the lighthouse, just for me, and though he climbed to the top to ensure I saw the expansive view, I was left to interpret the artifacts by myself — some in Georgian and English and others in Georgian and Russian.
I enjoyed his quiet company and the feeling of not being rushed, but left to appreciate a modern working piece of history and taking as many photos as I wanted without waiting on others (selfish me leaking out as I’m used to public buildings with a spiral staircase being full of bodies). I wonder if they keep track of visitors and if the man enjoyed the break from whatever he’d been doing before my arrival. He locks up behind me and I’m on my way.
Stopped at a market for a bag of a baked variety and noticed that the street lights, both red and green, have countdowns so there’s no confusion as to how much time you have left. I appreciate Georgia loving their drivers enough to help reduce traffic incidents, especially when there’s some form of water on their roads for a majority of the year. I also learn that the police cars will turn off their lights for speed traps as they drive around with them constantly on.
I pass the Poti St. Virgin Cathedral in the middle of a large roundabout in the center of town that reminds me of the Hagia Sophia, mostly just the windows contrasting under the shiny dome. I park in front of the gate to Kolkheti National Park and let myself into the courtyard. The sign tells me that the lowlands have been inhabited for 15,000 years. The park was established in 1835 and internationally recognized in 1996 to protect the flora and fauna of some 43,000 hectares (106,200+ acres).
There’s a mention of the Greeks building a village that connects the area with the mythology of the Golden Fleece, a story of gods, jealousy, and ram sex (Jason and the Argonauts) which is believed to come from using wool to mine for gold and then hanging the stretched hides to dry before shaking or combing them out. It’s said that the winged ram, god of war and one of the Twelve Olympians, became the constellation Aries, which is a porpoise in the Marshall Islands and twin inspectors in China.
I feel like I’m entering a hotel but once inside I notice the large wall covered in pictures, jars, and cases of creatures with fins, fur, and feathers that resembles a museum. I’m told from here I would usually be taken on a two-hour boat tour of the Paliastomi Lake to include a picnic near a giant bird-watching tower but the rain has changed those plans. I’m given a brochure in Georgian that shows a speedboat and a kayak and told to call when I’m able to come back.
The next national park, Kobuleti Nature Reserve, shall meet a similar fate. I drove to the entrance without knowing it (because it’s hidden behind a residential area, like driving into someone’s backyard) and had driven back to the street where I saw the arrow pointing to the park, so I reversed until I noticed the sign over the mud pit. I drove towards it, but with all the rain these wetlands seemed too treacherous and precious to explore and destroy with my curiosity.
I had added this place to my itinerary for the white sphagnum moss (that’s great for orchids and bonsai plants for its water retention abilities — holding 16 to 26 times their dry weight in water) and the Caspian turtle (striped-neck terrapin that lives around the Black Sea, Meditteranean Sea, and the Persian Gulf) and marsh terrapin (African helmeted turtle that is known to hibernate in drought and very cold conditions) that were to be seen from a suspended bridge.
The GPS system I’m using seems to have been tested by a crow or someone who drives these curvy roads by skipping some of the turns and definitely not stopping to look at anything. I can’t fault the street scientists though as they gave me the data to do the research and realize I’d need more time as a traveler and double that in weather conditions that make driving either more fun or more dangerous depending on your personality type; and definitely more engaging.
I get to Petra Fortress (its Byzantine name; Castle of Kajeti, Georgian name) in Tsikhisdziri to find a deserted and seemingly modern forgotten castle in the midst of construction to perhaps cover the muddy pathways to encourage tourists to visit without feeling like they’re destroying history with their feet. It was precisely the precarious wall-walks (more like a wraparound balcony on the southeast sides) in a Secret Garden setting that encouraged me to find the entrance five floors up.
The salty wind and summer rains have aged this beauty and if I could look this good after being built in 535 then I would drink from the fountain of youth or be made by the Greeks to withstand the history these stones have endured, especially with their view of the beach below. I see the sky falling in the distance and leave the castle. I pass a roadside bench next to a hammock then some closed farm stands before stopping to admire the Chakviststali River and the seemingly homemade suspended bridges.
I’m grateful for the handrail as I walk on planks that remind me of a giant Jenga game, a five-piece puzzle for toddlers, or someone not fortunate enough to afford a dentist. I figured if a grandfather trusted the workmanship with his granddaughter in-hand than I should be up for the experience on more than one of these water crossings, whether over a serene or white-water portion, I was kept dry. I park near what looks like the entrance to Batumi Botanical Gardens and think I’ll wait for the rain to lessen.
I get out of the car and watch the short train go by. The security guard comes out of his station to walk me to the ticket booth. I’m not sure what I was thinking, but I went along with him, past the guy who offered me juice from his cafe, until I realized I’d left my purse in the car and I’d need that to pay the 15 lari entrance fee to see the park that covers one square kilometer. This place used to be called Green Cape in 1892 and has collected some 1800 plants, of which 90 are of Caucasian origin.
I’m told when I purchase my ticket, with my camera under my jacket, that the bus is a 300 meters walk, but that’s where the other woman sits to collect more money for a one-way ride. I didn’t want to be soaking wet but I also didn’t want to pay 5 lari for a handful of nuts (pecans in-shell), a hand on my knee, and an offer for a free ride back outside of the park in the driver’s friends’ Mercedes. I’d had to turn around on my walk to catch the eight-passenger covered golf-cart.
I thought the bus made four stops but this one only made two and luckily the heavy rain has gone for now and I can enjoy the walk back amongst wet green trees and their soaked brown leaves. Perhaps going to a garden, when most plants are in their sleep phase is like going to a museum that’s under construction — there’s still stuff to see but it’s probably not what you came for. I’m ok with that. I don’t need to travel to places only when flowers are in bloom and crowds are in masses. I get my creativity from experience but I’m better able to express it in solitude.
The “Oregon Ravine” may have representatives of Blue spruce, Coast redwood, cypress, and juniper trees but it doesn’t have the same familiar breeze. The nice part about Japanese and New Zealand gardens in the States is that I haven’t been to their local counterparts for comparison. Having these trees out of place is like seeing a polar bear in San Diego or a Moai, the heads of Easter Island, in a London museum; though I appreciate their ability to inspire people to learn, to travel, and to care about parts of the world they may never see and give them a sense of home overseas.
Normally, I’d be more exploratory but I seem to be the only one in the park, so if I forget how to walk or where I’m going, I could be lost when the next downpour comes. These gardens had a lot of work put into their layout and the use of sticks and stones to add to the peacefulness that nature seems to demand of man, unless he’s in the wild like the plants and animals that are in a constant mode of fight, flight, or freeze. Amongst the floral and beach views is a sticker that stands out. If you like cats, tattoos, and murals you can check out Sakvo @skvgknrs.
My socks are wet. I will need to change them at the car… maybe back into the old pair… shit. I book a room at Hotel N 16, for 60 lari, with breakfast and it’s only a block from the water. Batumi is beautiful, even through the rain. I find some parking nearby and pass by the piazza and St. Nicolas Church before I check-in and pick up my room key. I stop at Restaurant Classic on the corner as they advertise Georgian food on their a-frame sign, so I get my favorite eggplant with walnuts and try the mushroom chashushuli that comes steaming in a cast-iron dish with onions.
With a renewed energy source, I’ll be able to enjoy the seaside attractions without my hunger being a distraction as I want to make the most of this momentary dry before the sun sets. The port is a magical place — a mix of people walking and ducks swimming, boats floating and birds flying, houses sitting and snow falling, skyscrapers reaching and wind blowing, and clouds gathering and art showing. I make my way to the Ali and Nino statue based on the love story in the 1937 novel of the same name that inspired the 2016 film about an Azerbaijani man and a Georgian woman in a time of war.
It starts to sprinkle again so I walk back to the hotel to drop off my purse and camera and borrow a hotel umbrella (if I’d have known about them sooner) and pick up my bag from the car. I finally take off my wet socks and elevate my tired feet for a bit before putting them in a steamy shower. I unwind by trying to photograph the tiniest moth creature on the glass wall in the bathroom and looking at my route for tomorrow.
I’m woken at midnight to the sound of fireworks as Georgia celebrates their Old New Year as the Orthodox Church still uses the Julian calendar. When the clock strikes the citizens are allowed to bite into a gozinaki — caramelized walnuts, fried in boiled honey, sometimes with pepper and vinegar, and cut into a rhombus shape. There’s also basila, a human-shaped cake named after the Christian saint Basil, that comes from a pagan cult in eastern Georgia to bring fertility into the new year.
The New Years day on January 1st is extended into Bedoba, “a day of luck”, where it’s believed that what happens on this day will set the trend for the year, so it’s feasting and cheer for everyone here. Then there’s Christmas on the 7th with a street parade, Alilo, in costumes and lots of carol singing and special khachapuri eating. Their Christmas tree is made from shaved hazelnut branches, decorated with dried fruits and flowers and burned after the holidays to keep the misfortunes of last year in the past. Tonight would’ve been great for couchsurfing or a family adoption, but then I’d have missed the view from my balcony of a cloudy moon and yellow-lit street.