All photos by Amy Yu Mao
The last leg of the journey with Amy took us south and west. We set out early on a Friday morning with Khvicha and his young assistant (whose name I do not know, because he was introduced to us as the “master of shashlik”), who was recruited to help with preparation of the meal that awaited us.
We made two logistical stops along the way. The first was in Khashuri, where Khvicha and his right hand man bought a plastic bag full of raw meat in a small market. The second was in Borjomi, where we filled two five-gallon jugs with fresh spring water drawn from a creek, to later clean the meat. Borjomi is the source (and the name) of a popular bottled mineral water here in Georgia and in the surrounding countries. Putin is a fan, from what I hear. On Khvicha’s recommendation, I filled my palm and tasted the water, and was surprised by its natural carbonation and strong, almost salty, flavor.
From Borjomi, we drove on to Akhalsikhe to see Rabati Castle. I had never heard of this place before Khvicha suggested we stop there, which is a shame. The seven hectare complex one of the most beautiful and well restored historical sites in Georgia. As a kind of microcosm of this country, it has been conquered by several empires and still retains the flavors of the various invaders’ cultures. You can find a mosque, a minaret, a synagogue, and a church within the castle walls.
Our next stop was Vardzia to see the cave monasteries that I’d already visited with colleagues in the winter. The first time around, I made the mistake of climbing up the mountain in four-inch heels; this time, I did it with bare shoulders and no sunscreen under the afternoon sun. The result? My first Georgian sunburn.
(Side note on Georgian weather: summer is really hot.)
All day, Khvicha talked incessantly about shashlik. I had a vague idea of what shashlik was (meat on a stick?), but no direct experience. By the end of the day, I was hungry enough to eat the raw meat in the trunk of the car, so I was thrilled when Khvicha said it was dinner time. We found a quiet riverbed somewhere outside of Vardzia, and Khvicha and his assistant set to work doing manly Bear Grylls things, like chopping wood and building a fire and yelling at each other. Amy and I lounged around taking photos of horses and frogs, occasionally offering our assistance, which was turned down until it was time to make a salad.
It turns out I had a pretty accurate understanding of shashlik; it is, indeed, meat on a stick. Surprisingly delicious meat on a stick. After a harried rush to beat the rain clouds that were approaching, we found a small cove protected by trees where we laid our banquet of shashlik, bread, cheese, salad, Pepsi, and wine on a flat rock table. As we enjoyed our meal, Khvicha and I served as translators in a long and complex linguistic grapevine. The young shashlik master wanted to learn Chinese from Amy, and to teach us Megrelian, a dialect of Georgian which Khvicha does not speak. With the help of a few cups of wine, we managed to communicate from Megrelian to Georgian to Russian to English to Chinese, and back again. Topics of discussion included marriage, wine, Jackie Chan, and chopsticks.
To cap off this heartwarming day, Georgia gifted us with a rainbow for dessert.
… and then the car broke down. But we didn’t mind. Patience is the key to happiness in Georgia. Patience and plenty of wine.