August 8, 2022:
People ask me here sometimes, as they often do of foreigners everywhere, where I’m from.
“America,” I reply.
Then they ask about the state. They usually offer guesses like California or New York. I disappoint them.
I reluctantly supply the answer, understanding where the conversation is headed next: “Georgia.”
Then, unless the person is familiar with US geography, he becomes visibly confused and sometimes anxious that he’s serving as the butt of a practical joke.
“The other Georgia,” I clarify.
Sometimes, with enough hand motions and perhaps Google maps, I can make them understand. Sometimes not.
This is a tale of two cities
I grew up ensconced in the Atlanta, Georgia concrete jungle. My backyard was almost literally “Spaghetti Junction” – an iconic jumbled spaghetti-like intersection of multiple interstates and highways.
Note the limited green space. Compare to Borjomi, Georgia.
Tree volume isn’t the only noteworthy difference between here and there that I accounted for on a 13-mile hike to a mountainous lake with my wife.
Here’s what else I experienced in the other Georgia, unavailable to the Atlanta inhabitant.
Purchasing freshly-harvested honey from a roadside vendor isn’t criminal
This salt-of-the-Earth guy — with about three teeth, an unbuttoned sweat-stained shirt, and apparently a lifetime of honest living through hard times under his belt — was painting a fence when we arrived.
The scene was like something out of Tom Sawyer, if Tom grew up, got shipped off to the Soviet Union, and weathered his skin into leather under the hot sun for a few decades.
Next to the gentleman stood a neatly stacked array of homemade bottled honey, which, as he explained to my wife in Russian, had been harvested from right across the road in his bee hivery (that’s probably not a word but I don’t care).
The Gods had smiled upon us. We had stumbled on these replenishments right when our collective blood sugar had plummeted, having exhausted our reserves trudging uphill with heavy backpacks under hundred-degree* temperatures for miles at that point.
(*A hundred degrees Fahrenheit, not Celsius. As practical/sensible as the metric system might be, I refuse out of the principle of American exceptionalism to familiarize myself with its units of measurement. America saved the world from the Nazis, and, for now, as our reward, we’re the reigning geopolitical hegemon in the world. Until the East Asian sun rises and that changes, I’ll stick with the nonsensical imperial system.)
If this beekeeper were to set up shop in the Land of the Free to sell his wholesome wares without the proper permissions of the state, he’d get swatted by the FDA like a common Amish farmer criminal for his efforts.
Is that irony?
Stray dogs don’t flinch when you try to pet them and they follow you around like chaperones
Inexplicably, stray dogs in Georgia, which are unusually friendly, will join you on long travels, in many cases following you for miles. The astounding thing is that they don’t beg for food or anything else. Ostensibly, the sole reason they join the party is for the company.
They stop where you stop, and resume walking when you do. The only deviations from the course are to pee on a tree or smell another stray dog’s butthole or whatever.
One such canine accompanied us on our hike out of Borjomi. He literally followed us for about 5 miles on the hot pavement that I imagined must have been hell for his paws if they have any sensation in those whatsoever.
We named him Spartacus for convoluted reasons, which we promptly shortened to Sparty.
Sparty soldiered on nobly, following us loyally for those five miles, never wavering in his commitment, until we abandoned him when a stranger offered us a ride to the next village, which we gladly accepted.
If Sparty were American, he would’ve gotten flattened by a semi-trailer off of some Spaghetti Junction off-ramp before we ever met, or else carted off to the pound to get turned into glue or whatever they repurpose stray dog carcasses for after euthanizing them.
I hope Sparty’s alright, whatever highway he’s roaming now.
Ukrainian melodramatically feigning a heat stroke
My wife almost gave up halfway through our journey, and claimed out of exasperation that she was on the verge of a heat stroke. I alternated between encouraging her and documenting the scene. She posed for melodramatic photos like the one below to commemorate the torturous death march we had volunteered for.
I encouraged her to stay the course as best as I could.
Of course, my wife’s flair for the theatrical doesn’t have much ostensibly to do with Georgia per se. it’s theoretically possible to witness a Ukrainian melodramatically feigning a heat stroke in Atlanta or anywhere else in the world with a Slavic population – but I never did.
Domesticated animals roaming freely
Even though I made a mental note to keep track, I lost track of the number of apparently domesticated animals we encountered on our 13-mile hike, all of which roamed the countryside with no oversight whatsoever.
Here’s a pig with no pen on the side of the road, unleashed and ostensibly ownerless, sunning itself.
(This pig mini-story nor, perhaps, any pig story, could be as riveting as Guttermouth’s white-knuckle pig-on-a-highway epic, which you should read.)
In addition to the pigs, sheep and cows and a pair of horses wandered down the trail nonchalantly, apparently fully unafraid of getting caught or being punished for fleeing the plantation or wherever they came from.
It’s pretty clear that, coming from the concrete jungle, I’m no animal husbandrist. That caveat aside, before coming to Georgia, I had assumed most farmers preferred to quarantine their animals in designated spaces so as to keep tabs on their property.
Maybe there aren’t cattle-rustlers in Georgia. Maybe they find their way home at night. I don’t know.
I don’t know how many times my mother and teachers and other authority figures told me not to get into cars with strangers, but the figure is way more than I can count on all four hands and feet.
I’m pretty sure we had multiple monotone assemblies in elementary school solely dedicated to the topic of declining free rides with strangers. We probably had almost as many of those as DARE programs where some do-gooder doctor wheeled out a tarry black lung excavated from the corpse of a lifelong-smoker-turned-cancer-victim to encourage a tobacco-free lifestyle.
Georgian culture has no such prohibitions. Locals insist on giving foreigners rides. Say no and they’ll make a scene until you understand that it’s not an offer; it’s a command. They are aggressively accommodating.
And they don’t even want to rape you.
A carpenter named Sergei or something picked us up in his pickup truck on the way back down the mountain. He commanded us to get in without asking where we were going. We complied. He started driving. We eventually told him where we were headed (the market area in Borjomi) and he delivered us right to it after offering my wife a job in his café and talking a little politics about the current Russia/Ukraine thing.
Written by: Ben Bartee
Ben Bartee is a Bangkok-based American journalist with opposable thumbs.