© Emily Lush 2017

How Travelling in The Caucasus Restored My Faith in Humanity

We were woken by a strange clinking noise. ‘Clink, clink’. I went to the door of the Airbnb apartment we had rented in Tbilisi for the month—a nine-storey Soviet affair with no working elevator.

I stepped out into the stairwell to try and see where the noise was coming from. It was late on a Sunday afternoon and no one was around. I noticed something strange: a cable was running from above my head all the way down the stairwell to the mezzanine below. Just then, someone must have hit the switch. Tentatively, the cable started crawling. As it drew closer and closer to the top, I finally saw what was being hoisted up: a huge bag full of clinking bottles.

‘Wodka!’ exclaimed the upstairs neighbour—a Georgian man, probably in his late 70s—as he grabbed hold of the bag, unhooked it from the makeshift pulley and heaved it onto his eighth-storey landing. Another bag packed full of clinking bottles followed. Then another. With each delivery, the man’s chorus grew more and more energetic: ‘Come, drink wodka with me!’.

 

© Emily Lush 2017
A friendly stranger at the market in Kutaisi, Georgia.

 

Unsolicited dinner (and drinking) invitations are not uncommon in the Caucasus. In Georgia, guests are said to be a gift from God and custom dictates they be treated with utmost respect and relentless hospitality. It’s something we would encounter again and again during our three-month journey through the Caucasus—sometimes in grand gestures, but most often in small acts of kindness.

There are so many anecdotes I could tell you that reflect how welcoming people of the Caucasus can be towards outsiders. Here are just a few…

By far the kindest people we met in the Caucasus were the men and women who hosted us at their guesthouses, homestays and Airbnbs (some 15 in total). They were the people we got to know best—invariably sweet and eager to make our stay in their city or town enjoyable. An invitation to join the family for a khinkali making (and feasting) session on a Sunday afternoon. Multiple offers to spend the weekend driving around sightseeing—or to pick us up from the train or bus station, even if it was late and the kids were already in bed. Almost every family we stayed with wowed us with some unexpected act of hospitality.

Strangers were often just as kind. After dinner one night at a restaurant in Tbilisi, we were invited to stay and throw back six shots of the house-made cha cha—all for free. In Yerevan, we bought tickets to see a ballet performance at the Opera House. We showed up early, dressed up in our finest, only to realise we had tickets for the wrong night. At first, the woman on the door turned us away. But after seeing the look of disappointment on our faces, she quickly called us back—it didn’t matter, she still wanted us to enjoy our evening. So she let us sneak past. She spread the word among the other ushers and we eventually ended up with seats in the back of the theatre.

 

© Emily Lush 2017
A group of friends play checkers in the backseat of a jeep in Chiatura, Georgia.

 

In Georgia, we decided to take a shared taxi from Tbilisi to Sighnaghi. Not long into the journey, we stopped unexpectedly and one of our fellow passengers jumped out to buy us both a churchkhela, just because he wanted us to try his national snack. On another taxi ride from Tbilisi to Kazbegi, our driver insisted on stopping at all the tourist sights along the way. He didn’t care about the extra time or extra fuel it took—he just wanted us to see the sights.

Taxi drivers in the Caucasus were particularly kind. Every time we asked to be taken to a bus or taxi station, the driver would never just drop us off—they would insist on getting out of the car with us and asking around until they found the right place and the right person to take us further on our journey. Bear in mind that we could never say more than a few words to these people—they just instinctively knew that we needed a hand, and saw it as their obligation, part of our driver-passenger agreement, that they would steward us on.

The best examples of trust I saw in the Caucasus came while riding the bus and metro in Tbilisi. There are a few subtle customs that totally blew me away.

First of all, if there’s no seat and you’re forced to stand on the bus or train, someone who is seated might take your bag and hold it on their lap. The first time someone motioned for me to plonk my heavy backpack on her lap, adding to the collection of string bags she was already carrying, I was so confused. It later became apparent that this is just a nice thing people do: It’s easier to hang on during bumpy bus rides if you don’t have your bags to worry about. A few weeks later, it happened to me again on the metro.

 

© Emily Lush 2017
A woman knits on the street in Sighnaghi, Georgia.

 

On Tbilisi buses, paper tickets are purchased on board from machines located at the front and/or rear of the bus. Buses are often crammed full, so you can’t always access the machine or get close enough to the conductor. When this happens, it’s totally acceptable to pass your money (or even your whole wallet) down a column of fellow passengers until finally the person nearest the ticket machine purchases you a ticket. Then the wallet and ticket gets passed all the way back up, changing hands half a dozen times. Where else in the world do people gladly hand their valuables over to strangers? (If you know a place, tell me, I’d like to go there.)

On one of our final days in Tbilisi, we had the incorrect change for the bus. The conductor refused our big coins and after inputting a code into the ticket machine, issued us with free tickets instead. We tried to give him the larger coins and explain we didn’t need change, but he refused to accept. When we got off the bus, an inspector immediately approached us asking to see our tickets. Turns out it was a national holiday in Georgia, and for the first time we’d seen in weeks, inspectors were out and about. The conductor must have known this. The free tickets he gave us saved us getting fined. After our interaction with the inspector, I instinctively turned back to the bus to try and thank the conductor again—and sure enough, there he was, watching us from the window. As the bus pulled out, he gave us a knowing wave.

 

© Emily Lush 2017
A churchkhela maker who kindly showed us around his factory outside of Kutaisi, Georgia.

 

Are people in the Caucasus instinctively goodhearted? I’m not sure. All I know is that from the overwhelming number of positive interactions we had with locals, I think people in this part of the world are some of the kindest we’ve ever encountered.

This kindness is not always obvious. Georgians particularly are known for their stony exterior. When you walk into a shop or restaurant, for example, it’s not common to say hello (apparently this is a leftover of Communism). But from a tourist’s perspective at least, there is a feeling that everyone is looking out for each other in the Caucasus. Capital cities in this region are some of the safest in the world (one report says Georgia is the third-safest country on earth)—so I guess it’s more than just a feeling. I also think that Georgians especially are eager to shake off Soviet stereotypes; to show the world that Georgia is a different place now, and that outsiders are welcome.

 

© Emily Lush 2017
Four friends on the street in Sheki, Azerbaijan.

 

A couple of weeks ago I met up with two friends who had just wrapped up a year of travel in Southeast Asia. One of them told me the kindness and hospitality they had encountered on their journey had restored her faith in humanity. I think our experience in the Caucasus had a similar effect. Even though I’ve spent the last two years in countries renowned for their warmth and friendliness (Cambodia, Thailand, Myanmar), the Caucasus was different—maybe because my experience dispelled a lot of myths.

I’m not saying the Caucasus is the only friendly place on Earth, or even the friendliest. I’m not saying that everyone is nice (most people don’t have time to be nice, and I don’t expect kindness just because I’m a foreigner), or that bad people don’t exist. This is only my experience—but if you travel in the Caucasus, I’m 99 percent sure that you will agree with me. I’m pretty optimistic, so I’m not sure my faith in humanity really needed to be restored. But sometimes you just need a reminder that most people in the world are good neighbours who will happily invite you into their home and share with you whatever they have.

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