I cringed when a young, skinny Georgian guy popped into my four-person compartment and set down a plastic bag with a bottle of liquor peeking out the top. I was still mentally exhausted from my Black Sea ferry ordeal and, as a solo female, the thought of sharing this cramped space with three drunk Georgian guys on an overnight train from Batumi to Tbilisi was not overly appealing.
But as the guy disappeared back into the hallway, the older Georgian man sitting across from me suddenly asked me in English if I understood Georgian. As it turned out, Merabe (his name) was Georgian but makes his home in Mallorca, Spain. He spoke Georgian, Russian, English and Spanish. He started peppering me with questions and I immediately felt more at ease.
When the young guy returned, this time with a friend by his side, Merabe explained to them in Georgian who I was and where I was from. Neither spoke much Russian, but neither spoke any English either, so Merabe became an interpreter between us. As soon as the train left the station, the skinny guy (whose name was something like Mshika) pulled out the bottle and several small plastic cups, handing one to each of us. His friend David followed with pineapple juice, paprika flavored Lays’ potato chips and a chocolate bar – our chasers for the bottle of Georgian cognac.
I was finally going to experience the craziness of an overnight train that I expected on the Trans-Siberian but never found.
Merabe explained that the day was March 8 – International Women’s Day. While it is called “International” Women’s Day, it seems to only be a big deal in the former Soviet Union – I had never heard of it back home in the United States. While the concept is a great one – recognizing and appreciating women – I soon got the impression that the men also saw it as a great excuse to drink. Indeed, at the first station stop, Merabe disappeared and returned with a second bottle of cognac, signalling it would surely be a long night!
As soon as Mshika opened the first bottle of cognac and poured the first shots, the guys started a series of toasts in Georgian and Merabe translated for me in a mix of Russian, English and Spanish. They toasted to me, to their mothers and sisters, and to all the women in the world – multiple times. Every toast tended to be incredibly long and by the fourth shot, it was my turn to toast. I did my best in Russian, saying it was wonderful meeting them and toasting to Georgia.
After more toasts and more shots, David pulled out his cell phone and started playing what he explained was a traditional song from the region of Adjara (where Batumi is located and where David and Mshika live). Suddenly, Mshika jumped up and started dancing in the middle of the small compartment! As soon as he sat down, David took his turn and, of course, eventually I got pulled into the fray as well, doing my best attempt at Georgian dancing (but no, I will not be posting pictures of that!).
What I was initially dreading turned into one of the most fun evenings of my trip.
After a few shots, I knew I was reaching my limit and started declining when Mshika went to pour me more. Instead, he just poured slightly less, saying “choot-choot.” So I just drank less instead and they didn’t seem to care. The toasts continued (they seemed to repeat themselves), including several more to me and to all the women in the world.
Eventually, we ran out of cognac and things started to quiet down. As we talked more, Merabe suggested I stay with his mother-in-law’s family in Telavi and his wife in Batumi when I return to Georgia – and even called both of them to give them a heads-up. Then he offered his brother to drive me to Armenia on Sunday and insisted he introduce us the next day. Talk about Georgian hospitality!
By 2 a.m. , Mshika climbed up into his top bunk without saying a word, signaling it was time to call it a night.
Our train pulled into Tbilisi at 7:30 a.m. the next day. As we exited the train, Mshika grabbed my large backpack, struggling to hoist it onto his skinny back (he was shorter than I am!). I joined him and David for much-needed tea at the station before they insisted on accompanying me to the subway. I had just one stop to go before I grabbed my backpack from Mshika and hopped off the train, waving them a fond farewell.
It was the perfect, unexpected welcome to Georgia and the Caucasus.