No Place for a Honeymoon

Midsummer in the Georgian mountains

beshumi — We drank vodka in the back of a minibus with a broken clutch. That is how the day began. Our host was a red-faced man in a boss baseball cap who half-sat on my wife’s lap. He plucked a bottle of vodka and a small glass from his bag, poured himself a dram, gave a heroic toast in Georgian, and tossed back the firewater. boss passed the bottle around, inviting all the men to toast and drink. Though the road was rough and the marshrutka bouncing, nobody spilled a drop. When it came to me, I mumbled a few words in English about my love for Georgia, then drank. The bottle reached me three times before boss mercifully drained it. It was ten in the morning, and I was smashed.

I was also just married. Instead of a Caribbean cruise or a suite in Niagara Falls, my wife, Moonira, and I had opted for a sojourn in ex-Soviet Georgia. The destination appealed to my penchant for the relatively untrammelled, and Moonira was game for adventure. Still, after rattling for six hours into the Adjaran highlands, our enthusiasm for the place, just like my vodka buzz, had decayed into nausea. When I mentioned why we were there to Khatuna, a woman we met on the minibus, her smile disappeared; she scolded, “Georgia is no place for a honeymoon.”

There are two main summer pursuits in Adjara, an autonomous republic in southwestern Georgia. The more popular are the amusements along the Black Sea coast around Batumi. Summer-only clubs line the beach, and DJs from across Europe spin records for the sweaty crowds. Batumi is so popular in August that the bars in Tbilisi, Georgia’s capital, are abandoned on weekends, and tickets on the overnight train to the seacoast are nearly always sold out.

Adjara’s other summer celebration is Shuamtoba, a festival of traditional culture that marks the midpoint of the labour season. One of the largest events is in Beshumi, a mountain village nearly abandoned and unreachable in winter that caters to Georgians craving sanctuary from the summer heat. Still, the cool thin air is not enough of a draw for Georgia’s twentysomething post-Communist hipsters. Irakli Samnidze, Khatuna’s stylish brother whom we met at a Batumi beach bar, had only scorn for Beshumi. “I hate it,” he said, though he’d never been there. “It is like Kabul.”

Actually, it was more like the Wild West. When we arrived, men on horseback and free-roaming cows patrolled Beshumi’s dusty main square. A butcher sat in a shed behind a curtain of hanging flesh while a dog waited, slobbering, for him to drop something. A saloon jammed with afternoon drinkers was only a pair of swinging wooden doors shy of a spaghetti western cliché. Everything seemed to lean a little: the wooden shacks, the light poles, the old women with canes.

After making a few calls, Khatuna found us a free room in a shared cabin. She led us along a dirt track down the hill from the square. We passed a post office, a makeshift Orthodox church, and dozens of stilt houses in varying degrees of repair. Some were brand new; most, though, were rough structures of pale planks and pounded tin. Everything seemed beaten by the sun and dilapidated by time, but there were little girls in bright dresses in the playground and boys kicking soccer balls on a patchy field. Laundry lines, heavy with wet washing, linked the cabins together. Wild mushrooms dangled from the windowsills to dry. The village was welcoming and alive.

Our plywood cabin housed four families in four different rooms. There was a shared, squat toilet in a hallway stall and a communal sink. Our “honeymoon suite” boasted four single beds and a broken bare light bulb. We dropped our packs and followed Khatuna to the dining room, the former mess hall of a Soviet Scout camp that existed here before the collapse of the ussr. We were late for lunch, but a sweet waitress, Inga, offered to heat up something. She placed a bowl of dill and potato broth in front of us. “Soup,” she announced, happy for the chance to use the little English she knew.

We spent the rest of the evening wandering. First, we drank half-litre glasses of warm Natakhtari beer in an open-air bar near the main square. We swapped the dining hall for a wooden-shack café with a table-cloth hanging over the doorway. The kind ladies there twisted dough into khinkali (meat dumplings) while a group of friends at the next table welcomed us with homemade wine. Not to be outdone, another young man rushed to a nearby market and bought Moonira a tiny stuffed panda. Then he made an incoherent scrawl in my notebook — his email address.

Back at our cabin, the family in the adjoining room heard us return and invited us in. We shared tea and biscuits, and the father showed off his new digital camera and the photos he’d taken that afternoon. Then they brought us to a patch of grass behind the dining hall. “This is the best place to see the stars,” the teenaged son said. He told us about when he was eight years old and saw his first shooting star, and the wish he made. Then he gave Moonira and me a gift: an antique compass that once belonged to his grandmother, the four points written in Cyrillic.

When the festival finally began, Moonira and I joined the crowds on a hillside and found a place to sit between fresh pies of cattle dung. We watched the dancers and the singers and the presentation of poetry books to newlywed couples. We watched Adjaran “cowboys” race horses around a haphazard track and pushed our way to the edge of a sawdust ring where wrestlers sweated and bled.

But these were not the weekend’s greatest gifts. Perhaps, as outsiders, the significance of these traditions was lost on us. We would cherish, instead, the ladies who made us khinkali, Inga’s English, and stargazing with our teenaged dreamer. Beshumi might never rate as a honey-moon destination, but when we finally made it to those Black Sea bars we toasted the days we eavesdropped on an Adjaran summer vacation.

Marcello Di Cintio
Marcello Di Cintio is the author of five books, including Driven: The Secret Lives of Taxi Drivers (2021), which was a Globe and Mail Book of the Year.