The curtain raises. The transparent moon that impatiently plunges in the sky long before sunset grins in the background over saw-toothed mountains, while we energetically thumb up in the icebound outskirts of Erzurum. Walking down the road we meditate upon the reasons that prompted us to swap the cozy palace of Walker and Rikki for a – 16 Cº hitchhiking session in a semi-arctic tundra, but at that moment they seem well beyond understanding. Luckily, most of the times one hitchhikes in Turkey, she is not allowed more than 5 minutes for considering any type of existential questions, and we quickly find ourselves warming up in the back of random cars. The list of drivers and passengers that share with us minutes or hours behind the wheel grows larger as we cross a majestic and still ocean of white peaks totally indifferent to our admiration.
The whirl of pronounced abnormality that would strike our travelling routine in the next week settles imperceptibly as we hitch the first lift of the day. A pair of girls, following Erzurum’s unwritten fashion – one of them veiled, the other not- seat at the back of a car merrily giggling at the comments of their boss while we wind up and down the curvy roads. Afterwards, a taxi that apparently turns into a non-profit peoples’ car at the end of the working day offers us a ride another few kilometers north, followed by a group of four surprised emigrant girls, visiting their relatives, who wonder what spell of misfortune could bring tourists to the ragged city of Bayburt. Eventually, a bald calm man with an air of peacefulness promises to bring us to the Black sea shore. Under the mystic accompaniment of Sufi music we witness horrified the incomprehensible spectacle of death. A tiny dog flies up crashing into a car and stretches motionless next to his mother on the opposite side of the road. Life passes away as quick as the changing notes of a bağlama. We continue driving for miles in silence, mourning the life has just been lost.
We get to Trabzon after sunset. A long straight road lies all the way ahead to Batumi and we get short rides from town to town. Each minute the prospects of saving a day of Turkish visa diminish. We are not aware that we shouldn’t worry and that we are going to make it to the border just on time because Mohammed and Erkan are patrolling the highway in search for us. Finally, they spot two shadows walking on the pavement and brake instantly. “Batumi! Come in!” – we are prompted to get in by Mohamed who pours over us a joyful sequence of half-Turkish half-English sentences welcoming us on board, while dancing around the car as in a carnival. He explains with hands and songs that he was expecting us because he was expecting people. We look at each other slightly confused and realizing that this is going to be one of those memorable rides. The explanation that follows justifies his statement and leaves no room for further doubts: Mohamed touches his eyes and than points at ours, he pats his heart and shows into ours, he looks up the sky and solemnly concludes that we are all people, and a gift from god. An as a final sign of brotherhood he notes my dreadlocks as he lights up a spliff on the way to the Georgian border. A risky move in our opinion, but Mohamed once again reiterates that we are “all people and God is one” and gets one drag after the other in between eccentric stories and sightseeing detours in the dark. Under a veil of smoke Erkan, the silent driver, charmingly smiles at the border policemen and sprays the car with a citric scent. We are dropped off at the exit of Turkey and to our astonishment they turn back to the road we came from.
” But aren’t you going to Batumi, as well?” – we ask perplexed.
“Oh, no, we just came to bring you here” – they say.
“What? Where are you going then?”
“Just travelling” – they laugh as they close the door of the car and go away.
The curtain rises. Boris and the Captain (our host) cautiously examine the women coming in and out of the theater, while Marta concentrates on the soft touch of the red velvet seats. The hall is full for the premier, the play a Georgian-Italian musical melodrama, but we don’t usually look a gift horse in the mouth, so we sit straight, and enjoy and decipher foreign words with the aid of bizarre special effects. Earlier that morning we had sneaked into Batumi’s winter theatre, just to spy at the empty seats and the rehearsal of an unknown play. To reward our curiosity, we were gifted 3 seats on the balcony for the evening play, and left the place through the main gate smiling and ready for a tour around the city.
Batumi is a city that exists contrary to any logic. In the outskirts, beyond the port, crumbling down facades of old soviet mastodon blocks conceal spacious and neat apartments. A broken brigde, artistically ornamented with holes revealing the view below and covered with patches of worn out asphalt takes us to the main road to town. As we approach the centre, the city blosooms in full splendour, with derelict houses of Old Batumi coexisting with flashy casinos and a mix of styles we can hardly interpret. Amidst a tower from Prague, mini New York skyscrapers, a tiny London Eye and some Gaudi-like constructions, Medea stands proudly with her Golden Fleece. An English-style lake and dancing fountains, a bamboo forest that sprouts in between more common trees in the park, and mandarins growing on fields of snow add to the uncommon feel of the place. Batumi-land has everything a child can imagine. We walk on the beach enjoying the sub-tropical warmth of December and staring at the snowy mountains behind the blocks. Soviet bakeries, offices of women in white aprons, bring us the flavours of Georgia – khachapuri and pear lemonade served in beer bottles to customers of all ages and classes. We ride its cableway, just like children in a fun park, and fly over the city, from the misty port to the top of the hill, over the clouds of leaded petrol smell.
The curtain rises a third time, and a bunch of new characters appear on stage for some sort of celebration. A camel, six dogs, two goats and a few humans too. The lighting fireworks that surround the scene indicate that the new year has arrived, although everything is quiet and silent around us, and we sit on a fire listening to stories of ancient nomads and their wives. One would think we have suddenly jumped a few thousand miles and appeared back in Morocco, or at least advanced east to Central Asia, but in fact we are in the city of Tbilisi, where everything looks just as weird as its name with a missing vowel. And yes, the camel, the fire and the silent crew are all for real.
We had arrived some days before as roving post men, carrying a parcel all the way from Bodrum to Rustavi (the local sister of the Bulgarian city of Pernik). The postmen have themselves been delivered, in turn, by a car that also carries a bigger parcel – a dead pig in the trunk. As vegetarians, we are not all that happy with this ill-fated companion, but accept the ride and enjoy our first taste of Georgian drift race on the road, while our drivers tour dodgy petrol stations trying to sell off their stock. We got to Tbilisi and headed straight to the address in the letter we carry – Natalia Mamagulishvili – reads the envelope. The postcode or flat number do not really matter, since Georgian streets have no names and no numbers, at least none that we can read, and a guy from the neighbourhood has to go up an down the dark stairs of each block asking for a lady he does not know. Somehow we manage to reach Natalia who takes us through the city and the dark paths of a park to the abandoned hippodrome we start the new year at.
The curtain falls. The year is over and starts anew in Tbilisi.