Excerpts taken from C. Bruce Williams’ personal diary:
Tskaltubo City, Republic of Georgia
Herbia produces vegetables, basil, parsley, dill and other greens on land previously occupied by Soviet-built greenhouses. At present, income is derived from buying dill, parsley and coriander from local farmers, then cooling, packing and shipping these products to the Ukraine and eastern European countries. No trade is going to Russia since the war in 2008. The old Soviet-style glass glazed greenhouses were razed after the collapse of the Soviet Union, leaving a debris field of glass and plastic pipe in the soil. Herbia has erected new modern plastic covered Quonset-type houses with government aid as well as UN and USAID grant money.
The spa is the main attraction of Tskaltubo. Stalin visited in 1933 and enjoyed the warm natural waters. The natural ground water temperature is the same as the human body, around 95 degrees Fahrenheit. Stalin wanted a beautiful spa for the people, so in less than nine months, a one-acre marble and concrete building was built. We toured the facilities and saw the therapy baths. Lung diseases, muscle problems, skin ailments and many other diseases were treated here. Between the 1950s and the 1980s, Soviet citizens were allowed to visit the spa for 20 days a year free of charge, courtesy of the government. During the season, more than 100,000 people would frequent the baths. No one comes here these days, and the spa was nearly deserted. Now it is a marble wonder that is quickly falling apart. A bath costs two Lara ($1.20) and a full body massage is 10 Lara ($6.60). At those prices, I signed up for a back massage and a hydromassage bath immediately.
Evenings were spent at a local restaurant. Food was superb and plentiful. Local wines were good. Three types of bread were served: wheat, corn and cheese. Chicken and beef dishes cooked in clay pots with olive oil and garlic were tasty and filling. Mixed salads including eggplant slices filled with a walnut relish and served cold were elegant and unique.
Wine in Georgia is the social lubricant. Georgians boast that their nation is where grapes originated and is home to more than 138 different cultivated varieties. Everywhere I go, people want to drink wine. Wine is toasted, like the Russians use vodka, and drank all in one gulp. People are very proud of their own wine and most carry around and drink their families’ homemade wine. The locally produced wines are not very high in alcohol and taste like homemade wine at best, which makes the mode of ingestion—gulping—seem appropriate at times.
We began planting arugula on the third afternoon of my visit. It turned out to be more difficult than we expected. In the U.S., seeds are pelletized and planted by special equipment. In Georgia, all seeding was manual. Seeds were small, spacing is essential and it was very hot in the greenhouses in late afternoon. I told Berdia that he could find many other ways to plant these plots, but I wanted to show him how it is done correctly in the U.S. the first time. Later, he can experiment on his own and find the best way to do it in Georgia. I kept records of what was planted, where, etc.
During one evening of my visit, Zurab drove me 20 miles to central Tskhaltubo to show me the sights. It is an old Georgian city of about 200,000 that is being renovated in a big way. Beautiful old parks are being preserved and restored. Most stores and buildings are faced in stone—limestone or similar—and marble. We took a cable car to a hilltop amusement park perched over the lighted city. A storm was brewing; lightning created a surreal profile of the distant northern Caucasus Mountains. We rode the Ferris wheel to get the best view of the city and took a long walk. Tskhaltubo has been settled for 2,400 years, and I saw evidence of old Greek columns and Roman influence. Statues filled the parks, and it was explained to me that most of the statues were of local people and had no identification on them. Everyone locally knew who the statue represented. A toastmaster, an early Jewish photographer, warriors and former kings were all represented by statues.
As the thunder and lightning moved toward the city, I commented that I did not know if the thunder was the brewing storm or the Russians coming back. My translator shared what I had said with my hosts, and they thought it was very funny. From Tskhaltubo, one can see the snow-capped mountains that form the border between Georgia and Russia and imagine the threat that lies just beyond them. It is a reminder that life can change quickly in Georgia.