Mother Georgia: A sign of Georgian Hospitality

A Little Hospitality… A Guest is a Gift from God

Kartlis Deda, the Mother of Georgia in Tbilisi A throaty tenor danced across the inky night, joined moments later by a chorus of lighter voices. The empty footpath widened as I approached the Kartlis Deda statue. The disembodied voices echoed across the cool night. Lit in soft green, Mother Georgia towered above me. The nearby voices lifted in perfect harmony, swelling as the ethereal melody penetrated the darkness. They were my invisible welcoming committee to this iconic symbol of Tbilisi, but also an unexpected welcome to the kindness and hospitality that I would find across the Republic of Georgia.

During my two weeks in Tbilisi, Georgia’s charming capital city, I had come to love the quick flash of a smile and the musical lilt of the Georgian tongue as locals welcomed me into the city’s shops and restaurants. The Georgian language is unrelated to any other on earth. Dating to the fourth century B.C.E., it’s also among the world’s oldest languages. Spoken Georgian pops and rolls from the mouth, with gritty consonants softened by a liquid cadence reminiscent of Italian. It’s the ending vowels on most words that affords the language a melodic quality, which carries into the nation’s long tradition of song.

Twenty minutes passed. I sat on the ledge and listened to them sing, their peaceful melodies flowing around me like a warm hug to insulate against the chilly hint of winter in the air. The city lights flickered in the distance. Landmarks glowed on the dark horizon—church steeples poked the heavy clouds, a glitzy bridge winked in technicolor. All the while, the group pitched their voices to carry far across the mountainside.

[audio mp3="https://alittleadrift.com/wp-content/uploads/2016/04/Georgian-Polyphonic-Singing.mp3"][/audio]

(Press play to hear their voices piercing the night with deep, heartfelt emotions.)

During my weeks wandering Georgia, I listened in awe as this style of singing filled the country’s many churchesOver hundreds of years, each region of Georgia developed a distinct singing style to record and express its ancient traditions. Throughout war and oppression, modern Georgians maintain strong links to their aural history. So beloved to the Georgians, and so unique to the world, the country’s polyphonic singing is now inscribed on UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage list.

In time, curiosity overcame my timidity. I wanted to venture closer, but was nervous that they would see it as an intrusion. I crept down the staircase, pausing when I was within their view. It took but a moment for one woman to motion me closer. I leaned against the wall, now given an open invitation to listen. As the song faded to a close, a woman in her 20s broke from the group to sit near me. Natia was the only one able to communicate in English. She opened the conversation by passing me a beer and snacks from their communal pile. Then she plied me with questions about my reasons for visiting Tbilisi.

Likewise, I fed my curiosity. She spoke of how her friend-group gathered in the cool evenings to share company and share songs. It wasn’t a special occasion, but rather a way to revel in their friendship. Inviting me to join them was in that same spirit—an open offer devoid of expectation. Her invitation was a quintessential gesture of Georgian hospitality. She wanted me to feel welcome as a guest in her country.

In the 12th century, Georgia’s most beloved poet wrote The Knight in the Panther’s Skin. Many believe that Shota Rustaveli’s poem encapsulates the true spirit of Georgia. Rustaveli espouses the idea of friendship as a powerful bond, a cult worthy of revere. A man is judged for his friendship over all other things. In Georgia, one single word, hospitality, epitomizes any visit.

Peter Nasmyth wrote of Rustaveli’s poem:

[quote]Certainly he espoused the doctrine of perfect love or the cult of friendship, still prominent in modern Georgian culture—and indisputably linked with the convention of hospitality.[/quote]

Georgian culture of hospitatlity

Sitting under the Mother Georgia statute seemed serendipitous for an evening of Georgian hospitality. She stands tall and proud over the city. The items in her hands represent the twin beliefs underpinning much of modern Georgia. One hand holds a sword; a reminder to enemies that Georgia stands proud, free, and independent. In her other hand she offers a bowl of wine—an entreaty for visitors to feel welcome. For all the city to see, this statue is a reminder of the Georgian axiom that “a guest is a gift from God.”

In the mid 2000s, Georgia pulled out of its tumultuous history, and opened to tourism. A new generation of travelers can experience the country’s renowned culture of hospitality. While far from a tourist hotspot, the country is growing in popularity. Its food, wine, and traditions draw interest to that corner of the world, smack between the Great and Lesser Caucasus Mountains. I had dreamed of visiting many places as a child. Georgia wasn’t on the list. It didn’t have the gloss and glamour of Paris, Rome, and Prague. It was several years into my travels that I first considered visiting Georgia. I had little exposure to the Georgian culture, which is why it bowled me over with surprise. It’s such a lovely place and people. Like all countries, Georgia has issues. But also like all countries, fascinating cultural nuances lie just under the surface.

The hours melted away. As a group, we sipped beers and chatted. As a group, they continued breaking into song when the urge bubbled to the surface. It was never out-of-place for someone to pause the conversation and join harmonies. Each time, they finished a song with voices in perfect unison. Several songs were toe-tapping and lively. More often, their voices evoked a deep and heartfelt feeling of loss and longing. They seemed to echo the pain of a thousand centuries.

The sounds of that evening provided a soundtrack for my memories of traveling Georgia. They offered me a simple gift free of expectations. Taken in as a friend, they made me feel welcome. As their friend, I experienced a part of Georgia I hadn’t known awaited me. They welcomed me into their lives, into their circle of friendship, for an evening of cheerful camaraderie and song. Perhaps they sang of politics. Perhaps they sang of love. There’s even a chance they sang of friendship—I like to imagine that tenuous thread connecting me to them in that moment.

Dessert-Castles-Jordan

A Little Art … A Gorgeous Pre-Islamic Mural in Jordan

The air around me was cool and damp, the kind of pervasive dampness only found in old spaces, spaces locked off from human habitation for decades, centuries even. On every wall, remnants of an ancient culture depicted animals, kings, triumphs, and women, lots of women. We had visited several desert castles in Jordan that day, and Quseir Amra was the last. We had, it would seem, saved the best for last.

[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="654"]Quseir Amra's gorgeous and detailed fresco. A full wall of the detailed frescoes at the Quseir Amra UNESCO World Heritage Site in Eastern Jordan.[/caption]

I’m time-jumping a bit here, away from my recent travels with my niece, and instead into my treasure chest full of stories that have not yet made it onto this site. A few times a month I’d like to share stories that bubble up to the surface, usually inspired from some recent encounter or conversation. In this case, during a discussion with my niece on how we understand and investigate ancient history. How murals left behind show insight into past cultures. I pulled Ana over the computer to show her some of the murals I found on my travels in Jordan last year. Murals abounded. Jerash had murals, Mount Nebo too, and sculptures came to life right out of the walls of Petra.

And, in this case, we looked through and discussed the beautiful frescos from the Quseir Amra desert castle in eastern Jordan, a UNESCO World Heritage site.

A wall fresco in suprisingly good condition at the Quseir Amra desert castle, a UNESCO World Heritage site.A wall fresco in suprisingly good condition at the Quseir Amra desert castle, a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Following the path of UNESCO World Heritage sites around the world wouldn’t be a bad way to travel, these sites are rich with history. Natural history in some cases–forest sanctuaries teeming with biodiversity and life. Or cultural history in other places–monuments, castles and man-made structures.

[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="654"]Quseir Amra UNESCO site UNESCO World Heritage site, Quseir Amra is filled with beautiful, well-preserved frescoes.[/caption]

Quseir Amra falls into the second category of UNESCO sites. The man-made fortress-cum-castle houses some of the most well-preserved frescoes from the 8th Century. One of the things Ana’s come to appreciate is living history — knowing she can now get on a plane and touch, taste, feel, and experience the places where history happened.

[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="654"]Qasr Kharana jordan The Qasr Kharana desert castle in Jordan, surrounded by blue skies.[/caption]

 

[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="654"]camels desert jordan Shifting sands, trotting camels and nomadic Bedouin fill the miles between the desert castles, perhaps tracing pieces of the old caravan trails that criss-crossed the Middle East for centuries.[/caption]

This is the short of it. I subjected Ana to a longer discourse on art, the tribal art I studied in college, the churches and art I will take her to see in Europe one day, and the pre-Islamic and Christian art I observed in Jordan.

So tell me, are you a history buff? Any artwork or murals that have fascinated you over the years? :)

The Jordan Tourism Board sponsored my trip; the experiences, photos and stories, though,  are my own :)

rice paddies and caves hpa-an burma

A Little Musing… On Small Towns and Small Adventures in Hpa-An, Burma

Ana and I planned out much of our travels in Burma around the ability to meet up with friends in the country and based on timing issues, we had four extra days and needed to stick  close to Yangon, Burma’s capital city. Based on the recommendation of fellow travelers, Ana and I pointed our noses toward Hpa-an, a small and sleepy town about seven hours southwest of Yangon (Rangoon for those who prefer the alternate spelling).

Hpa-An hit on each of my anticipations: small, rural, markets, people and countryside hikes. I wish I could write this post with a sentiment that shouts out “wow, look at this place, it’s amazing, it’s wonderful, awe-inspiring you’ll be jealous I’m here!” That would sell people on the town and probably convince a few people to steer their backpacks and wheelie suitcases in that direction.

monk alms hpa-an burma
A monk takes alms in the early morning sunshine at the market in Hpa-An, Burma.

And I do often visit places with the “wow-factor.” Saying adieu to the temples of Bagan at sunset, sitting on a soft green lawn as the Taj Mahal changed colors in the sunlight, breathing deeply the scent of dense forest around Tikal’s Mayan ruins…these are all such locations. My hike through the Annapurna range in Nepal was feat I had long dreamed about and if I had a bucket-list,that would have been high on it.

But the tiny town of Hpa-An, Burma?

Well, I can’t sell you on it as an adventure junkie location, and this petite town may never find its way into a travel brochure. Instead, the town is sweet and light; it’s a place with friendly faces and days spent chatting with Ana on long hikes through rice paddies and painted caves.

rural hpa-an burma
A beautiful bridge through the rice paddies and karst rocks links several rural villages outside of Hpa-An.

Small towns are windows into a country’s soul; this is the case in every country I’ve ever visited, my own included. People are more accessible in small towns, it’s easy to walk through the tiny neighborhoods, the cadence of life slows down and locals have the time and inclination for a friendly wave, even a spot of conversation if they speak English.

Mornings are my personal time when I travel with my niece Ana. I spend time reflecting, writing, and planning, usually over a quiet coffee. In Hpa-An, with no internet in the hotel (sometimes that is a real blessing), and a hankering for fresh coffee (as opposed to the instant variety offered freely in the hotel), I headed out at sunrise to visit the busy morning market visible out the window of my guesthouse.

morning market hpa-an
These men loaded their truck from an even more densely packed truck, they stuffed it to the gills with veggies and they will now likely be transported to more rural areas for re-sale.

A trishaw driver fills his bike with lettuce cargo for transport in Hpa-An, Burma.

Early morning market stalls in Hpa-An, Burma.

Morning air is fresher than any other time in the day. The nighttime breezes clear out the scents and sounds. Sunrise wipes the slate clean and shoppers and vendors at the dawn market in Hpa-An buzzed with delighted chatter. Locals truck, bicycle, and walk in fresh vegetables from the countryside and by dawn the veggies and fruits are stacked and ready for purchase. Women wield their cleavers and freshly dice up the day’s meat supply for the town.

And being the lone tourist around, a grin split my face while juicy fresh watermelon dripped from my hand as I watched the locals in Hpa-An greet the morning with smiles, enthusiasm, and the rhythms of long-established routine that plays out like an exquisitely timed ballet.

Flower vendors line the streets in Hpa-An, Burma.
Flower vendors chit-chat amiably on the streets of the early morning market in Hpa-An, Burma.

hpa-an town and market
The town of Hpa-An, Burma from the balcony at the Soe Brothers Guesthouse, looking out toward the market.

Hours later, one of the helpful owners of the Soe Brothers Guesthouse dropped Ana and me off at a wooden hut plopped near a field deep in the countryside with a grinning old woman selling bits and bots of soda and snacks to anyone making a pilgrimage to the cave shrines. He gave us clear instructions on getting back to town, a good call on his part because for the rest of the day, the only clear English we spoke was to each other! With a jaunty wave and a “see ya later,” Ana and I were left with a hand-drawn map in our hands showing a path through rice paddies to various caves and temples awash with paintings and Buddha statues, and a nearby swimming hole popular with the locals.

I handed the reins over to Ana; at 11 she’s quite old enough to lead us around our map to the various spots and it’s more fun for her if she has some control, particularly on a day of exploring paths, caves, temples, nooks, and crannies.

Kawkathaung Cave near Hpa-An, Burma
Buddha statues in the Kawkathaung Cave near Hpa-An, Burma on a daytrip from the Soe Brothers guesthouse.

Buddha wrapped in saffron cloth in the Kaw Ka Taung Cave near Hpa-An, Burma.

Buddha face, one of many lining the Kaw Ka Taung Cave in Hpa-An, Burma.

A reclining Buddha near in Hpa-An, Burma.

Dozens and dozens of monk statues line the rocks outside the Kaw Ka Taung Cave in Hpa-An, Burma.
Dozens and dozens of monk statues line the rocks outside the Kaw Ka Taung Cave in Hpa-An, Burma.

We found the Kawkathaung and Ruby caves filled to overflowing with Buddhas. Paintings and signs carved into the rock. Small statues filled naturally formed rock crevices.

We found a small artificial pool of clear water diverted from the surrounding rice paddies, and floating restaurants popular with local teens who arrived three to a motor-bike and they flowed into the inlet with the giggling enthusiasm, jostling and joking common to just about any gathering of 16 to 20 year-olds the world over. We opted to dip our feet instead of swimming because we would have had to swim fully clothed… and not because I forgot to pack swimsuits, but rather because jumping around in a western-style bathing suit would have prompted jaws dropping, uncomfortable stares and basically would have been a great big taboo in modest Myanmar. Local women swim in their longyi skirts and maintain a lot of skin coverage!

And by sitting on the edge with some of the teens, they were able to pepper us with questions spoken in an enthusiastic version of English, augmented with charades, and the ensuing antics as we attempted to communicate left us all in giggles.

Local teenagers wave goodbye to us after some cheerful conversation at the swimming hole near the caves.

swimming hole hpa-an
Ana tests out the cool waters at the swimming hole near Hpa-An, Burma.

Beautiful expanses of bridges panned the flooded rice paddies, and huge grins split the faces of locals when as we got ourselves lost in the small dirt streets weaving through villages.

workers, myanmar
Hearty greetings as we wandered the very rural countryside in Hpa-An, Burma.

in Hpa-An, Burma.
These children made my day! They were so sweet and enthusiastic in pointing us onward through the path, while posing and hamming it up at the same time!

As the day ended, Ana spied a staircase near the wooden hut that began our adventures. Like modern-day explorers, she set off with enthusiasm and a breakneck pace up the winding stone staircase.

At the top, we looked out from a crumbling temple.

We sat and chatted about our day, our plans, and life as we watched late afternoon sunlight spill over the hills and valleys around Hpa-An. For Ana, I thought maybe she would be disappointed by the slow pace and small adventures. She surprised me though, because she felt the day was a win all around because she was able to 1) sleep in, 2) help plan/navigate throughout the day, 3) see some things without time pressures and rushing, and 4) she was back to the hotel early enough to read her book (she was reading the first Hunger Games book and, understandably, addicted). Some days, we’d wake up early, have a full day of sightseeing, other days of marathon 12 hour bus rides. So, I get it. She wanted a casual day, with some sightseeing but framed by downtime and sleep, and Hpa-An was the perfect spot for all of these things.

It looks like a camel in the rock near Hpa-An, Burma.
What animal do you see in the rock shape? Ana spotted this on our hike up the side of the rock and exclaimed that it is a camel! She has good eyes, because once she said it, it’s all I can see now. :)

Mount Zwegabin Hpa-An, Burma.
Looking toward Mount Zwegabin and the countryside around Hpa-An.

in Hpa-An, Burma.
Ana looks out over the rice paddies and villages we spent the day wandering.

So, without a lot of fanfare we walked back down those well-worn stone steps, followed the dirt path back to the main road, and hailed a passing truck willing to drop us in town.

It’s not the most remarkable of days. But it stands out in my memory for its simplicity. The company couldn’t have been better, and it’s one of those days I really only discovered once I slowed down and savored cadence of life in each new town.


Quick Travel Tips for Hpa-An

Where to stay: Hpa-An is about five hours south of Yangon, and budget travelers can’t go wrong with the Soe Brothers Guesthouse (it’s one of the few guesthouses in town, so it was easy to get dropped directly here!). If you’re looking for something budget but a bit nicer, opt for Thanlwin Pyar Guest House.

How to get to Hpa-An: Buses run to Hpa-An from Yangon (perhaps seven hours on a good day), to get to Kyaiktiyo, the Golden Rock, you ride in the back of a truck for a very optimistic five to seven hours. I’ve heard lovely things about the boat to and from Mawlamyine.

What to do: Book your tours through the Soe Brothers Guesthouse. They speak great English and can organize tours to Mount Zwegabin, any of the surrounding caves, and everything there is to do in town. Even if you stay at the mid-range hotel 10k outside of town, book your activities through Soe Brothers. The morning market is great and a great place to grab a street-food breakfast if you eat meat (vegetarians are better off at the restaurant/shop just near the Soe Brothers).

What to read: I used the Lonely Planet Myanmar throughout our month in the country and it was, at times, the only way I could figure out English language information on logistics. If you plan to explore off-the-path, having a guidebook is invaluable when figuring out whether a train, bus, or pickup truck is your best transport option. You should also bring one of the fascinating books about Myanmar to read as you travel there—it will lend you insight into the culture and people. I recommend The River of Lost Footsteps: Histories of Burma and Finding George Orwell in Burma—each on offers a different but needed perspective on such a contradictory country.

Edinburgh Fringe Festival in Scotland

A Little Memory … I Planned Travels to Attend the Fringe Festival

On my bucket list when I planned my route for my round the world trip in position numero uno was the annual Edinburgh Fringe Festival in Scotland, the largest arts festival in the world. The Fringe was one of the few non-negotiables because if I was going to traverse the planet, by god I was going to see some good theatre in the process!

And so that’s how I set my route around the world; it’s that simple really. Pick something you’re most passionate about and just do it!

Hercules' Hand at the Citadel in Amman, Jordan

A Little Perspective… How Big is the Hand of Hercules?

The hilltop holding Amman’s temple is unremarkable as far as hills are concerned; the things, Amman, Jordan is a city comprised of seven hills, and the one holding the Temple of Hercules isn’t taller than the others, it’s not greener, or more “hilly,” but yet this hill was the one chosen by the ancient Romans to hold the Temple of Hercules. And in hearing the name Hercules, in an instant my mind takes a fanciful wander through Greek history and mythology.

As the illegitimate son of Zeus and Alcmene, Hercules has long held a fascination for me…and likely not just me. Greek mythology paints Hercules as a human as much as he was a demigod, as strong as the Gods but riddled by earthly disputes and relationship problems.

An old and restored car in Havana, Cuba

A Little Consideration… Echos of Cuba’s History

The thunderclouds hung low for hours over Havana, Cuba before my friend Louise and I decided enough was enough–if the rain was going to play a game of chicken with us then we were going to spend the afternoon exploring the city instead of hiding indoors in anticipation of the thick sheets of rain that had, for six long and cold days, followed us around the island like a lost puppy.

We bundled ourselves tight into our rain jackets, twisted our cameras safely into zip-lock baggies, and set out on foot to walk Old-Town Havana (la Habana Vieja) and Cuba’s famous Malecón. The Malecón being a place that has always elicited evocative images seared into my memory from Hollywood films…

Tips for visiting the Forbidden City in Beijing

A Little Fascination… A Day Wandering Beijing’s Forbidden City

I find myself frequently fighting a nonchalance that creeps into my travels – like a spider building a web, the thoughts spiral: “Is this worth my time? Could I be eating food right now? I mean really, how is this different than the 25 other palaces I’ve seen in the past two and a half years?”

Then I feel the guilt. I’m in CHINA. Of course I need to see the Forbidden City. The thing is, I have to cop to knowing very little about it prior to my visit. And this lack of information only contributed to these wayward musings.

A Little Festival…Thailand’s Northern Rose

If you’ve ever wondered what Chiang Mai, Thailand will feel like during the zombie apocalypse then hit the streets of the old city, inside the moat, around 9:00am on the Saturday of the city’s Flower Festival Parade. The parade starts at 8:00am just outside of the moat, near Warorot Market, and the rapid exodus of city inhabitants leaves the streets inside the moat uncommonly quiet.

[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="654" caption="Food vendors set up for crowds in the early morning hours of the Flower Festival"]Early morning food prep at the Chiang Mai Flower Festival, Thailand[/caption]

As the Rose of the North, Chiang Mai’s sweet nickname is never more applicable than the first week of February, when the city is flooded with colors and sweet scents for the Chiang Mai Flower Festival. The Flower Festival is an annual event – which is really no surprise because Chiang Mai likes festivals (cue the montage music for the Bo Sang Umbrella Festival last month).

Women in traditional Thai dress at the Chiang Mai Flower Festival, ThailandPretty women parade at the Chiang Mai Flower Festival, Thailand

I can’t help but love these local Chiang Mai festivals; it’s as though the locals are vying for the title of  “most enthusiastic city in the world.” Each fesitval is celebrated with varying amounts of gusto and the Flower Festival tips the scales on the high end of gusto-y-ness.

Flower floats at the Chiang Mai Flower Festival, ThailandFlower dragon at the Chiang Mai Flower Festival, Thailand

The three day festival permeates every aspect of the city for the weekend—even the Chinese New Year was rolled right into flower festivities and the joint celebration double the city’s number even . Plant vendors plant their stands on the roadsides around the moat for three days and city’s large east entrance, Tha Pae Gate, is overrun with a stage, food stalls, flower showcases, beauty pageants and people.

Oh, lordy, the people.

Both breeds of tourists descend on Chiang Mai for the three day festival, foreigners and Thais, and the clogged streets are a stark contrast to that zombie-apocolypse I mentioned earlier.  Locals on motorbikes mazing through the city, going about their business and artfully weaving through instant road blocks and darting around slow-moving tourists.

[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="654" caption="Prettily dressed woman carry signs and flowers in the parade"]At the Chiang Mai Flower Festival, Thailand[/caption]

The morning of day two though starts with an early morning mad dash (and that’s a dawn dash to anyone hoping for a seat in the risers) to the stage outside Wororat Market for an hour and a half of enormous flower floats and pretty performers.

[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="654" caption="Famous Chiang Mai orchids"]Orchids at the Chiang Mai Flower Festival, Thailand[/caption]

The shining glory of the weekend are the orchids, healthy, beautiful, and deeply hued Chaing Mai orchids; the city is world renowned for their breeds of orchids the climate .

Beauty pageant contestants at the Chiang Mai Flower Festival, ThailandThai man in the festival parade at the Chiang Mai Flower Festival, Thailand

My friend Claire was visiting for the weekend and we were both surprised by the school bands parading through the streets – they added a nice element of pep and enthusiasm to the festivities but I had no idea Thai schools had traditional high school style bands as well!

Thai Ladyboy at the Chiang Mai Flower Festival, ThailandSchool band at the Chiang Mai Flower Festival, Thailand

What parade is complete without some lady boy action and dancers?

Dancer smiling at the Chiang Mai Flower Festival, ThailandUmbrellas and sunlight at the Chiang Mai Flower Festival, Thailand

The city swells in size like a puffer fish for the annual Flower Festival and the freshly planted flowers and artful arrangements are a testament to how a city can transform itself in just a matter of days with the right impetus. Chiang Mai is a decent sized city (and that means a fair bit of smog, traffic and garbage to accompany it) so I fell in love a bit more when I saw her gussied up and outfitted to the nines with fresh flowers in the city’s gardens,  streets cleaned of garbage, and dressed up in first-date attire.

More photos and a thanks to Claire for allowing me to use some of her shots!