This summer, the best-selling adventure travel author is heading deep into the Georgia Caucasus, with family in tow. This is part of a series.
A dim yellow moon hung above the southern Caucasus as our taxi raced toward Tbilisi. Forty hours of flights and airport lounges with two young boys had passed without incident, almost too easily; a hazy dream of meals and naps.
At 3 a.m., the thoroughfare leading into Georgia's capital city was deserted. An overhead sign announced an unexpected name: President George W Bush Street. George W visited in 2005 and was rewarded with gut-busting feasts, crowds chanting “Bushi, Bushi,” and a road named in his honour. But the adoration did not last.
“Many local people protest this name now,” our driver announced, clearly not impressed himself. The enormous billboard of Bush is routinely vandalized, he told us. Worst of all: “Every single American tourist laughs when they read the street sign.”
We passed two great pools of light: the Presidential Palace, perched on a cliff high above the Mtkvari River, and a new police station, a grand stone structure buried inside what could only be described as a writhing chrysalis of glass.
The city itself was dark, its streets so utterly bereft of light as to feel threatening. Abandoned apartment blocks and deteriorating factories flashed by. A few motionless figures loitered in the shadows. A thin cat raced from an alleyway and turned to scream. The first hours in a new country are often disconcerting, but I felt unusually uneasy. Perhaps it was the added responsibility of four-year-old and 10-month-old boys, or simple exhaustion, but everything felt a bit more rugged than I'd anticipated.
Morning allayed the unease. We awoke to a noisy, somewhat cheery city. Sun and heat streamed in the open balcony doors. Donning backpack child carriers, we left to explore the winding lanes of old town. Everywhere were whispers of a rich past and a hopeful future, separated by periods of terrible deprivation. Street after street of once-majestic now-crumbling buildings, with cracking plaster and rusting iron balconies, aroused a vision of Miss Havisham's Satis House in Great Expectations. Thick green vines obscured some walls, while others had completely fallen away, leaving the abandoned interior exposed. In places, bullets had shattered plaster, and between crumbling red bricks nested noisy colonies of swallows and swifts. Yet parked before such houses were Audis and Mercedes, and from their roofs satellite dishes sprouted like grey mushrooms.
Street fashion is an odd mix. Some women wear formal gowns, while others stagger about in thigh-high boots and tank tops. Saucer-size sunglasses are everywhere. English is common on T-shirts, and often vulgar. My favourite was sported by a young, bookish woman who rushed by, her shirt announcing: F@#$ Google, Ask Me.
Despite international accolades for its business-friendly policies and surging economy, Georgia has yet to develop any of the support infrastructure commonly associated with democracy.
When two demonstrators were killed a few weeks ago, the result of heavy-handed suppression, some foreign media suggested Arab Spring had spread to the Caucasus. (In fairness, the rumour was started by the Georgian opposition, which strategically used the term during interviews.) But when I ask, artists, intellectuals and shopkeepers unanimously insist this is not the case. Stability, locals say, is far more important at this juncture than accusations of governmental corruption or ineptitude.
The country may be fairly stable, but our visit began unravelling around noon that first day. Taj, our 10-month-old, became feverish. For the next three nights, he barely slept a wink, nor did any of us, packed into a single sweltering bedroom of a Georgian family homestay. Of course, guilt swept over me, watching our tiny boy grow lethargic and unresponsive. Christine and I have had a long-standing agreement that if either of our boys has a fever for three days while in a foreign country, we'll seek medical attention, no matter where we are. (Once, in Patagonia, this meant retreating from a remote valley beneath Cerro Norte. Of course, the fever abated before we reached El Calafate.)
Taj's fever was gone by the end of the third day, but he still didn't seem right. So while Christine doted over the baby, Bodi and I traipsed around the city from dawn to dusk, preparing for our horse journey. Out the door by 5 a.m., I drank coffee and Bodi had warm milk at riverside cafés, alongside late-night revellers struggling to sober up.
There were all the usual hiccups that come with planning an expedition in unknown lands. After seven visits to the ticket office, we finally secured a flight into the mountains. Horses were not available at this time of year – certainly not for purchase. Nor were there saddles to be had. The high mountain passes remain closed because of unusually
deep snow. Maps, of any quality, were not available. None of these challenges were unusual, but with Taj sick, and Bodi demanding constant attention, it all seemed harder than anticipated. Served us right for spouting off about how easy travel is with kids.
Then came judgment day. Needing a break from the heat of the city, we hired a driver and headed south, toward the Azerbaijan border and the caves of the Davit Garaju hermitage. Bodi, not one to be car sick, vomited as we pulled into the parking lot, covering himself and the entire rear seat. (He had spent the entire drive reading his new book on trucks.) After cleaning up the best we could using water from our drinking bottles, we set off. Minutes into our hike, Taj blew out a diaper, filling his entire carrier with diarrhea, green liquid dripping down his cherubic leg and across Christine's dress. Bless my wife, for from the well of her backpack appeared wipes, plastic bags and even a set of spare pants. Soon, we were hiking again, but Taj looked worse, his face growing blotchy. Later, in a small store, Bodi quietly announced, “Dada, I pooped.” Looking down, I saw a puddle of diarrhea.
That evening, as we packed our duffles for a morning flight into the mountains, parental instincts kept nagging us, suggesting something bigger was at play. Eventually we were able to rouse an expatriate Irish doctor, and after a quick glance at Taj came the prognosis: chicken pox. Ironically, he had brought the illness with him from home.
So we cancelled our flight into the mountains, and rented an immense old Soviet-style apartment. (The fact that families will gladly move in with parents or relatives to rent out their own apartments speaks of the challenges facing modern Georgians.)
We'll take time to recuperate, ensure Bodi is over his bug, and that Taj has the rest and fluids he needs before committing ourselves to the journey ahead.
Globe Travel columnist Bruce Kirkby is a contributing editor to Explore magazine.
Special to The Globe and Mail