Ballbags On The Road (Edition I) – Self-Titled Part I

Ballbag is a term that was coined back in 2003, primarily referring to a gentleman’s dignity. However, the word had accumulated another meaning (by a small portion of people) where I live, which was commonly referring to “lad”. That was back in 2015. Afterwards, that word took an interesting direction and found itself in a sweet spot between a “what-on-earth-is-this-guy-doing”, “this-lad-does-not-think-straight” and “this-lad-is-a-really-kind-lad”. Throughout the course of this adventure, the “ballbag” term has been altered slightly again. No, actually, it has been perfected. So much, in fact, that it was crystal clear to us. We were true ballbags – very kind and polite chaps, who were looking for an adventure in any place (whether it is for fun or glory), [intentionally] get into trouble and make stupid mistakes (to the point that we collectively feel sorry for ourselves and everyone around us).
Originally, the trip was supposed to include a visit to South Ossetia and Karabakh but I discovered the will to live and postponed visiting those places until some other time (furthermore, we had very little time to spare and visiting those two places in addition to the ones we’d been to, would have proven to be challenging). And so, Georgia, Azerbaijan and Armenia were on the table. Luckily, we had a local guide in Georgia, who volunteered to travel with us. Let’s call my friend, Manuel (I have known him back from the university times). He was not really keen on visiting other two countries with us, so he politely declined the offer. However, my Turkish friend (let’s call him Ben) was with me all the way until Armenia, our last destination. We started putting the places down on paper that we wanted to visit in each country and discussing our route – what places we visit first, how long we would stay in every place, how much it would cost us, etc. My heart desired to visit mountains, Ben wanted to see more forests in addition, and Manuel was cool with whatever we decided to do.
I decided to give Manuel one last call before our trip to confirm the route towards mountains from Kutaisi and back. Manuel confessed to us that our route would be long because there was no asphalt road from mountains and back. What that meant was that we had to travel all the way from the mountains back to Kutaisi – that was bad news as that shrinked our possibilities of visiting other places that we originally planned to see. Ah balls. Months upon months worth of planning went all the way from the production cycle into “what on earth do we do with this now and how?” We had to improvise quickly and re-map our small adventure. Ballbagging phase number one officially kicked off.

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We had great suggestions for places to see in Azerbaijan too – my other friend suggested us a couple of places to see there and helped us find a car to rent. Armenia was last on our list, so we decided to leave it be there like milk in the fridge – you know that it is there but you’re afraid of drinking it now because you’re not entirely sure if it went sour. Also, my ex-colleague lived in Yerevan and gave a few tips for places to visit. I jotted her ideas down and let them be there. Clearly, both Ben’s and my highlight was Georgia – plus, we had so much more time ahead of us to plan our other two trips anyway, so we were not too worried.
Manuel met Ben and me in Kutaisi airport on 26 September 2018. Manuel came there with our car that Ben had the fortune of driving (since he was the only one with the driver license). It was Mistubishi Pajero IO from 2014. Unfortunately, we forgot to ask our car renter what kind of gearbox the car had and to Ben’s surprise it was automatic, which he did not have any experience of using. While Manuel and I were exchanging our life stories (we had not met each other for a couple of years), Ben was checking out youtube to see how to use automatic gearbox. That clearly made Manuel raise his eyebrow and question Ben’s driving experience. I told Manuel that he had nothing to worry about and that Ben would do just great – he just needed some time to adjust and he would pick up automatic without any problem. I mean, it was a peace of cake after all. After about an hour, we started moving and Ben began his ritual of summoning his inner beast (it was hungry, I could tell) and dedicating 100% of his attention on the road towards Kutaisi, which was our first place to stay in.

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Our place looked pretty authentic in Kutaisi (and no wonder, it was one of the cheapest options to rent) – it was quite an old place that threw me back into the late 80s – right in those times where people had carpets on their walls, old and squeaky wooden floors & furniture. I cannot say that all of us felt like home but we were fine with our choice. Our stomachs directed us to go and find a place to eat out in the town and get some tourist information. You see, we wanted to visit the canyons (Martvili and Okatse) that were close to Kutaisi but we found out that they were closed because of the rainy weather. So we let our stomachs feast upon some kebab, bread and beer. We exchanged some money & enjoyed seeing how locals drove down the roads in the town. Ben was, to say the least, not impressed with their attitude on the road and started wondering together with us when we would crash first & how bad it would get. After walking around, we got back to the car and headed out of the town.
Google Maps was our least favourite man on the mission – it very much enjoyed deceiving us by showing weird turns and corners that actually weren’t there. We ended up pulling over every ten or so minutes to ask locals for directions. Eventually, Ben had his first taste for curvy and narrow roads towards Sataplia cave & Gelati monastery – both of the places were close to Kutaisi. My friend told me that it was a normal occurrence to see pigs and cows on the roads in Georgia and he was totally right. The more cows and pigs we had seen, the hungrier we were getting, so we made our way back to Kutaisi to get some more food, rest and head onwards the next day.
On our way back to the guest house, we stopped at the traffic lights (I can still clearly see that night clear in my head) and we continued driving. Ben was still getting used to the automatic gearbox and that was when the car headlights met an innocent-looking elderly lady crossing the street in the middle of the road. In addition to pigs and cows, it was totally normal for pedestrians to jump in the middle of the road and scare the living s**t out of you as well. Ben did not hesitate and switched the gear all the way to “P” (parking) and stopped the car. Clearly, he panicked and switched the gears to break (which does not need to be done). Manuel and I were probably envisioning something terrible to happen to that lady right then and there. We released a deep breath and went on driving, complaining about people being so lazy to get to a zebra crossing. Unacceptable.
We found a parking spot, pulled over, and a smell travelled right into our nostrils. This was the smell of something burnt and got us thinking…

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Upon a closer inspection and some sniffing around, we found out that the smell was coming from the wheels. Clearly, those were the breaks.

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Great, now we had a car with broken pads on the first day of travelling. The owners of the car were 200 km away from us in Tblisi and we had limited amount of time to deal with that issue (we barely had time to find places to eat out in). To fight with our stress and suppressed bouts of anger, we decided to go out and eat something local fatty foods and drown our sorrow with beer. Obviously, Manuel was far north from “OK” and was grim about me not telling him in advance that Ben did not have enough experience to conquer them mountain roads. The only thing on Ben’s mind was long face of Manuel and big calculator (in his mind) that was summing up the expenses to fix the breaks. Everyone’s concern was the time, of which we had very little.
The atmosphere during our dinner was tense, to say the least, so we headed home with full stomachs and empty heads, still questioning what was real and what was not. While I was telling Manuel not to call the owners of the car to tell what had happened and convincing him to go on driving (because Ben said that the breaks just became “softer” and not broken), Ben gave us the best news of the day: “hey guys, so my friend has just told me that the breaking pads should be totally fine. If we did destroy the breaking pads, we would not be able to use the automatic gearbox. So we should be all good!”

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F***ing amateurs.

That was a weight off of our minds – we later found out that replacing the breaking pads was an enormous amount of work for a car repairman – he had to disassemble the whole gearbox (which would take him one hour and more), get the breaking pads (I bet they had to match our car’s breaking pads), it would cost us a lot (because insurance did not cover them), we definitely then had to ring up the owner’s of the car about it, etc. The whole process did not sound as great as eating khachapuri – so we were glad about the fact that the car was in order. We agreed to keep a close eye and strong nose on the car wheels over the next coming days before we entered the mountain roads.
Next morning began with smelling the breaking pads, which still had the scent of panicked driving from the day before. We continued to drive and agreed that if the breaks were to really affect our driving that we would give the car back to the owners. We visited Bagrati cathedral in Kutaisi to enjoy the panorama view on the town and headed towards Prometheus caves. Manuel said that it would be exciting. The cave was close to Kutaisi. We took the tour guide through the cave and a short boat ride as well. It took us about an hour to go through the cave and the view was mesmerising. I heard that it took about 100 years for the crystals to form by a centimetre. Some halls in the cave were used for weddings as well. Just look at this:

 

That was magnificent, to say the least.

After feeding upon some cave air, we headed back to the car and moved direction Mestia to look at the mountains, more sheep and cows.

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The Marble Castle – Part I

The Marble Castle – Part II: here

 

So here I am again, sitting at an old, cracking table (as ancient as my hopes) in anticipation of getting yet another drink.

“Sir, another round, please!”

“Who is going to pay for it this time, my liege?”

“I shall figure something out. In the meantime, do me a favour and keep the brew tight in your wooden glasses, old Frank! You spill half of the brew on your way to my table.”

“If you kept your promises and paid on time, I would be more careful, Sir.”

Excuses, rubbish, rattling and noise is all that I hear today. Excuses upon excuses, as prudent and massive as the fletching of the winner’s arrow. I almost forget Frank’s barbaric behaviour while surrounded by itches of thick smell and presence of the others, familiar looking and behaving barbarians. The place tends to attract crowds specifically on the days when I feel like getting a fresh brew. Only I know when it is served fresh, as sneaky Frank cannot be bothered about the quality and freshness as who else would care? No one would dare even thinking of raising their voice as everyone knows that there is no better brewery in the town to find, so they simply stick with whatever Frank would put on their table. For those guests who would collect moderate amounts of “acidic liquid”, he would purposefully spill as much of it as possible before serving. They would not even notice or care and it was always a joy to the old man to see the drunks tripping over his brew once they leave the place. Some burst out laughing to the point that the walls start trembling and echoing their laughs, while the rest trip over for so long that they start believing they are cursed and come back to get some more brew from Frank to “get back to normal and be able to stand up”. Surely, Frank would glance over his brewery stand and tell the scared guests that he had just the right “potion to lift off the curse of the old witch from them”. The guests were shocked but thankful all the same. While they would sober up from the fear and gulp their “magic potion”, Frank would clean and dry the floor, so the guests would be able leave. While those tricked by him would be sobbing at their tables, the rest, tripping over and falling, would laugh to the point where they stomachs would start hurting and they would resort to crawling outside of the brewery. That made the old man laugh every single time – not that he was an evil, twisted and crooked man. He just had to entertain himself somehow as the old brewery was the only thing that was left to him from his wife. Ironically, she slipped on his brew a long while back and never stood up again, if you know what I mean. I guess that Frank also thinks back on his wife when the other barbarians fall over his alcohol and it makes his day.

“By God, Frank, I told you that I would pay!” I almost shouted when Frank approached me and spilt half of the brew onto my shiny armour. “I’ve just had it polished today – do you know how long it takes for me to take it off?”

“May be that would serve as an incentive for you to pay next time you come by.”

Frank knows how to convince people and make them pay their debts. He has all kinds of brew at his disposal and once you step into his old, spacious, dark-lit stone cave, you better know very well what alcohol to order.

Once upon a time there was a gentleman, who Frank knew owned the silver to one of his friends. The gentleman asked Frank to give him one of his best brews – this not only offended Frank (gentleman inclining that Frank mostly serves poorly made brew, which, frankly speaking, is true) but allowed him to give the gentleman anything that Frank would deem best fitting to the situation. Frank surprised him with dozens of chugs of a “special brew for special visitors”. The man was thrilled and paid Frank back well. Little did he realise what Frank put into that potion. After a couple of blissful brews and many minutes later, a thirsty guest started seeing illusions and later on, hallucinating. The only thing that was real to him was the old man, Frank. The stranger crawled to him, asking about what he put in his drink, to which Frank, proudly, said that it was the best of the brews and that the man was so weak that he could not handle it. The man, in panic, admitted that he was weak and asked for a drink that would bring him back to reality or else he would blame Frank for witchcraft. Frank opened the door of his welcoming brewery and asked him to go ahead and deliver justice upon him. What the gentleman saw behind an open door remained a mystery but Frank could see that whatever theme caught the eyes of the man, it was truly terrifying and made the guest turn pale beyond recognition. He begged the old man to shut the door and not speak ill of him to anyone. Frank obeyed and gave him a condition of paying off to one of his friends who the gentleman owed a few dozens of silver coins. The fear and desperation grew stronger within the visitor and without hesitation he threw a heavy pouch bag onto Frank’s stable. Of course, the old man took his time to close the door and tell the visitor all about how he opened the brewery with his wife that one time ago and how famous his brewery used to be and still is outside of the kingdom. The delusions grew stronger and bigger until the man curled and started foaming from his mouth, trying to bite off his tongue and pouch his eyes out. Frank was only half way through the story, collecting the remaining drinks from the table that he made for the visitor and started cleaning his place. By the time Frank had been done, the guest lay unconscious. Frank only laughed at him and spilt the remedy onto the poor man’s face that woke him up back to his senses. This is why you need to be careful with Frank and anyone who owes him or his friends. This story never left any spectators’ mouths and even the greedy gentleman himself. Since the man asked him for “any” drink, Frank could not be blamed for poisoning him. Even if the guest had brought this to Facalites, they would either not believe his story or be afraid themselves of daring to approach Frank’s brewery.

Although Frank had not tried poisoning me the same way for not being the most frequently obeying drinkers at his place, he would genuinely miss my presence at his place. There was some uncanny and special connection between the two of us. We were almost like grandson and grandfather. I also helped him out once too often that he offered me lifetime brew. However, I started having a bit too much for my own wellness and he started charging me again (hoping that I would eventually run out of bronze and stop drinking as often or may be even become a part of the brewery). The first prediction was on the verge of becoming a reality while the second is far from ever happening. I was well occupied with my sadness those days.

It was a busy night for Frank – the kingdom had celebrated its longest time of peace. It had been 25 years since the last crusade battle. Every man who wanted to celebrate and cheer Frank came to his brewery. Frank was joyful as he was finally able to empty out the old barrels of his elusive brew. He would not sell it on regular days but because every other brewery was packed to the roof, the guests had no choice. It took at least a whole keg to be able to taste the flavour of the brew but once you do, you knew that the old man was up to something and that flavour was one of a kind – you just need to be patient and prepared enough to drink that much. Once you do, you will never forget or find anything similar to that brew anywhere else in the kingdom. Frank felt very festive and cut the price per pint to half, so every kept on throwing coins at him. Literally. Frank was the happiest that I had seen him in a long time.

I, on the contrary, was far from feeling as festive as the rest of the folk. My head was occupied with nothingness and the deepest of the blues. It almost felt like I belonged to no king, no castle, no princess – nothing or anyone. It was a devastating feeling – the longer that I sat and drank brew there, the wider the hole was growing inside of me. As if I were digging my own hole and trying to get out of it at the same time. This is what it felt every time I would stop at Frank’s as I had nowhere else to go, no one to serve, no one to kneel to in my shining armour. However, the old man’s brewery was my only way to remain in touch with the world and besides all the sadness, that was touching the surface of my lonely spirit, I could feel warm and inviting atmosphere that was able to put little patches on the cracks of that lonely spirit of mine. It was one of a kind. Frank knew this and tried to cheer me up at all times. Even on my worst days, the man would always find a way to make me smile. Sometimes, I would not have a choice but to smile as he otherwise would not let me out of the brewery. That trick always worked.

The night was growing thicker and the curtains under my eyebrows were becoming heavier. The cheer within the brewery calmed down as well and I felt that it was a good time to part away from the brew and head out home. I picked my sword and looked around in search for Frank. He was chatting away to another group of newcomers and giving the good old pitch of his handcrafted brew. His introduction followed up with stories of the kingdom, the king, the crusaders, the golden age of the knights and stories of his life. It almost felt like the sun would not be willing to rise the next day just because it would rather stay down, enjoying Frank’s stories. The next day, I could tell, would be darker than any other.