Walking up the stairs to the teachers room after the first lesson this morning, I saw my co-teacher standing in the hall, looking very excited. Apparently, Jabo (my host dad) called, having learned that the long-awaited helicopter to Tusheti would be flying today. The idea of this trip has been tossed around a few times in the last few months, but now it finally materialized. Normally, a helicopter flies into the mountains every month or so to deliver supplies to the border guards in my family’s village. As far as I could tell, ours would be one of the first civilian trips of the year.
Very few people live in Tusheti year-round, only two or three in the bigger villages, and often none in the smaller ones. This is not without reason, as meters of snow fall here in winter, closing the road from October until at least June. Tushebi (the people native to Tusheti) began establishing more permanent dwellings in the lowlands hundreds of years ago, but never truly forsook their mountain communities. Though my host family moved from their ancestral village, Girevi, in the seventeenth century, they still return every summer.
Also I’d never been in a helicopter before, so I was excited to ruin my hearing forever.
When Jabo called to let us know the helicopter was coming, we hurried home to change into warmer clothes and pick up a few supplies for the trip: cookies, beer, and my favorite pear-flavored gum. We also brought along a flour-sack filled with supplies for the guesthouse the family keeps in the summer, and two reused Fanta-bottles of homemade vodka.
Waiting by the river, the empty field an airport whenever someone needs one, felt much like waiting for a marshrutka. No one knew when the helicopter would arrive, and there seemed to be some doubt that it would at all. But several groups waited with whatever baggage they needed for the time they’d spend in the mountains.
As the helicopter arrived and groups began to consolidate below the spinning blades, I noticed what the villagers brought with them. Men tossed huge sacks of potatoes (for planting) through the back doors, an old woman had two live turkeys in a burlap bag, and several people led dogs up the stairs into the cabin. As a guest, I was afforded a spot on the fold-down bench, a window behind me. The majority of the passenger had the choice to stand with their feet wedged between bags of bread and produce, half-sit on a firmer piece of baggage, or some combination of the two.
Someone brought along a roto-tiller.
How it felt once inside:
We rose high above the village, into the mountains, above massive fields of snow, forests clinging to the steep slopes, and rivers benefitting from the sun’s recent re-appearance. I asked if the turkeys were safe, and the old woman next to me peered under the seat we shared. They were doing fine.
At several villages the helicopter stopped long enough to slow the blades, once even allowing us a quick look around the field below a larger village. In some villages, a few people left supplies under tarps and hopped back on the helicopter.
Elsewhere, one or two people came hurried of huts and jumped aboard. Occasionally, someone already living in the mountains would come to greet their newly-arrived relatives bringing more supplies for the summer. Finally, we arrived in Omalo, the last stop.
Here, I walked around with my host dad and brother a bit while some of the men from the helicopter had a little supra outside the hotel we landed at. The scenery was unbelievable, like nothing I’ve ever seen. Soft grassy hills contrast with cliffs where the earth seems to have sloughed away several hundred years ago. Ancient towers rise from hilltops, clearly outlined against the snowy peaks behind them. Stone houses topped with blue tarps and old advertisement banners remind me that actual people live here, that it’s not some never-land away from any modern influence. In fact, I have excellent cell-phone reception.
After an hour of looking around, enjoying the delicious carbohydrates we brought with us, and taking more photos than I could have imagined, we slowly returned to the helicopter. Not one of us was eager to leave, though the municipality head-man and his companions looked noticeably out of place in their polished shoes and spotless button-ups. Rising again above the peaks, someone in front called me toward the doors, and showed me my new seat. I found myself siting between the pilot and co-pilot, a perfect view of the Caucasus before me. Though I’ve not yet grown used to seeing these mountains everyday, the other side of the peaks in my backyard brought back the feeling of coming to Kakheti for the first time. This time, however the sharp ridges of the Greater Caucasus stood between me and my Georgian home.
I felt a tap on my shoulder, and Jabo pointed below to the road. I’ve heard from everyone that most other countries would consider it impassable. Try to find it in the picture. Perhaps you’ll see why.
The direct flight back ended sooner than I hoped, but the million shades of spring greeted us as we descended back into the Alazani valley.
The snow melted early this year, they say. So the road may open in two weeks. I’m already excited for for my next trip, even if the trip on earth is a bit more harrowing than in the sky. Whenever it happens, I’m sure it will bear another turkey-bag of surprises.