For Georgians, a Much-Needed Break

Vacationers from across Georgia rushed to reschedule beach trips interrupted by the August war with Russia.
Vacationers from across Georgia rushed to reschedule beach trips interrupted by the August war with Russia. (By Tara Bahrampour -- The Washington Post)
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By Tara Bahrampour
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, September 19, 2008

KVARIATI, Georgia -- Kitty Arsenidze had beach plans in August, but then her country went to war. Russian troops occupied her town, Gori. A bomb hit her house. She spent her 50th birthday installing a new roof and windows. Only after the Russians left did she finally make it to the beach.

"We have so much stress after this bombing that I'm thinking that I have to make psychological healing," she said, leaning on a green lawn chair by the Black Sea. "I feel better than in Gori."

The people swimming, sunbathing, and zipping around on water scooters this week did not look as if they had just suffered a crushing military defeat. They bought steamed corn from local vendors. They collected multicolored rocks. They ate Acharuli khachapuri, a boat-shaped bread filled with hot egg and cheese, as waves crashed a few feet away.

This, the Georgians say, is what you do to stay sane.

"We never had such scaredness as this summer," said Nargiza Gardapkhadze, 53, one of many Georgians who this month rushed to salvage vacations that the war had disrupted. Eating plums on the balcony of her rented room, she said she was not ignoring the war. "You know, something has changed in our life, but we need it somehow, because in August we had so much pressure."

August is when the people of Tbilisi and other cities typically flee the hot, sticky streets. This year, many of them spent it bringing donations to refugee centers and watching on television as their towns were bombed and their countryside was overtaken by soldiers.

Relaxing as a coping mechanism is not a new concept here. When their country was racked by civil war in the early 1990s or during times of political turmoil, Georgians say, they staved off depression by embracing small pleasures -- drinking homemade wine, playing guitar, picking blackberries. The beach getaways continued, even as Georgia's Black Sea coast was battered by politics.

Until the early 1990s, most Georgians preferred Abkhazia, near the Russian border. Then a vicious separatist war there put it off limits, and Georgians now speak of it as a lost paradise whose semi-tropical flora, sandy beaches, and dramatic snowcapped mountains had no peer.

Ajara, the region where Georgians now go, was ruled for years by a local strongman who established checkpoints and elicited bribes from incoming tourists. Still, they came. When the strongman blew up a bridge connecting Ajara with the rest of Georgia, they rebuilt it, and when President Mikheil Saakashvili wrested Ajara back into central government control, they celebrated.

When the latest war started August 7, a few vacationers had already arrived here. And when the Russians cut off the east-west road with checkpoints and railway service was cancelled, they were marooned. The lush hills plunging into the sea offered little consolation to people terrified for their families back home.

"We were asking people to stay here, don't leave, we won't take money, just stay until the war is over," said Mzeo Memeshishi, whose family runs several guesthouses and cafes in the hills overlooking the beach. At one, the owner gathered the worried guests around the table, put out a bottle of vodka, and announced that any Russian soldiers who showed up could join in the drinking.

None ever came, though Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has been up the Black Sea coast at the Russian resort of Sochi in recent days, conducting high-level meetings.

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