By Ülvi Gitaliyev
My adventures for this week takes us back a long, long time ago, 2018 B.C. (Before COVID), before I became another victim of Berea College’s no-tuition (and no fun) promise. Surrounded by mountains and separated by a river, Tbilisi, Georgia is a blend of urban and natural beauty. Its parks, with names such as “Park of Victory over Fascism” and “Park of Rest and Recreation in the Name of Joseph Stalin” brought me physical respite and ideological motivation. Naturally though, my life would never be complete without a story of blind curiosity, desperation and eventually, salvation.
After a busy week of classes, haggling down postcard prices in bazaars, and visiting the grave of Stalin’s mother, I decided to go on a hiking trip with three of my classmates deep into the Georgian wilderness. Our plan was simple: find a suitably empty forest, walk around it for a few hours before the sun goes down, and take a bunch of cool photos. Nothing could go wrong. Unfortunately, life had other plans for us.
We left our school boarding at 8 a.m. The bus took us to the edge of the city from where we walked to a nearby village, stocked up on supplies, and marched off to our doom. First of all, there was no cell phone service within a 10 kilometre radius (6.2 miles) of the forest. Secondly, we planned to be back in town before midnight, so we had no tents or sleeping bags (this would come back to bite us, hard). Last but not least, none of us had been to this forest ever before, so our sense of direction came only from the sun and the moon.
At first, we were too busy exploring and enjoying nature to care about any of these issues. We sang songs, fought over who would get the biggest stick, and almost forgot how badly we were failing school. By 7 p.m., the sun had just set fast and we had no idea where we were. Panic ensured, especially after seeing a creepy tree branch that suspiciously looked like a skull.
After 10 p.m., we were basically walking in circles and all but given up on going home since the busses were closed until tomorrow. That was when a building appeared below us. Quickly, we hiked down to discover an abandoned church. This was not as surprising as some might imagine. If you think that Eastern Kentucky has too many churches, try going to Georgia. This small, but very religious country, has a church older than any building in Berea on almost every block. Plus, it becomes very easy to notice who is a believer and who is not when you pass by one. A god-fearing Georgian crosses themselves when they pass a church and usually, I would get awkward stares when everyone but me crossed themselves while passing by a church on the bus. Being in the majority has never been my forte.
Now though, this sanctuary had opened its arms to me. Two of the four walls no longer existed and half the roof was gone, but out of a sense of fear, morbid curiosity, and recently found religiosity, we decided to spend the night there until the sun rose. My Georgian comrades made their prayers while I merely looked at the Georgian (Nino) Cross and hoped for the best. We had no blankets, no pillows and it was November, so the weather was still rather chilly. Whether it was the protection of Jesus, Lenin or pure exhaustion, I slept almost right after putting my head down on the concrete floor. Surprisingly, my comrades and I were still alive when the new day started.
As the sun rose, we wandered west where there should have been a village with a bus service and telephone box. This time, fate did smile upon us and we stumbled into a church that still had live people in it and rejoiced at our first contact with civilization in 24 hours, even if it was the opium of the people. After saying goodbye to our sticks (I had the biggest one), we hopped on a bus and were back in the school boarding by lunch time. We all agreed to never try that again. As with all my adventures, I learned a valuable lesson: If you ever go to the forest after dark, make sure that there is an abandoned church right in the centre, though a mosque or synagogue will also do the job.
The fact that my only injury throughout the whole day was a small papercut from the book that I brought along makes this adventure one of my absolute best to date.