Despite their poverty, their violent past and their ubiquitous police, the locals take kindly to foreigners. Our vehicle with its unknown tag and inadequate car body is a real sight. The road workers help me with directions on difficult segments. A truck driver coming against traffic starts to honk and flash his lights, just like a strobe light. In the end he takes his head out the window and yells laughing: ‘Romaniaaaa!’ At a stop-over, I leave Petruț’s side for two minutes to go ask for oil; next thing I know, I find him in a village market at a table flanked by two locals, a glass full of vodka in one hand and a snack in the other. One of the villagers, a bit heavy and full of tattoos, has his hand over Petruț’s shoulders and is insistently nudging him to knock down the vodka.
On the way back from Ushguli to Zugdidi I begin to better understand what every villager in the highlands constantly reiterated: isolation, their former advantage, has become their greatest curse. A little over four thousand people live in the entire region of Svaneti. In any settlement there are visible signs of abandonment, many empty houses on the verge of decay. People long for a permanent and easily accessible connection and that’s the reason why they have their hopes set on the quick rehabilitation of the road we’re jolting on. Nowadays, nobody is willing to live in a region resembling a fortress.
Children from Ushguli rarely reach Mestia and almost never go beyond it. For the people of Mestia two trips a year to Zgudidi are quite a luxury (students need to go buy their school books).
In Ushguli 50 children attend school crammed in tiny classrooms of ten sq. metres. Gathered in the teachers’ lounge, the primary school teachers complain that this impracticable region becomes a nightmare in wintertime. The principal tells us they have no teacher of English anymore; at present all the kids are learning German. The computer on her desk is used only for playing games – only next year do they expect to get an Internet connection.
Tourists aren’t perceived yet as an important source of income. And the expectations in this respect vary. We’ve talked to a carpenter who makes a living by selling souvenirs (a schoolgirl from Mestia does the interpreting). Besik hopes the newly constructed road will bring more tourists because this way he could give up agriculture and live solely on selling his souvenirs. His neighbours, however, the Ratiani family (a big family with eight children to raise) have another view on things: the few tourists that reach the highlands have become a cause of dispute, envy and scandal in this otherwise very fused community. The only subject on which everybody agrees is that they cannot wait for the road to be asphalted. As for myself, I push start the car downwards and am eager to reach the asphalt with the vehicle ‘safe and sound’.