My family and I spent our first day in Georgia not in Tbilisi but four hours away. The destination: Davit Gareja Cave Monastery. In the early morning, we started driving past the city limits and into the countryside. Reminding me of Arizona with sparse moisture, continuous beige, and endless miles of desert, the Georgian country is boundless. Occasionally, we would pass a deserted town; at the far end of the village, there was always a vendor selling dishwashing soap. Bouncing down the middle of a dirt road for the past hour, we concluded we were lost.
Our rental car trugs along the path, spraying dust with each divot and pothole. Google Maps is no longer connected, cars are replaced with donkeys, and all that is in front of us is the road’s curve. To narrow to turn around, my mom presses on the gas. Finally, at a breach in the road, we turn around and run into German tourists in a 4 x 4 who are just as disoriented as we are. Back on the main road, Google Maps turns us down yet another dirt path. Some sections are too deeply rutted by military vehicles, which causes us to forge a contrasting path. I was often sure we were stranded, forced to spend the night in our rental car, in the vastness of the Georgian countryside.
Finally, a building appears insight. Nearing, it looks more like a compound; then, I remember our proximity to the Azerbaijani border and the probability that it is a military presence. We were just thankful that there was the hope of people to ask for directions. Driving directly towards the compound and then alongside it, we soon approach the entrance where twenty guards stand watch. Unfortunately, the Georgian guards aren’t as elated to see us as we are them.
Instead of continuing down the road, we press on the brakes at the entrance. Guns were drawn in all directions, pointing at my face: I can feel my heart stop, my pulse race, my throat close. We throw our hands up in the air. Suddenly, I’m as small as a cricket while men surround the perimeter of the car. I scream – an obvious reaction, which only results in more disorderly contemplation by the guards. Slowly approaching the car, they shouted in Georgian for us to leave; they didn’t have to tell us twice before we slammed on the gas and rapidly headed up the road. They waited in sturdy formation until we disappeared around a hill.
Unlike our brisk encounter with the Georgian military, the rest of the day would prove to be much less stressful. Google maps started loading once clear from the military bases, we spotted a tour bus in the distance, and our new German friends followed behind us, all still in search of the monastery. Now in the dry mountains, it was clear we were approaching our destination after hours on the road. Like many times, the destination is often less exciting than the journey. We had arrived at Davit Gareja Cave Monastery.
To reach the monastery, an hour hike was needed. Stretching my sore legs and slathering sunscreen onto my pale face, I looked up towards the mountainside. Clambering up the steep pinnacle, rocks break and slide from under my feet. As the sun burned in the back of my neck, I quietly thanked my inner-telling that warned me to apply sunscreen. Every so often, we stop and rest in the coolness of the caves.
I breathed a sigh of relief that we had made it intact. After all, I wasn’t so confident during those encounters with the military. Etched into the face of a rock: churches, living quarters, cells, chapels, and refectories, not just one, but hundreds. The caves stretched far back into the rock. Only one other tourist was appreciating this remarkable sight. This monastery reminded me of Meteora, a town in Greece with dozens of monasteries carved into cliffs. After a long day of getting lost, venturing into the countryside, exploring Georgian towns, treacherous events with the Georgian military, and a visit to a beautiful monastery, it was time to head back to Tbilisi.