The first thing that shocked me about the lives of the shepherds was the abysmally, stunningly piss-poor condition of their homes. Enough dilapidation and grime to make an Appalachian woodshed look like a 5-star Hilton. I just couldn’t wrap my mind around it: I mean, it’s nice to feel like I can roll over and piss on the floor, but can we find a better place than the corner of the room to put dead rotting lambs? I found it mind-boggling: people abandoning their house all-together to build tarp-hovel shanties with shit-cake walls around smokey fire pits. This level of structural neglect wasn’t just poverty, there was some other strange factor at play…
Alcoholism. Not the party-boy-gone-sad alcoholism I’ve encountered elsewhere in my life: this was straight up Soviet suicide drinking. On my entire adventure, the only person I met who didn’t drink cha-cha (strong Georgian moonshine) was the 9-year-old boy in the village: who preferred wine. Cha-cah in the morning, cha-cha in the evening, cha-cha at supper time. I had an old man wake me up to drink cha-cha before the sun came up.
Georgian drinking. A carefully choreographed sport: One person is called the ‘Tamada’. He fills the glasses and makes extremely long winded, elaborate toasts before every drink, which Devi gives short cryptic translations like “Dis vone iz for all de familiez”, “Dis vone iz for all ze people on ze road”, “Dis vone iz for Stalin”, “Dis vone iz for de sheep”, or my own personal favorite “Ya ya, same stuff, just drink.” For me, it’s not a particularly fun experience.
At yet another shepherd house: I take my seat next to a stocky shepherd licking his lips and fingering his glass hungrily… In front of us is the standard spread which we receive at every farm: Rich, fresh sheep and goat cheese, mouth-watering pickled peppers and cabbage, fantastic fruit chutney spreads, crunchy balls of sheep fat, and superb homemade bread. At every farm we visited, I was amazed by the different ultra-primitive open-fire methods of making bread, and it was some of the best I’ve ever tasted. And of course, the never ending plastic bottles of cha-cha and homemade (delicious) wine. I groaned a little bit when the lip-licker started filling the glasses. But I was pleasantly surprised: this particular drinking-session proved to be more casual, less belligerent, and some shepherds weren’t even drinking, just sitting around the cozy room smoking cigarettes in the dancing flicker of a single oil lamp. The real treat, however, was the “Tamada”, the toast giver:
Sometimes intelligence transcends all linguistic barriers. Some people are just smart, even if you can’t understand them. The stocky shepherds eyes glistened as he spoke, every tongue in the room tasted laughter and the seven of us (Devi, myself and 5 shepherds) hung on every word. Quick witted, speaking 6 languages (none of which was English, to give a small flavor of the linguistic and ethnic complexity of this part of the world…), Gee-a claimed to be the 5th generation descendant of a famous Georgian author. It was a pleasure to be around him. So the next day when he asked if I wanted to go help him with something, I said, “Hell yeah!”
“Okay,” he informed me with hands. “Wait here and I’ll be back in 5 minutes.” He hopped nimbly on a horse, and bareback thundered off across the desert until he was dissolved in a haze of dust. A few minutes later he returned, herding the half dozen horses the ranch owned. Wow! A real cowboy! And we were about to head out on a real Wild West adventure! Gee-a hitched up the only transport ’round these parts: a battered old wooden pony cart, I snatched Devi’s camera and clamored aboard. “Mercedes! Mercedes!” Gee-a joked, pretending the horse’s tail was a crank-start. We laughed and bumped out onto the prairie. I had no idea where we were going, but I could see a big white puddle of sheep on the horizon.
When we arrived, one of the shepherds we had been drinking with the night before was elbow-deep in sheep vagina. “What the hell!?!” Then I looked around and realized what was going on- baby sheep were being shit out all over the place. Ah! Actually, being around the shepherds during this lambing time of the year has been pretty hilarious: tough grizzled shepherds all standing around poking baby sheep with sticks. But up until this point I hadn’t actually seen any being born. Not now, though! I was surrounded by wobbly baby lambs and it was like walking through a mine field of exploding sheep uteri. It quickly became apparent what our mission was: grab the baby sheep, throw them in the cart. Actually, that was Gee-a’s mission. I just sat in the cart laughing hysterically as it filled up with goofy baby lambs until I was literally waste-deep in cutey placenta trying to nurse my legs.
Later, on the sheep drive, we were shepherding the flock way up into a canyon. It was a dangerous task, on account of the wolves. I never saw any wolves, myself, but heard them at night and at another farm we visited I did see a freshly-killed goat and lamb. And this canyon- the only access to fresh water for miles around- was the perfect place for an ambush. My job was to walk in front and scare the hungry wolves away…
But really, I was just trying to not get eaten by the actual anti-wolf brigade: the rabid scarred up mean shepherd dogs which did. not. like. me. one. bit. If my time with the shepherds taught me one thing, it was that REAL shepherd dogs aren’t for herding sheep: they’re for fighting wolves. And humans. And they’re real scary. Devi’s last wandering partner ended up in the hospital after getting mauled, and I almost followed the same fate after having to fight off a military attack dog with a shovel-handle.
Actually, believe it or not, vicious dogs are kind of what made me re-assess the whole donkey scheme. Did I really want to spend the next the next month asking grizzled old shepherds for permission to go to the bathroom? “Excuse me salty old man, but could you stand next to me while I pee so your dog doesn’t rip my throat out?” It was too cold to camp outside, and I was too claustrophobic and scared in the shepherd houses to see myself staying long. So in the end, after a couple weeks with the shepherds, I bailed on the investment.
No donkey. Not this time….