For me, the word “sanatorium” has always involuntarily brought to mind the specter of squat and hairy Communist Party apparatchiks relaxing on benches, clad in robes insufficient to contain their full, vodka-bellied glory. I had read about sanatoria in biographies of Stalin. I didn’t think I would ever actually go to one.
That all changed last month.
Since our arrival in Georgia, we have been urged to take Natasha to the sanatorium in Nunisi, where a mineral spring gushes water that is purported to cure eczema. We finally made the trip in late August. I had tried to make a reservation for a weekend, but was turned away. They told me that there was no point in coming for two days, that one had to have a minimum of 14 mineral baths in a row for the water to work its magic. Despite my pleading, they simply would not take my reservation, and as Nunisi is only open in summer, time was running out. We decided to take the plunge and commit to an eight-day stay just before Labor Day. Jeremy would drive us there and then return to Tbilisi for work for a few days before rejoining us for the holiday weekend.
The whole way to Nunisi, my mind was heavy with the fear that the time and money we would spend there would be for naught. That the spring water was not the miracle-working stuff I had been promised. That we would have a boring, miserable time (no Internet! No sewing machine! No separate space in which to watch a video in after the kids went to bed! No husband to help deal with the multiple nightly wakings of two our three children!). After about an hour and 40 minutes of gloomy thoughts, we turned off the main road onto rutted dirt track, with unmarked forks in the road that stymied our GPS. I became even more anxious. That final leg of the journey wound its way nauseatingly up and down switchbacks and through tiny villages perched precariously on hillsides. Twenty-eight kilometers and two hours later, we finally arrived at the car park, where a sign reading “Samta Park Hotel Nunisi” hung above stairs leading down into the gorge. We descended all the way down to the springs, and then climbed all the way back up, wondering how long it would take to get all our luggage there. It wasn’t until we arrived at the complex on the other side of the gorge, that we saw the gondola that ferries people across it.
|The approach to Nunisi by gondola.|
When I laid eyes on the complex for the first time, I admit my attitude was poor. I saw overgrown flower beds crawling with bugs.
Shabby un-air-conditioned cabins.
Hairy men in scanty robes smoking cigarettes on the benches, just as I had pictured, though their bellies likely owe less to vodka than to cha-cha and wine (sorry, no photos). A ramshackle terrace with broken plastic furniture. Uneven steps on which a toddler was likely to catch her foot and tumble into a tree (that did happen, and we’ve got the scars for posterity).
|The stairway leading from the cafeteria to the playground, chapel and our hotel.|
A playground, yes, but kind of a sad one. A prison, cut off from civilization, in which I would have to entertain and care for three kids under 4 alone for three days until my husband returned.
We proceeded to the administrative office, with its peeling paint and austere director, to get our room key and agree on a price. Our next stop was the sulfur-smelling bathhouse for a consultation with a doctor in a white coat. She told me that the water was amazing. Not only does it heal skin conditions, but it calms the nerves, relieves stress and even raises your metabolism! The bath house even has one extra-large tub to accommodate people who really need help with the latter. We agreed that Natasha would take one bath for each of the first two days, and two baths each remaining day. We were not to bathe her in any other water, nor use any kind of soap, shampoo or lotion on her (though I was worried about greasy hair, it turned out that merely wetting her hair in the bath every day left it clean, and softer and shinier than it had been before). We were told that, after a course of 14-18 baths, the skin should gradually start to heal.
We took the first bath right away. I had one too (figured my metabolism could use a little jumpstart). I had to grapple with the prudish American in me who finds the idea of a public bath unsettling. The bath house in Nunisi has about a dozen private rooms with tubs, but even in this setting, where no one need see your unmentionable bits, I was slightly uncomfortable. I couldn’t help but wonder how the tubs were cleaned between clients. (I didn’t even entertain the notion that they might not be sanitized. Because I saw the people walking around the complex in nothing but a robe and shower shoes, some reaching out to take the baby with rough, callused hands and nails so grimy I wondered whether maybe they were signed up for a secret mud bath therapy.) No, surely the tubs were thoroughly disinfected between bathers. And then there was the fact that the bathroom doors had no locks. The nurse who timed the baths (15-30 minutes, getting longer every day) believed a knock was not sufficient to let you know that time’s up. She opened the door, looking clients full in the face (and elsewhere) when it was time to get out.
Besides bathing, there was little to do but relax. People spent their time lounging in hammocks, walking along the forest boardwalk, sitting on the communal terrace and read, and generally waiting for the meals, which were served in the cafeteria for a 30-minute window three times a day. Food was plentiful and ranged from respectable homestyle Georgian cooking (tasty lobiani, roasted chicken with buckwheat, an array of fresh salads at lunch) to inedible (grisly mutton fat in a stew of boiled mush that may at one time have been eggplant) or downright strange (deep-fried sausage links and pasta for breakfast). Hot tea was available at breakfast and dinner but the coffee was instant only.
|Breakfast in the cafeteria. Note the hotdogs in the foreground.|
The lack of good coffee was not as much of a concern as I had feared on the first day. Sharing a room with all of our kids, and being without Internet, there wasn’t much to do at 9 p.m. but just go to bed. And once my go-go-go Western mentality accepted this, I actually found myself relaxing. We settled into a routine. In the morning we would hang out in the room, the girls watching a DVD on the laptop while the baby napped. After breakfast we made our way to the communal terrace, where we began to make friends with some of the other clients (almost exclusively Georgian, with a few Russians and Armenians mixed in). The children would play badminton – when they lost the shuttlecock, they improvised with a paper facsimile and then a pinecone – draw with paper and pens provided by the bartender, and dance. The men played nardi and drank beer. The women drank coffee, gossiped, and texted with friends (cell reception is excellent). The few Russian speakers around chatted me up. Where did you learn Russian? Where are you from? How did you find out about Nunisi? Do you like Georgian food? Are you really raising all these kids without a nanny? When I answered, they would discuss amongst themselves in Georgian, of which I speak about seven words. At 12:30 we had a bath, then back to the terrace, then lunch. Naptime, another bath, back to the terrace and then dinner and bed.
The first few days were rough. With little to distract me from my thoughts, I was in a constant state of anxiety. I prayed in the chapel for healing for my daughter and strength for myself. But I still cried as I watched the gondola carry my husband back across the gorge to our car, so that he could go back to work for a few days.
By the end of our third day, though, something changed. A nice woman from Batumi bought me a Turkish coffee and told me that her daughter had recognized Jeremy from an event he had attended there. I got to know a few of the other clients. Everyone agreed that Nunisi water was wonderful. One return visitor told me that her psoriasis had completely cleared up within three months of her first visit last year. Her children befriended mine, and the shabby terrace with the broken furniture (and the Turkish coffee) became a daily refuge. I stopped pining for the Internet and started writing, which I never have the time or energy to do anymore. I knit. We took walks and looked for gnome houses. The girls and I colored in their princess coloring books. Mostly I sat on the terrace and watched the kids play.
|Playing musical chairs with the Georgian kids.|
I observed with interest the lizards, abundant as I’d never seen before, scurrying up and down the cracked and peeling walls of the cafeteria. I went to bed at 9 with the kids and even though I was awoken by someone-or-other four times, and even though the baby was up for the day at 5:30, I actually felt rested.
By the time Jeremy came back, I was in great spirits. I was optimistic Natasha would be cured. Nunisi felt less like a prison and more like a wonderful secret we had discovered. With two adults to wrangle the kids, we started to explore our surroundings a little more, walking half a mile up to the crumbling church where you can buy candles and local honey. The girls chased a rooster around the courtyard.
|They didn't catch him.|
We picked blackberries.
We walked down to the stream, where the kids entertained themselves for an hour, burying rocks in the sand, digging them up and washing them.
After eight days, we were ready to go home, with a new understanding of the word “sanatorium” and great optimism that our lives were going to improve greatly in the next few months. Natasha’s eczema is not gone, but her arms are noticeably smoother. I do believe there is something special about that water, and I hope to be able to say so definitively in a few months.