Net Results: Etseri, Svaneti

Iwalked away thinking we’d won it all, and no one told me otherwise.

Every now and then there’s a sports day held in our part of Svaneti, in which several villages come together and compete in various activities, mostly boys and men. Such a day came recently to Etseri, hosting Pari, Nak’ra and Chuberi, as well as participating itself.

First there was a horse race, which we won soundly, in the person of a jockey-size high school graduate who also trains in Judo. This old Japanese sport was next, with several levels, all Etseri boys as far as I could tell. We pulled out mats onto the gymnasium floor and they went at it in pairs, following the proper rituals of bowing and handshaking into the bargain, dressed correctly, too. It looks quite challenging in any weight class; combinations of grabs, throws and pinning moves to out-maneuver your opponent and win points until a victory can be declared.

While the Judo was happening, across the volleyball net a punishing circle ball game began. If you got “out,” you had to crouch “in” the circle and be bombarded by its members via volleyball, as hard as they liked; but if you caught the ball, then you and all your fellow “inmates” were freed to join the circle, attacking the unfortunate one whose ball you caught. Girls and boys alike played this, with no holds barred, including some of my group of ten guests, who learned to “give as good as they got”.

Eventually, it was time for what seemed to be the main event, men’s volleyball, involving all four villages. I stayed almost until the end, enjoying the spectacle, varying my photographs between slower shutter speeds to blur the furious action and faster ones to freeze it.

Noting the seriousness with which this set of games was played, the arguments between team members and with the referees, I could see that the two millennia-old warrior reputation of Svan men, first noted by Strabo to their glory, continues alive and well nowadays. They couldn’t resist slamming the ball right at the net, but there were several levels to this mode of play. Blockers were always ready, usually in pairs, jumping simultaneously. Their block might in turn bounce off your still upraised fist; back to them! Or if your slam got through, it might be travelling fast enough to end up out of bounds: point to them!

The speed of the ball varied from moment to moment, between slams and gentler volleys, and it could gain a point at any speed, too, although obviously the faster moves are harder to react to. Power was not always key, as hitting walls or ceiling would cost you the point.

(An organized dog fight interrupted proceedings between village sets, but this was over before we even got to the arena; just as well, too, as it’s illegal!)

Each village’s games against another were best of three, and it was here that I misunderstood the flow. Didn’t they tell me that Chuberi was out, Pari and Nak’ra would vie for the semi-final, and we would play the victor for the final? So, when we beat Pari in our third game after losing the first one to them, I thought it was all over, congratulated the winners, and went home, by which time it was necessary to attend to the evening barn chores anyway. Only to hear the next morning that Chuberi had beaten us for the overall win!

Ah well, sometimes my Georgian fails me, perhaps more often than I care to admit. But it had been a thrilling day, and a welcome break in our late spring routines, which we all enjoyed, final win or no.

Tony Hanmer has lived in Georgia since 1999, in Svaneti since 2007, and been a weekly writer for GT since early 2011. He runs the “Svaneti Renaissance” Facebook group, now with nearly 1500 members, at

He and his wife also run their own guest house in Etseri:

Tony Hanmer

08 June 2017 19:44