Lika Megreladze’s “Tea Way” to Success

Lika Megreladze’s “Tea Way” to Success

After 35 years of living and working in the capital, Lika Megreladze returned to her childhood house in the village of Tsitelmta, Ozurgeti district; she restored a century-old house, renewed tea bushes covered in undergrowth, also planted Gurulian vine varieties and arranged hotel rooms in an old granary that was about to collapse and a barrel that had been out of use for a long time. Her house is always warm and the fireplace stays lit all the time.  Lika (Lia) Megreladze called her fairy-tale place Komli and she has managed to host guests from all five continents of the world already.

“I was born and raised in Guria. After school, I continued my studies at Tbilisi State University – Faculty of Cybernetics and Applied Mathematics; I graduated in 1988 and got married. Then I completed my secondary qualification – journalism and established my career mainly in this field. I worked the longest at the literary-creativity workshop, which my friend and I founded; these were the times when I gained valuable experience in management. My main achievement back then was holding a literary competition – Alubloba (Cherry Season) for teenagers, which I take great pride in even now.  Meanwhile, my children grew up and moved along. The eldest lives in the United States, has an American spouse and is raising three children there; my younger son is already 30 years old. As years went by, my mother got older and was no longer able to live independently and take care of our house by herself – our teeny tiny house was built at the beginning of the 20th century; it was getting really old, and the tea plants in our yard had been covered with weeds. In 2010, when my American son-in-law saw the tea bushes at our place for the first time, he was quite surprised as he did not know that tea plants were common in Georgia. As it turned out later on, our young guests from different countries also had no idea about the existence of Georgian tea. During the Soviet period, Georgia used to supply many countries with tea and the older generation still remembers its unique aroma. So, we started thinking about what activities we could pursue in this garden. However, at that time I was still living in Tbilisi.”

Lika’s adult children were the ones who encouraged their mother to leave everything in the capital and return to the countryside with her elderly parent. The young adults, who spent most of their childhood vacations in Tsitelmta, realized that their grandmother could no longer take care of the house and their entire household could be destroyed.

“We called our place “Komli” (a household), which means a family living permanently in the countryside. The word itself comes from the word – smoke. If smoke comes out of the chimney, then the food is being made there, and the fireplace is lit, which implies that life goes on in this house – it is not abandoned. So, we have embraced this concept and set a goal to restore this ancient household, which, according to our information and photos, is more than 100 years old. Quite remarkably, we even found the remains of old Kvevris (large earthenware pitchers) in our yard. According to the rough evaluation of experts, they used to store wine in these containers as early as mid-centuries. At every step of its renovation it felt like it used to be a strong household that managed to survive many times and now it was our turn to make things right.”

The year of 2017 turned out to be a milestone for Lika Megreladze and her household. That year, Komli hosted a group of guests interested in gastro-tourism from the USA along with Lika Megreladze’s son-in-law. The guests were back then amazed by the food prepared on the fire, traditional baking dishes carved out of stone and, of course, the tea bushes growing in the yard. By that time, the family had their tea plants restored. However, Lika Megreladze’s mother, Meri Chanukvadze was against cultivating tea plants again. She considered that it would be very difficult for her to pluck tea and she would not be able to find pluckers in the village as well. Her granddaughter’s husband, who came from a distant continent, told her that the time would come when international visitors would help her pick tea and even be happy to be charged for this activity.

“We started thinking about possible opportunities for tourism in our household. I decided to stay in Guria even throughout the winter of that year and in January, at Kalandoba (traditional Gurulian new year celebration on Jan 14) we celebrated my return home. In early February, I was invited to a meeting of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) in Ozurgeti. The topic of the meeting was Participatory Principles for the Tourism Development Strategy in Guria. In other words, the meeting aimed to overview the possible  attractions that can be found or developed in Guria. Several months later, UNDP announced a small grant competition, before which the Ozurgeti House of Progress had held trainings on tourism development in Guria. That were the times when Guria had no significance on the tourist map of Georgia – when tourism was already active in other regions of Georgia and the Wine Way project had been underway for several years already. Obviously, many people love wine, but probably half the world has it, while tea is a type of drink that everyone round the world tasted at least once in their lifetime. Hence, we thought of a concept and drafted a project on a tea tour in Guria.”

While working on the tea project, Lika Megreladze’s daughter, Mariam registered their village house on Airbnb, which is an online platform offering rental accommodation worldwide. Lika found about having her house registered on Airbnb a bit later – April 25, when a middle-aged couple from London came right on to their gate. They kindly explained that they had seen the house in the photos, liked it very much and decided to rent it.

“I had no other choice but to host them, obviously. When I was showing them around the garden, the English lady was truly amazed to come across tea bushes. At first I could not understand why English people who are known as tea lovers, were so surprised to see tea bushes, but then I realized that it was not possible see something similar back in their home country. Their reactions made me realize that we had chosen the right way. This visit coincided with the grant competition, whose deadline was in a month’s time. We found a lot of materials about the origins of tea in our region. We learnt that tea was first planted in Georgia in 1847 in Anaseuli and before that, we had not had any tea production. Later on, at the end of the 19th century, they invited a tea master from all over China, Lao Jinjao and with his help, Georgian tea won a price in Paris. In 1926, in the communist era, the society – “Georgian Tea” was established and tea plantations were cultivated in western Georgia. Soon, Anaseuli Institute of Subtropical Crops and Tea Industry was founded with its laboratories, machinery park, trial fields, and a wonderful team of professors on board. People from all parts of the world, where they had subtropical cultures would visit the institute to improve their skills.  My mother used to work at this research centre and I grew up all surrounded by tea. In addition to the Soviet Union countries, our tea was supplied to Eastern European countries, Mongolia and Algeria. After the collapse of the Soviet Union and, consequently, the collapse of the market, the whole industry fell apart. So, people had to uproot tea crops and plant nuts instead.”

Lika Megreladze retrieved all this information by going door-to-door collecting old photos, magazines and newspapers where they published articles about Georgian women working in tea plantations and the research centre. They truly liked her project and Lika Megreladze was awarded a micro-grant. Afterwards, they announced a municipal project “Tea Way”, where there were three more households participating apart from the Megreladzes.

“Our project was the smallest in scale. We harvest tea by hand, prepare it with our guests and taste it together. Shortly after, we started the next project to restore Gurulian vine varieties. We have already planted and have been cultivating Gurulian collectible varieties. We also have a small cellar in the basement of our house, which we find quite useful. In 2019, we purchased and made a variety called, Chkhaveri. We also bottled the wine and labelled it “Komli”;  we are very proud that more than half of the products was exported to the USA and they really liked it there.

Now we are working on creating  Gurulian gastro-tours. There are lots of similarities between Gurulian and Megrelian, Imeretian as well as lowland Adjarian cuisines. In these parts, tourism developed much earlier and most common dishes have already been included in their cuisines. So, now we have to work harder to develop purely Gurulian menu. Apart from popular Gurulian pie (Cheese pie with eggs), we are happy to have Brinjula, which is made of rice flour. My mother often recalls the time when her family used to grow rice in the lowlands of Kobuleti. In our house, we also came across Chamuri – it is basically a stone dish where they used to thresh rice and Ghomi (foxtail millet (Setaria Italica)). Before the introduction of corn, Gurulians used to eat Ghomi made of plant – Ghomi (Setaria Italica) and millet, which is called Chiki. I believe the name of today’s Mchadi (cornbread) also comes from the word, Chiki. Guria is also known for its sauces and various types of Pkhali (chopped vegetables with nuts), some of which can be found only in our region, including Jijlaka Pkhali, known as Amaranth. Guria also has other dishes made with raw nuts.”

Guests of Komli enjoy tea, unique dishes and wine in a Gurulian wooden house built more than a hundred years ago. Large part of the house has been preserved in its original form. The wooden house has a porch and two guest rooms. There are many guests wishing to stay, but there is no room to accommodate all of them. That is why, Lika Megreladze started implementing new ideas.

“Now we are working on the development of glamping. When my spouse and I were in the States visiting my daughter, I saw a tiny house there and asked if it was possible to arrange something similar in a big barrel. My husband told me that it was quite possible, and asked me to call it Diogenes’ Barrel if I ever managed to make it – as our daughter studied philosophy, he came up with this name. Back in Guria, we bought an old 7-ton barrel and when my neighbour found out the reason we bought it, he could not help exclaiming that we went seriously crazy. Finally, we restored the barrel and arranged a bedroom in it. We had an old granary in the yard, which we also turned into a bedroom. Now the neighbours like our yard so much that they show it to their guests as well. Diogenes’ Barrel and the granary soon became quite popular on Airbnb.

Then we organized informative tours. This year we’ve also had a pleasure to host distinguished guests – the President of Georgia and Resident Representative of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) in Georgia – Louisa Vinton. Luckily, all our guests loved the place and its popularity has grown. Many guests wanted to stay, but we did not have enough space. Now we are trying to get a funding and arrange an area with barrels to accommodate more tourists.”

Lika Megreladze wishes to offer guests leisure services that will be different from other regions of Georgia. To achieve this, along with the yard landscape, her creative imagination and a desire to implement incredible ideas come in handy. In the backyard, there flows a small river – Kikvata, which was filled with rubbish and thorny weeds. Once, a neighbour jokingly suggested taking a boat ride in Kikwata. Lika Megreladze loved the idea and instantly started working on it.

“We cleaned the canal by ourselves and put a handmade boat in it, but there was not enough water. By that time my son had registered our household on Workaway, which is an online platform that makes it possible for people all over the world to enjoy full board for free in exchange for a pre-arranged job – this platform is an amazing opportunity to share various people’s skills, knowledge or even cultures. That very year, a wonderful French couple visited us all the way from Toulouse through this website – they made a construction similar to a dam, which made it possible to collect enough water to put a boat in it. Last summer we also had tourists through Workaway stuck in Georgia due to the pandemic. With the help of this platform, I met amazing people and they gladly helped me to undertake a number of small projects.”

After the first wave of the pandemic, when domestic tourism really came off, Mount Gomi was among the most visited sites. Lika Megreladze’s Komli is right on the way to Gomi Mountain, so most of the passengers stopped by to enjoy tea, do the sightseeing or spend the night in the barrel. During that period, Lika Megreladze came up with an idea of ​​making an open space for guests to hold various meetings and culinary master classes.

“We have partially created an open space. I am certain that we will need this area in a post-Covid period. I try to develop services that comply with the demand. Our yard is already arranged in such a way that it is possible to reach the tea bushes by a wheelchair. I had this idea when my mother-in-law was visiting us – she has had a stroke and is in a wheelchair at present. She would often hear how much our guests liked the barrel house and tea bushes and I noticed that she was genuinely interested to see the place herself. My mother-in-law is still with us and can already move around the yard easily. House of Progress in Ozurgeti helped us to make the place wheelchair-friendly – we won the competition that this institution announced and received 5,500 GEL. With this money we were able to make paths and a fireplace in the yard. I am honestly very proud of having walking trails arranged, because even in the most developed countries of the world it is difficult to adapt rural tourism to people with special needs, especially in a landscape like Guria. Nothing is impossible, you just need to acknowledge what you have and exercise a strong will to make a good use of it.”

Lika Megreladze herself could not notice these opportunities until one day, when her relative who lives in the Netherlands visited her with her husband and three children. Having looked around Lika’s yard, one of her guests – a 10-year-old Sofia-Elizabeth surprisingly asked her mom why she had been hiding that Lika was so wealthy. She obviously meant a big garden, tea bushes and an incredibly beautiful landscape of the place.

“Back then the place was covered with thorny weeds. I smiled at the child’s comment on my wealth. However, I soon gained a different perspective when in the process of searching, I visited Dato Chachanidze and Tina Samadashvili to see their eco-friendly house made mostly of stubble in Bakurtsikhe. This couple had been arranging their accommodation with eco-friendly, natural materials – this is called permaculture. On my visit, they told me all about how they turned almost a barren into a beautiful garden and when they found out that I owned such a big land in Guria, they could not understand why I still preferred to live in Tbilisi – at that very moment I remembered Sofia-Elizabeth’s words. Upon my visit to the stubble house, I got very interested in permaculture. I anyway always tried to avoid using chemicals in cultivation, but now I have got interested in the method of living in harmony with the nature. I would like to go back to the natural style of growing vegetables, trees or even vine varieties, for example, letting grapevine climb trees as due to its spiral  structure, it is more adequate than having them arranged artificially. I would like to build a house with natural materials as well. We are now working on a hobbit house – much of it will be in the ground, while the rest of it will be built from materials made of compressed soil. Architect Givi Jakeli, whose ancestors emigrated to France, has already prepared compressed soil blocks for our project. Earth architecture is still very popular in France and the houses built using this method have endured three hundred years already. I believe, in the past, they used to build cellars and stalls in Guria this way. I also would like to build houses on centuries-old trees – tree houses are very popular now. In short, I have lots of ideas.”

Komli does not host guests in winter, because only a small number of the hotel rooms can be heated at present and only with a fireplace. Many guests were still happy to stay in such conditions, although due to the pandemic, “komli” have not had any guests staying over recently. However, Lika Megreladze has been using this gap wisely preparing for the opening of the tourist season. According to her, it turns out, that she has wanted to pursue what she is doing now her entire life.

“I would advise beginners to take a chance and start implementing their ideas. They also should travel around as widening one’s horizons will bring many new ideas. And I would suggest people of my age that they consider their children or other young people’s opinions and ideas and use all the opportunities that modern advances, including the Internet, provide nowadays. I would not have made such daring decisions if not for my children. I would also advise family members to support and encourage each other. It is true that my husband has not permanently moved to Guria as of yet, but he spends a lot of time here and his support is very important to me. Living far from the capital has saved me a lot of time. I use this time to develop and implement new ideas.”

Lika Megreladze does not miss life in Tbilisi, because she feels very content in the village where she spent her whole childhood. She just finds it difficult to be away from friends; however, her friends love to visit Guria and they still manage to unite and spend time together. The only thing missing is the theatre, which is anyway closed due to the pandemic. So, Lika believes living in Guria, being in a fairy tale that she herself created is the most reasonable decision of her life.