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Notes From Svanetia: A Chance Encounter Leads to a Life-Long Love

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Pilpani family portrait in Lengeri, Svaneti. Most of the Pilpani family live in this one village.

High in the mountains of the Georgian Republic, between the breakaway republics of Abkhazia and South Ossetia, in a valley surrounded by 5,000-meter peaks, is Svanetia (also known as Svaneti). The old men of this valley say that the Svans are the descendants of Sumerian slaves that escaped their bondage and fled north to the Caucasus, where they worshiped the sun god Lile’. Because of this, in all my journals, I called them: “The Children of the Sun.”

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A hiker below Mt Ushba; (15,453 ft), where it is said Prometheus was bound.
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A copy of a map drawn on a napkin that showed me how to get to Svanetia. At the time there were no guidebooks for the Georgian Republic and no paved road to Svanetia.

I first stumbled into Svanetia on October 20, 1998, with my first camera and a backpack full of black and white film. It was the most beautiful and isolated place I had ever traveled. But beyond the obvious beauty of the place, what really made me stay were the people. And I did more than stay. I returned three years in a row—with money I made painting houses in the suburbs of Denver on breaks from college—to make my first photo story.

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The Pilpani family in their kitchen, in Lengeri, Svanetia.

On that first bus ride in 1998 I met a young woman who, fearing for my life, asked me where I was going. I told her I was “camping at the end of the road.” The region was not really all that safe at the time due to frequent road banditry so she asked me to join her at a wedding. I agreed and, through this encounter, became the special guest of the Pilpani family. It was the night of their eldest daughter’s wedding. They got me drunk and made me dance and put me to bed in their home. From that day forward they treated me as a member of the family. I visited them every fall for 3 years in a row, staying longer and longer with each journey.

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My journal from October 20, 1998, the day I arrived in Svanetia.
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The morning after Khatuna Pilpani’s wedding, 1998. I am seated second from the right, in the hat.

I loved them very much. It was that relationship that made me realize that I wanted to make photojournalism my life. Images from their home, specifically their kitchen are etched into my memory. It was the warmest room in the house, it had no TV, and it was full of song; it was the center of the Pilpani’s universe. In that kitchen they taught me their songs. Songs I still sing today.

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The first songs I was taught in the Pilpani kitchen. I can still sing both today!
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Khatuna (left) and Ana Pilpani (right) dancing in the kitchen.

I loved siting behind the stove in that kitchen.
I loved to see how much they loved each other.
And I loved how I felt when I was with them.
I don’t feel like that very often, surrounded by these glowing screens.
I miss that kitchen.

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Khatuna Pilpani holds her mother Nunu next to the stove in their kitchen.

These are some of the songs I heard in Svanetia. Maybe they will help you to understand why I fell in love with these people, and with this life.

Watch a video of Aaron Huey explaining his love for Svanetia, and see more pictures in the National Geographic story “Medieval Mountain Hideaway.”

And for more fun with Aaron Huey and his son Hawkeye, contribute to their Your Shot assignment: “The World Next Door.” The challenge is open to Your Shot members with children interested in photography. It runs through Oct. 28.

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