Monday, April 03, 2006

Brighter Later

Today, Misha told me a story about Svaneti.

He was working for a polling firm, conducting a survey up in wild Svan territory with a carload of young girls. This was during Shevardnadze's time, before the revolution, and since that time the anarchy has dulled somewhat, or so they say. A local Svan, who happened to also be with the criminal police, suggested to Misha in that gentle mountain way that smacks of a direct order, that he leave the young ladies behind.

"In return for the girls," said Misha, "he offered to us some marijuana and cows. Well, what could I say?"

"How about 'NO'?" I suggested, mentally calculating just how many cows I'd be worth.

"If I said no," Misha reasoned, "they would kill me for sure. They didn't care back then. So I said okay. I said, meet me at the road at the end of the village and I will bring the girls there."

Then Misha and the girls piled into the car and raced out of town. The Svan man and his cronies chased them all the way to Lentekhi, in lower Svaneti, where a local lawyer friend took in the runaways and fended them off from the pursuing suitors.

My Spring Break in Svaneti, to be perfectly frank, was not quite as dangerous as originally billed. I might have gotten a wee carried away with myself in a Lonely Planet-induced bacchanalia of traveler's lust. See, we didn't go all the way up to Crazytown Svaneti. We lingered down in sedate, Lentekhi-area, administrative Svaneti. Yes, technically I have been to Svaneti but it's sort of like claiming you've been to Vienna when really you just had a quick layover in the airport.

But I really have seen a total eclipse now, and I've seen it in the company of a local Svan man and his son who, when we pulled up next to them, couldn't have looked more gobsmacked if a carload of martians had unloaded in front of him.

We had wondered, in our rather smug Western way, if everyone in these remote villages would even know that the eclipse was coming. Would there be hysteria, animal sacrifices, wailing and rending of garments? We were hopeful.

But although we had, as one of our party noted, more electronic equipment in the Niva than Apollo 11, in the end we were less prepared for the eclipse than the Svan boy who stood with a shard of glass that he'd blackened over a fire. Looking through the dusky end of the glass, you could safely and clearly see the shadow swallow the sun while the light grew long all over lower Svaneti. In the darkness, the air chilled and we turned giddy. Driving there, I hadn't been entirely convinced that it was going to happen at all. My faith in the calculations of scientists is firm, but when you're in Georgia long enough, and especially in Svaneti, you can be forgiven for thinking yourself in a place that defies the sanitary logic of equations.

For me, the eclipse was something to remember. But for our co-spectators, the Svan man and his son, memories of that day may be a toss-up between the sun going out and the crazy foreigners who showed up and hopped about gasping for a few minutes and taking photos of everything. After the light started slowly seeping back and the cows who'd thought it was their lucky day tottered grumbling back to their feet again, G swiveled his camera around to the locals and said "Bring us your women or we will make the sun go away again." Wonder how many cows we could have tried for instead.


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