Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Unrelated to paramilitary militias or incongruous wildlife

Sorry to do this. But DC-area residents, a question. Are we hating Cingular? I used it before and don't remember the coverage being so terrible, but online the complaining is pretty voiciferous. And yes, the customer service was abysmal. But my family all uses it and the free in-network deal is nice. But is it so bad I should avoid? And how is T-mobile? I hear their customer service is great but how is DC coverage?

Bearly legal

In a lot of ways, I am actually ready to go back home (next week, gulp!) But there are some things that I'm going to miss about life in Georgia.

Like, for example, when you're enjoying a night at home and you hear a strange inhuman howling commotion on your front stoop, and you're trying to identify the source. Maybe Zurab the drunken sentinel who lives on my stoop has become quite ill. Maybe raspy-voiced Lado of the midnight yelling bouts across the way has something particularly foul caught in his gullet. Maybe.

But here, one of the explanations you can't rule out is that it's a bunch of men who have inexplicably deposited upon your steps two wooden barrels holding baby bears, and that they have decided to have an impromptu supra above them.

Um.  Bear.

Sorry for the crap pictures (damn you, autofocus!!), I just choked in the moment. I had to stick my head out into this scene, and I really couldn't really make heads or tails of what was going on. I'm sure there's not a better commentary on the cultural divide present at that moment then the fact that when I retrieved my camera to take photos of the bears, some of the men grabbed their camera phones to take photos of me. As the commotion settled, the men lifted their vodka high as the bears slashed out with paws already wicked with claws, and called aba khalkho, siqvaruls gaumarjos! (Alright, people, cheers to love!)

Really, I don't know. I like to think that they somehow felt that baby bears and my front stoop were absolutely central to a proper tribute to the abiding power of love. Sometimes it's better just not to know.

Why I'm not a Reporter: Lack of Objectivity Edition

Tense times everywhere, these days, and the Republic of Georgia is no exception.

A fascinating spectacle is unfolding in the wild, uncontrollable west of the country where parliamentarians and well-coiffed ministers are squaring off with warriors and wise men from another time. It's as perfect an illustration as you could ask for of the whole untamed spirit of this place in the modern world; at times wearing modernity like an ill-fitting suit.

In the Civil War that dismembered Georgia in the early 90s, the Kodori Gorge was the only part of separatist Abkhazia that never fell into the secessionist hands. Since then, it has been defended by a local militia chillingly called Monadire: the batallion of the hunter. I am sure if I could speak with one of the Svans living in Kodori, fighting with Monadire, he would describe his defense of the far-flung valley in terms of the fighting his father had done, and his father before him, and his father, and his. The long grey line, stretching back into that place where history blurs into myth. Defending home the only occupation worth knowing.

President Shevardnadze tried to co-opt the militia, brush it up a bit with a smart shine and a uniform. He made it an arm of the defense services, not that these enlistees would answer to any orders, should anyone be so foolish enough to offer any. But there was a revolution back in 2003 and Georgia is now European and Modern and a few cobblestones away from coronation as "the next Prague." And one simply cannot have half-cocked and mountain-wild paramilitary units running amok and defending the motherland god-knows-how all in the name of the Ministry of Defense, can one? So in 2005, Monadire was disbanded by the Minister of Defense.

But this week they've come back in a fury. The leader of Monadire, (a warlord says the press with a palpable tremor) is chest-thumping his defiance to the central authorities. The government demands that the men surrender their arms and Georgian troops are slouching towards Kodori. President Saakashvili becomes completely unhinged, issues a speech flecked with profanities and threats and worse still, words like "ours" "us" and "them." Parliamentarians have boarded their jets and Ministers have summoned their press secretaries.

Meanwhile, in another age, Kodori gathers itself for something it must know well, and prepares to settle the matter among its own. While rhetoric flies in Tbilisi, the council of elders has gathered in Kodori. The reports say that these respected citizens, who really run the valley, are in negotiations with the warlord on the one hand and the Ministers of Defense and Interior on the other. Men of means and power, all of them, their guns and laws supplicant before the old ones who rule by the dictates of history and tradition.

The seriousness of the matter simply can't quite dispel my enchantment for the storybook of it all. backgrounders here and here, for a start.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Big Time

Via my little sister, I see that Georgia (the Republic of) made the front page of the NYT. Cool! And also, terrible! Ah, the eternal struggle between wanting the best for your little treasure and hoarding it secret from the world.

Monday, July 17, 2006

It Takes a Village

A tip for any do-it-yourselfers out there with aspirations at home ownership in the South Caucasus. Well, first: don't. Between the local construction-materials cartels and the slipshod workmanship, Paige Davis herself would turn into a cursing banshee before the commercial break. But if you nevertheless persist, and advance to the stage of interior decoration, a word of warning. The demure, understated, sophisticated tones of, say, Ralph Lauren paint have not yet made it to the Tbilisi bazroba. The paint colors on selection there are, like Georgia itself, undiluted, abrasive, and eye-popping.

John needed something to cover over the bare door and window frames in his house in the village of Sighnaghi, and he compromised on what seemed the best choice available: take-no-prisoners green. When we pried up the lid and took a peek inside, there wasn't much to say. "That's definitely...green." "Yup. That is very...green." "Maybe it'll dry...subtle?"

I had come along to Sighnaghi for that fresh country air and for a promised supra that evening, and ended up looking like I'd just been dragged under a St. Patrick's Day parade. Two hours into my painting duties I was standing with one foot propped on a splintering chair, one on a windowsill, balancing a bowl of paint in one hand and with the other spreading thick goops of the greenest green onto the window frame, when I noticed that a small boy was in the room staring at me.

I planned to yell out there there was a miniature invader in the house, but I quickly remembered myself. I am in a village, where your business is everybody's business, your home is everybody's home, and strange foreigners on the block is better entertainment than a movie.

Perhaps he'd been hypnotized by the green. When I broke his stare to say hello, he asked if he could help, so I outfitted him with a brush and a stool and we quietly worked in tandem, assaulting the unsuspecting window frame with concentrated leprechaun guts. "Why didn't he buy another color?" asked the kid with wrinkled nose.

Kids are like ants, you know. When you see one, you know there are hundreds lurking nearby. By the time the boy had finished up the window, legions of neighborhood children were wandering into the house, poking at things, tripping over paint buckets, stepping on glass, grabbing and giggling and mess-making. My job was to keep the little rugrats occupied and away from the other construction happening in the house. If you've ever tried to entertain a gaggle of pre-teens, particularly when you don't speak their language, you know the kind of odds I was up against. And that was why, with great trepidation and a few incantations to the Blessed Virgin, I broke out the secret weapon:

The consensus was that mine was a pretty sweet computer, despite not having cool games on it. I showed them how to browse through iPhoto, where my finely wrought artistic creations didn't hold a candle to the excitement kicked up by the shot of the dead dolphin from the Outer Banks in 2003. Undying coolness. They even got a kick out of Microsoft Word, and in Georgian phonetics, wrote me a poem. I understood the first two lines, which went like this: "I love you like yoghurt." And then something about a car. And then something terribly naughty, I presume, because when I read it out loud they howled with the sort of laughter that only comes when pre-teens and dirty jokes combine. I told them thank you.

I guess they had a pretty fun afternoon. After wearing themselves out on all the cool toys, one slumped onto his fist and sighed, "It's so great here at John's." And another tugged my sleeve and whispered out of hearing range of our host so that he could be surprised, "Amerikulad, rogora 'magari khar'?" "In American, how do you say, 'you are cool'?" A technically very correct question, as I suppose the British would phrase it somewhat differently.

In the end, children are exhausting. But somehow, it was comforting to know that even in a tiny hilltop village halfway around the world, kids here are just like kids at home: captivated by shiny blinking noise-making devices. And periodically shoving foreign objects down their shirts to look like boobies. Obviously.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

On the Border

My South Caucasus hopscotch this weekend was a success, and so after dipping my toe into Armenia, I re-entered Georgia with a fresh new stamp in my passport and the 90-days of visa-free residence that come with it.

It's a strange thing to cross an international border on foot. I've done it twice now, and both times can't quite shake the refugee feeling that comes with it. There should be sacks bowing my back and kettles clattering and some momentous feeling of relief or grief upon stepping over the line. But instead, I just drift over somewhat lackadaisically, sidling up to Armenia like up to a hot dog stand.

I think the Armenian border guards, too, prefer some appreciation of the dramatic at their little outpost, because they were not pleased when I told them I was just using their country as a tawdry waystation until I could step straight back into Georgia.

"Who told you that you could do this?" they'd gruff. And other complaints and moans and snide snickers at my terrible Russian. But through all the moaning, they were preparing the Armenian visa, obsolete little thing that it was.

With the visa firmly pressed into my passport, they clamped down a bright red entry stamp for me. Great. That's fine. Now for my exit stamp, please, and I'm off to Georgia again.

"I'm sorry," sneered the guard. "There's a problem. You need to stay here a minimum of four hours before the computer will register your exit."

"Four hours! But my friend is waiting there on the Georgian side! I can't wait four hours."

"You should have thought about that before," he shrugged.

With the scene thusly set, we enter into the Soviet pas de deux, whose cherished steps linger into this modern age.

The leading partner, I lean in conspiratorily to the little window and eye my partner. "Really, now. Four hours? Is it absolutely not possible to do less?"

Picking up his cue, the border guard swivels and gracefully shrugs. "Of course. It's possible."

"What can we do?"

"Maybe a little something to pay."

"How much do you want?"

"How much can you manage?"

"You'll let us back at once?"

"At once."

The rest is just haggling, but in the end, for $20 each, my friend and I were waltzing our way back into Georgia with Armenia at our backs. Elsewhere, they say it's hard to put a price on freedom, but 90 days of it in the South Caucasus will set you back $30 plus $20 extra to grease the wheels.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006


You know those illegal immigrants, and how they're the problem with everything? Living places without permission, leeches on society, don't speak the language, something something about health care and education? Funny thing about that. As of midnight last night, I suppose I'm one of them.

God, if it's not one thing, it's another.

It's not strictly customary to celebrate Independence Day with near-deportation, but sometimes, see, you just get something set in your head. Maybe it's your mother's birthday, maybe it's the time of your flight to Pittsburgh, but you're so very sure about it that you don't even think to check the calendar or the e-ticket, or what-have-you.

So it was for me and my visa to stay in the Republic of Georgia. I knew it was wrapping up at some point, I just didn't know that that point was yesterday. The 4th of July.

Luckily, I caught wind of this yesterday morning, and in the 45 minutes of spare time I had, I hustled down to the consulate division of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs to get my one-month extension. Done it before, it's no real hassle if you don't mind throwing the odd elbow at pushy pensioners now and again.

But it's never really so easy as all that, and I couldn't even summon the requisite outrage when I faced down the consular officer and he intoned the dread words that have spelt defeat and doom for Soviet citizens and their descendants for generations: "I'm sorry. There's been a new law."

Three days ago, they passed it, and the Ministry of Foreign Affairs no longer issues visas. At first I laughed brightly and proffered my passport a second time. "Very funny!" I chirped, suspecting the old dog was just flirting. "Anyway, one month please."

"Do you think I'm lying to you? We don't issue visas. I can't do anything for you."

"You're the consulate of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and you don't issue visas," I barked. "So what do you do?"

Well, young lady, that line of questioning gets you briskly sent out of the consulate of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and on your way to the Ministry of Justice, with 15 minutes until you must be elsewhere, and no idea what department you need.

So what you do is, fling wide the doors of Justice, walk entirely at random into a room, and with rising agitation, start waving your US Passport about and asking "Visa? Visa?" until someone ushers you into the appropriate line, behind an antediluvian old codger who seems perfectly willing to while away his final hours on this good earth jawing about the ages of his grandchildren to the desk clerk while you fume ostentatiously over his frail shoulder.

When I finally earn the attention of the desk clerk and explain my needs, she sweetly responds, "There's been a new law." They no longer do one-month extensions. One must instead present themselves with notarized translations of invitation letters, diplomatic documents, receipts from any educational stipends received, hospital certifications showing that the bearer is HIV and Hep C negative, and a whole lot of USD.

"This visa expires today," I impress upon her, stupid stupid tears starting in the corners of my eyes.

"You have a ten-day period to gather these materials. Thank you!"

Oh New Georgia with your new laws and your aspirations of anti-corruption. Back in the day, they say, it would just be a crisp bill across the table and I'd have whatever stamps I needed. And a few have whispered to me that they have a brother, or a cousin, well-connected you see, who can do this no problem. But it's just not the way, these days, so I'm opting for the less bureaucratic alternative: this ten-day window, so they say, will also allow me to cross an international border and return with a new Georgian stamp and a new 90-day visa. So this weekend I'm making a run for the border, Underground Railroad-ing it probably to Armenia, where I'll walk across, then U-turn back to Georgia, hoping the whole way that the border guys know about this ten-day rule and that nothing goes wrong in the gray space between nations where there are no laws, new or old.

Sunday, July 02, 2006


The plowman mentioned the smoke pall when I was talking with him in the afternoon, and I asked if he knew where the fire was.
“Canada,” he replied.
“What part of Canada?” I asked.
“The whole of it,” he said. “They tell me the whole of Canada is ablaze.”
“That’s a big fire then,” I answered. “Canada is a large place, larger than the United States even.”
The plowman considered this distasteful pronouncement a moment.
“Well then,” he said, “it is a big fire.” But he added cheerfully, “Anyways, it’ll have to cross a pile of water ‘fore it gits to us.”
I nodded in perfect agreement, for this seemed a spiritual rather than a geographical discussion, and I felt instructed and renewed.
--E.B. White; from "My Day"

I had only lived in Georgia about five weeks when I returned to Dallas, Texas last fall for a wedding. At the rehearsal dinner, the dollishly petite, impeccably shod blonde fiancée of the bride’s cousin summoned all her best debutante breeding and courageously hazarded a conversation with me. “I hear…” she started hesitantly, “that you are living on…the island of... Georgia?” A pause. Sensing her miss, she surrendered charmingly. “I’m sorry. I just don’t really know where that is.” It was so dear, her earnest trying, her genuine attempt to throw wide the borders of her general concern for the sake of polite conversation, that it seemed petty to be pedantic about such things. So I just said, “Yes, that’s right.” And why not? When I told the story back in Tbilisi, a Georgian friend concurred readily, if sarcastically. “We are an island! And island of democracy in a sea of authoritarianism!”

* * *

Oh Moscow? The republics are getting uppity.

At the Tbilisi airport, checking my guest's luggage at the counter for her flight back to the states, via Moscow. We watched as they affixed to her suitcase handles the bright pink tags announcing SHORT CONNECTION.

“It’s five-and-a-half hours,” she laughed. “That’s short?”

“We have to do that for Moscow,” chimed in a Georigan airport employee in the high clipped English that belied British tutelage. He raised his brows condescendingly, flicked his forefinger against his neck in the old Soviet sign for drinking, and said something rather funny coming from a Georgian. “They’re always a little drunk there.”

* * *

I have a different explanation. They say that time bends as it approaches the event horizon of a black hole, stretches out until one minute, one second refuses to end and make way for the next. This is what happens to time at Moscow's Sheremetyevo Airport, which also sucks away all light and all hope, and sucked in too the hapless traveler K.

K was traveling to Georgia for the first time, to Tbilisi via Moscow. The connection in Moscow was tight, but she made it to her next flight with time to spare. The plane for Tbilisi sat on the tarmac in clear sight, but between K and her seat stood the Russians with arms folded, telling her the flight was full. "You will go tomorrow," they told her.

Guards escorted K and the other stranded passengers and paired them up in bare rooms to pass the night. If they stuck their heads into the corridor outside of their rooms, they saw the guards holding vigil, lest passengers en route to Madrid and Tbilisi flout the rules and escape running into the Moscow night, disappearing into the city's underworld, and without a transit visa! No phones, so K could not call Tbilisi to tell them that she was detained, and when she'd arrive.

K and I hadn't met, but she'd found my blog in anticipation of her upcoming Georgia trip and we'd corresponded a time or two about practicalities. I'd passed along my number, told her to give me a ring when she arrived. K arrived at midnight in the Tbilisi airport, a day late, with nobody to meet her at the airport, no idea where to go, and no way to communicate. A taxi driver loaned her his phone, she called me, and I directed the driver to my apartment.

When they arrived, I was still crippled and couldn't hop out to the taxi to negotiate the fare. K called out how much the driver wanted. I yelled out to him "It's too much!" Giorgi the drunken sentinel who lives on my stoop and Keto from the market next door wanted to know how much this driver was asking. "He wants thirty!" I said. "No!" they shouted and soon half the neighborhood was negotiating the taxi fare, at midnight on a sweltering Tbilisi night, me hopping sock-footed, the driver roaring back that it was his business, not theirs, and poor K standing in the middle wanting nothing more than a pillow under her head and a roof over it, and what's five lari here or there?

Welcome to Tbilisi, K. Hope things are looking up.