Saturday, January 31, 2004

So Maybe I Was a Little Harsh

At least one Azeri has accused me of being (a) unreasonable and (b) evil because I gave his country a bad review. I have taken this opinion under advisement, and I agree that my harsh judgment of this perfectly un-evil country was a bit extreme. It's not Mordor. It's a member of the Former Soviet Union club--with all that entails--and one that has a bit of an environmental problem, but it's not Mordor. (Also, 23 people max read this thing, so I doubt I'm having a huge effect on tourism to or international views of Azerbaijan.)

Without going into details, my experience was colored by some unfortunate behavior on the part of a few people. This will probably not happen to you, whoever you are, if you decide to visit Azerbaijan. So, go there, have a good time, buy a rug, and don't forget to visit Qobustan, which was really quite spectacular and worth the trip all by itself.

Finally, dear readers--all 23 of you--the next time you invite someone to visit your country, be good to them, and they'll probably have a good time. They'll want to come back, and they will tell their friends.

Next report? The Land of Butter-Side-Down: Hayastan (Armenia to the rest of us).

Sunday, January 25, 2004

Write Governor Pataki

We have lots of fabulous, wonderful, Pulitzer Prize–deserving photographs we would love for the world to see, but there is something wrong with the server at the college. Once it gets fixed, we'll upload, I promise.
The Coronation—er, I Mean Inauguration—of Mikheil Saakashvili

Actually, that’s not quite fair. The inauguration itself was quite lovely: tasteful, restrained, and a good time. It’s just that the lead-up to this afternoon’s ceremony involved being blessed by the Patriarch at Gelati monastery in Kutaisi, where David Agmashenebelis—David the Builder, the greatest king of united Georgia back in the 12th century—was crowned. It’s a little imperial, and some people are griping about the costs. But I think Nino Burjanadze had it right when she said that the country needed some ceremony, some pomp, for this important occasion. This was not a Reagan-style do by any means.

[Digression: We took James to the airport at 4:30 a.m. on Saturday to send him back to college. Sad face. Anyway, as we were leaving the airport, we saw that there was a chilly policeman standing by the road every 100 meters along the whole distance into town. Coming down the steep curve toward Banana Street, a policeman stopped us and told us we had to wait. Within a minute or two, a motorcade of six or seven cars raced down the up ramp and went into town. This was himself returning, via the stupidly timed commercial flight, from Davos, Switzerland. There had been some grumbling noises about the fact that he didn’t take Airzena, the fabulous Georgian airline, when he left (I think he took Austrian—see my first entry in September to recall how I feel about THEM). He pointed out that at least he didn’t take the $50,000 per flight presidential plane. A man of the people, that’s our Misha! Maybe he’ll do something about those ludicrous* schedules.

*A word that will forever after be associated with Lado.]

Today, it’s beautiful sunny, clear, and warm. As we stood out in the sun, we were hot! Spring is on its way here. (Not like home—8º and snow.) We left the apartment at about 1:30 and made our way toward Parliament with our (new and improved) Georgian flags and our cameras. The old flag, maroon field with black and white rectangles in the upper left quadrant, was a downer if you ask me. It was the flag of the short-lived Republic of Georgia from 1918 to 1921, before the Mensheviks were taken out by the Bolsheviks. The design was dull, which I guess was meant to signify gravitas, but the maroon was always described to me as “the blood of our ancestors” or something like that. Ewwww. Anyway, the ancient flag of Georgia, the one that Saakashvili’s National Movement used, has been reinstated as Georgia’s flag. Yes, I do think it’s a little odd—imperial even—that the winning political party gets to have its flag be the flag for the whole country. And if I were a Muslim Georgian, I might not like the crusader look, but it is much prettier than the other one.

We found a place directly in front of the fancy school building and across from the Blue Gallery. I was about three people back and Wilson was in the front row. There was music and dancing in front of the Parliament building, though we couldn’t see it. There was supposed to be a big screen to broadcast what was going on to the crowd, but it was directly behind us, as was the sun, so that was not happening.

At 3 p.m., the national anthem started up, and then Misha took the oath of office and spoke, promising to be honest and hardworking, to support the Constitution, to work with the many strengths of the Georgian people, to be a responsible member of the global community, all these good things and more. We stood for 15 seconds of silence in remembrance of those who sacrificed their lives for Georgian independence. Our friend Nana did a simultaneous translation for us. There was a (don’t know how many exactly)-gun salute from atop Mtatsminda. The soldiers passed for review, all looking very handsome and spit and polish-y.

Then six or seven helicopters buzzed Rustaveli and dropped red rose petals on the crowd. That was such a wonderful poetic thing to do, and people cheered and waved flags; then the fighter jets buzzed by overhead. We all moved into the street toward the recessing entourage as they made their way toward the Opera House for a celebratory performance (to which we were not invited, alas). There was as much squishing of people as at a Grateful Dead concert, if not as much as at a football match. I was in a human wave that got within about four feet of the man himself, looking very natty, if a little orange from the TV makeup. Clif actually touched hands with him.

Somewhere in there, Clif realized that some lucky Georgian had picked his cell phone from his pocket. Bummer. It’s an old phone with absolutely nothing cool about it; its only worth is to us because of the numbers stored in its memory. But, if that’s the worst crime we experience here, we’re getting off light (knocking wood many times and spitting over my shoulder here).

This was a fitting end to our stay here, I think. I wish we were going to be here for the parliamentary elections in March. That’s sure to be a little more contentious than the presidential election was. But I feel very hopeful about things here. A lot has changed in five months.

People who stole from the government—and hence their fellow Georgians—are being arrested in significant numbers. Employment rolls are being checked for evidence of nepotism. People’s records of military service (or lack thereof) are being examined for evidence of payoffs. I’m guessing that George Bush is keeping very quiet about this particular practice. And a young friend told us recently about being stopped for speeding and actually getting a ticket! He did the usual thing and offered 5 laris to the policeman, but the guy said “no” and wrote the ticket, which will cost our friend 10 laris when he sends it in. He reports that he is in fact happy to pay it, glad to see that at least one corrupt practice is no longer ubiquitous.

I don’t see how to solve the tangled mess of Abkhazia, but at least everyone is going to try a little harder there. President Saakashvili wants his second inauguration to take place in Sukhumi, and the UN has kicked a little Abkhaz butt recently. George Soros has started a fund to increase the salaries of public employees. This means that they will actually make enough money to live on, so they won’t have to take bribes! We’ll see if it works. I think so much depends on everyone jumping into the pool at the same time. If people see that others aren’t jumping, it won’t work. President Saakashvili’s powers of persuasion will be put to a test, that’s for sure.

All in all, I feel hopeful about Georgia. It will very interesting to see how it contrasts with Armenia, which we will visit for a couple of days just before we leave for home. Stay tuned.

Wednesday, January 21, 2004

A Relaxing Long Weekend in Rivendell

Sorry it’s been so long since a new posting made its way here. First of all, we’re getting short. Only two weeks left. James will leave on Saturday, so we’re trying to pack as much FUN into our time left as we possibly can.

Part of this fun involved the boys—Clif, James, and Wilson along with friend Bill—going to Sapara Monastery for three days of . . . whatever. They took the Night Train to Akhaltsikhe, found a taxi driver willing to take them up the mountain, and spent their time doing what sounds like the Zen monk thing: chopping wood and toting water. Also watching one of the monks shoot stray dogs and cats. I love the image of a monk with a huge over-and-under shotgun wailing on the local feral animal population and dumping the corpses in the gorge. Wilson learned to make cheese. I am definitely going to do this when we get home, at least once, anyway. He and Clif spent lots of time in the kitchen helping Giorgy out. Even the abbot, Father Arsin, got up from his sickbed to participate in the nightly discussions with the guys. They attended prayers, though not as many times as the monks did. They had little dormitory type rooms with stoves, so they didn’t freeze to death. They arrived home dirty and tired, but happy, as if they had spent the time with Elrond and the elvenkind. Of course, these guys didn’t look like elves. Clif took a picture of the brothers and their various lay helpers, and it looks like ZZ Topp hanging out with Osama bin Laden and Santa Claus. Father Arsin’s blue-tinted aviator glasses were way cool.

Clif is writing a complete description of the experience, which he will post when he is done. What did I do for three days without them? What I wanted to!

Another Mini-Vacation—This Time in Mordor


This morning we returned from Baku, Azerbaijan. Where to even start? First of all, let me say that our hostess, Nigar, and her mother and her two small perfect children were wonderful to us. I feel like we always descend like a plague of locusts, laying waste to our surroundings, moving on, and leaving a mess. But they were really lovely people and nice to us. That said, I hated it.

People had told me that Baku would be a relief after Tbilisi, that it was a civilized, clean city with nice stores, that you could walk around at night without fear, that the food was good. There is an old walled city that is charming. There are fabulous Victorian oil baron mansions. There is a huge section of the middle of the city that is a pedestrian mall, surrounding a park with fountains, called interestingly enough, Fountain Square. All these things were true. Yet this does not capture the flavor of the experience of Baku at all.

(First of all, the best way to get there is to bribe the provodnik on the train. Don’t bother buying tickets. Just pay half the amount in cash to the guy, and hop on board. Be sure to keep some cash on hand to give all the border guards and customs people. Try not to get a compartment next to the bathroom, which made me gag.)

Civilized? It’s a police state. So it’s clean and relatively crime-free, but there’s a sinister edge. There are way too many policemen, and way too many KINDS of policemen. Lado has been shaken down multiple times, just for looking kind of like a bohemian artist. Which he is. No crime in that, you think? Think again, in Azerbaijan.

Elizabeth had a telephone interview with an NGO in New York while we were there, and a couple of minutes into the conversation, the line went dead. The interviewer called right back, she picked up the phone and said, “Hello?” and the line went dead again. This happened a couple more times, then after about five minutes the conversation was allowed to proceed. Took that long to grab an English-speaking listener, I guess. I tried three different Internet café’s in somewhat vain attempts to get my e-mail, but the systems kept timing out and dumping me back to the log-on screen.

The pedestrian mall is tidy and affluent, it’s true. It was kind of nice to walk around in a huge crowd of nicely dressed people and window shop. But it was about as interesting as a mall-mall. I was not tempted by the be-dazzled jeans, or the pointy-pointy boots, or the extremely barbaric-looking fur and/or shearling garments complete with animal body parts hanging off. Many groups of young men we passed felt a need to practice their English pick-up language on me (how desperate are they??), which although not realistically threatening in any way, is a little off-putting. Clif’s favorite feature of people-watching was the fortysomething oil company frat boys with the young Azeri girlfriends.

The old city is indeed charming, but it seemed to be populated solely by rug merchants, the kind who size you up, rip you off, and laugh when they’re done. Oh, and old men drinking tea and spitting. That too. The Carpet Museum, on the other hand, was wonderful. Our guide—Asya, the Woman to Know in Baku—took us through and taught us all about the different techniques and patterns. I fell in love with Karabagh carpets; they’re busy busy busy.

We had a couple of good meals—one at a caravansarai tourist-trap kind of thing in the old city, which was both (a) a complete hoot, and (b) yummy food. We were seated in a small arched stone room (camel stable? motel room?) with beautiful ceramics and textiles decorating the walls, various fancy cushions on the bench seats, and Mogham musicians performing in the courtyard. The tab was $11 apiece for the whole enchilada, including tips for the musicians. The “Rest” Café was good, too, although the ambiance was a few notches down. Depends on how you feel about bright blue and green neon lighting in your interior dining space, I guess. The food in Baku was excellent, if a bit heavy on the meat. There’s a lot of meat. Meat. Meat. Vodka. Meat. Meat. Meat. Pickles. Meat. Vodka. Meat. Baklava. Pretty much sums it up. To be fair, there is also plov, rice casserole. It’s homemade comfort food, like tuna wiggle, and therefore not much served in restaurants.

Our first full day there was the 40th day after the former President Aliyev’s death, so a whole day of mourning was called for. In Azerbaijan this means that all the TV stations play the same feed of the crowd filing past the mound of flowers all day. It’s hard to tell what people think about Heydar Aliyev, or his son, also President Aliyev now. It’s just not safe for them to say. I think the cautious ones turned out to file past and be recorded on the videotape. Billboards everywhere we went had slogans by and photographs of the great man.

When Clif was in Baku in December, when President Aliyev the Elder died, all TV coverage like CNN or Rossiya was taken off the air for 7 days so the funeral could be rebroadcast over and over. Conveniently, this also allowed any lingering international questions about the election of his son, or of the ensuing riots that were brutally suppressed, to be left outside the borders of Azerbaijan.

So, my overall response to Baku is “ennhhh?” that sound you make to indicate “so-so” or “comme-ci, comme-ça.”

And Rural

Outside the city, the nature of the Faustian bargain becomes very clear. The city is tidy and affluent; the countryside is Hell. First we visited the Absheron peninsula, where the first petro-fortunes were made. Nigar found a taxi driver who would take us out there for the afternoon for $20. The nodding donkeys start showing up in the suburbs. These are predictably composed of Soviet-style crumbling concrete apartment blocks with outlandish porch constructions (and a LOT of satellite dishes, which you do not see in Georgia because the government doesn’t control ALL the television).

After the Brezhnev apartments, the landscape is slightly rolling and covered with oil wells. There are stagnant pools of foul water, black petroleum, and unattractive mixtures thereof. What landscape is not completely polluted is dry, scrubby, and overgrazed. It’s a weird mixture of medieval livestock agriculture and blasted postindustrial wasteland. I think the taxi driver was somewhere between puzzled and insulted that Clif wanted to take pictures of the worst of this stuff. We tried to pretend that we were visiting a medieval fort, but I don’t think he was fooled. Oh well.

On our way out of Baku we visited the Zoroastrian fire temple, where natural gas spews forth and burns under a stone dome. (Pay no attention to the gas meter in the corner. The real pocket of gas ran out sometime back, and Measures Were Taken.) There is a caravansarai-type structure all around it; in the various rooms are some really creepy mannequins dressed up to look like pilgrims or postulants. One is clearly dying; another is lying on sharp gravel. Others are enslaved, in chains, being beaten. Is this uplifting?

On our way back to Baku we visited Yoner Dag, a hillside where natural gas pours out of a hillside and burns. This was completely spectacular. We had tea and a picnic in the chaikhana and tried to keep Wilson from burning himself up. This was really great; I only wish we could have seen it at night.

The next day we organized another expedition. Nigar found two taxi drivers to take the whole group to see Qobustan. This is one of the greatest wonders of the world, and I had never heard of it. Driving along the coast of the Caspian Sea south from Baku we passed an oil-drilling platform manufacturing facility (BIG!), some gas flares from oil fields (the branch offices of the Eye of Mordor), some really scrubby mesas, and little villages full of sheep. One really cool thing was the sheet metal work on the roofs of the houses. They all have corrugated tin roofs, but the newer ones have extravagant decorations. Every hip ridge and gutter is topped with spiky Stegosaurus plates and drip edges. The corners have little fancy castles where the gutters meet. The top ridges have miniature structures of sheet metal perched on top: mosques, towers, onion domes, rocket ships, fanciful helixes, even little cities. I really want to do this to our roof.

Finally we arrived in the area of Qobustan, the land of ravines, which comprises three separate mountains. They don’t look like mountains, though, not really. They are long mounds of enormous boulders. It looks like an overscale boulder fall, but I kept wondering where the boulders had fallen from?? There were no cliffs above. The mystery was solved when I found out that this was the ocean’s edge at one time, so this was big rocks the waves had crashed to pieces. We wound our way up onto the middle one, paid our entrance fee, and had the tour.

On these three mountains there are tens of thousands of prehistoric petroglyphs. Some are 30,000 years old; most are in the neighborhood of 12,000 to 15,000 years old. They are so stunning, I can’t believe this is not as famous as Lascaux or Altamira—it should be. They show the same sophistication of line as the cave paintings, as perfect as drawings by Matisse. At one time, some of them had pigment in or on them. The oldest ones are incised flat areas in the shape of fertility goddesses—huge hips and tiny heads. The less ancient ones are line drawings of hunters, dancers, bulls, deer, horses, ships, fish, birds, even a dog chasing a boar. There is a Roman inscription in Latin letters, carved by one Julius Maximus, a centurion of the XII Legion during the era of Domitian. This is the easternmost Latin inscription ever found. And I thought Gonio was a long way from Rome! There are crusader-era carvings, too. The sea level rose and fell, sometimes covering up areas and protecting them. We climbed up a scary ladder to the top and saw where the Soviets had quarried great sections of the mountain, even knowing the petroglyphs were here. Oh well.

We left Qobustan with another guide in one of our taxis and went to see the mud volcanoes. I think all of us expected a few little things going “pop, burble,” but it was much more. First of all, the drive out there was completely ridiculous. The headline in my mind read, “Heads of Missing Tourists Found in Remote Desert.” But we did arrive, finally, at a spot about 300 feet higher than the surrounding desert, and there were what looked just like cinder cones! These things did more than “pop”; they “g-r-r-g-r-u-m-m-m-b-l-l-e-d” and spewed forth gray mud and stinky gas. There were mud flows that looked just like lava, and there was one enormous dome that Wilson immediately climbed. Then we realized that the whole 300-foot high thing we had climbed was one big mud volcano. Wow. There were ponds that boiled and vents that spat, but it’s all cold, caused by the pressure of natural gas mixed with water. (No smoking!)

When we returned to Baku, the taxi drivers demanded double the rate negotiated, claiming that the agreed amount was a one-way fare. AS IF the American tourists wanted a ride to the mud volcano, BUT NOT BACK. We lost that battle, but won a sour taste in our mouths.

The train ride back was as cold as the train ride there had been hot. How hard is it, really, to regulate temperature? How hard could it be to make a bathroom on a train that wasn’t a complete sewer? Without going into detail, there’s absolutely no way this design could be anything BUT a public health nightmare! Oh well, not queen of the world . . . again. Whinge over.

After eleven hours of overnight stop-and-start, interrupted by four hours of border-crossing passport checks and customs inspections, we rolled into Tbilisi, where it is not clean or affluent or controlled, but it is much more democratic, anarchic, and home, at least for the time being.

Sapara Monastery

When we went to Sapara in December (on our way to visit Vardzia), my secret agenda was to see if we could arrange a longer visit, a stay with the monks. They seemed receptive to the idea, and eventually we worked out a time. I wanted to go after Christmas, to be there when their fasts were over, so we left on the ninth of January, two days after Christmas.

I figured that the overnight train was the way to go, an orthodox mode for an orthodox trip, but it is very slow, taking eight hours to go about two hundred kilometers to Akhaltsikhe, which is the nearest town to Sapara Monastery. The marshrutka, by comparison, takes three hours. So James, Wilson, our friend Bill and I got to the train station with a good couple of hours to spare (the train left at eleven pm), wandered around, found the right station (Borjomi Station, if you care), bought the outrageous six lari tickets for a coupe (about three dollars apiece for a four berth sleeping compartment) and were led up to the platform by a very helpful man in a uniform, who helped us escape a hospitable/hostage situation in the ticket office (involving a nice man who was excited to see Americans and wanted to explain about Georgian wine, particularly wine made from Isabella grapes, which, he was careful to explain, come from America, you know, and make very tasty [N.B.: tasty is a code word for that kind of wine] wine, I would like you to be my guests, and so on) so we narrowly escaped another bout with wine drinking.

The five cars were standing in the very dim light under the barrel-roofed station platform, coal smoke pouring from each of the car’s heating systems as the provodniks stoked up the cars to furnace heat. There were groups of soldiers on the platform; an old lady selling drinks, candy, those puffed corn things, combs, tissues, vodka, pens, and water; porters with inexplicable boxes; other confused-looking passengers with string-tied parcels; and us, all barely visible in the dark. We bumped our way to our compartment in the dark (no lights without an engine) and found the broiling hot compartment. James, Wilson, and Bill went out to get snacks and returned with junk and a bottle of Rasputin vodka. I watched as an elektritchka (a kind of commuter train) pulled in, totally filled with crates of Borjomi water, and was unloaded by crowds of porters.

Eventually our train left and, as it was departing, two soldiers walked into our compartment, sat down on the bed and carefully pronounced “ you are from America” and then stared at us without speaking. I affirmed their conclusion and they said that they would be back. James thought this was ominous and suggested that we lock the door. I was less worried and I knew, knew with a dreadful, awful certainty, that we had not escaped hostage hospitality, that we were trapped on a slow train with a group of determined hosts and too much vodka for our own safety.

We wound up in their compartment where we drank vodka, ate bread and sausage (oh my God, it was sausage from hell), and talked in broken Russian (me and James) excellent Kartuli (Bill) and broken English (them) about all kinds of things: killing musselmans (their goal), life in Georgia (shit right now, but perhaps better in the future), life in America (a dream), the eternal friendship of Georgia and America, and the joys of being a man. We were emphatically invited to come to their villages and be their guests for a while, but we explained that we were on a mission to the Monastery and they seemed to accept that as an acceptable excuse for rudely refusing their hospitality.

I don’t know when I went to bed, but it wasn’t soon enough and I barely slept before we arrived in Akhaltsikhe at 7.30 in the morning. I was not so sober, but coherent. I tried to get a taxi driver to find a café, but after driving all over town we concluded that nothing was open in that dreary little town and I pointed him towards the monastery. We all desperately wanted a few hours of sleep, but there are no Hotel Sixes in Akhaltsikhe, so off we went.

The road up to the monastery was beautiful in the weak winter dawn: a rough road climbing up through a village first, then through fields, then over a pass to a high valley with a few ruined barns. The rough, snow-covered track followed the side of the mountain, winding along, higher and higher, till we were frighteningly high above the floor of the valley. We slid around until we spotted the monastery, high up in a valley, a magical-looking group of buildings. The taxi let us out at the gate and we staggered in.

We were unsure of where to go, or even who we were supposed to meet, so we walked toward the main church and then to the monk’s building, a long, narrow, two-story building of stone. We dropped our bags in the entry hall and looked for someone, but there was no one around. I noticed smoke coming from the refectory across the path so we went into the kitchen. It was right before prayers, but the brothers were glad to see us and took us back to the seminary building, where they eventually put us into two rooms, each with two beds and a little stove. The rooms really belonged to seminarians who were on holiday, so we were lucky to have such nice rooms. There were elaborate icon corners in each room and a fair amount of religious art on the walls: pictures of the Patriarch, other monks, famous icons, and churches. The rooms were cozy and heated up rapidly from the wood stoves. The views out the windows in the thick stone walls were just stupendous: a sheer drop, right outside the window, to the valley four hundred meters below, but a wild, craggy drop with agonized, twisted rock. A line of snow-covered mountains was visible in the distance, across the valley. I felt far above the world, floating in the sky, peaceful.

I was sobering up and painfully exhausted. I fell asleep for a few minutes in the freezing cold room until brother Georgi walked in and said, “let’s go.” We walked down the road to the refectory and joined the brothers for lunch. The monks at Sapara eat twice a day (when they are not on a fast schedule) right after each of the two main services of the day. During this period of relaxed practice, they go to prayers at eight in the morning, pray for two hours and then eat. They go again at five and eat around six thirty. From noon until five, they do chores (milk the cow, feed the cow, feed the pig, clean the stables, go logging for firewood, chop firewood, wash clothes, fix things, tote water [no running water except in the refectory kitchen, which has a continuously-running water pipe from the spring] shoot wild dogs, and stay very busy) and then do more chores after evening meal. They study and read during the evening, which is when they also meet with Father Arsin, the abbot and spiritual leader of the monastery. There are only four full monks and about three novices (I think). Georgi was a novice and had been there a year. The attrition rate is high, I believe, since the life is very hard. There is electricity only sometimes, no running water, very cold and primitive toilets, and no source of heat in the monks’ rooms. The monastery is very isolated, which is a huge part of its appeal, but also adds to the difficulty of the life there.

We walked in and sat down at the long table. Everything about their lives is a testament to the vow of poverty they have taken: the table is crude, the dishes are mismatched hand-me-downs, the refectory is primitive. But their food is often wonderful: we had magnificent meatless food in December. The monks rotate the responsibility of being Trapeza, or chef. The monk responsible for cooking skips the church services for a week, but cooks all the food and washes the dishes (with some help from the boys who are the “monastery servants.” I never found out what the story was with that eleven-year-old boy who hung around doing chores). We had a huge lunch, with a lamb-based stew, soups, and amazing fig preserves. We had some wine with lunch, which was very hard for me to drink, but after that first day we drank nothing but tea. The monks say an elaborate blessing before and after each meal and one monk told me that angels gather around the table while we are eating, an amazing image if you think about it. After lunch Georgi took us for a long walk around the mountain, through the beautiful fir forest along a snow covered trail, showing us where they are selectively and thoughtfully logging, to the other side of the mountain where we could see an old cave monastery, abandoned for hundreds of years, twenty cells cut into the side of the mountain, a kind of mini-Vardzia, located across a valley that would take all day to walk across. I immediately imagined coming back in the summer, walking over there, spending the night in the caves, and walking back the next day. Georgi led us to the monastery graveyard, which has a few marked graves. Most had been despoiled during the communist period. There was an open grave with a wooden coffin lying at the bottom, but we were told that it was a memento mori and not to worry. The coffin lying in the open grave sparked a great discussion about how awareness of death provides a serious motivation for living a moral life. We walked back down to the monastery and I went back to my cell to sleep. I fell asleep so hard that I slept through the afternoon services, but got up in time for the evening meal.

After dinner (more lamb stew, lung and heart stew, salad-y things and a little tan wine) we went to the reception room in the monk’s building (bratskii corpus, I kept calling it to myself), built a fire in the stove and sat with the monks. We had a halting, but interesting conversation. Father Arsin (the abbot) sat for a while and listened as I explained why I wanted to come to Sapara: when I had visited in June of 2002, I had had the most remarkable feeling about the place, a feeling very difficult to describe, but a kind of yearning to return. It is one of the most amazing places I have been, but it is very difficult to explain why: it is beautiful, it is old, it has an interesting history, but I have been in lots of places with those qualities. They interpreted my feeling as God’s message to me about his pleasure with Sapara and my potential vocation as a monk. I am not orthodox, I can’t speak Georgian, I can’t even speak Russian to do more than get around and buy things, so it is hard to see myself as a potential Georgian Orthodox Monk, not to mention that I am married and have sons to raise. One of the monks pointed out that it was ok to leave a wife and family to pursue God (he himself had a wife and kids back in the world) but I remained unconvinced. We went to bed eventually, walking back to the seminary along the pitch-black road, under the brightest stars I have ever seen.

A bell signaling the start of the day rings a bunch of times at eight am and then the big bell rings three times for prayer service. I got up and went to church. The service started in the smaller tenth century church (barbarously painted solid blue by the Russians, covering up old frescos) and consisted of chanting prayers, first in old Georgian, then the monks moved into the newer, fourteenth century church (with great fifteenth century frescos) and finished in contemporary Georgian. The chanted prayers were hypnotic, a drone of incomprehensible sound, and I went far away to some mesmerized place. It was bitterly cold in the churches, and we stood for the two-hour service. Some of the monks were on their knees, some leaned, faces pressed against the walls, some stood and wobbled. I leaned against a pillar at the back of the church. Sunday was supposed to be liturgy, but Father Arsin was sick and we only had prayers.

We broke our fast in the refectory and decided to spend the afternoon climbing and walking around. The dukes or princes who owned Sapara had a summer palace and fortress on the mountain above the monastery and we climbed up to investigate. The snow made climbing interesting and we slid and scrambled up the rocky hill. The fortress looks like a Scottish castle, built of rubble, and has five-storey tower, but the floors have all rotted out, and it is just a shell. The palace is harder to understand as it is mostly collapsed. After a long climb and another walk in the woods I was ready for a rest.

I went to prayers again at five and then we all had dinner in the refectory. We spent a bit of time in the monk’s parlor, but the brothers were very busy, racing around doing something inexplicable. We went back to our rooms, built jolly fires, and played hearts.

Monday began Georgi’s turn at being the trapeza, so I volunteered to help him. When the eight am bell rang I jumped up and headed to the kitchen to help cook. He wanted to make soup, and pasta with cheese (a monastery favorite) so we set to work, building a fire in the wood stove (the first time I have cooked on a wood cook stove, very interesting, you vary heat by changing the position of the pot on the top surface) and peeling onions, potatoes, grating cheese, and so on. Lunch was mostly ready by eleven am when the brothers showed up and we ate. I spent an hour or so washing dishes and cleaning up and then Wilson made cheese, a really simple procedure. Georgi gave me an hour off so the boys and I hiked down to explore the cells cut into the cliffs below the monastery. Some of the monks live in these cold cells, just like the monks at Vardzia in the twelfth century. I went back to the kitchen and helped prep dinner: more soup, pasta, buckwheat kasha, and beets in khemali sauce. When dinner was mostly ready I went to services at five and Wilson stayed in the kitchen helping Georgi. James spent the afternoon chopping and sawing wood. After supper, we worked for quite a while cleaning up, making the kitchen orderly, preparing beans to make lobio and Father Arsin appeared to eat a boiled egg. We sat with him and talked a bit. He impressed me as a remarkable man, very spiritual and aware of other people. I can see that he is good at being the abbot: good at judging other people’s psychological state, good at dealing with other people, and just a really good man. Eventually we went to the parlor for a bit, sat with some of the novices and talked about various things. Bill gave the brothers an English-Georgian dictionary, which really sped up our conversations (or increased the accuracy). We agreed that Father Sergius would drive us to town the next day after the first meal. We went back to the seminary and got the room as hot as we could and passed out.

Tuesday morning I got up extra early and went to services. After services I went to the kitchen to see how the lobio were progressing. Father Gerasim (super pappy according to his tea mug) was in the kitchen with Georgi, doing this and that to the huge pot of lobio, creating some ferociously delicious aromas. We washed some dishes and then had lunch. The lobio were fantastic, the best I ever had, and we were aware that it was time to go, which made me sad.

We said goodbye to Father Arsin, took pictures of the monks, and then slid down the mountain in the Uwaz jeep. There was a moment of adjustment being backing the world, especially the crowded, chaotic world of the bus station. We said more goodbyes at the bus station and got onto a marshrutka for Tbilisi.

The monks were amazingly hospitable and welcoming, genuinely glad to have us there. I was interested in how such a hard life could be enjoyable and I think I have some inkling of what it must mean to be a monk, a faint distant shadow of an idea, but more of an idea than I had before. I know that if I ever come back to Georgia, I will go back to Sapara. The harsh cold did nothing to change my feeling about that place: a remote mountain monastery in Georgia on the Turkish border, but a place strangely close to me.

Saturday, January 10, 2004

Some Lingering Questions Gnawed on, Again

Soon after we arrived in Georgia, we attended a party at the ambassador’s residence. I remember thinking a couple of things: (1) why is this taxi driver asking so many people how to get there? and (2) is this all the security there is? The house was on a regular residential street, and like most it had a high concrete wall out front. Walking up these streets, you see nothing but wall and gate; it is one of those experiences where you say, “Right. This IS Asia.” (There are good arguments for it being Europe, too. No one can answer this question definitively.) Anyway, there was a guard box out front, about the size of a telephone booth, and there were a couple of nice young men who looked like they could take care of themselves but not necessarily of a car bomb. The house was spacious and gracious (rhymes!), just what you think two completely extraordinary and wonderful people, Sharon and Richard Miles, would have for a home. It was not at all “decorated,” it was a reflection of their interesting lives.

On many occasions I have commented on the first issue raised above. Now it is time for some more reflection.

In the United States, as in every country, we have certain fundamental myths we live with. Some fit better than others as our country has grown and aged, but one perennial favorite is what I think of as “the Pioneer.” Pa Ingalls, as described in the “Little House” books, is the perfect illustration of this myth. He can slaughter a pig and butcher it, kill a wild cat, build a sod hut or a log cabin or a timber storefront, single-handedly farm 160 acres, play the fiddle, calm down an angry mob, repair farm machinery, care for livestock, make jokes on himself, and cuddle his devoted daughters. The family moved from territory to territory, looking for just the right place. Every time they moved somewhere, it would be O.K. for a while until more people started to show up, then he would get itchy, pick up the family, and go start over somewhere else: from the big woods of Wisconsin to the Kansas prairie, to Minnesota, to Silver Lake in South Dakota. Pioneers like Pa Ingalls work best by themselves and take pride in knowing how to do a lot of different things well (for example, reading maps). I grew up with one in the house, and it was very comforting. The down side to this type is that being so self-sufficient and able, relationships with other men are harder to sustain, as are family relationships. Wife not working out? Move on. Friends not working out? Join a new club. Move. Change jobs. But never admit that you don’t know something. Drive for three hours and burst your bladder, but do not stop to ask directions.

Georgia, on the other hand, is a warrior culture. This country has been a bone fought over by a pack of dogs for centuries. Men in this society have had to defend their land, families, and nation over and over again. What this produces, as best I can tell, is a society of men who love and trust each other wholeheartedly and who are most comfortable in the company of other men. Hence the Moose Clubs. Also hence the pattern I see of very young marriages, for the girls, anyway. Someone told me recently that young men in their twenties marry teenage girls so they can keep dating and still have someone do their shirts for them. So while there is a LOT of emphasis put on “family” here, it means something very different: more like “clan,” certainly not individual, nuclear family.

This also explains situations like the one Bill got into when he accidentally brushed up against a man on the street, and the whole posse turned around and looked like they were going to pull him to pieces. He said “Excuse me,” with his no doubt American accent, and the guy practically invited him for dinner. He was no longer a threat, he was a guest in this country. “Hospitality” and “hostile” have the same root after all; so says Jacques Derrida and who can you believe if not him?

One logical consequence of this is, of course, insta-bonding with locals over navigation. I think it’s presenting one’s credentials, sniffing each other for clues to affiliation, and making that connection. Women in the United States who have absolutely nothing else in common can bond over their children, striking up conversations in the checkout line or at the playground but not necessarily needing to pursue it any further. I think it’s the same kind of thing: the connection is easy to establish and natural.

Other logical consequences can be laid at the feet of this pattern of tightly bonded groups of men defending each other. As I mentioned before, Moose Clubs and a different attitude toward marital and familial relationships are obvious. Other behaviors include: open affection—walking arm in arm down the street; friendships established in childhood remaining in place no matter how much the lives diverge; if a friend asks a man for money, he cannot refuse, nor can he ask what it is for; cheating in school—ubiquitous and not a moral problem—it’s just helping your friends and you’d be a jerk if you didn’t; corruption at work—hiring your friends and relatives and slipping them a little something extra; banditry; a complete refusal to carry things (the squire will get that—the knight can’t be bothered); the inability to read maps. (Taxi drivers will take the map from you and look at it carefully, but it’s as incomprehensible as Sanskrit.)

These behaviors are perfectly natural, logical, and admirable here. This is why New Year’s Eve and its new way of celebrating seemed so significant to me. The category “people I am comfortable with” expanded to include everyone there, even strangers.

On to the second issue: ambassadorial security. We were invited to a house-warming reception at the newly built residence, so—armed with the map included in the invitation—we set out. Several stops later (one of which was at a house that could not have been the ambassador’s residence, no, not in 1.2 million years, but the taxi driver was absolutely convinced, so we had to ring the bell and talk to the lady who came to the gate, and who, luckily, was nice, if not terribly helpful about directions) we pulled up into a jumbled mass of cars and trucks waiting all over the road. Uniforms, weapons, metal detectors sweeping the bottoms of the vehicles, walkie-talkies, video surveillance, bright searchlights, a considerable distance from any street to the house: this was more like it! After last fall in Istanbul, I feel happier already, knowing they are safer. Your tax dollars and mine, well spent, no kidding.

The house is the postmodern stucco style so popular here. The forecourt (with fountain) and the long driveway are made of concrete pavers with stone retaining walls, and the whole thing sits way up above the street. It’s big—at least four stories, I think. The rooms are large, but they still have that feeling the other house did: this is the home of interesting individuals, not some stage set unloaded from a crate that says “ambassador.” Joe Kagle’s painting is prominently hung at the first stair landing. The party was attended by hundreds of people, none of whom was Misha or Nino B (oh well). But there were plenty of recognizable faces, and even the Prince and Princess Murat (who send their regards to Roger and Jerry).

From what I hear, the Miles had to suck up and do the whole thing over again the next night for a different group, there being so many people they wanted to invite. There are a lot of perks, but it’s a tough life. I couldn’t do it. I’m glad they can.

Monday, January 05, 2004

The Presidential Election

As of about 6 p.m. (GMT+4), the presidential election has been declared valid by the Central Election Commission. And according to exit polls, Mikheil Saakashvili has received about 85% of the vote. Eduard Shevardnadze voted, as did Aslan Abashidze, although the Revival party declined to participate. Their lips are sealed as to who they voted for. So that’s over, and we can celebrate Misha-oba, the festival of “Misha.”

It has been a very quiet run-up to the election. The registration process took place in December. People were supposed to go to their polling places and see if they were on the list correctly or get on it then and there (and to point out the names of dead neighbors, no doubt). On the last day of registration, Dec. 28, a nice lady with a clipboard came to our door to make sure we were registered. But I think we gave ourselves away when we couldn’t answer any of her questions with anything besides “ar vitsi Kartuli . . . Amerikeli.”

I have been amazed and touched by the optimism I hear every day. People really believe that Saakashvili will be able to change things for the better. We’ll see. The obvious thing to do is get the hard stuff through first thing, not wasting that wave of good will he is surfing. But I’m not sure what his programs are going to be beyond fighting corruption. In fact, that is one distinct feature of Georgian politics; programs, plans, or agendas are not even on the table. I have always thought of American politics as more or less a popularity contest, with most votes being cast on the basis of something akin to sexual attraction. (The taller guy always wins.) But here, it’s really bald. There’s not even a pretense of it being anything but personality-based. For example, in the November election campaign, you had your Shevardnadze Citizen’s Union, your socialists, and—finally—your Revival party playing together in the same sandbox. Talk about Big Tent!

Anyway, back to the main topic: Misha will be the new president now. He’s cute enough, I guess, in a puchlinky kind of way (Russian word courtesy of Elizabeth, probably spelled wrong in awkward transliteration, means something like “full of cute baby fat”).

I wish him luck.

New Year’s Celebration

A little late on the reportage here. Sorry. It was a great event.

Wilson’s amazing new tutor, Goga (!), was at great pains to explain to me that the New Year is seen in en famille. None of this marching around Times Square and kissing strangers, you celebrate the actual event at home, then go out five minutes later and party all night (and for the next three or four days).

Events proved him sort of wrong, but in the nicest possible way. I missed my disco nap on New Year’s Eve afternoon, so I was not ready for an all-nighter, but I am always up for a happy stroll down a crowded Rustaveli Avenue, as you may remember from that revolution thing. The party was scheduled to start at 10:30; bands, theatrical and dance troupes, puppet shows, and pop stars were going to perform on different stages set up all along Rustaveli from Republic Square down to Freedom Square.

I was also mentally prepared for the onslaught of major firepower, since our neighborhood has been resounding for weeks with the sound of firecrackers setting off the car alarm in the courtyard adjacent. The record was six times in a half hour. The firecrackers here come in what looks like a large matchbox, complete with striking panel. The little darlin’s themselves have a head like a match and a fuse down inside the cardboard tube. The technique is: you strike it like a match, then throw it at someone’s feet and walk away casually so as not to be caught. Seeing as how I married and gave birth to pyromaniacs, this has been a fun time for them. I no longer jump when I hear BANG!

So, we went out onto Rustaveli with Lado and Elizabeth at about 11 or so. Wilson bought some giant roman candles and persuaded his father to let him light them in the crowd. This was what was going on all around us, I hasten to add. He was pretty good about pointing it only at the sky (or the overhead electric wires) until it misfired, at which point he turned it sideways, directly at the crowd. Luckily, it misfired again. But no one was mad or anything; they just shot back at him. Clif’s hair caught on fire a little, but there’s no permanent damage.

This all sounds completely foolhardy. It was. But I was going with the flow.

The street was already very crowded and the performances got started even before the clock struck 12, so Goga missed some of the very strange lip-synching-in-Brittany-hot-pants-and-hat that we managed to take in. Lucky him. There were also Georgian folk dancers doing their thing, looking like they had rollers for feet. There was a military brass band that was really good. Polyphonic singing? But of course! The orchestra played selections from the Nutcracker, and local hard rockers Vake Park played, sounding very much like a strange Linkin Park. There were food stands and firework vendors, pointy foolish foil hat merchants and vodka kiosks. And everything was really, really jolly.

We ended up almost in Republic Square when midnight struck. The fireworks, the light show, the group of Santas holding a giant banner full of balloons, the happy people—it was all very beautiful. If you watched this on TV, we were the foolish Americans (and Irishmen—I must include Thomas and Colm in this nonsense) on top of the electric bus. Again, foolhardy. Again, going with the flow.

Of drunks, there were probably many, but in Georgia you do not see sloppy drunks for the most part. People were very well behaved. No pistol shots in the air that I was aware of, and I haven’t heard any different in the four days following.

L and E peeled off for a dance club at about 2:30. We went home and went to bed. James and Gio rolled in at 8:45. The next day at about noon I walked out Chavchavadze as far as the football stadium entrance. I think I saw about 15 people total. They take partying seriously.

This is the first New Year’s Eve like this in Georgia. Last year there was a public performance or two, but this was a huge, organized street party with tens of thousands in attendance. Perhaps the Rose Revolution created a new paradigm for public celebration. Maybe it’s a new thing for Georgia, a sense that the whole nation and all of its people are in this together—not just celebrating with the family, but all out there as one. It was great.

This page is powered by Blogger. Isn't yours?