Monday, May 17, 2004

The Magic Mountain

This Saturday we went to Abastumani via Borjomi, a group of 12 in three cars. Abastumani is a village full of pre-revolutionary houses and sanatoriums for tuberculosis patients, as well as a giant telescope and observatory. Borjomi is a huge national park, full of hills and paths and home to the spring that produces this sulphery healing water, famous all over the former Soviet Union. It cures hangovers and indigestion, too. The road to Borjomi is good, but after that it is of course filled with potholes. In addition, Richard was leading - which means we took the most circuitous route possible there, detouring to see an obscure monastery called Zasma, grumbling all the way and then shutting up when we saw how gorgeous it was there. Zasma is beautiful; about four monks live there, and they were conducting a service. We went inside, listened to the singing, and looked at the gorgeous frescoes, and towards the end one of the women attending the service came and asked me in georgian about our group; then she said in beautiful English "Are you foreigners?" And I said "Yes". She looked about seventy, and was wearing a mauve sweatshirt on her head as a headcovering. It turned out that she was the local English teacher. We went on our way, stopping in Borjomi to drink the source of Borjomi water, served by a tiny old woman who spends all day in a sunken square area, filling cups at the spring under a plastic bubble. Then we were on our way to Abastumani.

We gradually drove farther and farther uphill, through the town. The sanatoriums and houses had peaked roofs and beautiful balconies, with carved overhangs and wooden columns, and the river was lined with a wrought-iron fence and crisscrossed with small footbridges. After we drove through we took a sharp left uphill and wound our way to the observatory. We settled into our sanatorium - two apartments with single beds, blankets, soviet furnishings, and a staff of russian-speaking astronomers and two sanatorium ladies. The sanatorium, $10 a bed for foreigners, $5 for georgians, is on the top of a hill in a gorgeous pine forest, a crumbling rectangular building with glassed-in loggias and small kitchens. The main observatory is a little ways down the road, and the complex is actually quite large. It was freezing inside, everyone had their sleeping bags and warm clothes, even though it's May, usually one of the nicest months in Georgia. The air at this elevation was thick with ozone, we were told, and good for stargazing and tuberculosis healing. Nobody wore hats. Everyone's cheeks were flushed. All of us started breathing harder, our hearts beat faster, and our hands got cold. Lado and I gathered some wood, while the small contingent of incredibly energetic French and German diplomats. led by an Irishman, gathered much more wood, while the English made a run for meat and cigarettes, and then Lado and I took a short walk into the pine forests and found a small cemetery, filled with the graves of astronomers - one woman lived from 1906 until 1997, four entirely different periods of politics in Georgia: Tsars, Mensheviks, Bolsheviks, Gamsakhurdia and Shevardnadze. Then I got a nosebleed.

We spent the evening around the campfire, roasting shashlik on shampuris (Georgian barbecue sticks), drinking beer and talking politics, eating and eating more. At eleven we went to the observatory; the sky was too cloudy to see anything, but we went to see the telescope. It was installed in the thirties, this huge, building-sized German model, with a floor that raises and lowers, a wooden ceiling that rotates and opens (manually now, since the power is too weak to use the automatic opener) into this long rectangle that cuts a slice out of the dome, to look at light that comes from before the solar system existed.

We left the observatory so a group of Georgian teenagers could take a look, and walked back to our sanatorium, passing a large minibus. It was lit from within and we could see about forty people of all ages laughing and chatting in Armenian inside; as we passed by, they shut off the lights to go to sleep.

Sunday morning, we woke up and gathered around the cars. We headed down the mountain for a swim in the baths we had seen the night before - natural hot springs, for 1 lari 50 tetri (about 75 cents) a person, towels one lari extra. We returned the shampuris to their respective restaurants and while we were debating whether to swim first or have coffee, a huge bus pulled up and around seventy georgian students poured out, carrying food, drinks, radios, and swimsuits, and jumped almost directly into the water. So much for that. Defeated, we went up the road to another restaurant and consoled ourselves with turkish coffee, eggs, and potatoes. Lado and I went for another walk, this time around the town, and met two local women, who told us that for 5 lari a person you can have a bed in one of the sanitoriums, some of them formerly owned by Persian princes and the Romanoffs, for princes and princesses with tuberculosis. The market is up the road, the bath is near, the air is clean, the landscape is arcadian beautiful; we drove the four hours back, pulling off the road every once in a while to take photographs or drink tea. I'm thinking that after I give my final exams in the flatlands, I'll come back for a week or three.

Sunday, May 09, 2004

Giorgoba and The Revolution of Fertilizer

They are showing Abashidze's possessions he left behind in the territory of Adjara. Houses full of champion Caucasian sheepdogs, with marble baths for them to play in and showers for bathing them. A huge stable for his horses and, inexplicably, a collection of expensive bearded goats. They showed his factory that was producing helicopters with the sleekness of late-eighties tennis shoes; another one that was supposed to be bought by Hummer. They showed his car collection and the personal garage of his son, Giorgi Abashidze - also known as the former mayor of Batumi - and one of the $6,000 wheels of a million dollar machine. Although where the car is, nobody knows. Sailing boats and yachts, a yacht club, houses and dachas, all left behind. One of the best parts of this is that the man who is anchoring this story is the former head of Abashidze's party in Tbilisi.

Misha Saakashvili today put tons of computers, cars, art and other gear on a square in Batumi and said that there will be an auction - with all profits going to the people of Adjara, and the computers going to schools in Adjara. Secret proletarian fantasies fulfilled, anyone?! It's kind of wonderful.

This revolution took place on St. George's day - there are two of these holidays, called Giorgoba, in Georgia, his birthday and date of death. Traditionally you're supposed to call up everyone you know whose name is George and wish them congratulations. And the other revolution, back in November, took place on the other Giorgoba as well. So yes, the name of this revolution: people are calling it the revolution of fertilizer (or manure!). 60 tons of fertilizer were supposed to go from the rest of Georgia to the hillside lands of Adjara. But before this could take place, Abashidze blew up the bridges because he got scared by the military maneuvers in Poti, and the protests started. The farmers couldn't get their manure, so they got rid of Abashidze.

Wednesday, May 05, 2004

Update: Adjara

There are several groups of opposition members on the border with Adjara, but some kind of Adjaran spetsnaz started shooting when they decided to cross into Adjara. The TV is showing a whole group of people waiting at the Choloki Bridge - one of the ones that was blown up. The protesters are on one side, the spetznaz and Abashidze supporters on the other side, with the ruined bridge between. They just showed one man wade across the river, waist-deep with his hands in the air, showing he has no weapons and shouting that they are of one blood - all Georgians - so why are they not letting people in? The people on the adjaran side just started screaming "Babu, Babu" which is their affectionate nickname for Abashidze - it means grandpa - and then all the men in black masks started shooting their automatic weapons in the air. On the other side, someone got ahold of a megaphone and protesters passed it around, shouting. One man said "What are you doing, guys, my house is on that side!" Another took the megaphone and called to someone he knows in the group of Abashidze supporters - "Suliko! Suliko!" by his nickname.

There are huge adjarian tanks and military vehicles driving up and down the road, cutting off the coastline.

On the other side of the Choloki bridge, around 2,000 protesters are coming from Kobuleti. So eventually the spetznaz will be in between two groups of protesters. There's news that the Kobuleti police have joined the side of the protesters.

Now Babu himself is on tv, in his customary crew-neck t-shirt and light blue suitjacket in his palace. He says that his people are still supporting him. Then we saw a clip from Adjarian TV of people in civilian clothes shooting into the air to scare the protesters. The protesters themselves have been gathering at the university and stayed through the night - 15,000 of them, police included.

The deadline from Tbilisi is the 12th of May.

Tuesday, May 04, 2004

The God out of the Machine

It has been raining steadily for what seems to be at least three weeks now, well after April showers should have taken a hiatus to give the darn May flowers a chance to dry off. Tbilisi in the rain is a miserably depressing thing. The holes in the sidewalk become puddles of despair. Instead of the escaped plastic bags floating in balmy breezes, people are wearing them on their heads. Cars are dirtier than ever and everywhere you go, from my apartment to the university to the cars to the shops to the other places that people go, is WET. Anna, I’m glad you’re on vacation in New York. Basement apartments are nowhere to be in the rainy season.

The rain creates a grey sky that particularly highlights one of the worst pieces of billboard advertising I have ever seen. David Chanchavaria, WHY are you advertising your law practice with a portrait of you, covering your mouth, with a heavy arm around a small girl, mouth hanging open, dark pink circles under her eyes, blue circles under yours, on a ferocious background of blood red? What are you trying to tell me?

While I’m on the subject of advertising, I have to share one Georgian commercial with you. There’s a huge Georgian restaurant full of large Georgian men, drinking beer and eating khinkali (that’s giant soup dumplings with meat, to be eaten in multiples of ten). A man spies the lone woman, the waitress, buxomly pulling a draft beer. He saunters over.

"I am so unbelievably thirsty," he says, only it’s Georgian poetry, "that I would like to see if you have a birthmark under your breast."

"Better to drink Lomisi beer instead" she rhymes back at him. The room roars with song.

In the former iteration of this commercial, they then went into the bathroom together, and she came out with her shirt half off, exclaiming something (possibly to the tune of "I hope my mother never sees this commercial"). But they’ve cut that part, and now the camera just sails over to the ugliest man in the room who says "drink Lomisi." It’s horrible. Actually, so is Lomisi beer. When in Georgia, skip the Argo, go for Aludi.

Ok, back to reality.

The rain has not dampened the ferocity with which a small number of Adjaran citizens continue to shoot themselves in the political and economic foot. It’s the beginning of the tourist season, guys, why are you blowing up bridges to the population that comes to hang out and pay you money? Parliament has demanded Abashidze’s unconditional resignation. The US is condemning his actions and even discussing it in the NSC. Moscow has sent a statement to the Tbilisi foreign ministry telling them to use restraint in Adjara. ? Wait, that last one makes no sense. The Georgian government hasn’t used any force yet, and has declared its intention not to; is this a preemptive warning?

All in all, a mess. Here’s the thing: this country is small. Tiny, even. Russia’s military involvement in Adjara is no joke, and the money that comes through the Adjaran port and the border with Turkey isn’t either. When the bridges get blown up, they’re blown up a few hours’ drive away, and the economy of all of Georgia is affected, as are your tax dollars, particularly if you’re American, as are your gas and oil supply, as are the people I hang out with every day. These are real people, and a lot of them are better read than you. Nobody here needs a teacher to tell them how to write, read, do journalism, paint, run a revolution. They need an open interchange of dialogue about all of those issues, but not a deus ex machina.

This is why I think deriding everything that goes on in post-Soviet space as "absurd" – including the whole cult of thinking the Turkmenbashi is funny, so don’t even go there – is a colossal mistake. Those are real refugees starting to come over the border from your banal "tinpot dictator" joke. This coldness and ability to distance from what’s going on is one of the reasons US visitors quickly lose sympathy and friendship here, and I’d bet a lot of other places as well, and it's one of the things in my own relationships here that I people anticipate from me as a westerner, and which I constantly struggle to counteract. It’s not really all that funny; it’s a goddamn dictatorship, under which people struggle pretty damn hard to do whatever they can - even if, yes, it means that it's ten lari to cross a river on a pony.

And another thing: history shows that people sometimes choose dictators because dictators work in concrete, viable, short-term goals: win the war, get the gas on, let us live our lives and hold our heads up. I think our responsibility is to make democracy a viable, justifiable, immediate alternative that fulfils or at least explains all those things, something I don’t see happening with any sort of clarity in places emerging into contact with the United States. Irony is not a useful weapon of international change.

End diatribe, resume normal dialogue.



Monday, May 03, 2004

Paranoia in the Corners

So Adjara blew up the bridges connecting it to the rest of Georgia: two bridges and the railroad. Also, the leader of Adjara, Aslan Abashidze, has forbidden any of the parliamentarians in his party from participating in the functions of the parliament in Tbilisi.

Saakashvili has given him ten days to disarm, while military maneuvers take place in Poti; in the meantime, about a thousand people and counting have come over the border from Adjara to get away from this small one maniac, as the writer Vakhushti Kotetishvili put it (picture an incredibly dignified translator of persian poetry, with a lung operation, screaming through his neck on tv "Es erti maniakis gulistvis irupeba sakartvelo!!": from one maniac Georgia will be destroyed!) They say it will take three million lari to repair the bridges and the railroad.

But fortunately, it's only ten lari to cross the river on a horse, and free on foot!

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