Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Taxi to Tbilisi

Everie and His Mother
TBILISI, GEORGIA I started the day thinking I would catch a taxi to Tbilisi — some 400 kilometers away, instead I ended up in the Caucasus Mountains, with a new friend, Everie, Georgia’s eight hundred meter champion in 2000. “I speak little English. I drive you to Tbilisi. 200 lari ($125).” That’s how we met after I had talked to a number of drivers each quoting higher prices with far less English. “We visit my village on the way. It’s only three kilometers off road.” I thought, “weird,” but okay. Turns out the road was better likened to an enlarged cow path — lots of bumps and mud holes with cows, pigs, and geese competing for the right-of-way. On a couple of occasions, I had to get out to open and close rusty gates. When we reached his home, his mother was fetching water from the family well. His wife with their four-month old daughter rushed out to greet us. Everie proudly showed me his cow and pig, the rabbits that they would slaughter for food, the chickens and ducks, and his father’s prized rusted out tractor. Then it was time to eat. His mother and wife had prepared a meal from their home produced ingredients: cheese, fresh fruit and vegetables, home-made bread, fish from the Black Sea, apple sauce, and a delicious home brewed white wine. It was a banquet and the morning had just begun.

On the Way
Turns out, this was but the first of three stops that Everie talked me into making, all relatives whom he insisted we visit, and who, in turn, served up traditional Georgian meals under extremely sparse circumstances. As we left the second place, Everie suggested, “You want to see Mountains — take photos. We take another route to Tbilisi. Find hotel and go to Tbilisi tomorrow.” My trust in Everie had grown, so I agreed. As we drove, he told me: “I was in the Georgian army for eight years and fought in the 2008 war against the Russians. I lost three of my friends to Russian sniper fire. Russian people okay, but we don’t like Putin. The Russians don’t even like Putin. Ossetia belongs to Georgia. We have a good president who wants to get Ossetia back. For me it’s been difficult to make a living in Georgia. I would like to find a job. I studied economics, but can’t find any work. Now I work two months out of the year as a taxi driver. That’s all that I can find. I tried working in Turkey, ironing trousers, but they don’t pay anything and they work you to death. The Turks are very bad bosses.

When Everie wasn’t playing chicken with on-coming vehicles, he was dodging obstacles: huge boulders appearing out of nowhere, construction debris with no warning signs, bottomless potholes, and farm animals of every stripe. Cows in particular seemed to be everywhere. “Who pays if you hit one of these cows?” I asked. “My friend, one month ago, ran into a cow. The lady who owned cow told my friend to pay 1,000 lari. My friend said no, your cow shouldn’t be on the highway. The lady insisted and so my friend called the police. The police told the lady that her cow shouldn’t be on the highway and that she must pay for the damages to his car. The police officer’s logic was reassuring, although it left me still wondering why there were so many cows on the road.

Everie and Home Owner
As evening approached and the area became more inhospitable, we started looking for a hotel, but I hadn’t seen one since we began up the Mountains. “No hotel, not a problem. We stay in someone’s home. I ask at this fruit stand.” Two ladies directed Everie to check with the restaurant ahead, where we found a lady who told him she would rent us a room for 60 lari [$37.50]. The room had no bathroom, power outlet, or air conditioning, and breakfast was not included, but we were out of options. Everie told the lady that we were going to Tbilisi, which resulted in a discussion with a lot of arm waving. “We can’t get through with this car,” Everie reported back to me. “We need jeep to make it through. We stay here tonight and go back tomorrow.” The word soon got out that an American was here and neighbors started gathering, probably out of curiosity. One was an English teacher at the local high school. “I love San Francisco. It’s my dream place to live. We are a small country. America doesn’t care about us.” While I stayed up and talked to the neighbors through the English teacher, Everie went to bed.

Thrashing Beans
The next morning, we returned down the mountain and on our way to Tbilisi stopped in Gori, Stalin’s birthplace. Everie didn’t want to have anything to do with Stalin. “He’s done. No more. Don’t even want to talk about him.” But Gori was also where the Russians had inflicted serious damage during the 2008 war, so we stopped by one of the resettlement areas where the EU had built a hundred or so homes for families displaced by the war. Surprisingly, Everie was not shy about talking to the people. A man with a small daughter conveyed to him the grim details of what had happened. A woman invited us into her house to show us how small it was. Outside another home, women took turns thrashing bean stocks. One of the women told Everie: “I lost everything. I lost my husband. The Russians killed him. We lived in a big house. We now have only this 200 square meter lot and this cramped two-bedroom cottage. Like our neighbors, we use every inch of the yard to plant our gardens. We have to. Nobody can find work. Yet we have to pay for the utilities here.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

People Should Be Free to Dress As They Like

BATUMI, GEORGIA No Internet connection in my room at the Bakuri Hotel, so I sat in the lobby as guests came and went. Maria, the hotel manager, asked me where I was from and we started talking. “I don’t really like Americans,” she said. “They only think of themselves. We don’t mean anything to them. How many Americans even know where Georgia is? I manage two hotels; this one with 28 rooms and another one with 48 rooms. I make 600 Lari (about $375) per month. My assistant makes 250 Lari (about $156) I’m single so it’s enough for me to live on. Everyone in my family has a job so we’re doing okay. But we don’t have any money, or time, to travel anywhere. Our president, Saakashvili, is doing a good job. I plan to vote for him in a couple of months. You see a lot of construction in Batumi, some very interesting buildings, right? Saakashvili is very smart. He’s working hard try to make Georgia more attractive, but his presidency is really about reclaiming South Ossetia region for Georgia. The 2008 war was devastating for a lot of people in Gori [Stalin’s birthplace] but not here the war didn’t really affect us. Saakashvili is right, South Ossetia belongs to Georgia. There are only three million people in Georgia, but we have our own language that is completely unique from any other language in the world. Some say it’s the most difficult language in the world to learn. We were interrupted by a group of guests (four men and four women) who seemed anxious to join the conversation. Although they all contributed, I’ll summarize as though one person was speaking. “We’re from Iran — on vacation here. We can drink in Georgia, which we can’t do in Iran. In Iran, we must wear the hijab, but here we don’t have to. If we had a choice we wouldn’t wear the hijab in Iran either. People should be free to dress as they like. When we’re abroad the government doesn’t care if we drink or if we dress like westerners, but it’s dangerous for us to talk about politics. My effort to engage them on the nuclear standoff was futile. They then left to enjoy the freedom they don’t have in Iran.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Stuck in a Wasteland

KHERSON, UKRAINE Can’t go back, can’t go forward, stuck forever in a wasteland of crumbling monuments to an ambitious bygone dream where soldiers marched across those broken coble stones under Lenin’s ubiquitous gaze, where heroes were ceremoniously laid to rest in those forgotten weedy cemeteries, where athletes competed for the glory of the USSR in those boarded up gyms, where comrades sang out with pride the Internationale in those deserted stadiums, where industry buzzed with energy in those dilapidated factories, where the iron rule of law prevailed where now a bribe will do, where the collective socialist spirit rang out under the five-year plan across those desolate feral fields, where a five-square meter apartment came free to all in those shabby run down block houses, where young women worked hand in hand with their men but now search the internet for just a sober one, where signs and posters promoted the communist spirit graffiti has laid its mark, where children laughed and played on those rusty merry-go-arounds impervious to the broken promises of their future. This is Ukraine today.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Guess We're Hippies

SIMFEROPOL, UKRAINE Hitchhiking in Ukraine works like this: those who hold their hands out, their palms down, want to pay for a ride, those who stick their thumbs out as we do in America want a free ride. A young man with his thumb out catches my eye. Okay, why not, what can I lose? I roll down the window. “Hello,” I say. “Do you speak English?” “Yes, a little,” the young man says excitedly. “I’m going to Simferopol,” I say. “Good, good, we go there too.” Then I notice the woman and the dog. “My wife and dog — is okay?” Oh my god, what am I getting myself into? “No problem. Kevin a good dog.” I hesitate, quickly trying to size them up. They look harmless enough. “I tell you about this country,” the young man says, smiling beseechingly through the window. I relent, “Okay, get in.” The young woman, the dog, and their two big bags go in the back seat. The young man jumps in the front seat.

My Hippy Friends
Don’t speak very good English just what I learned in school. My wife doesn’t speak any English. Her name is Olga. I’m Demitri. This is our dog, Kevin — You know, like Kevin Costner, the movie star. We’re going to the Rainbow Gathering. It’s in western Ukraine this year. People from Ukraine, Belarus, Poland, and Moldova will be there. It’s about peace, love, and freedom. It started in the U.S. with the hippies. I guess we’re hippies. It’s an opportunity to meet others like us, be with nature, and learn new things. I want to learn pottery making and yoga. I will teach people how to play the drums and Olga teach them how to make jewelry. We come from a big smelly city in Russia. Since March, we live in Ukraine. It’s a better country than Russia. It’s freer here. It’s neither Russian nor European — something in between. Russia is a totalitarian state. Putin is a dictator. Most people in Russia don’t like him. He has lots of money to throw around and that’s how he wins elections. You know, the head of the Orthodox Church, the patriarch, he also very rich, very powerful — tells people what to do. It’s bad the way they treat homosexuals. I don’t like any of it. I’m an atheist and a naturalist and that’s why we want to live here in Ukraine. We love nature, peace, friendship, and adventure too. When we’re not doing something like this, I work as a tour guide for Russians visiting the Crimea. Olga and I don’t need much to live on.”

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Traffic Cops Everywhere

Traffic Cop
SEVASTOPOL, UKRAINE There are traffic cops everywhere in Ukraine — along some highways every two to three miles. It was only a matter of time before I was going to get pulled over. According to my GPS, I was to take the second exit off the turnaround. Oops, there it was a red shield with an X through it. I was going up a wrong way — not the first time my GPS had given me the wrong directions. Two police officers in a patrol car were waiting and signaled me to pull over. The officer who approached me didn’t speak English, but let me know: driver’s license, passport, and car registration. He talked to me in Russian, but I didn’t understand a word of it except that I was going the wrong way on a one way street. With a smile bordering on a grin, he motioned me to get out of my car and into the police car with the other officer whose English was non-existent and who appeared to be writing up a ticket. From the two, their gestures and conversation told me they wanted to take me to the police station, but were afraid of leaving my car behind. “Strafe,” the officer in the car next to me said, a word I recognized from German as meaning “fine,” but I pretended not to understand. The officer wrote on a sheet of paper $50. I looked at his note and feigned dismay, shaking my head, and pointing at my driver’s license. “Send the bill to my address here,” I said, something that Taras had told me to say in situations like this. However, the officer persisted, pointing to the amount on the ticket. I smiled and told him again, “Send the ticket to my home address.” This went on for a while. Finally, he returned the smile and said something to the officer outside, who promptly opened the door and motioned me to leave. And, that was it! For the first time in my life, I had just talked my way out of a traffic ticket. “Nice guys,” I thought.

An hour later, as I was passing a slow moving tractor-trailer, I ran into another traffic control point. “Now what could I possibly have done wrong?” This officer didn’t speak English either. Motioning me to produce my driver’s license and passport, he pointed to the faded center white line on the road, indicating that I had driven over it. Due to the rutted and frequently patched road conditions, I hadn’t noticed the white line, sometimes solid and other times broken. Certainly the other traffic seemed impervious to its purpose. The officer motioned for me to get out of my car and come with him to his car. The routine I had experienced an hour earlier repeated itself. Again he used the word “strafe,” but in a hushed up way, clearly suggesting this was a bribe and that he would write up a ticket if I didn’t give him $50. It’s amazing how well people can communicate when they don’t speak the same language. Again, I pleaded ignorance, telling him, “Send the bill to my home address.” However, the officer outside didn’t seem too pleased with the situation. “Maybe, I had pushed the limits with these guys?” I fumbled through my wallet and pulled out a hundred-grivna bill (about $12.50). The officer snatched it from my hand, tucked it into his shirt pocket, and motioned to me to quickly leave. “Shit,” I thought, “I should have held out a little longer. They’re clearly in a hurry to make their quota.” 

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Live & Travel Abroad

YALTA, UKRAINE Taras took me on a tour of the Swallow’s Nest and Tsar Nicholas II’s Livadia Palace on the Black Sea where Roosevelt, Churchill, and Stalin decided the fate of Germany and much of the rest of the world. Taras had a lot to say.

People accuse Roosevelt of selling out to Stalin, but I think he ended the bloodshed. If he had not made the concessions he did, Stalin would have continued his push west. Although the cold war was bad, at least lives were saved. We in the East suffered the consequences, but it could have been worse. We have a corrupt government now. It’s made up of millionaires and billionaires. They steal from the people. Their families live and travel abroad. They drive Bentleys and Ferraris. If they don’t like you or if they want your business, they simply trump up charges against you and throw you in jail. It’s disgusting. With Yulia Tymoshenko as Prime Minister it was better although corruption was still a big problem.

Life expectancy for men in Ukraine is only 62 years. Men generally don’t live to retirement. The problem is cheap alcohol, which the government produces and distributes. It’s easier for the government to deal with drunken people than productive ones. Unfortunately, people would rather drink, and not think about anything, then take responsibility for their lives. For democracy to work, people must take responsibility. We are a long way from meeting that objective. Poland and the Czech Republic are countries we need to emulate. They’re doing it on their own. They immediately tore up their past relationship with Russia, tore down their statues of Lenin and Stalin. We need to do the same here. Western Ukraine has become more like them, but here, we still have our statues of Lenin. It’s the same in Russia. The majority of people there voted for Putin. Yes, hundreds of thousands protested, but millions more sat at home, watching television, drinking beer, and waiting to be told what to do. In 1932 and 1933 when Stalin destabilized Ukraine’s nationalist movement through forced starvation, maybe as many as ten million people died, he relocated thousands of Russians to Ukraine, resulting in Ukraine becoming more like Russia in its culture and language. Everybody now speaks Russian and the majority of us long to return to the days when Ukraine was a part of the United Soviet Republic.

Economic conditions here are tough. A teacher makes about $300/month. They must work second/third jobs to make ends meet. I make $2,000 per month, running my own service business, which is at the low end of the average income scale. My girl friend is a lawyer and makes only $500 per month. Retirees get about $200/month. I’m hoping the Internet and the global economy will force changes as more people are exposed to a wider range of ideas and opportunities, but I’m afraid we have to wait on the younger generation to make it happen. I’m 29 and spent two years in Florida, where I learned things work pretty much the same no matter who’s in charge — you still have the same laws, same services, and same opportunities. That’s the way it should work here, so that it’s up to you what you make of yourself. Here I have two apartments, one I live in and the other I rent out. I’m doing okay, but I’d like to make more so that I can travel abroad more than just occasionally.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Drinking Buddies

Vladimir & Igor
FEODOSIA, UKRAINE It looked like a great chance to get the inside street scoop on Ukraine and Russian politics, but Vladimir and Igor, my drinking buddies, didn’t have any interest in politics – they say they don’t even vote. Vladimir owns a trucking company, a total of seven trucks, running between Moscow and Yekaterinburg, and Igor, a retired Russian army doctor, owns the hotel/spa where I’m staying. Their English was virtually non-existent so what I learned about them, between drinking wine and downing vodka shots, was through Veronica, my trusty eleven-year old translator, who you met in my last blog. Igor who’s originally from Vilnius, Lithuania, has lived for extended periods in Russia and Poland. He bought the hotel five years ago because taxes here are ten times less than what they are in Lithuania. That is about the extent of the information I could glean from the two of them, not all that interesting, but then I didn’t understand a word of what they were saying as they chatted amongst themselves and the other guests and relatives as they came and went. What I did learn was how to drink Russian style, where before every sip you clink your glasses and toast to whatever: love, good health, long life, happiness, etc. And I learned to eat a piece of cucumber after every shot of vodka. Not sure what the purpose of that was, but it didn’t taste that bad, so what the heck. I also learned a few words in Russian: thank you, hello, goodbye, yes, no, and water without gas. “Water without gas” has become a very useful phrase, as people here prefer water with gas – ugh! The one phrase I have not been able to master is “good morning.” Whenever I try saying it, I get a puzzled look or a head shaking, “No speak English.”

Friday, July 20, 2012

Electronic Closets

FEODOSIA, UKRAINE Sometimes you collect information from the most unlikely of sources — this time from a precocious eleven-year old girl vacationing with her mom and relatives at a small resort hotel on the Black Sea. Her father is with the Ukraine embassy in Kenya from where she had just returned after a year there, learning English, and now speaking it almost flawlessly. Here’s what she had to say.

Veronica: I prefer to speak English and Russian, but, of course, I speak Ukraine with my grandmother, because that’s all she knows. At home we speak Russian. Like Ukraine it’s our mother tongue although my younger sister doesn’t really speak Ukraine. She speaks Russian and English with an African accent. I want to learn French next. My English teacher was from California and says I speak American English. I know San Francisco and the Golden Gate Bridge. I know President Obama. I think he’s a good president. But I’m glad to be back in Ukraine. It’s my home and I like it here and although it’s near Russia, it’s part of Europe. I don’t think Ukraine will become part of Russia again, because we have our own president. I didn’t like Kenya. It’s a very poor country with people sleeping in the streets. There are a lot of monkeys, lizards, and insects there. It’s dangerous too. If you roll down your car window, the poor people will steal the necklace off your neck. I don’t like Mr. Mwai Kibaki, the president of Kenya. He’s a bad president because he keeps the people poor. I don’t care for the dark people there, or the Catholics, and I don’t like the Muslim women with their masks — you can only see their eyes. The Ukraine consulate in Kenya is small — the American consulate huge. When I grow up, I don’t want to work in the embassy. I want to be a translator and a designer. I want to design dresses. When I’m your age we’ll have electronic closets so all you need to do, for example, is type in “party” and the closet will return the right dress. Later, Veronica became the resident translator as I was invited to have dinner and drinks with the owner of the hotel and some other guests, all Russians, none of whom spoke English. 

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Muslims Speak Out

A Muslim's View
MYKOLAIV, UKRAINE I could have written something like this blog last year in Morocco or the year before in Turkey. The sentiments I heard in those countries were identical to the sentiments I picked up at a cafĂ© in Mykolaiv, Ukraine. Two men and a woman sitting at the next table, speaking in broken English, caught my ear. “Where are you from?” I asked. The men, Abraham and Mamet, said they were from Turkey. The woman, whose name I didn’t get, said she was from Ukraine. Here’s what they had to say:

Abraham: I’m here to see my girl friend. We met over the Internet. Mamet: I came along just for the fun. Don’t know if I want a woman. Just looking, you know. Woman: I don’t know, maybe I go to Turkey with Abraham. I’m Christian. He’s Muslim. I must decide. Perhaps Ukrainian women deserve a separate blog, but what interests me here, is the direction our conversation then took. Abraham: I was in New York, fabulous city, never shuts down. But, people in America look at you different when you tell them you’re from Turkey. Like, oh, you’re one of them. You know, one of those terrorist type guys. I’m Muslim, and like most Muslims, I wouldn’t hurt a flea. It’s in the Koran. It’s what we’re taught. Mamet: You know, sir, it’s not true. You know, the way they report on what happened to the twin towers. The CIA did those attacks so they could attack Middle East countries and get their oil. Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda were invented by the CIA. Abraham: Yes, it’s true. Bruce Willis, you know, that movie star, he agrees and there’s a lot of research that proves it. You know, why weren’t any bodies found from the planes that crashed?  Mamet: Why didn’t the U.S. fighter jets shoot the planes down? And, where are all these supposed al-Qaeda members? They don’t exist. They’ve been made up. Abraham: You know, everyone in the U.S. drives a big car and gas there costs less than $2 a gallon. The U.S. needs Middle East oil because they consume so much. As soon as I answer one question, they come back with another. 9/11 conspiracy theories, stoked by people like Bruce Willis, take on a reality of their own in the Middle East, providing a soothing explanation to the beleaguered collective Muslim psychic, which cannot, and rightly so, tolerate the implied guilt by association so many Americans would want to assign to them. Their sensitivities are not without justification as I recall the many Islamophobic statements made by the candidates during the Republican primaries: Rick Perry suggesting that Turkey is ruled by terrorists, Sarah Palin tweeting that a mosque at ground zero is an unnecessary provocation, Michelle Bachmann claiming that not all cultures are equal, meaning Islam, Herb Cain refusing to appoint Muslims to his administration, Newt Gingrich vowing that Muslims in his administration would have to take a loyalty oath, Rick Santorum’s insisting that America is at war with Islam, or Romney suggesting that not just al-Qaeda, but Shia and Sunni are the problem. So Abraham and Mamet have it right and it’s no wonder they react with bewilderment and pain and like others in the Middle East resort to insane conspiracy theories to deflect the prejudices that are hurdled at them.

Monday, July 16, 2012

An Ordinary Hotel Key


Oliga: Good day David! Unfortunately you forgot to give the keys to the rooms Hotel Jumbo. Please could you send me them back through the train. Thanks in advance and hope to understand. It wasn’t the first time I had left a hotel with my room key. In Europe, at least, some of these keys could be heirlooms. That was not the case with this very ordinary key, but the desk clerk had otherwise been very helpful and had told me she was new on the job, so I responded to her email. The email exchange that follows has been partially edited for readability.

Me: I'm sorry I forgot to give you the key. I will try sending it to you from my hotel here in Odessa tomorrow.

Oliga: I am very grateful to you if you do this. I really hope that you will send the keys to the hotel. So I will not have problems with the boss because I really need this job. Thanks again.

Me: I'll definitely have it mailed to your hotel tomorrow. Please accept my apologies and tell your boss that it was not your fault.

Oliga: Thank you very much, but it's my fault. I hope that everything will be good. Please contact me and then when the parcel arrives that I know and tell the girls at the hotel. Have a nice evening.

Post Office Address
Me: I'm sorry to report that I haven't been able to find a way to send the key to you. The hotel tells me that the post will only accept documents. It's possible that I could use Fed Ex or DHL, but their offices are nowhere near the hotel where I'm staying. You mentioned something about sending by train, but I don't understand how that works. If you can explain better, that may be a possibility. I didn’t mention to Oliga that I had spent an hour looking for a post office just in case the hotel was wrong. Whenever I asked, “Where’s the post office?” I got a puzzled look. The best I could do was find something that looked like a telephone booth although it was clearly marked on my map as a post office.

Oliga: Good day David! There are many options for how to transfer the keys. Can pass through the train to from Odessa to Chisinau to provide the key guide and when I come, or by minibus, but better by train.

Oliga: If you pass the keys to the train. They called me and I will come to train.

Oliga: I beg you please try to transfer the keys.

Me: I'm afraid I don't understand. Who do I give the key to?

Oliga: Woman who works in a train. When you go to the train, she looks the ticket (the controller). You can ask her and she will give in Chisinau, I'll give her the money for it.

Me: What train? What time?

Oliga: Today at 16.50 will train from Odessa to Chisinau. I do not know the train number, but it is the train on which you are traveling. In Chisinau, he will be 21.44. You can pass either through the passengers or the conductor with my phone number and I'll be in the evening at the station.

Me: Okay, I gave the key to the train steward. I also gave him 22 lei. Please let me know if you receive it. It's now 12 p.m. I haven't heard back from Oliga.