Postcards from the Road - Caucasus, March 2001
Friday, March 9, 2001
You'd think getting to the airport REAL early might snag one an exit row for the transatlantic leg of one's flight, but no, no such luck. Sure, I got the exit row (the one that does not recline) from Seattle to Chicago, but not the one that counts. But wait a minute? Didn't United Airlines tell me this was a direct flight from Seattle to London with a stopover in Chicago? No change of planes? Hm. This is a pretty small plane to fly to London. Oh well.
We arrive in Chicago about 30 minutes late. Told to get out of plane and look for my "connection." What connection? This is a direct flight? Oh no, mam, they use the same flight number so the flight will appear higher on the computer searches. Off I go to navigate from one end of O'Hare to the Other. Two bags. Ugh!
I get to the gate and the flight is boarding. But I think, no sweat. I'm premier. I was told on the phone I had a premier seat assignment in the economy plus section. I go to 22f. This is a SEAT?? I have never been so folded up or uncomfortable. Luckily, I scored a most personable seatmate, the Mayor of North Down, Ireland! We traded a few stories and commiserated on our seats. But I was lucky. What if I had scored a grouch?? But you can't be too happy when the people in front of you recline and you are in physical pain. United Airlines, I am NOT a happy camper!
Saturday March 10
Arrive Baku, Azerbaijan, around 10:15pm and get through customs like a breeze. (Map) Filled out the customs form, but it was never collected and stamped. This might be interesting on the way out of the country... Suitcase arrived with me. Sigh of relief. Met by Paul and his friend Zaya and taken to Paul's apartment. Baku had a 6.8 earthquake the week(s?) before we did. Third floor walk up with the suitcase filled with stones (well really, stuff for the conference!). Cool, high ceiling apartment. Chat for a bit then quick shower and sweet sleep. Woke up to the sound of a bird. Very, very quiet for a city.
Sunday March 11
Sunday am up at 6:30. Grey morning. Paul makes breakfast, I check email. Vugar arrives (Paul's apartment also the office for Project Harmony...now I know why it seems like Paul is always online working.) We get out the door for a 2 block walk to where we are catching our mini bus. My first view of the Caspian Sea. The day is gray. Baku seems gray. Everyone dressed in gray and black. My red sweater is like a billboard. 17 men, 1 woman and three bus drivers pile on to the mini van with a purported capacity of 28. 28 very small people and no luggage I presume. The size of my suitcase embarrasses me.
We drive through Baku (dropping off one of the three bus drivers after some quietly heated conversations. Lead driver does not look happy. He smokes a few cigarettes.) I'm in the front seat with a wide-angle view of a former Soviet dessert city. The palette is limited. This city does not have the mass advertising placed nearly as much as other cities we've visited across the world. There is definite grit to the place.
We are quickly out of town, past derricks. Paul describes some of the aftereffects of Soviet industry. Abandoned factories and environmental ruin. Soon the flat changes to treeless hills and we begin to climb into the mountains. There are swaths of pale pink, low growing blossoms crossing the foothills. The roads are rutted and often there are sheep and cows crossing. We constantly see patches of sheep with 1 or 2 shepherds in the middle of what looks to be nowhere, but then we see a sandstone house or a smallish hut.
Azerbaijan lives on a base of sandstone and housing looks to be typically sandstone with tin roof in this part of the country. Lots of half built houses. I suspect this might be like in Turkey where you start a house, but you have to stop till you have more money. But one's home is one's investment. Forget currency, eh?
Paul mentioned that there is not a lot of sense of shared social spaces. Most beauty and adornment is saved for inside the house. Public squares are mostly patches of dirt with a few trees. I think about the American penchant to show off one's belongings and wealth.
There are tiled bus stops along the road in varying stages of decay with colorful, Soviet style decorations. Crumbling Soviet monuments are dotted along the way with a village here and there. We climb higher and see snow on the tops of the hills. As we crest the range, trees and more snow greets us, with soft wet snow clinging to the bare trees. No one on the road. Nothing like snow to give you another image of a country which had started in your head as "desert."
In the hills we start passing little tea houses, mostly a fire, a big samovar and picnic tables with plastic clothes and little covered patios jutting out over a drop-off of the hill like little pavilions. White plastic chairs. We stop at one for cay (tea) and a pit stop. We eat outside as there is no room for our big group. Tea in glasses with lemon and preserves. Hard candies. Most of the guys smoke. We take pictures and two young web developers from Baku who know English enough to know slang and joke kid around with me. I try to talk to the one woman, Olga, who is shy (I later learn she is feeling car sick. I'm trying to be friendly, but realize with no Russian, I'm a difficult conversations partner! Our shoes are covered in mud and soon the bus floor is covered in caked and drying mud as pile in and continue over this pass.
As we crest this pass, the valley stretches forever to the northeast with vague traces of the North Caucasus mountains to the north through the haze. (The South Caucasus mtns were not visible that day) The weather is high clouds and haze. Pomegranate fields, roadside selling of freshly skinned and butchered lambs, men and boys selling bouquets of tiny daffodils. Saw lots of lamb guts. I wondered if this was a Sunday thing.
The road starts out lined with trees, but soon it is lined with tree stumps, many of which look to have been cut down in recent months, the stumps still bright and not yet grayed. As we pass little towns, men congregate at tea shops and vendors set out their wares at the side of the road. I don't see many women. Lots of little mini busses. We don't pass too many cars on the road, but a few do pass us. Zoom past.
More ruined abandoned factories dot the landscape. The bumps send me off my seat, making it hard to take a sip of water. I'm laughing too hard. The blare of a Sylvester Stallone movie dubbed in Russian puts the rest of the gang asleep while Paul and I talk about meeting strategy, punctuated by observations of the passing landscape. We stop for gas and a pit stop and I recognize the familiar squat toilet. Gas stations are filled with attendants. One of the group says it is because the oil company, owned by the president's son, gets their gas for free, so they can afford to employ many attendants. Apparently you tip each one as well.
The landscape looses its trees as we near Ganje. The ground keeps looking like plowed over landfills. It is rockier here and looks like impossible soil for agriculture. The shuttered factories grow larger. I imagine what it is like when a hard wind blows.
As we near Ganje around 3pm we meet a car who leads us to a big tower where we stop and are greeted by our two compatriots from Ganje who will be joining us (Elnur and a second Vugar). They give us a tour of the tomb of Nizami, the most revered Azeri poet of the 12th (?) century. The Soviets constructed a monument to him, with stained glass and a Soviet style large sculpture off to one side. Farda translated the tour guide's information. In side, I was given the honor of placing some flowers on the grave. The light through the stained glass was the color of lolipops. We took a group picture. The guide used my camera, but the photo disappeared somehow. Weird. Paul has one on his digital so I'll have to get a copy.
The sculpture represented some of Nizami's most famous poems, including the story of the Queen in Ganje who basically told Alexander the Great to get lost. My kind of woman! They all grinned when I took a picture of her. The backdrop to the sculpture was also of interest. Azerbaijan's largest aluminum smelt and the surrounding environmental disaster of tailings directed into a now-evaporating lake. Steam rises out of rust red scars. I wonder about the wind and Paul says it carries the tailings across the landscape.
We sign the guest book and view pictures of wedding parties posed in front of the monument, a good luck visit. Farda, who is an Eastern scholar tells me of Nizami's writings and the pattern of five in his work. It is often read at weddings. Farda caught my attention in the online space because his writings came across like brains wrapped in heart. He is quiet, and attentive. I sense a wonderful person.
In Ganje I notice more of the decorated tin work on the downspouts and edges of what appear to be more well-to-do homes. We go through Ganje to Elnur's house where his wife has cooked up a feast for us. We honor the Georgian custom of toasting and the Tamada gives a number of us a chance to offer up toasts. (Tamada = toastmaster). Mayonnaise based salads, plates of watercress, green onions and radishes. Two kinds of great bread, fried chicken, fried potatoes, delicious lamb dolmas with a yogurt sauce and dates and some kind of candied grapes (?) and fresh fruit to eat with our tea. Lunch lasts longer than anticipated and as we head out of Baku, the idea of getting through the boarder crossing before dark appears to be a dream. The bus driver scowls.
We trundle through small agricultural communities, skirting the hills to the west and head towards the border. I had been told that it can be fast or slow at the border where you go through both Azeri and Georgian checkpoints. We arrive at the first checkpoint just after dusk and the sky to the west still has a few traces of cobalt blue. We round up our passports in anticipation. Paul seems a bit tense. There is often a lot of paying of bribes, which seems to bristle him. We talk of journalists who have sensationalized the issue of border crossing and bribes. The economic basis is that there are all these soldiers who make nothing and have to live on the bribes. It is an economic system of sorts, rather than a collection of "evil men." I get my first taste of the politics of the former Soviet Union. What is corruption? What is the impact of an aid-driven economy? What is a civil society?
The soldiers are young, many of them looking like gangly high schoolers with big guns slung across their shoulders. I think of my eldest son at 16. Kids. They hit up the bus driver for cigarettes while we are stopped at the first of what will be 4 checkpoints. Rusty iron gates, and a soldier boards to collect passports. We wait, they return, check each person's picture to match to all passengers in the bus. Vugar is the representative for the group and he goes out with the soldier then comes back and we move on to the second checkpoint where the procedure is basically repeated. Then we go down a few hundred yards to the Georgian checkpoint and the gates are bigger (two sets) and the delay is longer. People are everywhere. A shepherd rounds up 4-5 cows and calves and herds them past busses and cars through the checkpoint. A stray who looked to be recently hit by a car limps around with eyes that did not look long for this world. Cigarette smoke filled the bus and the drivers looked impatient. Most of the gang joked around. I watched. They had pasted American flags in the front windscreen of the bus and hoped that saying this is an official American group might be a good thing. Soldiers passed by the front of the bus, staring at us. Flashlight scanned the license plates and soldiers huddled at checkpoint huts. Lots of big lights. Lots of people in clumps. A bonfire to warm hands.
We cleared the third checkpoint about an hour after we started, and came up on the fourth checkpoint. No soldier's uniforms here, just men in black leather jackets. The "checkpoint" was a thick nylon string held up by hand by a guy in a little gatehouse. Somehow I suspect this is NOT the checkpoint to barrel through. I presume there was a payment of a bribe and we proceeded in the dark the last 45 km to Tblisi. In the dark we had to go slower as it is harder to see the upcoming potholes. They must go through a lot of tires and shock absorbers here. (later note: I'm foreshadowing without even knowing it!)
Tblisi began quickly with some high-rise apartments (later in the daylight, learned this was a section of Soviet housing, well out of the main part of Tblisi). (map of Georgia) You could see by the patterns of the lights that the city was split by a river. We proceeded to the south side of the split but pretty quick it became apparent the driver had no clue where to go. Paul instructed Vugar to grab a cab and have the cab lead us to the hotel. After some round abouts of a neighborhood, which I think is just south of Rustaveli Avenue street, we arrived at our hotel. Some of the gang had to be shipped off to another hotel for lack of space. It was about 9:45pm. We dumped our bags and went up stairs where they had saved dinner for us. More mayonnaise based salads (one carrot, one cole slaw), chicken and mashed potatoes, coke and bubbly water (tastes very chemically/salty). Then we found Peter and he, Paul and I met until about 12:15am to go over the next day's agenda, our powerpoint presentation etc. I think I got to bed just after 1am and woke at 7am to start day three. Or was it day four? Sleep? What is that?
Monday March 12
Paul and I set up the meeting room, quickly joined by Sirik (Siranush). I started to meet the PH staff I had "met" online: Siobhan, Polina, Sophie. Sirik tells me how happy she is to meet me in person after our online meeting! I went down for breakfast (more great bread, a plain, rubbery cheese, omelet, tea, Nescafe, etc) then the day's meeting quickly got into gear. We had line by line translation so I worked to get my rhythm. The first piece (creating the vision for our work together) went ok -- just ok (I think... I never know in these sorts of situations). I think my style surprised some folks, and amused others. One participant later called it "theatrical!"
The seating was a large triangle and the Azeri's sat on one side, the Georgian's on one side and the Armenians on another. I wondered if this would change over the course of the week. There appear to be some stylistic difference between the groups. The Georgian's aren't staying at the hotel, so they tend to come in and out.
Lunch was a stand-up affair with open-faced sandwiches and more salads. The grated carrot garlicky salad is wonderful and was happy I had gum in my pack! Coke and bubble water to drink.
Our last afternoon session was to think about potential networking and break out groups. It was a bit chaotic and a good learning about the dynamics of the group. I have to think about this one, because I'm sure we could have approached it differently but at this point, I'm a bit clueless. I sensed that the group did not feel it was a brainstorming about possibilities, but a forced way to either suggest topics for the whole group, or force breakouts. In the end, the NGO and business groups self-organized and that was perfect. I need to better understand cultural implications of facilitation styles.
We finished up about 6:15pm. I went up stairs and stretched out and was 10 minutes late to 7pm dinner. Despite trying to sit with different people each meal, I find myself among the Azeri's. Shaiq's (check spelling) command of English always leads to good conversation and some funny jokes. We had a great conversation earlier in the day on our philosophies of life! This line stayed with me... (or a close approximation) "On Monday I am a scientist, on Friday I'm a philosopher" He told me how it is to be a Jew in Baku.
Stew, noodles, salads and sliced oranges for dessert. Then we convened a trainers' meeting at 8pm to rearrange Tuesday's agenda based on what we'd learned today. That broke about 9:20. On the way back to my room I was hijacked into the room where some of the Armenian's were having a party. I was presented with a bottle of factory made Armenian brandy (along with a glass of same), understanding that factory made was an important distinction. Apparently the home made stuff is pretty rough/potent. Chatted for a bit, then headed to my room to redo my PowerPoint for the next day. Brandy in hand, I finished it around 11pm and hit the sack. Slept with lots of wake ups during the night, including what sounded like a car running into a wall, then driving and scraping up and down the street for about 10 minutes. Somewhere around 3am.
Thinking about the day I still can't believe I'm here. I still can't believe the luck and circumstances, which connect people half way across the world. As individuals unfold and become more than faces and nametags, I'm feeling drawn into a community. I was concerned before I came that it would be hard to do a weeklong workshop in another country, but I'm beginning to suspect it is a great blessing. This is about the intersection not just of ideas, but of relationships, head and heart.
Tuesday March 13
Woke at 7am, went to shower and no water. Brushed my teeth with the bottle of water I had on the bus and thanked the heavens for deodorant. Paul arrived at 7:20 to pick up my disk with the PPT and then I took time to download pictures and catch up on my log. Here it is 8:12 am and time to get ready for breakfast and to start the show anew!
(Later... on my way out the door, I noticed the hot water came on. I stripped, showered down, redressed and left the room 4 minutes later!!)
Good yogurt for breakfast then upstairs to prep for the online facilitation presentation. Too much material, too many abstractions. I see the brandy-coated editing job did not quite do what I had intended. Heh! I still wonder what people are thinking and if the translation gets the points across. But no one seems to be protesting. Onward.
After the meeting broke, we talked a bit, then I snuck out for a walk. Walked down the hill to Rustaveli street, looking at the kids and old ladies selling violets and other flowers. I wanted to buy a bunch and to take pictures. Only thing holding me back: no lari (local currency), no clue of the exchange rate and a bit insecure about looking any more out of place than I'm sure I already did. Everyone wears black. I'm there with a red sweater coat. Red is not such a popular color here in the land where Soviet images are chipped off buildings! So no pictures. I figure I'll do that when we have some free time this weekend.
I see a crafts shop that says "exchange" on the window. Buy a Georgian clay bead necklace and bracelet for what I presume was a high exchange rate, then headed back to the hotel, stopping to buy flowers from an old babushka'd woman I had spotted coming in the other direction in a small corner pocket park. She grinned as I stooped to smell the flowers (they had no scent) and we proceeded to try and figure out how much to pay. I had a 2 Lari note, which by the exchange rate I got was $1. I picked up one bunch and she said something which I took to mean they were MUCH less than 2 Lari. I picked up another bouquet and she motioned I should take more. I stopped there, gave her the two lari and I was rewarded with a large toothless smile and I headed back to dinner at the hotel. More dinner and conversation with the Azeris.
It amazes me when I can sit in a sea of Russian conversation and sometimes get the rhythm of the conversation. A word or two there, lots of gestures. I'm not UNDERSTANDING it at all, just sensing it. When tired, this is a lovely way to "participate" in a conversation. I grin alot. I am feeling like these folks are beginning to be my friend and even shy Olga is talking to me. She shares a bar of Russian chocolate... I found a fellow chocoholic. Crispy air filled chocolate with a nice taste. Need to buy Larry a bar to take home for him. Is chocolate an international language?
I headed back to my room, wash some underwear and lay down to rest before our 9:30pm planning meeting. The meeting stretches on and on; tired, well-intentioned people trying to solve what is probably an unsolvable problem of meeting so many diverse participant needs. We never attended to our own group processes (typical... shoemaker's children have no shoes). I sit on the floor and stretch to keep my attention focused. We finish, Linda leaves and while Paul and Asra work on Asra's ppt for the next day, Peter and I talk over some Armenian Brandy and Olga's chocolate. It helps to understand his philosophy in life. Peter is an unusual guy who in some ways goes with the flow of life, and in others has very firm boundaries of what he will and won't do. Odd. I suspect we disagree (strongly?) on some Internet and community related things, but I like him. Then I get to spend some time with Asra from Russia and hear about her family, work and ideas. I very much like her to. We click.
I head to my room (midnight?) and work a bit on the next day's presentation (pilot projects) then lay in bed for at least an hour. Deliriously happy. Feeling lucky. Feeling like I'm making friends with so many people and not even glum about the fact that I will probably never see any of them again. I think Armenian brandy must be magical (naw, it's the people!)
Wednesday March 14
Up at 7:30, take a hot bath and continue to feel happy but tired. But the tired is not insurmountable. I'm surprised I'm keeping going with the schedule and lack of hours and quality of sleep. Dang, this bed is small too. I'm almost afraid to turn over for fear I'll fall out. Another consequence of being spoiled with having a king sized bed at home. The birds wake me before my alarm. Weather still gray.
I head up to the conference room before breakfast to prep, gather my attention. Once people come to the room, it is hard to clear your head. A nice big empty room is good centering. I find I have to think of ways to hold my energy and flow as I present with the gaps for translation. Feels like a train that just gains speed and then puts on the breaks. I have to readjust my body language as well and find myself exaggerating or pantomiming between phrases!!! Oi!
Peter and Paul run the tech sessions which ends up lively and full of participation. Asya followed up with a great presentation on distance ed in Russian full of concrete examples. That was exactly what was needed and we head down to lunch with a positive feeling. After lunch instead of breaking out we stay in one session and I present on Pilot Projects. In the final afternoon session the two "web guys" from Baku are planning their presentation and I have to apologize to them for missing it since I was going to do a design session with the PH team from Tblisi. We head to the next room with flipchart paper and markers and run through potential designs/purposes/approaches for their cc exchange project and finish with some plans that seem to excite them. I recognize my need to feel useful, so this session felt good to me. I must be careful though, not to push my ideas on folks. Trying to be attentive to this dynamic.
Then Paul took Linda (so she could check her email) and I to the PH Tblisi office so I could do a Webcrossing demo for Nika, Ylena, Asra, and Siobahn. We worked there till around 8?? Then cabbed back to the hotel, ate dinner, then I had promised Siobhan a design session for her project in Yerevan. We went up to the meeting room and sat on the floor. Paul came along to listen and was soon on the couch, blowing zzzzz's. Peter came up and joined in. I'd say fatigued giddiness set in and at one point I was laughing so hard I was crying. We decided this was a Three Stooges design session. Siobhan has a challenging task in Armenia with a school Internet connectivity program that really appears to be in the context of education reform. The schools have declined and there is a driving need to bring them back. The PH project involves wiring 40 schools across the country, and each one has two coordinators who both service the network and do the education work to start using the net in the schools. We spent quite a bit of time having Siobhan outline the project and soon Nadir joined us. Ramil joined in for a while. Peter dropped out and Paul finally dragged off to his room so the three of us finished up with some brainstorming ideas for Siobhan (multi lingual brainstorms are pretty funny). One note here. Siobhan cracked me up. She would not let me use pink or red pens and had to fill in any abbreviations I made. Hehe.
Off to bed. Mid point of conference passed.
Thursday. March 15
Marketing presentation day. I say good morning in Russian and translator translates to English to much laughter. Translator says she loves this meeting and learning a lot. One of two very sweet young women doing the translating. Wednesday one was so tired she started loosing the words at the end of the day.
Non profit breakout session was incredible. The group took the energy and ran with it. We heard examples and worked through a case study for Arman. Wow! Farda made a beautiful comment on the online communication process that was worth a million. With a smaller group, there is so much more potential for constructive interaction. Need more small group time, but also must be attentive to getting the full group on some sort of same page. In the evening dinner and we meet again. Afterwards I went for a walk with Linda. (In hindsight, I don't think we should have gone out after dark. See Saturday's notes.) We bought chocolate and wine for the party and beer for Paul.
Azeri party. We brought some beer and chocolate. They had tea and beer and cakes. All the guys from Azerbaijan and a few of the Armenians, who left shortly after we arrived. Linda and I represented the female contingent. They said they were happy the women had arrived, but then they had to stop talking about sex! Emin kept taking a lot of pictures. I wonder what will show up on the web, knowing that he is the mischief-maker of the group, a young programmer from Baku. I had half a beer, cup of tea and headed off to bed, but still heard them talking till about 2:30am. I don't know how everyone manages to look so chipper in the morning.
Friday March 16
Group presentations from the business and NGO subgroups, two individuals and the PH Tblisi office on how they are going to use an online space for their community connections project which sends businesspeople on exchanges to the US. They have a group leaving in two weeks for Iowa.
Review of vision and next steps - We blew up the big eyeball I brought and hauled out the little toys. We used the eyeball as a talking stick as volunteers talked about what they had learned during the week and how it has changed or influenced their vision of how they want to use the internet for their work. There were some wonderful, touching comments on building new friendships across three countries, the young Internet guy from Baku, Gafar, said "when I arrived I thought I knew all about the Internet. Now I know I know nothing at all." Others talked about how they were going to go back to their projects and think about online communication and interactivity. I need to get the notes on this as there were wonderful comments, but I was busy handing out toys as thank you's after each presentation and the interpreter was running ragged behind me.
Cabs for all to the Press conference at the very ugly Sheraton across town. Really my first glimpse of the city in daylight. Saw the former Lenin square which now has nothing... grin. Lots of traffic circles. Decaying but beautiful buildings. Drove by the old part of town with the beautiful balconied buildings. At conference -- Radio, TV and print. Turns out we were on the local TV news that night, but none of us saw it. Paul spoke, then Linda, then me, then Brad Scott from IREX. A few questions afterwards, then pack back into cabs back to the hotel. I went upstairs to change. Peter, Paul and I went for a quick walk before the bus to the banquet came -- Paul was looking to buy a thank you gift for the Tblisi office manager. We walked past the bread ovens just down the street and Paul asked if we could come in. They showed us the domed clay fire oven where they made the bread. The dough is thrown against the side of the hot oven, so it has a curved appearance. He gave us a still warm loaf as a gift. Delicious. Paul did not find present. We got back, I ran up for my camera then they loaded the bus to take us to a restaurant along the river.
Banquet with lots of wine, toasting, dancing and Nancy making a spectacle of herself (and yes there are pictures). Tons of food: smoked sturgeon, vegetable pates, mutton stew, bread, cheese, a tomato and cucumber salad with onions and jalapeno peppers. Wine and more wine. I was sitting next to Nadir who was bemoaning the lack of Vodka. I finally screwed up my courage to make a toast, but luckily by that time the restaurant was fill and no one could hear anything. A live band (or more precisely, a six member singing group that had some backup musicians but also sang, I think, to recorded music. Dance floor with neon stripes in it and a mirror ball. Lots of dancing. I finally said I'd dance w/ Nadir when a fast tempoed song came on. One came on. We went up and he started this wild (I presume Azeri?) dance and I just went along with it, thinking the dance floor would soon be filled with other dancers. Guess again. Long, spirit song, backbends, lots of wild hand motions and I barely stayed on my feet (oh, the wine, the wine!). Hope I did not embarrass Project Harmony.
Saying farewell to the Azeris leaving that night. Sad good byes to the Georgians. Feeling happy and blue. Tons of very kind remarks to me. I can't believe it.
Tired but fitful sleep
3am got up and took pictures of the moon
Saturday March 17 (wearing green? Nope!)
Woke early (window open as heat is too much) and sunny beautiful morning. Lay listening to the city. Roosters, cars, birds, cars, people, trucks. Just laying here writing my postcards diary. Wondering what time anyone will get up to day. Asya, Peter, Paul and I are going to do some sightseeing before Asya leaves for Moscow. I went down to Peter and Paul's room about 8:30 to see what was up. We ended up going down to breakfast and conversations with Armenians and never got out of the hotel till they were leaving at 11am. Interesting conversation with Arman. He was born in Russia, was trained as a OB, is a high level amateur performer of some sort (I'm not quite sure!) and now is developing Internet enterprise in Armenia. Very smart man.
Hard to say goodbye to the Armenians. Sirik gives me three rounds of hugs and we promise to stay in touch and maybe someday I'll get to Armenia.
Polina, Paul, Peter and I set out on our adventure for the day and see some of Tblisi. (Too late for Asya, she has a plane to catch). We grabbed a cab to the top of the hill behind our hotel (towards the south/) which is topped with a TV tower (Soviet era). There is a huge bombed out building that used to be the fanciest restaurant in Tblisi. The twisty road up was dotted with houses, some modest, some huge, many looking unfinished from the outside. People were out trimming their grape arbors. I try to imagine Tblisi in the summer with the sycamores leafed out and grape arbors everywhere. The signs of spring are still nascent.
The cabs are old cars, and I've only seen one with a seatbelt. Old, low back style seats. You see a few new BMWs and Mercedes but for the most part battered old cards. Everything is in decay, like time is winding down.
We enter the park at the top of the hill and wander around. Soldiers with machine guns ask for cigarettes but we've none. Polina shoots some pictures with her new telephoto lens and we wander around. You can look in to the bombed out building and see dusty marble columns and the old funicular railroad engine rooms. There is talk of rebuilding this pace, but one wonders where the money would come from.
We take a path down which winds past the funicular tracks. I slide down some gravel and nearly end up going over a precipice. Nice job, Nancy. There are trees along the path with bits of rags and handkerchiefs tied to them -- prayer wishes. We stop at an old Orthodox church, with bright, renovated paintings on the wall. They almost look like paint-by-number. Lenin's mother is buried here, along with many Georgian poets and artists. Gypsy women have babies beg and swear vengeance on us when we refuse to give them money.
We continue down into town, then wind our way towards the old part of town. The buildings, even in decay, are beautiful. There are carved porches and ornate doors with layers of peeling paint. Inside a doorway there are frescos on the wall and the stairs up are crumbling. I would not be surprised to have ghosts appear.
We walk around, shoot pictures and head to lunch and a little place owned by a famous puppeteer and artist where we have sturgeon and potatoes. This place is decorated over every inch by works from the artists, posters for his plays and all sorts of whimsical touches. The curtains are linen with cut work of people, images, some with some political satire woven throughout. It was great to be in an environment with that kind of detail. The food was ok. Really liked the cherry juice that Polina suggested.
After lunch we split up and Polina took me to find tchotchkes for the family. We went to Rustaveli street, to the underground shops (essentially street underpasses with a few shops) and found some knitted socks and slippers and some Georgian wool felt hats. Found one Soviet pin for Larry and a tablecloth with traditional Georgian designs. We took a break for a cup of tea at Prosperos (an expat bookstore and coffeeshop) and ran into Lucy from the PH staff and her boyfriend. Then Polina stopped to get a strap for her camera, then we headed to the PH office to work on a webx set up for the Georgian CC project while Paul meets w/Sophie.
Sophie had to cancel so Paul, Polina and I shot the breeze about work, etc till we rendezvoused with Peter for dinner. Dinner at an expat place. I had pasta. Strange world.
Paul, Peter and I headed back to the hotel and Peter and I decided getting some beer was a good idea, so we headed out the door to the little shop down the street. We were about 50 feet down the dark street when a car pulled up and in front of us. A guy in black got out and flashed a badge and said "Police". Uh oh. I looked at Peter and turned my body back towards the hotel and said Amerikanski, English. The cop followed us back to the hotel. The young desk clerk who spoke English translated for us. The police said it was dangerous for foreigners to go out after dark and if we wanted something, he would take us there. My heart slowed back down. I've understood that the police are not always so helpful. So the desk clerk went out for beer. I went up with Peter to his and Paul's room where they were sucked into cartoons waiting for beer. I bowed out and went up to bed. Woke to the sunrise and took pictures.
Sunday March 18
Last day in Tblisi starts with exercise in Vake Park. We take a cab to the park. It is essentially a garden park with gravel walking paths and a set of stairs that climbs up the hill to a huge Soviet era statue of a woman holding an oak branch. The size of these statues amazes me. This one was covered in rectangular metal sheets, some of which were peeling off at the base. The morning sun hit her side and she fairly glowed. After all those steps up, so did I. I walked around while Paul ran up the mountain. Ah youth! I walked back down to the main area, watching people play tennis, walk their dogs and take the morning air. Quiet and peaceful. Paul finds me and after a brief try for taxi, we walk back. The walk feels good as I've done too dang much sitting the last week. It is sunny and bright but pretty quiet.
10am we are back in the PH office for me to train Nika how to set up a WebCrossing space (the task that never happened the previous afternoon). She quickly outstripped my knowledge and in an hour we had the space set up. Then I transferred pictures from my laptop to Sophie's desktop so we could avoid some email clog when I return home. Then Sophie, Peter, Polina, Paul and I went to brunch. Where it took quite a while to get served, but when it came it was good. I had eggs Florentine (this was another expat place. Everyone was pretty tired of Georgian food at this point!)
We went back to the office and rounded up our stuff and headed back to the hotel. Peter begged off any additional sightseeing so Paul and I took a cab up to the hill above the old town where there is another old church and the statue of the Mother of Georgia, another huge metal Soviet era sculpture. The cobblestone road twisted up the hill till we were at the gates of a portion of the old city wall and the church. Some people sat around the courtyard. A hobbled chicken pecked around while the rooster strutted free around what looked to be a smithy shop. Up on a rise you can look towards the hills and the botanical garden, then back past the church and over the city. You can see the old Georgian buildings with the intricate wood screened porches on the cliffs above the river, looking as if they were defying gravity on the precipice.
In the other direction is the botanical gardens. I'd love to walk there, but time is short.
We climbed up on the wall and I took pictures, then we climbed further up to the statue. From this angle you can only get a shot of her well-rounded butt! She holds a giant sword and a wine cup. What you get depends on if you are friend or foe. ;-)
We walked back down the hill and through the old town, then grabbed a cab back to the hotel to get ready to depart for Ganje. Our driver was due at 5pm and showed up about 5:20. We had everything loaded in the car when Paul finds out he wants $140 for the trip, an outrageous amount. And the driver was unwilling to compromise so we pulled out our bags and trudged back into the lobby where Paul called Polina to try and find an alternative. Luckily the PH guard, Gia, was willing to drive us and so we set off about 6:30 for Ganje.
We were bumping along the rutted road when Gia, the driver, pulls over. Flat tire at dusk. He whips out a totally worn tire from the trunk and in a second had it changed. Fast! We headed on to the border. Now Gia is Georgian and did not have an Azerbaijan visa so we knew there was some risk they would not let him pass. They didn't. At the first Georgian checkpoint we had to change cars. Gia found us a cab. Paul told me that Gia told the other driver to take care of us in no uncertain terms! I wrote down the plate numbers and Paul gave a copy of the number to Gia to give to Polina with a description of the car (just in case, I presume!! ;-) Then on to the second Georgian check point and three, not two, Azeri checkpoints. Each time they wanted Paul to go in. I sought to look inconspicuous as I could in the back seat. At one point the driver comes and opens the other passenger door and starts pulling at our computer cases and I thought, uh oh, but it turns out he was trying to compact them down and make them less visible. When he was gone, two guys from another taxi walked slowly by the car examining all. I was glad when Paul and the driver returned to the cab and we were on our way to Ganje.
Despite the darkness, this driver clearly knew the road and when to slow for potholes. We made it to Elnur's house in Ganje about 10pm where dinner was still awaiting us. I ate like a zombie, totally tired from the day's walks and adventures. I slept. Ahhh... and woke to the roosters crowing and another day of meetings!
Monday March 19
Meet w/ Elnur and Vugar to plan presentation. I think we finally gave an example to Vugar that made sense to him and we look at our watches and realize we have only 10 minutes to get dressed and out of the house. Dash into execu-dress and off we rip to the bank where we were meeting. Fancy digs.
Elnur's house where he lives with his wife and two young sons (one was staying with grampa while we were there. This is apparently a custom to let the eldest child almost live with the grandparents) had a large living/dining room, two bedrooms and a "family room/kitchen." Elnur told me he had done much of the work on the house, which is made of the sandstone brick. Behind the house and enclosed in a wall that surrounds his entire house/property is a garden with fruit trees, grape arbors, and roses. Roses seem popular here and it must be beautiful when they are leafed out and in bloom. I've read of the fragrant Persian roses in books. There is a big iron gate to the street.
Elnur's wife took excellent care of us -- feeding us at all hours! It felt weird not to help, but I believe that is what was appropriate. She was shy, but we managed to have small conversations about kids. Rasgar, the youngest, had free reign of the house and is an energizer bunny, never stopping for a second till he went to bed when the rest of us dropped for the day.
Our meeting went...well, I really have no idea how it went! The translator was not really keeping up. But in any case two hours flew by and it was over. We went back to Elnur's house, had lunch, talked some more and it was resolved that Paul and I would stay the night and leave for Sheki in the morning, the first day of Novrus. Elnur and Vugar then took us on a tour around the city. There are many brick buildings from the late 19th century, looking part Victorian and part midwest USA. Kinda funny. Lots of banners for Novrus (the upcoming 2 day spring holiday) and in the main square, we watched them building the traditional bonfire. We walked around the Mosque and Hamam, went to Elnur's Internet cafe and walked through the park, taking pictures as we went.
Then back home, more talk, dinner and I was very tired so I went to bed around 9:15pm and went out like a light. Plan was a 7am departure for the 3 hour ride to Sheki.
Tuesday March 20
|The driver rang the doorbell at 6:30 as he saw no lights on and was worried we'd overslept. Elnur's wife got up and insisted on fixing breakfast and we were out the door just after 7am, stopping on the way out of town for gas and water.|
Sheki is a town tucked into a valley spilling out from the mountains, with refreshing green fields leading into town. I realized how nice it felt on my eyes to see green as much of the landscape is dusty light brown.
The driver stopped repeatedly in town to ask directions to the Caravansary, the hotel Vugar (from Baku, not Vugar from Ganje) had arranged for us. We arrived to find this most amazing building... a restored trading center/caravansary with domed archways surrounding a central courtyard (dry fountain). It was the first restored old building I'd seen and the rooms were terrific, including hot water. This was good news after 3 days without a shower. We dumped our luggage then walked up to the Palace of the Sheki Khans
and the museums. So much of the old beautiful buildings were taken over as military buildings and destroyed during the soviet era, but this 18th century beauty managed to survive. Beautiful Sheki style windows were wood latticed stained glass. We entered and covered our shoes with little denim socks and paid to have the tour through the rooms.
The guide had some interesting things to say about the status of women in this palace... they talked a lot, apparently, and were for the most part considered weak. There was one flight of stairs, which was sufficient exercise for the very fit. I tried to suppress my smirks as Paul translated from Russian to me. Interesting to be a "liberated" woman in a country where women have very proscribed roles.
The walls were covered with amazing paintings. They symbolism in one room was pretty wild. Then it started to sprinkle, so we ducked into the history museum, followed the whole way by two women who stayed close. The first room was a decaying natural history display of local plants and animals. The rabbit's ears had rotted off it seems. Very dark and hard to see. The next room had pottery and cooking utensils, then clothing and fabrics (there used to be a silk factory in Sheki that employed 6000 people until 6 years ago. Then we hopped across to the museum in the mosque which was for folk arts. The lady managed to sell me s scarf. Then we headed down into town to try and change some money. Never found an exchange place, but had some of the local variety of baklava (sickly sweet to the point of tastelessness) and next door an elderly man had a little shop where he made the local instrument. He played me a few tunes and Paul slipped him some money.
Not much commerce here. People selling food stuffs on roadside stands, meat hanging out like everywhere else we'd been in Azerbaijan. Most store fronts where shuttered. We wove through the tangle of back cobbles stone alleys back to the hotel to find some lunch. Not many vegetarian choices for Paul. We had pickled cabbage, a thick creamy yogurt, pomegranate seeds and salty cheese and bread. Potato dumpling thingies.
We had met a driver when we arrived who had offered to take us up to the next village, Kish, and we met him as arranged at 2pm for the bumpy ride to the next village up in the mountains. We passed huge flood walls that had been constructed to hold back the rocky mountain river (just a small stream now). I tried to imagine the river wild and full. We crossed a bridge with a beautiful view of the mountains and local fields and arrived in Kish. Then we began our decent up a tiny cobbled road that I was sure would be impassable for the Lada. I held my breath as the driver negotiated the potholes and asked directions. Soon we arrived at what was called the Albanian Church, thought to be one of the oldest Christian churches dating back nearly 2000 years. It was tarped as a group of Norwegians (who we were told spoke quite good Azeri) are restoring it and doing an archeological dig on the site.
The gate was locked, so we figured we had to settle for that when the local kids ran off and got a woman with the key to the gate who gave us a tour around the exterior of the church. Then she invited us to her home for tea. Paul asked me if I was game, I gave a grin and off we headed to her house. Behind a gate they had a small orchard/garden, a cone bread oven, workshop and the house. There was a pile of freshly split rocks that looked destined for wall construction. She invited us into the living room/kitchen ( a small wood stove and a plastic wash pan for a sink). Her mother in law and wizened father in law were there, her son and another young girl who we later learned was a relative who lived in Sheki. Plus and man and a woman who sat down, ate and left. Apparently people are very hospitable at Novrus. We left our shoes at the door and then proceeded to be fed. First tea, then dolmas with homemade yogurt, preserved cherries, and finally small red apples and great walnuts. Paul gamely ate the non-vegetarian dolmas. They were delicious. You eat the cherries in your tea as sweetener.
Our conversation was interesting. The driver would speak Azeri with the family, translate to Russian for Paul who would then translate to English for me. One of the folks back in Baku likened it to a conversation on a 14.4 modem. The grandmother pointed out pictures of her three sons, all of whom had left the village for jobs in Russian. The woman, Elhama, had been going it alone for four years while her husband worked in a car factory in Russia. All three sons had done military service. There was paintings of the old woman as thanks from an artist who had come to the church years back. It seems there is a tradition that you take money and press it to the wall of the church and make a wish or prayer. If it sticks, your wish will come true. This artist had been unable to have children. He made his wish, his money stuck, and the next year he came back to tell them his wife had had a child. So he painted them as a thank you gift.
The grandma decided Paul looked a lot like her sons. I think she was going to adopt him on the spot. They invited us to stay the night, but we politely declined. I gave each of the kids a Sacajawea dollar and we roughly told them her story. They wanted to know if they were real gold! No, we told them, worth just a US dollar. However, that was probably a lot of money for this family who raised ALL their own food except sugar, tea and some meat. It was very beautiful and impressive. I was so touched by their hospitality. We took a group picture on the porch then said our farewells. Elhama pulled me towards her and gave me a kiss. We climbed into the cab and the young girl grabbed a ride with us back to Sheki. The road continued to amaze me.
You know, you don't get these opportunities if you are touristing your way through another country, unable to communicate. I was so grateful for the opportunity to visit Kish.
We went back to the hotel and I read for a bit. The light was beautiful in the courtyard. This place is a warren of hallways. Really amazing. The first time we tried to find the restaurant, we discovered all sorts of narrow dark hallways. Considering the economy, this restoration is really something. We were later told that the investors are responsible for upkeep and that the restoration was first done by the Soviets.
We climbed back up to the restaurant for dinner. Potato dolmas and I tried the soup. It arrived in a big pottery mug and there was huge globs of sheep fat, some meat, chick peas and broth... apparently a very traditional local soup. I ate everything but the globs of fat!! We had some Xirdalan (Azeri) beer (I'm growing fond of the stuff... better than drinking sweet coke or fanta), then talked for a while before calling it a night, as we had an early start back to Baku in the morning.
When we got up, we could not find anyone awake to get hot water for tea or coffee, and found we were effectively locked into the hotel. We hoped we could get out when the driver arrived. I sat in the courtyard on the cold stones and listened to the birds and watched the light. Trying to hold a picture in my mind. I was already starting to feel sad about the end of this adventure.
Soon the innkeeper came out, unlocked the doors and told me it was too cold to sit on the ground. I told him it was too beautiful not to. He smiled. Paul made some coffee, the driver arrived and off we went for Baku.
The driver asked which route we wanted to take, the route with more sights or the fastest? Since we had a ton of work awaiting us in Baku, we opted for the short route, which turned out to be a BEAUTIFUL road that skirted the mountains for about 2 hours before meeting the main road back to Baku. Valley after valley of orchards and small farms, small villages with people milling about (mostly men), cows in the road, sheep in the road, ruts in the road. It was exhilaratingly beautiful. The driver also pointed out a huge Russian military base off in the foothills along with some political commentary! It was a great ride.
We were stopped once where the driver paid a police bribe (amounts to about 40 cents if memory serves) and we proceeded. The driver told us which regions we passed through and about the local economy. Nuts, fruits, meat, etc. And the mountains kept us company to the north. He nudged livestock out of his way and I got a great shot of cow butts from the car window! We shared some chocolate and granola bars for breakfast.
There were fields of nut trees and orchards, tons of grazing sheep and cows. We stopped at what looked to be a Muslim "road stop" where the driver got out and pressed money into a man's hand and did a little hands together/little bow. There were men and boys in the streets of each little village (or in the street - singular -- the one we were on) and I wondered if folks were taking it easy for Novrus. Roadside vendors, the occasional Soviet military plaque or memorial. Sun/clouds/sun.
Gradually the trees shrank and the green faded except for some tightly grazed spring grass on the hills and the landscape started looking drier and drier. We stopped for tea, then headed into the hilly region west of Baku. We stopped and the driver pressed some manat (Azeri currency) into the hands of an elderly man waving at a busy intersection. Seems he used to be the policeman who "owned" this intersection. He was kind and never charged high rates for the bribes and was nice to people. Then he was laid off. The drivers liked him so much and respected his kindness, that they still pay him. He waves and smiles at everyone.
Traffic picked up and my eyes drooped but the bumping disallowed falling asleep. Power lines, factories, a few oil thingies started dotting the landscape. The dust increased as we reached the outskirts of Baku and finally back in town. Abandoned factories. Sandstone houses with tin roofs and miles of electrical lines.
We dropped my bags at Paul's and did a short walk around Baku. The streets were filled with strollers for the Novruz holiday. Baku is as different from Tblisi as can be. Where Tblisi was shuttered and rather grim, Baku had buzz and bustle. Many, many more shops. The wealthy were visible. There was construction and less decay and rot.
By the way, the President of Azerbaijan has his own webpage!
We avoided the crowded old town and took a cab up to a memorial park at the top of the hill and took in the views. Another defunct funicular, lots of tombs to Karabach veterans and those killed when the Soviets sent tanks into Baku to quell protests in 1994. I took some pictures of graffiti for my son Chris, who has been taking such pix recently. We then walked down the hill and along the water front esplanade. Finally hunger arrived and we went into an expat cafe. Within minutes Paul spotted his friend Troy and his girlfriend and they came in and joined us. After lunch we headed back to Paul's and to work again! Delivery Indian food!
My accommodations that night were a few blocks away in a former Soviet hotel. It seems now the hotels have been sold up floor by floor and I was staying on the 9th floor, owned by a woman Paul knew. He had checked out the room and it was supposed to have hot water, etc. But that room was already taken and after much phone calling and negotiations, I was shown to another room. The bed was small and tilted. They assured me that there WOULD be hot water in the morning. So I settled in. As soon as I shut out the lights (and tried not to roll off the tiny bed) the moaning started. Hmmm. I think the room next door was being rented by the hour. The refrain was standard and repeated regularly. Earplugs in place, pillow on head, I finally nodded off around 2am. Lovely place. Lovely.
Thursday March 22
I got up early and hit the shower. No hot water. I called Paul and headed over there to take advantage of his in-bathroom hot water heater. After some discussion, it was determined that we'd save the money, save the support-your-local house of prostitution and I'd stay at Paul's. Back came the giant suitcase, bumping along the street. As I checked out they wanted to know if something was wrong. Not wanted to offend, we just said my business was done!
Two presentations, both without any real outside translators so I'm not getting everything and Paul is having to serve double duty. The fatigue is really setting in. One was at the Refugee Center and one for the Law Center. My mind is reeling with all the translation. Hehe. Chinese with Troy for dinner. I wonder when I'm going to eat Azeri food! Exhaustion and beer are making me drop! Finally sleep the sleep of the dead, but wake up again waaay too early.
Friday March 23
Two presentations (long one at Mercy Corps and one on marketing to the Internet guys' group including a guy from the World Bank who has this HUGE internet grant. Blows me away), lunch on the run (delicious eggplant salad and a traditional Azeri food -- two large crepes filled with fresh herbs and sautéed on a grill. YUMMM. Garlic breath. Yes!) , Lots of hugs and handshakes to all of my new Azeri friends, many who came to all four of the presentations over the last four days (geeze, that must be BORING!) A great deal of warmth and connections I hope won't fade away.
Quick stop for Soviet pins for Larry, buy a folk CD (for more Azeri music, click here)Turkish food for dinner then rent Crouching Tiger, Leaping Dragon. I fell asleep on the couch and crawled off to bed. Glad I packed earlier.
Very sad that this is all ending. Hard to deal with all the thoughts in my brain, understanding the experiences, processing the information. My head won't let my body rest. It is going to take me some time to figure this all out and put it in perspective. As you can see, starting to totally fail at my travel narrative.
Saturday March 24
Woke around 5:30am. To airport at 7am. Hard to say goodbye. I think I am leaving a little bit of me behind. Hard to watch as Azerbaijan shrinks into specks below me. Hard to think about the fact that I may never see any of these people again. I take fuzzy pictures. They fit my fuzzy brain. We fly over what I think is Sheki and I'm replaying meeting Elhama and her family. Was it real?
Spent 20,000 miles for a biz class upgrade London to Chicago and it was worth every mile. Had a very interesting conversation with my seatmate, a doc from Australia working in Risk Management, about the value neutral nature of the net, but how we can bring value by making our values explicit in how we use the net. We can use it as a toy, as a vehicle of commerce, but also as a communications tool to improve the community and world around us. That said, I also pity my seatmate. I think I was a babbling idiot and cried during all the sad parts of all the stupid airline movies. Oi!
I call Larry from Chicago to tell them they lost my bag and I start to cry again. Exhaustion is such a friendly thing. I popped into an Internet rental place and went online for an hour, caught a little email during my 3 hour layover. As I negotiate to my gate, can barely navigate. Once I get there... gate change to the other fricken end of the airport. I think I shall drop in my tracks. I can barely manage to eat my meal. Talk briefly to the huge guy crammed in the middle seat beside me. Then doze to Seattle. Home 26 hours later.
Sigh. Lots of crazy, illegible scratched notes in my notepad indicating my brain is fried, my senses are on overload and that this was one hell of a trip. Shall not soon forget. Feel it has been a growth experience and one that is opening me to new ideas and opportunities for my work. Will have to write up more on the "thought" side.
Nuff for now.
Post-PostCard - Saturday March 31st, 2001
My neurons are finally starting to slow down. I'm pulling out of the intense, immediate context. Clearly I immersed -- perhaps almost more than is healthy. Took a ding dang week to start stepping back, extricating emotions and ideas. I look back and can't believe how fast 2 weeks passed, how I existed on so little sleep, how my brain and imagination took such a trip.
I'm working on processing my learnings from the work, and my personal learnings from the experience. Why was it so powerful? What are the lessons I'm supposed to articulate from this in terms of online community and communications? For my future work? What lessons for me as a citizen of this globe? What was done well? What could improve? What are the next steps? How am I supposed to continue with this group of people -- who, what manner, how is it I'm to contribute, how do I sustain that contribution?
I've started researching who is interested and paying attention to the online communications part of wiring communities for development. I'm finding little seeds here and there, but still primarily attention to tech infrastructure and lip service to interaction. Little attention to the tough problems of working across language, culture, conflict, politics -- all in an imperfect medium, but one that, with it's networked capability -- has so much potential.
Connections. That is still the theme of this trip. Connections with individuals. Ideas. Organizations. Places. Emotions. Insights. It is still viscerally powerful in my head. But now to take this and make it into something of lasting value beyond memories and some cool photos.
The adventure begins.