Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Continued thoughts on Georgia: Civil War

In 1991, Georgia announced independence from the Soviet Union. And soon afterwards, they went to war. Two of its regions wanted to secede from Georgia: Abkhazia and South Osseida. They had been part of Georgia during the Soviet Union, and they were historically parts of the kingdom of Georgia on and off again for the past two thousand years. However, there were some reasons for them to want to be separate. I don’t know much about South Ossedia, so I’ll focus mostly on Abkhazia. (This is what we may call interpreted history rather than objective history. I am repeating what I was told, so in some ways this is the history that exists in the minds of at least some people in Georgia. I must admit that this is a one-sided story, but unfortunately that’s the only side I got to hear. I hope that reading this will encourage some people to look up information themselves and find out more.)

Abkhazians have their own language. They are also mostly Islamic, while Georgians are Christians with a capital C. However, in 1991, only say 20% of the population in Abkhazia was actually Abkhaz. Georgian (or Mengrellian, but they consider themselves Georgian). So 20% of the population said, we want to secede. And 80% said, what? And then the minority said, get out. And the majority said, what? And then war started and 200,000 people fled Abkhazia for Georgia. The Abkhaz with the Russians helped kick out 80% of the population and then declared independence from Georgia.

A new country and a new economy are hard things to manage. Countries all over the Soviet Union went into chaos in the early 1990s. Imagine everything depending on the government. Your job, your healthcare, all your utilities. And then one day, the government stops existing. It’s hard to imagine. People don’t get paid. Things don’t get made. Utilities don’t work. People have no heating in the winter. It was tough times. In Georgia, these were exacerbated by a civil war. Not only was there a sudden lack of government, there was a war and hundreds of thousands of refugees.

I was fortunate enough to meet some amazing people during my trip, and it turned out about a dozen or so of them were refugees. Through a friend of a friend, I met up with Irakli and his family in Zugdidi, which is the city closest to the border with Abkhazia. Of course, the fighting has been over for 15 years now, and they are living a normal enough life. The government gave them an apartment to live in. Irakli and his brother both graduated from university. His father has a small business making bags for food products. But they long for their old life. Irakli grew up in a town on the coast of the Black Sea. Their house was only 30 meters away from the water. His parents grew up in that town. That was their life. And now, they are forbidden to go back. And with a mere percentage of the original residents, their house has probably been looted and now sites abandoned. Sitting there, 30 meters from the water, empty.

Irakli and his family live in a normal, although modest, apartment. Some of his relatives still haven’t received normal apartments. They live in a converted preschool. It’s not bad, but for them, it still didn’t feel like home. Soon though, seventeen years after the war, they are going to finally get apartment in a new city and somehow try and start a new life there.

August 2008. For me, that’s when I came to Kazakhstan. It’s also the Beijing Olympics. I remember because they started on my birthday. Maybe you remember another event that happened around that time. Russia invaded Georgia. The way I remember it being presented, Russia was the bad guy picking on little, innocent Georgia. They wanted to disrupt some pipeline or get land or something. In reality, this was a complicated situation. I don’t really understand what happened, but it wasn’t just a flashfire event. It had been building up for years and fighting had been escalating for months leading up to the incident. The wikipedia page on it presents an interesting story, although it is flagged for questionable neutrality (although I’m not sure from which side; it presents both in a negative light). It seems simple to conclude though, that both sides were at least partly responsible.

My new friends briefly recounted some events from the first war and the 2008 war. When I was riding around in Irakli’s uncle’s Zhugili (an old Soviet station wagon type car) he joked that it was his tank. It’s what they used when they were fleeing Abkhazia with eleven people and everything they could bring with them crammed inside. A small shell actually hit the top of it, but it was stopped by the luggage they had on top. Their tank, indeed. In 2008, everything happened quickly. Russian jets were flying everywhere. They apparently bombed the Borjomi region which started some serious fires. There were civilian casualties, including at least one foreign journalist. Peace Corps volunteers were also affected. I heard they called their Safety and Security Office saying, “Uh… there are Russian troops in my yard. What do I do?” (Since then Peace Corps rules in Georgia have been extra strict. They are issued cell phones. They get free minutes on all calls between Peace Corps phones. And you MUST have your phone with you at all times.) But the war was a short one, and a tentative peace was made. However, a war only increased incentive and justification for Russia’s presence in the disputed territories.

The refugees know that the process won’t end soon. They certainly don’t expect to go home tomorrow. But I think they have hope. How can they not? In their minds, that is their land. Their houses, their belongings, they are just 100 kilometers away, but across a distance that cannot yet be crossed. They talk about Abkhazia fondly. The beaches butt up right against the mountains. Not like Batumi, which is flat. They long to go home; they hope one day they might be able to, but until then, they are living their lives in other parts of Georgia.

Two incidents were interesting to me. One, when we were going to a cave city about 70 km away from Borjomi, we brought along a young boy of about eleven years old. He was Abkhaz, but he was visiting Georgia. The other travelers were me, and four refugees from Abkhazia. They spoke about him as if he was a novelty. Look at us, four refugees, an American, and an Abkhaz. What a crazy bunch! It seemed like they were slightly jealous of the boy, and why wouldn’t they be. He still gets to live there; and they can only dream. At one point, he was saying how beautiful Georgia was, but how Abkhazia was even prettier. The four other people with us jokingly said, we know, we lived there our whole lives!

Another time, someone was telling a friend news of Abkhazia they had heard from the boy’s mother. Apparently, Russian tourists were trying to go into the region, but they had trouble because police enforcement is rather lax there. My friend became slightly incensed, why were Russians going there? What were they doing there? There’s no reason for them to be there? And I could only think that I’ve heard constantly about how it’s amazingly beautiful, why wouldn’t they go there if they could? But that logic wasn’t in the mind of my friend. That’s his home, what right do people have to go there when he himself can’t. I assume that’s what he was thinking.

For me, it was fascinating talking to the people of Georgia about what had happened. Never in my life had I talked to refugees before. In development, you hear a lot about them. Refugees. Refugee camps. But then to meet someone who had to leave their home and couldn’t go back. To change their whole life due to war. And I longed to hear the other side. I know what I heard had to be at least somewhat biased, but honestly no one spoke badly about anyone else. If there were any bitter feelings, they did not share them with me, their guest. They only spoke about their land which is now unreachable for them. The beauty of it, and how much they miss it. Either way, it was quite an impressive display of forgiveness or restraint. And a reminder that things are never as simple as they seem.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Drinking in Georgia: A Beginner's Guide

One of the joys of visiting Georgia is the wine. Georgians love wine. They love to drink it. They love to make it. They love to toast with it. But people there don’t just sit and sip on their wine. They toast and then they guzzle. That’s one reason why they drink more white wine then red wine. Sure, they make red wine, and they love it, but they admit guzzling glass after glass of red wine in a night is a lot harder than white wine.

So let’s say you sit down at a Georgia dinner, and you are poured wine. What’s the proper etiquette? You must wait for a toast. Who gives the toast? A special chosen person called the tomador. This is the table commander. He is the man in charge. He also has a second in command, but I don’t remember what that guy is called. So the tomador will say a toast about something, and then the second guy will elaborate on the toast. Then everyone drinks their glass of wine all the way or almost all the way. Don’t sip it. Down that thing. If the toast was to something normal, you can leave a bit left in your glass (friends, meeting, country), but if it something very important (to the dead, God, etc), you should drink the whole thing. Then they fill your glass back up and you wait for the next toast. There’s no drinking it in between toasts. (However, in my experience, albeit limited, we were allowed a glass of juice or water as well that we could drink from freely.) How much time is there between toasts? Sometimes just a few minutes, sometimes five minutes, sometimes longer. It depends on the tomador. Are you allowed to say your own toast? Eventually, but you better wait for a bit, and then you have to ask permission from the commander.

The toasts are usually from a set list. There’s the normal toast for meeting, for friends, for the dead, for God, for women, for peace, for etc… For me as a visitor for only two weeks, this was pretty fun. I don’t know how I’d feel there as a volunteer there for two years though. Maybe I’d get sick of the repetitiveness, but I think a lot of it depends on the table commander. Generally, they should be gregarious and interesting.

Where do they get all of this wine from? Often, they make it themselves. The eastern part of Georgia are where most of the vineyards are, but many people also have some grape vines growing in their own yards. The harvest season is in September, and apparently September and October are the times visit because Georgians celebrate this time of year (it’s also not 40 degrees in Tbilisi like it is in August). Even the people who don’t grow their own grapes may buy kilos of it to make wine out of. One family I talked to bought about 500 kilograms a year of grapes. From this, he’s make about 300 liters of good pure wine, and 300 liters of good, watered-down wine. (I am not really sure how accurately I remember the numbers, but it was a lot of grapes and a lot of wine.)

Wine is not all that they drink in Georgia though. They don’t just throw away the grape stuff after they extract the wine. They distill it to make a drink called chacha. Homemade liquor. Usually above 60 proof, possibly much much higher. Not being content with just this, they also make homemade vodka from other fruits like plums. My friend Irakli and I actually ran into his uncle distilling some vodka in the apartment lawn on my birthday. He invited us to sit down and try it. Later he measured it with this floating gauge to find out it was about 65 proof. The homemade pickles helped get that stuff down. Oh, you toast chacha and vodka the same way as with the wine.

How to make vodka

They also drink beer, but they don’t toast it. You can casually drink it like you want to.

Friday, August 12, 2011

Fill up your bottle

Georgians are proud of their water, and they probably should be. They have some of the most famous mineral water in the world. The main brand being Borjomi, whose bottles may be in a nearby supermarket. It’s the one with the funny squiggle writing (aka Georgian). This company started bottling the salty, fizzy, mineral filled water from the town of Borjomi 120 years ago (as billboards there now commemorate). However, Borjomi is not unique in Georgia. Many other places also bottle the water that springs up from the ground, and in Georgia it seemed like some other ones were more popular.

Of course, there are tons and tons of natural springs through out the country, and a trip to Georgia is not complete without stopping numerous times during any trip to drink from natural springs that now have pipes and spickets coming from them. Going to Kazbegi, my marshrutka stopped twice so the driver and passengers could enjoy the spring water.

This water did not taste good.

Other trips were the same. You just stop the car, get out, and have some fresh mineral water. Sometimes this water tastes great and sometimes the water tastes like its full of metal. Either way, the people here love to drink it.

This water tasted great. It was near the town Rustavi

This water at the Green Monastary near Borjomi tasted pretty good

The line was too long, so I didn't try this water.

Borjomi is the most famous though, and the park in the center of town contains a fountain where you can fill up cups and drink the mineral water for free.

Me filling up a cup with FREE Borjomi water

Another spring nearby has cold water that is better. And this creates the interesting phenomenon of vendors selling empty plastic bottles. Never have I seen person after person selling empty plastic bottles.

The water’s free, but you have to buy the bottle

When we filled up at the Borjomi spring, some people were filling up to ten liters of the spring water.

In a somewhat ironic twist though, two of the places I stayed at in Georgia only had running water a couple times a day. There is water everywhere, but they don’t have the infrastructure to keep it pumping into their houses all day.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

A Primer on Georgia (Michael's on vacation!)

So I went on vacation and finally have something to write about. For the next few entries, my blog is going to feature stuff about Kyrgyzstan and Georgia. Georgia being the country and not the state. I should probably write about Kyrgyzstan first, but I’m in Georgia now, so it’s fresh. First a short introduction to Georgia.

Georgia is a small country located in the Caucuses. Is it Europe? Is it Asia? No one seems to know. (Even when I was given my Peace Corps assignment, I remember wondering this. Okay, Central Asia. So Bulguria and Ukraine are out. What about Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan? When asked, people don’t really know. They see themselves more European, but overall they are the Caucuses.) They are technically in Europe, but they are Caucus people. That’s important to know.

Also, here I should note that everything I know about Georgia I learned from being here, talking to people, reading Lonely Planet, and skimming wikipedia. So this is definitely not well researched.

Anyway, Georgia is a small country. There’s about 5 million people here. 3.5 million are Georgians, and 1.5 million are others. That includes Armenians, Turks, Russians, Azeris, etc. However, even all Georgians are not all the same. Some are different nationalities like Svans and Megrellians. Georgia shares borders with Russia, Turkey, Armenia, and Azerbaijan. It also has a big coast on the Black Sea. However, the country is only a few hundred kilometers wide, and in the past two weeks, I’ve been able to make it to within miles of Turkey (really like 100 yards away), Russia, and Armenia.

Georgia is Christian. Wait, they are a democratic with freedom of religion. But they are a Christian nation. Those 3.5 million Georgians, pretty much all of them are Georgian Orthodox. And everywhere you go, it shows. If there is a hill overlooking a town here, there is a cross or a church or both prominently sitting on top. The mosques and other religious places are hidden away. When you pass by a church, people cross themselves. Wearing crosses is very popular. How this actually translates into practice, I’m not sure. But the display of religious here is important.

Georgians like to drink. The main things they drink are wine, beer, vodka, and chacha. Chacha is a homemade liquor made from grapes, after they are finished making their homemade wine. They seem to drink all three major categories of alcohol: beer, liquor, and wine. And a lot of it is homemade. They also have an interesting way of going about it that I’ll cover later on.

Georgians speak Georgian. Georgian not like any other language in the world. That’s not entirely true. People here speak different versions of Georgian like Megrellian, Georgian, or Svani. However, Georgia has its own alphabet and it has its own language branch. Yeah, like Germanic covers English, Germany, etc. Latin has Spanish, French, Italian. Slavic has tons of languages. Georgian is a whole language branch for like six million people. Crazy. The older generation (up to about 30 maybe?) all knows Russian from when they were in the Soviet Union. The younger generation is learning English instead, trying to bring it closer to the West, but possibly excluding its regional neighbors.

In addition to these facts, I will soon elaborate on mineral water, mountain landscapes, the Black Sea, and a civil war. And once again, none of this is well researched. Any wrong information is an honest mistake. I’ve just had an amazing time learning and exploring this wonderful country, and I hope more people are able to learn about it.

And just for fun, a picture or two:

Church on a hill

Georgian alphabet.