Tuesday, September 26, 2006


I have finally reached the west coast of Georgia and its main port city of Batumi on the Black Sea. Although a very popular Summer beach destination for many Georgians palmy-fringed, sun-kissed and sandy it ain't. It's the off season, it's raining and the beach is pebbly. The latter fact did, however, afford me some amusement as I harked back to my childhood days and spent half an hour skipping stones. But the town is actually quite clean and pretty. Western Georgia used to be the ancient land of Colchis where Jason and his Argonauts sailed to recover the Golden Fleece (a legend that has its roots in reality as in the mountains of Svaneti people used to place sheep pelts in streams to catch nuggets of gold in the wool). Having just reread the (abridged, online version of the) story I find Jason a very poor hero indeed, mainly because it was his girlfriend, Medea, who did most of the hard work in obtaining the Fleece, and then, when he got home and claimed his throne, he dumped her for the princess Glauce. I therefore think that, along with the dictum about being wary of Greeks and their gifts, one should also add: "beware of Greek heroes, they're bastards." (To that category one could also add Theseus who deserted Ariadne after she helped him kill the minotaur.)

But I digress. My time in the Caucasus is drawing to a close and it is with a heavy heart that I say goodbye to this small, yet charming and varied, region (not least because I've fluffed my timing and will be entering Muslim Turkey just as Ramadan is getting under way, so that now I have a month of fasting to look forward to). I've been bowled over by the hospitality of the people and the mountain scenery. The food, on the other hand, could do with a bit of work as the regional staple of bread and white, salty cheese (often served with tomatoes and cucumbers) gets rather samey after a while (especially if, unlike me, you are a vegetarian and are unable to go for option number 2: mutton stew). The Georgians, inventive bunch that they are, have even developed an ingenious way of administering both cheese and bread in a single package known as khachapuri, which combines white, salty cheese in a pastry filling. Yummy! It is also heartening to travel in countries that have potential and seem to be developing it and improving. And although, as a simple tourist, things seem to be going well for people with nice boutiques, fancy cars and mobile phones a-plenty, the picture is not so rosy when one scratches below the surface. Salaries for teachers barely exceed a dollar a day and many of them often have second jobs; often people will sit for hours on the street with just a small bucket of sunflower seeds or garden fruit to make a little bit of extra cash. Running water (let alone the hot variety) and electricity are also not assured and cuts are frequent (I didn't experience the water outages myself as the places I stayed in often didn't have running water anyway). When staying with a French NGO worker in northern Armenia I asked how people coped. Her reply was that "ils font du business", illustrating her point by showing me the grocery shop across the road which is a front for the main local mafia, an open secret in the town. Similarly gambling seems to be a pretty big thing with slot machines on the main street in Batumi, in the metro in Baku and, most disconcerting (and probably blasphemous) of all, the main road to Echmiadzin is lined with poker joints and casinos. But I'm an optimist, and I hope things will get better, especially for Georgia, which seems to me to be a country full of potential, especially for tourism.

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