Thursday, September 18, 2008

Exile On Not Main Street, Part II. Or: The road less traveled. Also vodka.

Hello, friends. Romania is still Romania, and language class is still language class (For a limited time only, all the suck of PST, crammed into a more portable three weeks! Available for the low low price of oh just kill yourself now!). Thankfully, even our teacher didn't want to teach this afternoon, so we just sat outside drinking coffee and talking about recent Romanian history, which seems to involve a lot of Germans and kings who don't want to be kings and then Stalin. So, since it was topical, I showed her my Stalin Museum pictures. It was nice to be able to contribute to the discourse. Also, I showed the photo of me as Bearinacage from last Halloween, the photo of my winter beard, and the photo from my host brother's wedding where I gave a prepared toast and then downed a huge kh'anzi in front of 300 people. Man, I miss Georgia. I mean, I want to be here, and I'm adjusting, but I don't really know how to balance what seems to be a healthy impulse to fondly remember my time there, and the need to fully adjust my focus to HERE. I'm sort of afraid I'm going to find myself at work two weeks from now, with someone asking me a random work question, only instead of answering it I will find myself bawling and sputtering, "I....remember.....the.....time.....when.....Kelly Uphoff......said......Colonial Williamsburg....." and then I will run out the door and just run and run into the wilderness and nobody will ever see me again. It's a possibility that's on the table, I think.

Anyway, here is part two of my Exile Story. I'm going to visit my new city this weekend, so perhaps I shall have some interesting insights and/or photographs for you to gaze at in wonder, come next week.


I went home and packed a small bag. Under our safety and security rules, when moving volunteers is a possibility, a volunteer is only allowed to pack a small carry-on-size bag to bring with him. That’s basically enough room for a laptop and two or three sets of clothes. I didn’t really consider at the time how much this rule would end up affecting my life. I was also not really considering the possibility that I would never be back to that room, that house, or that city. I went through the motions I was supposed to go through, just in case – I arranged my possessions in groups of importance, in case Peace Corps had to retrieve them and send them to America for me, and when the call came on Saturday morning for me to go to Tbilisi immediately, I said goodbyes to my family. It was an extremely confusing evening and morning of conversations:

Me: “I may have to leave for Tbilisi tomorrow.”
My host family: “Why?”
Me: “Because of the bombings. Peace Corps wants all the volunteers together. We may have to leave the country.”
My host family: “But Rustavi is safe.”
Me: “How do you know?”
My host family: “They won’t bomb Rustavi.”
Me: “They just bombed an airport 20 minutes from here and an army base five kilometers from here.”
My host family: “But not here. You should not leave.”
Me: “I have to. And I might not be able to come back.”
My host family: “But you are leaving for America in two days.”
Me: “Yes, trust me, I am aware of this.”
My host family: “Stop being silly. Put your things back in your room.”

I took a marshutka to Tbilisi. The marshutka to the Peace Corps office, it turns out, was my last marshutka ride in Georgia. I didn’t know it at the time, or perhaps I’d have taken some pictures. Things in Tbilisi seemed pretty normal, which was actually weird, although I don’t know what I was expecting. I met some friends of mine – volunteers who also lived in the east, or who were in the city for other reasons – at the Peace Corps office in the early afternoon. We sat in the volunteer lounge, and since I no longer work for Peace Corps Georgia, I can tell you without fear of reprimand that we started pounding some liquor I had in my cubby. This led to an amusing exchange with our new Country Director, who had just arrived in Georgia two weeks prior. He ordered pizza for us and for the staff, since we weren’t permitted to leave the office, and mused, “I wish we didn’t have that alcohol policy. Now would be a good time for a beer.” I nodded my head in agreement, and took another sip from my coffee mug. Which was full of vodka.

At any rate, we discussed the situation with the CD, while I wondered whether I smelled like the amount of liquor I’d consumed.[15] He told us that all the other volunteers and trainees were gathering in central Georgia, and moving to a safe location in Bakuriani, a ski town in the mountains to the south (here are some mediocre pictures of Bakuriani, circa July 2007). We asked to be taken there as well – at this point, we had no idea what was in store for us, and we didn’t want to wait for what could be a long time, in Tbilisi, without being able to see many of our friends. This seems like an ironic desire now, since we ended up spending nearly a month in closer quarters than change in a coinpurse.[16] The country director agreed, and after waiting for a couple hours we clambered into a Peace Corps SUV to take off into the wilderness, armed only with our emergency bags and, um, another bottle of vodka.[17]

By this point, the main east-west road through Georgia – and, along with it, the usual route to Bakuriani – was closed, due to the bombings and troop movements.[18] This meant we had to take the Other Way. Basically, the Other Way was not so much a “road” as it was “dirt that led in the direction of mountains.” What began as a seemingly exciting road trip into the void (this probably had something to do with the alcohol) turned cramped and boring almost as quickly as, well, an indefinite stay in a hotel in Armenia. Darkness descended upon our vehicle, and with it a heavy fog, and we kept crawling along, stopping every five minutes to ask villagers if we were going the right way. They journey took six or seven hours. Almost all the vehicles we saw were headed in the opposite direction. At one point we were stopped by a military checkpoint, though I don’t know what they were hoping to achieve by setting one up on the Road That Wasn’t A Road. The dirt and the caravans heading the opposite direction and the fog and the checkpoint and everything else made the trip morph quickly from an Adventure to an Oh Fuck What Is Happening To Us. And yet, we played the “Guess What Will End Up Happening” game in the car, and I made a persuasive argument that we’d eventually head back to our sites. I think that most of us who ended up in Armenia believed, at least to some small degree, that we’d end up going back to Georgia – even after we’d been in Armenia for several days. It took a week in Armenia, and a contentious group meeting in which many people cried, for that belief to fade, one bomb and one minute at a time.

NEXT TIME: Dan Forgets How To Leave A Voicemail. Or: The 37 lari bill keeping him from ever returning to Georgia.

[15] He did, at one point, call me a “smartass” after I made a joke about concealing a ballistic missile in my volunteer cubby. I think he meant it admiringly, though. Or, at least, not condescendingly. Perhaps I should ask someone else for a work reference, after I finish my service. “What, that smartass? He’s okay, I guess. Kind of a smartass. Did I mention he’s a smartass? I did? Good. Because he is one.”
[16] GET IT? Quarters ARE change!!!1!!1!!1 This is the worst pun since Tom Schreiber’s immortal “You spin me right round baby right round, like Rick Record baby, right round round round.”
[17] The fact that I don’t think we opened this bottle while driving to Bakuriani is a testament that we really NEEDED that extra year in Georgia, after which we would not only have tipped a few back along the way, but offered the driver himself several shots. Man, I miss Georgia.
[18] Now would be a good time to remind you, loyal readers, that the next time you’re doing some urban planning for an entire country, you should probably have more than one main transport artery. If, for aesthetic purposes, you really feel like you NEED to limit yourself to just one highway, please make sure that no part of it is less than 30 km from a violent, Russia-backed breakaway region. See, nation-building isn't really that complicated. I don't know why it's not working in Iraq. Zing! This would be topical political humor if anyone still cared enough about Iraq to look away from Photoshopped pictures of Sarah Palin for two seconds.


ruth said...

Hey, when are you going to update us on what's happening in Romania?

Peace Corps Journals said...

Just found out your blog was referenced in Dec. 2007 in a PhD dissertation on Peace Corps in the 21st century.
(see pg 163)

-Mike Sheppard
RPCV / The Gambia (03-05)

Pilland said...

Your report is very interesting indeed.
Best wishes from an Estonian living in Italy!