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Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Batumi's Playground for Adults

Good luck finding a good watering hole in Batumi, Ajara's grand Black Sea port city. There was a pleasantly sleazy little pool hall a few years ago but it has since vanished. There are, however, several stimulating plastic table cafes along Gogabashvili Blvd, just across the street from the harbor, that serve cold cheap beer and girls.

Some time ago, I stumbled into one of these places for a cold one with a Ukrainian friend. The proprietress introduced us to a young woman she said worked at the cafe, also Ukrainian. It didn't dawn on me then that she wasn't exactly a waitress. Later that night we returned, but my friend was cursed with the wretched constitution of not being able to hold his liquor, which I only discovered after watching him drop to the ground like a bowling pin.

His brain basket hit the pavement first with a disturbing, cracking thud, but nothing leaked out. The thick skulled Ukrainian was coherent. With no blood anywhere, several other men came over and helped put him on his feet. I grabbed his little camera bag from the table and stuffed him in a taxi. The camera of course, was not in the bag.

It was no accident that I found myself at this establishment again. Seedy joints might sometimes be boring but they are rarely dull. An elderly woman had come to find her husband slouching with his friend at the table next to me. She wouldn’t cut him any slack. She stood there for half an hour, reminding him what a drunken, worthless man he was. He did the noble thing and ignored her while sipping his beer. She sat down and looked at him in disgust, got up to yell again but just smacked him on the bean instead and walked away.

A prostitute clutching a wad of cash showed up with an entourage of liquored wharf rats and decorated the plastic table with peanuts, juice and rotgut cognac. They were having fun, much like the tourists across the street, only differently.

One woman, however, was not having fun. She was a pretty redhead, sitting inside the booze hut, worrying about her boyfriend. Her birthday had been the day before and he never called her. She asked to borrow my phone since he no longer answered her number. She called and the boyfriend predictably hung up on her. She called again, again, again and again, but he wouldn’t answer. Then she called his mother.

“No wonder he dissed her,” I thought, but the poor thing was desperate. She began to cry.

“Buy her a drink?” the owner said.

Sonia looked like she could use one.

She asked for a little bottle of vodka. The owner, a large unkempt woman whose sleepy disposition is just a facade, wanted something to drink too. She had been waiting for a sucker like me to show up since the last time I dropped in there. Sit me down next to pretty girl and hustle me for vodka, juice, champagne, cognac, shashlik – the whole works - and then give me the fat bill, that’s the gig. The best part was that my “date” was in tears. I flipped for a bottle of mercy vodka for each of them.

Sonia’s story was not uncommon. Born in Batumi some 30 years ago, her husband left as soon as their daughter was born. She has no job other than hanging out at this hustler’s oasis getting whatever crumbs the owner throws her. With no education and very little prospects for legitimate work, Sonia's only hope is to wait for Mr. Right to come along and rescue her while she's still pretty.

Needless to say, in a cafe designed for the Wrongs, Sonia won't be meeting Mr. Right anytime soon, but I do give her credit for not being cynical enough to stop dreaming. A single dream at this sad playground for adults is worth more than all the dreams in all the booming nightclubs for the young and beautiful put together.

Walking home that night I thought about the road less traveled and how it did make a difference, especially to the owner of the dive and to Sonia, who didn’t go home in tears, or hungry.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Notes from the Theater of Life archives

Instead of going to the ticket window and being told that tickets for the Tbilisi-Baku train had been sold out, I went straight to the conductor of wagon 3 and arranged a berth from him directly.

“Where you from?” he asked.

“Chicago.”

“Yes, I’ve seen it on television… England?”

“No, America.”

He lit my cigarette and we filled the gaps between puffs with small talk before he popped the inevitable question some cultures actually find boorish.

“How much you make?”

“About five-hundred dollars a month,” I decided to say.

“Only?”

“I don’t need much.”

He responded with a greasy laugh, barring an impressive investment of gold and said, “In Baku Americans make much, much more.”

The odor of European trains get denser and more viscid the further east you get. The Tbilisi-Baku train is a box of solid impurity threatening to contaminate the body with its suffocatingly fecal permanence. You sit and wonder why the windows have to be sealed shut and then stop thinking.

I was escorted to an empty compartment, sat and adjusted my zen. I could hear the jolly conductor tell some colleagues a couple of doors down how there is an American on his wagon that makes four-hundred dollars a month. They all laughed. Then two Georgians entered my compartment with nothing but ten liters of home-made wine as baggage.

After the routine preamble about food, women and wine, the train lurched eastwards and the bigger Georgian asked, “Who is that hocus-pocus American… You know... David?”

“Copperfield?”

“Yes, Copperfield. Jewish. He’s with Satan.”

“Satan?”

“Yes, he can made a train wagon disappear, I’ve seen it,” he said, while his friend nodded his head as if they imagined our train disappearing with us and their wine before arrival.

“No, not Satan. He does it with mirrors,” I said.

Fifteen hours later we entered the dry beige suburbs of Baku. Stepping off the train, before you can take your first breath of fresh Caspian air, dozens of mustached men envelope you with sky-scraping stacks of manat for sale. Behind them are a barrage of taxi drivers and entrepreneurs offering their cell-phones for rent. This friends, is the end of the line.

In 2006, Azerbaijan introduced new manat - national currency - with far less zeroes. 5000 old manat = 1 new. This increases the life span of wallets and reduces the "happy to meet you" bulge in the pocket.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Gali, One Year Later

Greetings from the Galiwood Hills, the story should be. Here's last week's Eurasianet story about that bright lights, big city of Gali.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Abkhazia, one year later

Abkhazia celebrated the first anniversary of Russia’s 2008 recognition of its independence with its borders guarded by Russian soldiers and its seaside resorts packed with Russian tourists...

You can read the rest of last week's story HERE

Friday, September 4, 2009

Showcase: Neighborly Hatred. photos by Justyna Mielnikiewicz

Justyna’s Caucasus project is the result of documenting nearly 10 years of life around her. It is not a mere collection of “decisive moments” caught while traipsing around the region but is a compilation of decisive stories, captured in each image, which together tell the larger Caucasus story. The quality of her work is a testament to her deep understanding of the vast complexities that comprise the region and her instinctive abilities to document these complexities from the gut, the epicenter of the soul.

Once again, it is my great pleasure to link ya'll to another Justyna Mielnikiewicz slide show. This one is from James Estrin at the NY Times about her long term work in the Caucasus.