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Friday, April 23, 2010

Notes from the road: Haikastan 2003

On the eastern outskirts of Tbilisi, near Lilo bazaar, concrete barricades in the middle of the highway bottlenecked traffic to a crawl. This was where the largest organized crime ring in the country extorted money from random people by simply pointing a baton at a given car and ordering it to the side of the road. These law enforcement officers then invented infractions, which were settled on the spot for a modest fee.

Our marshrutka was suspicious, having the letters, Y-e-r-e-v-a-n, spelled out on a sign on the dashboard. We were pulled over.

A fat cop stuck his head in the marshrutka and asked the two foreign men to come outside, away from view. The Armenian was stuffed in the back seat of the cop Jiguli and the fat cop escorted me to the trunk and asked me to empty my pockets. Nothing but lint, as usual. While I stood there palms out the fat cop moved to the back seat and pressed himself inside to bark at the Armenian.

The first thing passengers always ask after a shakedown is “how much?” I shrugged my shoulders. The Armenian returned, spitting and shaking his head, misfortune pasted all over his face.

“How much?”

A woman passed chewing gum around, which kind of bonded us all together. The Armenian told us he had come to Tbilisi with two-thousand dollars in his pocket to buy a new car, but it turned out not to be to his liking. He was returning to his old car parked over the border in Armenia.

“Ten dollars!” he said, refusing a piece of gum. Then he turned to a Georgian footballer who had been purchased by Armenia, but spoke loud enough so everybody could hear. “Georgia, only in Georgia. They don’t do this in Armenia, you’ll see, one hundred meters into Armenia and it will be sunny and clean, everybody nice...”

One hundred meters into Armenia and we were detained by customs. Our Armenian passenger was by this time on his way home in his old car, so he wasn’t able to witness the twenty dollars our driver had to pay the customs official for a concocted fee he had never been charged before.

We wound through the mountain pass on a smooth road, following the Debed River, through Ahlverdi, a large town strewn with rusting, windowless factories and mines, long disused. Outside Ahlverdi we stopped for kabob and shashlik at a roadside cabin. The toilets were constructed on stilts so that all the yuk could conveniently drop to the river below along with the pork scraps the cook tossed into the river as he butchered a pig with an axe.

The kabob was tasty.