For Part 1 of my trip from Trabzon to Batumi, click here.
We journeyed on through the night. But first, our driver had to make a stop in Batumi for some personal business. After driving through the outskirts where gated houses were inappropriately paired with rusted gates, weeded gardens and dilapidated exteriors, we entered the city. It was a journey through history, signs of a place with little continuity. Years of modernization were forcibly built on top of monstrous apartment blocks typical of the Communism era, and decades of Communist architecture were superimposed on centuries of Ottoman and Orthodox influences. The end result was a city that looked like a poor man’s seaside resort, complete with overly bright lights along the boulevards, fake fountains in front of gargantuan hotels, and lots of fluorescent lightings pointing straight up the sky.
Batumi is the main port town of Georgia. For centuries, it had played a vital role in the transportation of oil in the region. When first constructed in 1906, the Baku-Batumi pipeline was the longest kerosene transportation system in the world, and moved crude and gas from Caspian Region to the Black Sea port. Nowadays, it is still responsible for the import and export of considerable amount of energy as well as agricultural products. As for oil, construction of the Baku-Tbilisi-Ceyhan pipeline has bypassed the town altogether, allowing Georgia to collect its transit fees with little interference from this sometimes troublesome region.
When the USSR collapsed two decades ago, Georgia retained its independence. While many parts of this burgeoning nation-state attempted to break away, Adjara, where Batumi was situated, stayed put. An interesting choice, considering it’s a largely Muslim enclave in an Orthodox Georgia. Exploiting the weakness of an unstable central government, a thug of noble heritage by the name of Aslan Abashidze turned the port town into his personal fiefdom under the guise of a “free economic zone”. When Eduard Shevardnadze fell from power in Tbilisi, Abashidze was unable to re-assert power over Adjara. In May of 2004, he was forced from power and abdicated for Moscow.
After a quick stop, we left Batumi behind us. In all its newfound glory and fragility, this was a town “fascinatingly volatile, tacky and crumbling, nostalgically European and mock Mediterranean, with an exotic hint of Tartary” (Robert Kaplan).
Around dawn, we would arrive at our final destination Tbilisi. The van dropped us off a bus depot at the outskirt. My companion and I watched our fellow passengers waddling off with their cartons, nylon bags and various pieces of oversized luggage, and decided to get a taxi to city centre. We waved around our piece of badly written instructions, and gesticulated for what seemed like hours with a crowd of Georgian men, trying to find our way out of the dusty outskirt. Nobody spoke English, but then again, none of us spoke Russian or Georgian. So the pot will refrain from calling the kettle black.
Eventually, we were understood. A middle-aged taxi driver decided to take us to the centre of the city. We later found out that he only charged us 50% more than the going rate. Little did I know at the time, but in a few weeks, I would be living in Cairo. Only then would I realize how incredibly generous that fifty percent foreigner levy was in comparison to what could be.
At this point, I should explain where we planned to go. A couple of years prior to our trip, a number of social networking sites for backpackers popped up around the web. They have since then gained mainstream recognition. But back in 2007, the Hospitality Club or Couchsurfing were still fairly nouveau concepts. My companion had hooked us up for a brief stay with a reporter that wrote for one of Georgia’s only English-language newspapers. And as soon as the sun’s up, we were going to try to find him. In the meantime, at six o’clock in the morning, where were we going to go?
The main strip of Tbilisi is Rustaveli Avenue – named after a medieval Georgian poet Shota Rustavali. Naming the central avenue in the capital after a poet is no fluke, as art was deeply embedded in the Georgian culture. On this street, I would later find an opera, a ballet theatre, another academic theatre, and numerous museums and other cultural institutions. I’m not sure if I appreciated the significance of those institutions at the time. Now in retrospect, I think I’m beginning to understand. When population and geography are not on your side, art and history are great places to start when one needs to unit and strengthen a culture.
Bear in mind, Georgia is a country of 5.6 million people, the size of West Virginia, and nestled next door to the two heavy weights of the region – Russia and Turkey. Both cultures had long attempted to integrate its neighbours, yet Georgia stands alone and independent, resistant and unique. Comprising of one-thousandth of humanity, it was able to invent one of fourteen alphabets in the world. The Georgian alphabet is distinct as it is ancient: it’s crescent shaped and circular, some say even Elvish. The Armenians are less generous. According to them, the Georgian alphabet is what you get when you throw a plate of spaghetti against the wall and watch the glob slide.
Yet this is the reality of so many societies around the world, where formal institutions and negotiated borders, more often than not, take a backseat to ethnicities and tribal allegiances. The case may be much more acute in Africa than the Caucasus, but it is still hard to miss. On my way back to Turkey, I sat next to a man named Alexander, who showed me his Georgian passport but was adamant that he was above all, an Armenian. In the New World, institutions and idealistic aspirations often provide ample common threads through national narratives. But in the Old World, history is inextricably linked with one’s identity, and re-invention is not the name of the game.
Rustaveli Avenue is the road that leads you in and out of the city. As soon as we entered the main area of town, the taxi driver wanted to know where we wanted to be dropped off. Peering through the windows, most of the shops were still closed. This November morning was even more humid and chilly than eastern Turkey, and we were just warming up. I was tempted to ask him drive around the city so we could stay in the cab, but just then, we spotted a McDonald’s. The golden arches! We screamed stop.
The first world tends to think of McDonald’s as junk food at best, corporate greed and the origin of all evils at worst. Yet travelling through less developed parts of the world, McDonald is nothing but a gift from God, much the same way Coca-Cola is (when the cleanliness of water becomes questionable in much of Africa and the Middle East, you’re always advised to stick with Coke). Pushing through the entrance, music straight out of the 90s adult contemporary chart and a heavy security guard greeted us. We embraced the familiarity of the former and settled in. After making some perfunctory purchases (hot chocolate and muffins), we took turns rushing to the bathroom.
No matter how you feel about meat and fast food in general, when you’re a backpacker, clean bathrooms alone could justify the expansion of McDonalds into the third-world. After days of paying to squat in badly lit, repugnant, and somehow always wet WCs, after days of wearing the same dirty clothes, days of not washing my face and brushing my teeth, that door to the washroom at McDonalds was the gateway to heaven. I was brimming with so much anticipation that my self-conscious walk had turned into a jog. Finally, there’s a bright, spacious room with mirrors and freshly scrubbed toilets. I sat down on the toilet and inhaled. Then the realization hit me: despite what I thought of myself prior to the trip, I was a creature of comfort!
As many things as McDonald might have been, it was not a hostel. We couldn’t sleep there, nor could we loiter. Soon enough, families started arriving into the restaurant for their breakfast, and kids begun running circles around us. After a couple of hours, the sun was up. We packed our bags and commenced our exploration of the city.
[My day-long exploration of Tbilisi coming up next week.]