Sunday, October 17, 2010

And Now for Something Completely Different

This year we didn't feel like planning our vacation, so we decided to take an organized tour with everything being taken care of and us being served. We strongly dislike organized tours, but some places really do need a lot of preparation and if you don't have a common language with the locals and the infrastructure is poor, you can experience frustrating situations. Since we compromised on the organization, we decided to go for the best tour operator, the Geographic Society (an excellent decision, in retrospect). They did a wonderful job and I certainly recommend both the operator and our amazing guide Dr. Chezy Shaked. But the organization was not the only difference this year, as we also decided to visit a close (2.5h flight) but less known area, the Caucasus. Why? Because we couldn't afford the tour to the Galapagos Islands or Madagascar and also because the Caucasus is different than any place we have visited before. It is a troubled region between the Black and Caspian seas, home to more than 50 ethnic groups, many enclaves and a 'neighborhood bully'. 

It is very interesting to compare Georgia and Armenia, the two countries we visited. Both are Christian, Armenia being the first country that took on Christianity as state religion in 301 A.D. Both have their own alphabet (none of them use Cyrillic letters) and language, both were under Soviet occupation (and many others before) and gained their independence in 1992. Since then, they took different paths.

Georgia's goal is westernization. Its young and popular president, Saakashvili, prefers western-educated, young civil servants with computer skills. He has targeted corruption in his first year of office. To that end, he revamped the police force by firing all of the traffic police in his country in one day, cutting 30,000 police officers from the payroll. The new police station in Tbilisi is a beautiful, modern glass building symbolizing transparency. All other police stations being built around the country also feature glass walls. Georgia's foreign policy focuses on the USA ans NATO, but being a small country in a strategic geographical location for Russia, it is limited in the actions it can take. The Russians demonstrated how their slap felt on the Georgian wrist during the last war in 2008. The fear from Russians is very much a Georgian reality, as proved by a TV program that showed a fake newscast of a Russian invasion. The show, preceded by a disclaimer but with no disclaimer during the broadcast itself, caused panic, rushes on banks, stores and gas station and even a few heart attacks and other medical emergencies, and anger at the government for perpetrating the hoax.

Georgia's infrastructure is quite poor. Roads are full of holes, cows and other obstacles, and lack asphalt. Some remote locations are cut off for 6 months during winter. When returning from such a region after a rainy night, at one point all vehicles had to stop in a sea of mud and wait until a car was pulled out of mud by a tractor. Georgians are religious, hospitable, musical and overweight. National food staples include khachapuri (cheese-stuffed bread), khinkali (cooked, oversize dim-sum), lots of nuts, cilantro and wine. Although Georgia is the oldest wine-producing region in the world, traditional Georgian grape varieties are little known in the West. Georgian wines are classified as sweet, semi-sweet, semi-dry, dry, fortified and sparkling. The semi-sweet varieties are the most popular.

At the Georgian-Armenian border (a typically third world place), we had to switch buses and drivers. We left the small Georgian bus with narrow seats, and driver Misha and his belly, who expertly slalomed between holes and cows, while speeding and overtaking everything and hooting at the same time, and got a big, comfy Armenian bus with a fit driver in a button-down shirt and a necktie. Armenian roads are much better and Yerevan, planned by architect Alexander Tamanyan, is a surprisingly beautiful cityThe building facades are made of the local pink tuff stone, richly ornamented with intricate stone-work patterns. In the city center, young people with laptops sip cappuccinos in fashionable cafes among super-expensive shops selling Western brands. Unlike Georgia, Armenia has many flower shops, cats and accepts credit cards. People are better dressed, but we are not talking about Parisian chic here.

With its 3.2M population (descendants of the Urartu empire) and at least a twice as large diaspora (contributing to the economy), Armenia is under heavy Russian influence, with more than 70% of its products being exported to Russia. Depending on Russia is not such a bad idea when your eyes are on the Ararat mountain (literally) and lake Van (in today's Turkey), and lake Urmia (in today's Iran), you are a small Christian country surrounded by Muslim neighbors and suffer from frequent earthquakes.

Unlike Georgians who eat way too much (you never know if the course they served is the last one before dessert), Armenians eat 3-course meals, are musical (the Garni quintet we heard in the Garni pagan temple left me with my jaw dropped - literally) and arty (Sergei Parajanov's museum proves there are no borders to creativity). While the most famous Georgian is Stalin (I heard here pianist Alexander Korsantia and learned there about poet Shota Rustavelithe author of 12th century epic poem "The Knight in the Panther's Skin"), the most famous Armenian is Charles Aznavour, along with Aram Khachaturian, Andre Agassi, Cher, Garry Kasparov, Emile Lahoud and many others. BTW, I saw Emil Lahoud's tree in the garden of the Armenian Genocide museum.

We visited many churches, some synagogues and even a mosque, but the most touching site was a small 12th century Jewish cemetery, with the Hebrew inscriptions readable and the language understandable after almost 1000 years.

Only time will tell which country will succeed on the long run, multi-challenged Georgia with its clearly defined goals, living in Russia's intimidating shadow or realpolitk-practicing tiny Armenia.

1 comment:

Jeff said...

Very, very, very interesting!