Thursday, October 30, 2003

Letter 16: Call Mama if you want your father

October 2003

The Georgians call their father "Mama". To call their mother, they go: 'Déda'. Armenia's neighbors to the Northwest are a people hardly known in the part of the world I come from. I knew Stalin and Beria were Georgians, and I always loved their songs and dances, but this was unfortunately all I knew about them. I knew many Armenians lived there, and that Tbilissi (in the past Armenians called it Tiflis - Charles Aznavour's dad was born near Tiflis - but since Georgians prefer Tbilissi our Yerevan airport signs now say Tbilissi in Armenian characters) had been a center of Armenian culture, producing some of our best artists and writers. In fact, Georgia is a country where Armenians still constitute over 8.5% of the total population, which is the highest percentage for Armenians anywhere in the world outside Armenia. Georgia is a country also shared by many ethnic groups. Other minorities living side-by-side, peacefully* with the ethnic Georgian majority are: Svans, Mingrels, Chechens, Russians, Yezdis, Kurds, Azeris, Ossetians, Abkhases, Jews, Greeks, and so on... (Did you know there is a sizable Greek Minority!).

We (Armenians) call them Vratsi (the ones above). They call us Somkhebi (no meaning I could determine!). They call themselves Kartelebi. And their language Kartuli and their country Sakhartvelo. Contrary to what I previously thought the name "Georgia" has nothing to do with St George, who happens to be a patron Saint of Georgia (as well as England). The name Georgia comes from the name given by the Russians to the land of the Kartelebi: 'Gruzya".

I could not miss the opportunity offered to me when Greg Levonian invited me to accompany him there towards the end of September. Especially since he suggested he could get me in there simply with my Armenian Passport, without having to pay the hefty Georgian visa fee of USD 80. Greg, an Ottawa native, is a seasoned traveler who has been working in Armenia and Georgia for a few months. He loves Georgia, the Georgians, their music, songs and dances and has even taken Georgian dancing lessons (Have you ever seen him dance?). He is an excellent "ambassador" for friendship with our Georgian neighbors, for he believes, like myself, in friendship among all peoples. I consider myself lucky to have had such a great guide, companion…

On my guide's advice, we declined a faster private taxi offer to go to Tbilissi and took a common 'marshutka' instead. You can take a marshutka to Tbilissi from 2 locations in Yerevan: We had just missed the marshutka from in front of the railway station (Sassountsi Davit statue), so we took a taxi to the Kilikia central bus station. There, a marshutka was ready to go around 10:30 a.m. The driver checked our 'Armenian' 10 year passport and looked for the round 'peshat' (official stamp) on page 4 (It should say "This Passport is Valid for All Countries"). We both had it, so he declared us fit to cross the Georgian border and took our money (13 USD each). My guide and I rejoiced, we had just passed the first hurdle toward saving the US$ 80 visa fee exacted from normal Canadian visitors.

The Yerevan - Tbilissi road takes you through some of the most beautiful sites of Armenia. After passing through Ashtarak and climbing the mountain to Abaran (the object of Armenian Newfie jokes) the road takes you down the other side of the pass to Spitak (epicenter of the 1988 earthquake), then Vanadzor. After that the road follows the bed of "Debed" (pun intended) river. It is a beautiful site and drivers usually stop for a break near a fountain and by one of the restaurants nestled on the river. You can have a quick great meal there of khorovadz, salads and delicious madzoun for a very reasonable price. The road then goes by the Kobayr Monastery and Odzun, then through Allaverdi (“God given” historic gold mines) and by the Monasteries of Sanahin and Haghbat, which we had visited with Joan last March.

The border crossing is reached very soon after Allaverdi. Armenian and Georgian border guards face each other across a small bridge. We handed our passport to the driver who went alone to the Armenian border post, completed the formalities and drove off across the bridge. Now we faced our vital test! My guide, who is more fluent in Russian than I am, advised me to keep silent. A Georgian border officer returned to our minibus, took a look at the passengers and handed us our passports back. We breathed a sigh of relief** as the barrier went up and we crossed into Georgia.

If you think Armenian roads are poor, wait till you see Georgia. We practically went at 25 kms/hour for the first hour. It finally took us 6 hours for the 374 km ride between Yerevan and Tbilissi. When we reached the outskirts of Tbilissi, A roadblock was awaiting us. It was the only one we faced all the way in (if you travel by 'marshutka' - like we did on my guide's advice - you go easily through the border and any other road blocks, for these professional drivers have already paid-off all potential hasslers). My guide (Greg) explained that the Georgian government had lost control of large parts of the country and that this roadblock was their way of protecting Tbilissi. The roadblock officer asked me in Russian what I was doing in Tbilissi. I said I was visiting friends. He then wanted to know what work I did in Armenia. I said I was working on renovating a house. He was satisfied and let us through. Another Armenian passenger wasn't as lucky. He was called inside, and I guess he must have paid a bribe.

The taxi we took to center-town had Turkish music blaring from the cassette player, but when he learned we were of Armenian descent, he addressed us in perfect Armenian. He said he WAS Armenian. The fact he was playing a Turkish cassette in our presence didn't seem to worry him, and we listened to it all the way.

What strikes you when you arrive in Georgia is the street signs. You think you can read them, but you really can't, for it is in the Georgian alphabet. It resembles Armenian (it is said to have been invented by the same monk who invented the Armenian alphabet - Mesrob Mashtots). The sensation reminds me of my first visit to Addis-Ababa, when I thought I recognised the shop signs, but could not read them for they were in Amharic, another alphabet font that resembles Armenian. Yet my guide managed to learn enough Georgian to read the signs in Tbilissi. He was even ordering food at the restaurant in Georgian, and could effectively stop young beggars from pestering us by acting like a native! ("Ara, ara, ara!" He cried convincingly). You can see some artistic photos of Georgia taken by Greg on http://pg.photos.yahoo.com/ph/gregorylevonian/album?.dir=8cd9&.src=ph . or if not available on: http://www.flickr.com/photos/aterjanian/sets/72157600803342944/

Tbilissi has many tourist sites. My guide made sure we went to many of them, from old churches to old-city quarter, to art galleries. My favorite spot was the 'Hamams' (bathhouses) for which Tbilissi is famous. In fact Tbilissi was founded by a Georgian King in this location because of the thermal water springs he found there. Like other water springs (Jermuk near my house) they are said to have medicinal properties. They are located in the old city, not far from the Armenian Church with its Sayat Nova memorial and the Azeri Mosque. If you remember the Soviet dissident movie "Color of Pomegranates", you would remember the boy Sayat Nova doing some voyeurism on the roof of these hamams. The movie was shot right here. Greg and I went to the most luxurious one. It cost us something like $5 each for one hour and another similar amount for a 'kissa' and soap massage.

Tbilissi boasts a Soviet style Metro, like that of Yerevan, but it goes even deeper underground, probably because it crosses under Tbilissi's river. Greg said it was a dangerous place for being mugged, but I insisted and we tried it without any problem.

The mosaic of cultures co-existing friendly side-by-side Georgia is proud of is exemplified by the two-storey Synagogue, a stone-throw's away from Tbilissi's Azeri mosque and its main Armenian Church." Jews have NEVER had any problems throughout history in Georgia" confirmed Greg, but like everybody else, they are moving out for economic reasons. Even Azeris and Armenians live in peace in Tbilissi, side-by-side.

Internet cafés are to be found, like in Yerevan on every city block downtown, with prices and speed similar to what you get in Yerevan. However cellular phones are so much cheaper than Armenia, that Greg only uses his cell phone in Georgia (so much for Armentel's monopoly). Tbilissi also has one more advantage on Yerevan, it has at least two MacDonald's restaurants. Greg said it was a disadvantage, I agree, but I was very happy to be able to use freely their clean washroom in time of need.

Although water is available 24 hours a day in Tbilissi (unlike many parts of Armenia), Georgia faces a serious energy crisis. They have no nuclear power generators and their hydroelectric power generation is insufficient for current consumption levels (eventhough they are very low by North-American standards). Georgia has to import most of its fuel from Russia and now Azerbaijan. Since they also have a foreign currency shortage, their situation is problematic. Electricity is often cut-off, and portable noisy gasoline generators, like the ones you see in the cities of Pakistan, is a common site in the streets, in front of most shops. These streets seemed cleaner to me than those I was used to in Yerevan.

While I am sad to have witnessed on TV a brawl caused by a member of the public "insulting" a campaigning politician by calling him " Somkhebi " (Armenian, like some Armenians insult Kotcharyan by calling him "Setrak-oghlu"); a very classy young Georgian lady we met, explained to us that "every proper Georgian family has an Armenian grandmother". She was proud to have a very loving Armenian grandmother.

Just to think of it, the fact they showed election campaign violence on TV… Isn't this a sign of freedom of the media?

I was pleasantly surprised to hear and see Armenian song and dances in discos and in classy restaurants with live bands. I was privileged to be invited with Greg to someone's birthday (you can see some photos at: http://pg.photos.yahoo.com/ph/gregorylevonian/album?.dir=2314&.src=ph or if not available on: http://www.flickr.com/photos/aterjanian/sets/72157600803342944/ ). It was like going to an Armenian wedding. The food was so abundant and delicious, and the wine… Well, as you may know, Georgian wines compare very favorably with French wines (who in turn are often as good as our own Areni, Vernashen or Gandzag wines). But Georgian toasts are something else. They have a ritual of their own. While I can now make sense of Armenian toast rituals, I had to rely on my guide's savoir-faire to avoid making a fool of myself with our Georgian hosts. Georgians are in fact some of the most hospitable and jovial people I have ever met. And boy, do they ever love to dance. According to Greg, everyone there goes to dance school, and they take very seriously their beautiful traditional dances, and they know and practice them with pride at all occasions.

Polyphonic singing is when people get together to sing, but they sing different melodies at the same time for the same song. They manage however to harmonize the whole. While we have Armenian choirs who sing beautiful Armenian 'polyphonic' songs (Komitas, Ganatchian), especially in church (the Karadzayn Patarak - Ekmalyan or Komitas), the practice in Georgia is a lot more common. It happens regularly when 2 people or more get together to sing, privately, in a classy restaurant or in church. And it is just beautiful! (Greg: don't forget, you promised me a selection of my favorite Kartuli songs on CD!)

I close with extending my wishes to the people of Georgia, that they resolve their present political differences peacefully, without resorting to a civil war, and look forward to visiting Georgia’s Black Sea coast next time.


* Now don't ask me why they are sometimes reported to be on the brink of yet another civil war!
** On the way back I realized that our worries were not very well founded: A Georgian lady on our minibus didn't even have a passport. When she went through the border she had a 5 Lari note with it and she went through the Georgian border, no problem. At the Armenian border, the young border guard came and told her there was a problem, but he asked for 10 US dollars. She handed him $ 5, while another Georgian lady protested in Russian that $ 10 was outrageous. She went through with $ 5.

No comments: