Friday, September 23, 2005

Cows Fly

That is certainly what I feel like these days when traveling by plane. I’ll never understand how they can live with themselves making people travel with so little dignity, but I suppose the airline execs all travel First Class.

The seats are so small, I, a relatively small person, cannot get comfortable. Most people aren’t small, most Americans even less so. Yet here we sit, stuffed like sardines, patiently or not so patiently leaving aside decorum and personal space, sleeping (in the most unfortunate cases drooling) on the shoulders of the stranger with whom we are in more intimate contact than seen on most first dates.

Health authorities and Katie Couric tell us that we should get up regularly on long-haul flights to walk around. This is to prevent death by embolism or something. Someone who also flies coach will have to tell me how it is that one is supposed to get up regularly when in the middle of that loathsome bank of five seats, when the others stuffed in on either side of them are asleep. One gets little enough sleep on a plane – I have no desire to steal any of those restful moments from a fellow passenger just to walk around.

They have recently discontinued free meals and the little pillows and blankets from domestic flights. Airlines are going bankrupt, so they have to charge for a slice of cheese in stale bread ($5.00) and a mini Coke ($5.00). Airlines are going bankrupt, so they have to put more people in the plane, and therefore have to carry less extra weight, so there go the pillows and blankets. So, our stomachs rumble as we freeze to death. The experts tell us to drink plenty of water so as to not get dehydrated on the flight, but who is stupid enough to pay $5.00 for water?

Today, I was told by the woman checking me in that I was only allowed five pounds of weight as carry on. This, to me, is the height of indecency. My laptop alone weighs 4 pounds. Then what about all the other things one needs on the flight? Book: at least 1 pound. Toiletries (including feminine items): at least 1 pound. Oops! I’m over. Forget that really expensive digital camera – I’ll have to trust that an underpaid baggage handler in some backwater airport doesn’t need one today. Forget the pen and crossword book, the crochet project, the extra underwear and change of clothing.

So now, I will be a sleepless and slimy sardine on my arrival to Georgia via a very long layover in Munich, since I forewent the toiletries on this one. Maybe the day room in the hotel will have something I can at least bathe with, although since I also gave up my change of clothing, I’ll just have to climb back into dirty clothes.

And people tell me that all my traveling sounds so romantic. Let me tell you something: airports nearly stimulate tears for me now, as I imagine the indignities and insults I will face during my trip, layover after layover, in increasingly small planes with increasingly smelly fellow passengers. I don’t see how we can do anything to change the situation. We need to travel now, in our globlized world, and fuel prices and liability insurance are exorbitant on the airlines. They need more passengers and lower costs, and we need more flights. It is a match made in hell.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Tbilisi

I’ve been having some trouble getting started on this description of my time in Tbilisi; I didn’t really have a chance to get a good sense of the place, and don’t really see an obvious entry point to it. The thing that I liked the best about Tbilisi was the food, so I’ll try starting there, and see where we go.

Georgian food is really amazing. Historically, it isn’t surprising that it is so varied and creative. Georgia, over its history, was on the silk and spice roads from east to west. Just about anything can grow in its varied climates, and the country has been part of the Roman, Byzantine, Ottoman, and Soviet empires. Migrations and wars brought them into contact with many cultures of Europe, Asia, and the Middle East.

Some of the signature tastes of Georgian food are walnuts, paprika, and pomegranate. Red bell peppers, mushrooms, and eggplants provide the vehicle for pureed spreads of walnut and spices. Some of my favorite things were the minted cheese wrapped with pastry and soaked in minted yogurt, lamb-stuffed ravioli stewed in broth and topped with a bread lid, and the walnut and pomegranate stuffed braised trout.

Tbilisi is a very interesting city, and I feel that it was a shame that I didn’t get more time to explore the museums and older parts of it. The architecture ranges from a fortress built in the 13th or 14th century and religious buildings almost as old to post-Soviet modern glass buildings. On my last day there, one of the drivers took me sightseeing around Tbilisi and Mtsket, the old capital. It became clear why, as people in the office told me, Georgia was considered the tourism capital of the Soviet Union. Along the river and in the hills, there are beautiful buildings, decorated with intricately carved wooden balconies, and there are restaurants everywhere.

I found three buildings particularly interesting: town hall, a church, and the ministry of transportation. Town hall in Tbilisi looks like it was built during the period of heavy French influence, in the mid-19th century. My driver, however, insists that it is only 50 years old, and was built to look like it was very old. This remains to be confirmed, but that seems like an interesting story – why someone would go to the trouble and expense of building a town hall in the Soviet period to look like it was very old. I wonder if it has something to do with the tourist reputation of the country – it may have needed a town hall that was in keeping with its romantic image.

The Church we went to was beautiful and very very old. The driver who was with me thinks that it was probably built in the 15th or 16th century, but I think from being inside that it was built over at least two churches built previously. Georgia is made up mainly of Georgian Orthodox and Russian Orthodox Christians, and the church was set up like a Greek Orthodox church would be, with the altar behind a beautiful screen. The walls were painted with very intricate murals, but up to about six feet off the ground, all the faces were rubbed out of the saints, all the way around on every mural. I asked the driver why, but he just laughed at me and shook his head. Hmmm. The entire church was stunningly painted and carved and inlaid. Some of the interior walls had crumbled in places, revealing an earlier structure that was a bit smaller, and there were places in the floor covered with glass to reveal an even earlier site below.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Sarajevo 2

Today, I bought a rug from a friend of my colleague here. The rug shop owner is an energetic and fun Bosnian who speaks great English. He is a friend to many expats here, including the US ambassador, because he is honest and has a real talent in finding and restoring antique rugs. He told a similar story about the beginning of the war as the staff member who took me to the center. He lived in a building with Bosnians, Serbs, and Croats. They were friends and drank coffee together and their children played together. Then one day, he heard that people were killing each other, and mistrust set in instantly. They were at war, and his friends were his enemies. He couldn’t understand why so few Americans seem to understand how the war started; I explained that we hadn’t even heard the tip of the iceberg about it, and the few Americans could even tell you whose side we were on in the conflict. He shook his head, dragged on his cigarette, and went to tend a customer.

This city is a human and architectural and political textbook on war and its aftereffects. The conflict and horror and mistrust are only millimeters below the surface – where before the war, it was a diverse and relatively integrated place, it is now a place of careful friendship, suspicions, and identity politics. But amidst all that, it is a beautiful and fun and cosmopolitan place.

Monday, September 19, 2005

What would Jesus do? Not this.

Read this.

I'll have to write about it later. I just don't know where to start now.

One more thing to add to the list of ways Bush is undermining not only America and our American life so hard won, but basic human compassion and global community.

I will not be surprised when he postpones the next presidential election for some trumped up reason. Maybe that's when we'll go to war with Iran or N. Korea. You call me paranoid now, but mark my words -- the man is up to no good. So far, this story reads like any classic Latin American or African dictator, and all too much like The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood. But I've been saying that for five years now.

Saturday, September 17, 2005

Jablanica

Today we went out to visit a collective center in Jablanica (pronounced “yablahNEETZah”. Collective centers are the Bosnian version of refugee camps, and internally displaced people have been living in these places for ten to fourteen years. During the war, people being persecuted from all ethnic groups fled their hometowns to places where they were relatively safe. The towns they arrived at allowed them to occupy abandoned factories or schools or other types of buildings, temporarily. After the war ended, aid agencies provided more adequate temporary shelter and some services to the people who were in these places, and they became collective centers or refugee camps.

Supposedly, the people living in these places were eventually supposed to go home, and the governments of the two autonomous entities, the Serb Republic and the Federation of Herzegovina, tried to close them. The Serb Republic claims to have closed all of them, but really they just changed the name to Transition Centers. Until our organization began its project in these centers two years ago, very few people had gone home, in spite of having been offered reconstruction and other assistance through ours and other international development groups.

There are many reasons that people are reluctant to leave. First and foremost, they are scared. They have lived in these camps with these people for a very long time now. They have gotten jobs, maybe, or at least gotten accustomed to receiving assistance. Their children may be in schools near the centers. It is hard to get up the courage to make a change again at this point, even if they could count on their place of return being safe and secure for them, but many don’t.

It is nearly impossible for me to imagine what it would be like to face a return like this. Almost all of the people in the centers lost members of their families, many in their very homes, were the opposing army broke in and killed men, women, or children in front of other family members. Some women were raped in their own homes. Many were persecuted by the neighbors they had known and drank coffee with for years. Those homes must seem almost haunted now with the hellish memories; going there must violently tear any scars right open again. I can’t even believe that anyone would go back. Add that to the uncertainty that they will have any services in their old town or a job, and you can easily imagine why they would prefer to stay.

On the way drive to and from the center, the woman who took us, who manages the program for the returnees, told us her experience of the war. She is the daughter of a Muslim (Bosniak) and an Orthodox (Serb). Her father had spent much of his life as a career soldier in Yugoslavia, and ended up in Sarajevo. They grew up with friends from all of the religious groups, and such differences were barely worth mentioning. Then one day, they started to hear reports of Muslims murdering Serbs. It wasn’t easily believable for them, and they later found out that these first reports weren’t actually true. At some point, and I’m not sure where, because the story came out of chronological order, her Serbian extended family in Serbia called them to let them know that they had sent their sons to be soldiers with the Serbian army “to save them” from the Muslim atrocities. Her father tried to explain that that wasn’t what was happening, and that the Serb army was committing the atrocities and blaming them on the Muslims to create unrest. No one in Serbia believed him because they were getting fake information from the government.

Her father and brothers left to defend Bosnia as soldiers. She felt useless at home, so she ran away and also joined the army without telling them. She had no formal training, so they trained her as a nurse. She was seventeen (one year older than I). For several years during the conflict, I think that she said five years, she worked on the front lines in Sarajevo. She showed us the building where she lived, and the building where she worked. They were right across the street from the Serb army, and remain scarred with bullet holes today. To get from her apartment to the hospital (which they had set up in an abandoned grocery store), she had to run a gauntlet of five Serb snipers.

When the war was over, she made a decision to leave the army and the conflict behind. She says that she still hasn’t been able to really forgive her neighbors and other Serbs she knew for turning against Bosnia like that, for falling prey to paranoia and propaganda. She said that she tries not to hate, and recognizes that there are good and bad people in every group, but that she still has a hard time trusting. All of this is inside of her every day, when she helps both Serbs and Bosnians resettle. She helps them all equally, but says that the hardest thing about her job is going to Srebrenica, where Serbs massacred Bosnians during the war, and the grief remains fresh in the minds of the minority Bosnians she takes back to their homes there. She feels culpable for renewing their pain when they walk the haunted and reconstructed halls of their old homes or old land.

I nearly broke down in tears listening to her. There we were, two women, driving a car along a highway surrounded with some of the most beautiful scenery I have ever seen, talking about the sheer horror and inhumanity that she witnessed. The hardest thing I have ever dealt with was the death of one person in my life. I can’t even imagine watching death the way she did every day for five years. She seems old, and I seem na├»ve. She is married now, to a Macedonian, and has a four-year-old daughter.

Walking around Sarajevo, the leftovers from the war are everywhere. On the path along the river, you can see where people were shot to death. A line of bullet holes leads to a small, person-sized spot where all the shots converge. From the angle of the shots, you can look up and see which window in the building across the street they came from. The spots became like vacuums for me, spaces where a person should be.

Friday, September 16, 2005

Sarajevo 1

I arrived here in Sarajevo, Bosnia, after a long flight through Munich. Down the precarious steps out of the small plane, into the recently refurbished airport that already smelled like my Nana's apartment - stale cigarettes and dust. The airport gleamed in its newness, and even though it is small, it is pretty nice. The driver, who speaks nary a word of English, dropped me off at the cute little Hotel Gaj (pronounced "guy") tucked behind a cute pair of restaurants (Vinonteka and Pizzeria Gaj). The hotel reception is managed by these two young girls who are really nice behind their unbelievable makeup. I wonder how they can get their eyelids open with that much mascara.

The office is in many ways an allegory for the city as a whole. It is off a side street of a side street, in a huge building that at one time seems to have been covered with pink stucco, but now is stripped to bare brick. It looks like it is about to crumble, and you can see all over it the pock marks left by bullets and shrapnel. Inside, however, it is overwhelmingly modern. Brand new everything, metal and marble and gleaming clean glass. High speed internet, business people in suits, a coke machine. The difference is surreal, and does not go unnoticed by the staff here.

All over the city, you see buildings wrecked by the war. Beautiful old Austro-Hungarian period buildings with their wedding-cake flourishes and horrid Soviet-chic towers of concrete alike were bombed, bulleted, and burnt. Right beside them, however, are brand-new towers of glass and steel, or newly rehabilitated historic buildings. Art galleries and restaurants and offices function like nothing ever happened, but the scars are not even close to being healed. The whole place seems stretched between an Eastern history that is painful and frightening and a possible European future that holds promise and challenges. It can't be easy.

The city is situated in a valley, surrounded by many rolling green hills, dotted with square two- or three-story houses with sloped tile roofs. It is really beautiful, especially last night. As we walked to dinner at the cozy and good Italian restaurant Fellini, the sun set from behind us, casting a peachy glow down the main street of the city center and out onto the hill in the distance, emphasizing its greenness and the romance of the little houses.

It seems to me that few streets run straight here, and even fewer flat. It is a maze of twisting old lanes, barely one car wide, sometimes not even that. How people find their way around is beyond me. It seems almost as though the city is trying to keep its secrets hidden, a labyrinth challenging you to look a little deeper for the real thing.

They have electric busses that must be older than I am, running on their overhead wires. I love that. There are public gardens and parks that are cared for -- this, I tell you, is one of the key indicators of development. People stop at the traffic lights, and stay stopped until they turn green.

I could stay here for weeks and never tire of exploring and learning about this fascinating city and the amazing people in our office.