Wednesday, October 29, 2008

The Good, The Bad and The Ugly Days of Traveling

Independent travel can be immensely rewarding with beautiful days full of exotic sights, sounds, tastes, and smells. Then there are the other days. The in-between days which are filled with dirty bus stops, angry taxi drivers, overpriced food, and constant confusion about where the hell I am how how to get where I'm trying to go. During the last week I have had both, luckily more of the former than the latter.

The trip from Tbilisi, Georgia to Trabzon, Turkey was one of the more miserable that I have had the displeasure of experience thus far on my trip. I tried to sleep on a noisy and busy train from Tbilisi to Batumi, arriving very tired before dawn. I wandered aimlessly for about an hour to postpone the inevitable bargaining and arguing with a taxi driver, which is absolutely necessary to get a fair price for the trip to the Turkish border. After a prolonged battle with a group of persistant old men who view me as an obscenely rich American, I finally got a fair fare to the border. Then the fun part began. For a variety of reasons, some sensible and others more malicious, getting into Turkey is always an ordeal. When I arrived at the border at 9 a.m., there were about 500 people waiting in "line" to get through the passport control. In fact, it was nothing like a line, it was a mass of hurried, desperate Georgians all pushing, shoving, and squirming their way to the small gate at which there were only TWO Turkish border guards checking passports. There were no bathrooms, no concessions and no orderliness to be found. My entire morning, and afternoon, were spent getting pushed, squeezed and elbowed by people of all shapes and sizes. It was so bad towards the front that an old man in front of me passed out and a young woman became hysterical, she screamed bloody murder until she was carried away. I can see how people die in stampedes and crowds in India and other populous places - the pressure of shoulders on every side was really incredible.

So the ordeal ended at around 4 p.m. when I finally got an little stamp on my passport. Then came more arguing, haggling and bargaining with a new set of cab drivers intent on getting as much money from me as possible. The first price I was quoted was 200 Lira to Hopa. That is $120 for a ten mile ride. Needless to say, I just laughed. I had to continue this from town to town, taking a shared minibus to Rize and then a large bus to Trabzon. I am always running into travelers who say they "just love to bargain" with the locals when they travel. I understand the necessity of negotiating a fair price, it is tradition in many cultures and economies, but I do not enjoy the process. A white man traveling alone with a large backpack is always targeted as an easy mark, so I immediately start at a disadvantage. In order to get a fair price, I have to not only be firm, but do the walking-away act at least two or three times until they get the point that I refuse to pay more because I'm American. This obviously frustrates and disappoints the vendor, so the process ends with me angry and the vendor disappointed - someone please explain how this can be fun. The worst part is that I usually have more money in my pocket than the locals earn in a month, so I always end up feeling a tinge of guilt about arguing about a few dollars with a person who is supporting a family on his or her meager income. Those few dollars are much more important to them then they are to me, but if I went around paying whatever the locals asked for I would have been broke in Bulgaria. So the bargaining continues, but only out of necessity.

I arrived in a cold and rainy Trabzon (don't worry, the entire post isn't a long whine; there is a happy ending) with some vague information about a Catholic convent which takes in travelers. I wandered, asking for Santa Maria whenever I saw someone who looked friendly. Finally I found it in the middle of the old quarter of town and knocked on the steel gates. I almost gave up after 5 minutes of knocking and yelling, but just before I went to Plan B (which I had not yet formed) two French guys opened the gate and greeted me warmly. They seemed surprised, but happy, to see me, and immediately showed me to my room. Since this was a Catholic convent, I imagined a cot in a basement with minimal accommodations; I couldn't have been more wrong. I had an entire guesthouse to myself. Shower and Western toilet in my room, full kitchen, washer and dryer, and a garden terrace. I almost wept out of pure joy. Remember that at this point I had not enjoyed hot water or a shower in a month, and this shower had unlimited hot water, lots of pressure, and a removable shower head! The best part of all -- it was FREE! Almost enough to convert me to Catholicism . . .

So I spent the next three days relaxing and enjoying Trabzon. I can not fathom why the guidebooks all give the city a lackluster review; the setting is beautiful, the people are friendly and it is all much cheaper and more authentic than Istanbul. Getting by with English isn't easy, but why should it be? The other Trabzon photos are here.

So now I am back in the touristy but incomparable city of Istanbul to meet with the fellow members of my Turkish work camp. We have a few days of doing the touristy bit in Istanbul before heading down to the coast to start harvesting olives for two and a half weeks. I'll try to post my Istanbul pictures before I head off to the camp because I don't know if I'll have regular internet access.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Running Away from Winter

It was difficult to say goodbye to the people of Temi this morning. I'm sure more difficult for me than them because they are used to waving goodbye to volunteers, but I am not used to saying goodbye to 60 wonderful and caring people all at once.

Although it was tough to leave, it an appropriate time to move on. The seasons are changing and the air is cooling quickly, which means no more agricultural work and construction projects are wrapping up for the winter. There is already snow on the ground and most of the fruit has fallen from the trees.

My last few days were spent taking trips to local sites with some of the Temi residents, including an old church overlooking the Telavi valley. I enjoyed the decrease in work and took the opportunity to goof off with the kids as often as possible. I have lots of pictures now, which you can view at Picasa. I just wanted to make a quick post while I'm here in Tbilisi for the afternoon. Tonight I catch a sleeper train to Batumi, then tomorrow a bus to Trabzon, Turkey. I might spend a couple nights in Trabzon before heading back to Istanbul to meet my workcamp group for a few days of sightseeing. Yeah for a week of Trains, Buses and Taxis :-(

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Has It Really Been 3 Weeks?

It is difficult to describe three amazing weeks in Georgia in one posting, but since this is the first time I've had internet access, I guess I'll have to try. Temi is a very unique place - 60 individuals from very different backgrounds living together and working extremely hard to build a utopian community that serves as a home to the socially vulnerable and lives close to the earth. Sounds like a cliché hippie idea, but this couldn't be farther from the truth. Temi has sprung out of the Georgian culture's deep sense of hospitality and community to fill an urgent need - replacing the failed Soviet era social care institutions for orphans and people with physical and mental disabilities.

Temi is a community for those without a community of their own, but feels more like one large family. Being an organizationally minded Westerner, I found the whole scene to chaotic and confusing during my first week. There are no job titles, no organizational structure, and no hierarchy. Despite this lack of formal structure, Temi is very efficient I was wrong to assume that anarchy prevailed. There is a very effective form of organization, that of interpersonal accountability and personal motivation for the group to succeed. There are no posted rules, no community meetings, and no formal system for punishing members, but problem behaviors and community issues are dealt with on a daily basis through mutual trust and respect between individuals.

My role at Temi has also been very informal - work when I want doing whatever I like. I still find this frustrating because I'm used to having a schedule and a task list at all times. I am definitely used to the schedule; breakfast at 10, work until lunch at 3 and then a few more hours of work until dinner at 7. My work has included harvesting vegetables from the garden, cutting firewood, helping with the various construction projects, gathering fruits and mushrooms in the mountains, and a little bit of grantwriting. Unfortunately this work has not been enough to burn off the thousands of calories that I consume each day. All food here is fresh and home-made - fresh baked bread with homemade cheese for breakfast, fresh salad and soup for lunch and some sort of Georgian specialty for dinner. Due to my weak will-power, the over zealous Georgian hospitality and the use of whole milk and lots and lots of butter in the food, I have gained probably ten pounds since my arrival. I think I need to fast for the next month in Turkey to get back to normal.

Not all aspects of life at Temi are as perfect as the above description may indicate. The facilities are dirty and overcrowded, there is almost no hot water, and there is no shower. Yes, I have gone three weeks straight without a shower. Bathing materials include a bar of soap, a big bucket and a small bucket of lukewarm water - I'll let you figure it out. Money is understandably scarce, so the children do not have the clothes or toys that they would like, and clothes are not as new or clean as many of the other children in the village school. Despite these difficulties, all the children are loved and well-fed, and are much happier than they would be at a large government run institution.

One child in particular has affected me deeply. Datuna is an adorable seven year old boy who is in a wheelchair due to a fall out of a seventh story window. His mother was abusive and chronically homeless, and he came to Temi about three years ago in bad health and with behavioral difficulties. He was immediately accepted into the Temi community and his development since he arrived has been very positive. He is a gifted child, he already speaks several English words just from listening to me speak. During my stay, a Scottish Physical Therapist has visited to assess his condition and to teach him exercises which may increase his mobility. The PT was accompanied by a Venezuelan filmmaker who will be producing a documentary about Temi and Datuna in particular. The most exciting result of the visit is that there is a surgeon in the UK who can repair some of his spinal damage enabling him to stand. Unfortunately there are many barriers preventing this from happening, mainly legal. His mother is technically still his legal guardian and she would have to give permission for him to have surgery, not to mention to get a passport and visa to allow him to travel to the UK. Transfer of custody of a child has never taken place in Georgia, so it will be no easy task. The Georgian Human Rights Ombudsman visited Temi to discuss the situation, so there is hope. I have learned so much from this situation - it is definitely "Intercultural Youth and Family Development" in action!

The entire experience has been both rewarding and humbling. Since I don't speak more than a dozen words in Georgian and only three people at Temi speak any English, my ability to communicate is very limited. I am known as "Luca" by many people here, but I am also known as "Lucasee" by many of the children - "-see" is a diminutive suffix added to the end of children's names when they are young. I think this is both endearing and appropriate because I am as helpless and ignorant as a child. I do not know how to do many things that all Georgians take for granted and I can't speak as well as a three year old. I realize now how absolutely integral learning the local language is to successful intercultural helping - this is the first time I have traveled to a place where English is almost completely unknown. It never ceases to amaze me that people are always apologizing to me for not speaking English -- I tell them that I am the one who traveled to Georgia, it is I who should be apologizing to them. Imagine a Georgian coming to the US not speaking a word of English and expecting people to understand Georgian. This is obviously a ridiculous scenerio, but the reverse should be considered equally ridiculous.

I have about a week left at Temi before heading Westward to Istanbul for four days of touring the big historic sites and taking long, hot, luxurious showers at every opportunity.