I served in Georgia, the Republic nestled in between the Greater and Lesser Caucasus Ranges, touching on Chechnya and Russia to the north and cradling the Black Sea to the West, with Turkey, Armenia and Azerbaijan neighboring in the south. I was to be there for two years and three months, only the Russian army had other ideas, and invaded after one year.
In a country famous for its dramatic mountain ranges and exquisite landscape, I had managed to be placed in one of the flattest areas, where the earth looked parched despite its great bounty of potatoes and tomatoes.
Hungry cattle wended their way through the town streets, leaving behind manure and a sense of fatigue and never-ending days. Sheep were slaughtered by butchers on the main street, tied up on the pavement where they could see their fate in the fates of necks chopped before theirs. Chickens were sold live, and carried home by their feet. Everything was bought amid the din of a huge, bustling bazaar which opened at 5am. Azeri music blared on stereos, together with Turkish, Russian and Georgian pop.
Schools ran on shoe-string budgets, with paint peeling from walls and the stench of the toilets pervading entire floors. The hospital was visited by stray dogs and cats, cobwebs hung throughout the dank grey corridors, and it felt a visceral shock to the system to actually see people coming there to get treated to feel better.
Unemployed men littered the streets, whiling away hours in teahouses that women were better off not even looking into for fear of appearing wanton. Women worked their fingers to the bone, slaving over troughs filled with laundry, preserves and dirty dishes. Hard working men and women in offices faced electrical outages, gas outages, internet outages and general scarcity to get their jobs done. The only fax machine in town was in the mayor’s office. Life was, in a word, hard.
I loved this town, and I didn’t, too.
But most of all, when the days were hard and long, and when I was reeling from the unforgiving and harsh beating the sun doled out every summer, night and day, I would look south, beyond the confines of town, out to the blue waves of the Armenian mountains, and I would drink in the sight and imagine the fresh, wet, cool smell of those beautiful mountains. And I would dream of going there.
Otar, my friend’s wonderful father, who took care of me as if I’d been adopted into the family, wondered at my fascination. When I announced to all and sundry that I would spend the upcoming Saturday walking to the border with Armenia, some 39 kilometers away, he was tickled pink but also curious.
“Why, Ruth?” he asked, finally, as he said goodbye to me (and my sitemate who I’d corralled to join me on the trek). “Why do you want to walk to the Armenian border?”
I thought for a moment. “Because it’s something I can’t do in America.”
Little did I know that one day I’d be on the other side of that self-same border, desperate to return over those now accursed Armenian crags back to my dusty little town from which war had torn me.
*** the photo is from the gorgeous town of Sighnaghi, which is to the east of Tbilisi. My town remains unnamed thus far in my blog, but was south of Tbilisi.
***I returned after the war was officially ended three weeks later, this time not as a Peace Corps Volunteer, but as an independent citizen, volunteering without the aegis of a sponsoring institution.