The second part of that amazingly long email. I mention my back for the first time here, but still don't say much about it - I didn't want to worry anyone, and I was still hoping it would all just go away.
That same week the computers made the trip up to Alaverdi, my last sitemate, Matt, finished up his service here and took off, along with the remainder of his group; I went and spoke to the new group of volunteers the week after that (tanked up on painkillers - hmmmm, musta forgotten to mention that bit) and worked on my preparations for the trip to Batumi. It was all a complicated process - I had to get permission from Peace Corps (since I missed a volunteer conference while I was gone - I didn't quite lie to get out of it, but pretty close. Let's say that creative writing course stood me in good stead); get my visa from the Georgian embassy - not exactly friendly people to deal with, to say the least; and deal with all the ordinary details of preparing for a trip. I went with the karate group - it was a celebration of the finishing of the work on the school, a chance for a vacation, and (ostensibly) an opportunity to participate in a competition in Ureki. I went along as an escort for the sole female student attending and, of course, because I wrote the grant. It's raised my status in the community considerably, that grant has. ‘Goddess’ for a yet undetermined length of time. All as it should be.
Permission was secured, the visa stamped in my passport, and my immense backpack packed, and we were off, bright and early Tuesday morning. Well, we were there bright and early, waiting by the side of the road with our heap of luggage, and hoping the marchutney would show up soon. Eventually it did, and we stuffed all the luggage in somehow, and ourselves as well. Sixteen people in a white Mitsubishi van for ten plus hours, bumping over hot and dusty roads, passing the border with its teenaged guards and their scary machine guns, the officials playing cards in their trailer, through Tiblisi and onward and outward, driving on and on. I tell you, it makes you appreciate Greyhound buses like never before - little things like actual seats (with their own arm and foot rests! Such luxuries!), and separate baggage storage, and, as always and ever, bathrooms. Probably not the best reality for my back, either - but you just gotta do it sometimes, and the devil take the hindmost. Sometime seemingly much later we arrived in Batumi, after having negotiated strange mazelike barriers set up in the road to get into the Ajarian Autonomous Republic. More machine gun guards and another passport check. Finally we pulled up to the curb, 9th of April street( you can actually find it on a map of Batumi, provided you can find a map of Batumi), pulled ourselves and our luggage out of the van and staggered up the stairs; five hot, tired, and dusty travelers and our host. A one room apartment, with kitchen on the converted balcony. Six people. No real bathroom, but a communal squat toilet down the hall, communal sink and tap in the courtyard on the ground floor, and a Benetton's across the street - I tell you, it's a strange old world of contrasts that we live in. Thirty dollar camisole t-shirts for sale.
We changed and headed for the beach, a mere five or so minutes away, and went swimming - really, what else was there to do? The Black Sea was there waiting for us. The beach in Batumi is all rounded stones, sloping off sharply into the water, the medusas (jellyfish - but isn't it a lovely name?) pulse whitely by, and the water itself is salt and warm, wonderfully buoyant and calm. It was lovely after the travails of the road, and every day thereafter. Though washing up after was a bit difficult, to say the least - there were parts of my body that didn't see fresh water for the ten days we were there. The first few days no one bothered to tell us where the tap was, and Mary and I simply went salty to bed and salty to rise - it was not a pretty sight. Imagine if you will my hair - or perhaps it's better not to.
During the day the beach was crowded with tourists; the water crowded with floats and people attached to them, paddle boats as well. Many people here never really learn to swim and there are no lifeguards. There are vendors: men, women, and teenaged boys, walking up and down the beach all day, crying their wares. Ice cream, lemonade, beer, cigarettes, hazelnuts, corn on the cob, Fanta, Coca-Cola, straw hats and bags, glasses of Nescafe carried on trays, sweet rolls and baklava and hotdogs, strings of nuts encased in a gummy type of fruit leather made from grapes dangling from one hand. Inflatable tubes and beach balls. Gum and sunflower seeds and sunscreen; straps and handles from bags, coolers, and buckets digging into hands and shoulders; converted baby buggies bumping over the stones; straw hats and baseball caps shading eyes, cracked shoes on the hot stones. Walking up and down the beach all the day, all the livelong day in the burning sun, singing out their wares over and over. The old women are the hardest for me to see.
I would walk in the water, dive through the waves, and swim out past the first and second rows of people in the water. Past all the bright floats bobbing in the sea, swim out further and further until the noise of the beach was lost in the distance, and the people mere dots. It was lovely, the water held me up beautifully, and I could roll on my back and listen to the rocks rounding themselves out below me. A curious sound, all the rocks rolling over one another far below the waves - and I would swim out further yet, until even that sound was lost in the depths. I could float beautifully there, and everyone thought I was quite the swimmer (you know me better), and this was this urge to just keep going out forever. I felt it in the Sinai, too, the urge to just walk out into the sand, to just keep going forever - it would have clearly been the death of me but it did not feel like death at all, there was no fear. You don't feel the danger in your heart or your body, only your head knows it's there - below the perfect day, the perfect feeling of doing what is right, walking out into the desert, swimming out to sea. Bathed in the blood of the lamb, as it were - and I turn back, I always turn back. Back to the shore, and that journey in far more difficult than the swim out, coming squinting blind out of the surf, looking for my friends and my towel and my glasses on the beach. Back among the mass of humanity.
We would wake up in the morning, go to the beach, come back for a meal at 11:00 or so, stay in the apartment out of the midday sun, eat again at 5:00, and go back to the beach. Sitting in a loose circle and cracking hazelnuts between rocks, drinking kvas (a strange dark non-alcoholic brew apparently made from black bread), swimming out on the trail of the setting sun, juggling three perfectly round rocks. Back to the apartment to change and hang out the wet clothes, then out to walk the streets of the city and see what there was to see until it grew cool enough to sleep, or we simply got too tired to continue. There were variations, but that was the basic pattern of our days. And it was good. The one day we all crammed into a taxi and headed up to Ureki for the competition, it turned out to be more or less a total farce - though I do think my name is now written down in some registry in Tiblisi as having won some mythical fight. Bah! I doubt I could fight my way out of a paper bag at this point - between my dad's visit and my back problems I think I got in one day of karate in the last few months, and it'll probably be a while before they let me work out again. It is a problem, and I miss it more than I can say.
The city itself was crowded with guards in black with their casual machine guns, architectural details - I have missed them so much without ever knowing it, the harbor with it's ships coming in and going out. A main boulevard with stands selling everything and fountains with colored lights, little cafes and go-carts, palm trees and a stand of bamboo. Miniature golf. Baskin Robbins, of all surprises - and, yes, I ate ice cream there, just to be an American. I can't vouch for all the flavors, but the coconut was just the same as home, though the sugar cone was sadly stale. It was all interesting, a different world after a year in Armenia - I blended there, no one stared at me, no one could tell I was an American, I could have been anyone. Until I opened my mouth. Then all hope was lost - and no one there spoke Armenian, of course. They speak Georgian and Russian - two more languages I don't know, two other alphabets altogether. It was ironic: I was supposed to be there as an escort for Mary, but in reality she was much more of an escort for me, since she speaks Russian and could communicate. The group as a whole was very protective of me, worried I would get lost in the city with no language and no one to guide me home - I wasn't supposed to leave the house alone. The few solo expeditions I made didn't convince them otherwise - though I made it home safe and sound every time, and even managed to communicate enough to do some shopping. In general I was treated as everyone's favorite idiot cousin - much beloved, but hardly to be trusted to cross the street by myself. It was a bit frustrating at times, but really, there are far worse fates.
The last day came and went eventually, and the next morning we waited on the curb with all our luggage (somewhat increased by shopping expeditions) once again; loaded ourselves back into the same white marchutney, tired and sticky and sleepy; rode through the 12 hour journey in close quarters, back across the bumpy dusty roads and through the border and home again, home again at last. My cat crying to the door.
It was good to go; it was good to be back. To my own sweet apartment in mine own town, where I can understand people at least some of the time, and with mine own wicked little cat miaowing up at me in the morning, my alarm clock with claws. Yes, I now have a cat to keep me company and to complicate my life - no doubt a monumental foolishness, but mine own. Zöe Malinka, grey tiger girl with white markings and sharp little teeth, maybe two and a half months old. One of the things I found in Batumi (and bought, and carried home across all the miles and the half a day) was cat litter - I haven't been able to find it here in Armenia, and it is just SO handy. You can use sand, as most people here do, and the price is certainly right, but it gets tracked through the house something dreadful, and I'm way too lazy to sweep and mop every day. Nellie cleaned up while I was gone; took care of the cat and cleaned my house as well, made me dinner my first night back. As I said, it's good to be back. The cat was a 'gift' from Nellie's family - she now lives in America, fat and happy.
That, in a nutshell - a rather large nutshell, I must admit - is the synopsis of my summer. There was also my high school reunion announcement and the perverse pleasure I took in writing in my current occupation and that, no, I wouldn't be able to make it as I'd be in Batumi during that time - o, such a snob I am! I also threw my back out yet again, and that put me in a world of pain for a while. It's still giving me much too much trouble, but is slowly healing. I hope - the pain is intense. Like a thick rope run through the flesh of my left leg, from heel to hip, tightening down until I can feel every white hot fiber bristling out, a spiked rod running the length. I do miss my chiropractor, I do indeed. I was taken to the local hospital for the worst X-rays I've ever had and then told I needed a series of injections - it's the answer for everything here. I passed on the offer - Peace Corps offered me Advil at first, but I got them to look at the X-rays and cough up Tylenol with codeine. I'm staying off the drugs for now, but want the security of knowing I can change my mind if there be need. It was another lovely thing about being in the sea - I hardly hurt at all. And there's the impending arrival of a new sitemate at the end of this month - I'm hoping I get someone somewhat compatible. No drinkers or smokers, no whiners and, please god, no one with better language skills than I. That would be too painful for words.
I feel I could go on forever - like swimming out to sea or walking into the desert - the endless details of my life, the politics of the personal that abound here, what I brought back from Batumi, and what the others bought there, but, really, aren't you tired by now? I know I am. Last minute request for Ann-Elise - I'm looking for sweet corn seed (self propagating -
probably not the term I'm looking for, but it's close. Something that will produce viable seeds for next year's crop). All they have here is something like feed corn - edible, but less than tasty. I figured you'd have the source if anyone does. Climate similar to Vermont, mayhap a bit warmer. If you could slip a few packets in a padded envelope, I would be most appropriately grateful, truly I would.
Love and squalor to all of you,