Tuesday, 10 June 1997Leaving Vienna on a Monday meant one arrived in Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia, early on Tuesday morning. This required a three hour wait in Istanbul, Turkey.
The Istanbul terminal was small, tidy, and modern. So modern, indeed, that a few months before the airport authorities had heralded Turkey’s entrance to the late twentieth century by declaring all her terminals smoke-free.
Thus I sat securely beneath one of a dozen signs which read in loud letters, “Smoking Prohibited In The Entire Terminal.” Such regulations were ostentatiously ignored by half the travelling population and a significant section of the uniformed officers present, doubtless empowered to enforce the law.
On the Turkish Airlines plane a woman asked, with that pleasant firmness unique to Americans, if she and her husband could be “relocated into the non-smoking compartment.” Despite signs indicating a distinct divide between lung cancer and life the stewardess looked as bemused as if she had been asked to sing a Negro spiritual. Her bemusement was soon verified when smokers all over the aircraft lit up in response to the announcement “You may now smoke in the smoking section.” This section begins at the Turkish border.
After midnight we landed in Georgia and colleague, Trisha Pitts, Program Director for World Vision International’s program in Georgia and Armenia met me with Bacuri, our driver, who drove me to the guest bedroom.
Next morning we went by the World Vision office near the centre of Tbilisi. I was impressed by the grandeur of the city with its many elegant old buildings, ancient churches and monuments arrayed haphazardly over the hills. An old fort tumbled down one ridge above the town. World Vision’s office was in a simple building down an inner city side street. Inside, someone’s apartment had been converted into offices, although traces of a family’s former home were evident in the chandeliers and wide opening glass doors between the big, high-ceilinged rooms.
There were some items of business to discuss and then the whole staff had lunch together, cooked by Mary, the staff cook. There was a variety of dishes—tomato and cucumber salad, egg-plant with a spicy walnut flavoured sauce, a meat casserole, cheese and bread.
The staff discussed the Georgian flag. “It is cherry red, with black and white in the corner. Black is for the earth and white for the sky. And the red is for the people.”
Another had a different explanation. “The black represents our past which is bad. The white is for the future which is hopeful. And the red represents the present times, which we see all around us.”
Our work in Georgia focusses on small business development. At first World Vision gave out grants to people to kick-start their small businesses. “The time for grants is over,” Trisha explained. “People are learning about the free enterprise system and they are ready for loans.” So now the program, funded by USAID, is moving into loans.
Accompanying the program was extensive training, for here was a society in which the subtleties of capitalism were being learned.
During the course of the day we visited four people who had benefited from the grants program and were now running successful small businesses.
We visited a lady who had used her grant of a few hundred dollars to buy an overlocker. She was an engineer made jobless when the State factory in which she worked went belly up. Fortunately she was also an excellent dressmaker and turned her hand to this. The overlocker added professional seams to her work and saved her hours of laborious hand sewing.
Showing my ignorance of the craft I asked what the machine was called. “I know the word in Russian,” said Kote, translating, “It is called overlocker.”
“Oh,” I said, “it’s the same in English.”
Kote paused for a moment then was startled by the obvious. “It IS English!”
“Would you like coffee?” the woman asked politely and when we indicated assent she ushered us into the lounge room and busied herself in the kitchen. A half hour later we were invited back into the kitchen for “coffee.”
The coffee was Turkish, rich, strong and tangy. Spread on an embriodered tablecloth was chocolate, walnuts, fruit juice and champagne. Fortunately, the champagne was unopened and we persuaded her to save it up for someone really important.
She had spent a little of the profit she had made in getting the telephone installed.
“The phone system here is great,” said Kote, “the best in Tbilisi. It is brand new. From Korea.” It rang a few times while we were there, but each time the line was dead.
I asked an innocent question that revealed more information than I expected. She was telling us how she did not need to advertise, that she had more work than she could handle at the moment. So I asked if she had her own personal label on the clothes. The idea seemed quite odd to her.
“Until recently, having your own label would have been illegal. So she doesn’t feel comfortable with the idea.”
Next was a doctor who had used her first grant to modify a section of her lounge room by her apartment’s front door to create a consulting room. The front door itself now incorporated a small window from which she could dispense medicines after hours.
“This woman is incredible,” Trisha explained. “She has the entrepreneurial heart. She began with a grant of a few hundred dollars and soon she was back with a plan to create an insurance company and a request for $80,000! We admired her pluck, but suggested a thousand.”
Two sites were visited next as we inspected the two workshops of a television repair team. They were applying for a loan to buy a vehicle so they could make house calls.
“The vehicle will cost half as much as taking public transport,” our loan officer, Dato, explained.
“Is that just petrol, or have you factored in repairs and maintenance,” asked Trisha cautiously, aware from experience that full cost is a capitalist notion not always immediately grasped by post-communist entrepreneurs.
Finally we stopped by a computer school (which also taught English as a sideline). Here the use of the grant money was clearly in evidence, for the school had bought a generator and with the power temporarily off, the generator was proving its value in keeping the computers running for the students.
To qualify for a grant, clients must present a business plan. Then the plan is monitored for six months to ensure that things actually happen.
With the move into loan programs there is more control and lower risk that funds will be misused as clients are required to put up some collateral and, of course, are required to make repayments.
Nevertheless, the program in Georgia was boasting a 100% success rate for their program. Not a single failure to follow through on plan. The result of careful selection, training and follow through.
In the evening Trisha suggested we walk to a restaurant and we set off around 7.30. I joked after a half hour “Are you sure there is a restaurant here. I just want to be sure we eat before we reach the Caucasus mountains.”
Trisha laughed generously but we soon discovered that her Plan A restaurant had closed. Short-lived businesses are a common phenomenon in a society which is still learning about capital reinvestment.
“Would you like to stop by one of these cafes,” asked Trisha, “or would you prefer to go somewhere I know.”
Somewhere she knew sounded more inviting so we retraced our steps to “some place really nice. I hope it is still open.”
Plan B turned out to be spectacularly pleasant. We ate full-flavoured Georgian food and washed it down with salty mineral water, and smooth Georgian wine. This part of Georgian society was obviously still in good shape. And cheap too. At least by international standards.
To my naive surprise, we were entertained by a spectacularly competent jazz combo. I say “naive” because any real thought on my part would have recalled the renown of Georgian music and arts in general. The band had a pianist who floated somewhere between Wes Montgomery and George Shearing, a cool guitarist, drummer and double bass player. After a half hour or so Peggy Lee’s younger sister appeared to serenade us and scat with the band.
She was received with enthusiastic applause by a sharp looking man at the bar. Aged in his sixties he was dressed in creams, including a cream panama hat. He had curly hair around his collar and an Austrian moustache. As the band samba-ed into “Besame Mucho” he glided onto the dance floor with a young red-headed woman and flamboyantly danced tango-style to the bossa nova rhythm. Only in Latin America had I seen such displays of unselfconscious pleasure.
After our meal we ordered dessert, or, as the menu said “Desert.” Trisha and I discussed the unfortunate tendency of people from our cultures to consider the inability of foreigners to speak our language some kind of depressing disability. Privately we commended the serious attempt to communicate the menu contents in English to we visitors. Nevertheless, I presumed that “chocolate bar”, listed among the desserts was likely to offer more in actuality than its prosaic description implied. Perhaps a chocolate and ice cream log with whipped cream and walnuts? Or a rich chocolate cake slice with hot fudge, cherries and Armagnac?
No. It was a chocolate bar. Belgian chocolate admittedly. Presented elegantly on white china, but still in its wrapper.
The walk back to the flat revealed more traffic at 11 pm than at 7 am. Clearly, Tbilisi is a night society.
Starlings inspired me next morning as I sipped my first coffee. Hundreds of these birds darted and dived in a busy frolic over and around the roof-tops of Tbilisi. They looked like small boys at play, dive-bombing one another for fun, pulling steep turns to miss the corner of a building, whipping around overhead cables. You never see one of them make a mistake and hit something, despite their speed.
“It would be nice to be a starling,” I said to Trisha. “they don’t worry whether they have sattelite TV or clean socks. They just enjoy flight.”
An hour later I was flying without much enjoyment on the World Food Program aircraft to Yerevan. A Twin Otter, the reliable aircraft World Vision used to such good effect in Ethiopia during the famines of the 80s flew the route to Yerevan and back every day.
Forty minutes after leaving Tbilisi we were in Yerevan, the capital of Armenia. The city is set on a wide plain already hazy in the morning heat. Through the haze the huge figure of Mount Ararat loomed impressively.
Robert Dira, our project manager in Armenia was there to meet Trisha and I and we were ushered through a side terminal without anyone showing any interest in seeing our passports. In twenty years of travelling I could not recall a single occassion when entry to a country had been so informal, courtesy of the VIP treatment given to World Food Program travellers.
Before lunch we visited the Patriarch of the Armenian Orthodox Church, Karekin III, whom I had met a few years before when the Patriarch was located in Bierut in a form of exile. Two years before he had come home to Yerevan and it was a pleasure to see him once again in the historic home of one of the first Christian churches outside of Palestine. The church was founded in Armenia in 301 and a cathedral has stood on the site of the Archbishop’s present home since 304.
Much more happened on this journey, except later in the day I succumbed to a severe gastric complaint, brought on by Robert's cooking (or so I accused him regularly for years afterwards!). I do remember spending a few hours visiting loan applicants. It was interesting to see a cross-section of good and bad prospects. One, in particular, was more fiction than fact. The colleagues were pleasant but firmly disparaging of her attempts to extort money from World Vision. Naturally, she didn't get the approval. Or the money.
During that afternoon drive we had the misfortune to knock over a young boy who ran in front of the car. Fortunately, the car was doing less than 10 kmH at the time, crawling up a busy market street. Nevertheless, the boy, aged about 9, bounced off the front of the car and scraped skin from his knees and elbows. The driver was visibly dismayed over the event which somehow made me feel better.
We returned to Georgia and I discovered that my visa, previously obtained in Vienna, was for one visit only. This was solved by a combination of standing around in the official's face, and the payment of a large fee.