TBILISI, Georgia – My money was no good in this town. I was in Gagra in the northern edge of Abkhazia – that breakaway republic of Georgia that was once the jewel of the Soviet Union. Expansive beaches along the Black Sea and crumbling 19th century hostelries and sanitariums dot the coast line that still attracts flocks of sunburnt Russian tourists seeking a cheap holiday away from Mother Russia.
My companions had to get back to Tbilisi but I wasn’t ready to leave. I’d spent almost the last of my Russian rubles but still had dollar reserves. That’s where the trouble lies. The one bank was closed and no one – and I asked half the town – wanted to change money.
I went back to the guesthouse and explained the situation. The landlady waved her hand dismissively and said I could stay another night – gratis. Fortunately I was able to fish out a $5 dollar bill which she accepted.
With 100 rubles ($3USD) left in my pocket I was able to maintain a slight beer buzz thanks to Baltika 7 – a strong Russian beer from St. Petersburg and maintain my blood sugar with the help of my old friend, canned fish and a crust of bread.
The next morning I thumbed it alone down the coastal highway. I had about 10 rubles left – that’s about 30 cents American — and my stomach rumbled. I stopped for a swim at a desolate Black Sea beach. Two men in parked cars eyed me as I splashed around in the warm, clear water that’s pleasantly not-too-salty.
I finished the swim and they called me over. They asked the usual questions about where I was from, what I was doing, where I was going. They were Abkhazians who lived in Russia but back visiting. They seemed amused that I was hitching alone. One handed me a 100 ruble bill. I refused thrice but on the fourth time accepted gratefully. In the next town I was able to cash it in for another Baltika 7 and what looked suspiciously like a Mingrelian khachapuri – a signature dish of the Abkhazians’ sworn enemy — but we all know that good food trumps nationalism.
Back in Sukhumi – the capital city – I pounded the pavement looking for something to be open. After an hour wandering from closed money changer to closed money change I found some taxi drivers willing to strike a deal on the hood of one of their taxis. At first the rate they offered was appalling. But after the usual theatrical walking away in disgust we settled on a fair rate and I was back in business with a fistful of rubles.
Soon dark clouds swept in and pummeled the town with a ferocious lightning storm. I huddled in the guesthouse after the city lost power and spent the early morning hours trying to fend off mosquitoes that had also decided to shelter from the monsoon.
It was back to work the next morning. I tried – albeit unsuccessfully – to interview UN observers at their luxurious compound south of town. Everyone suspected Russia would veto their mandate and I was trying to get my story. After 20 minutes wasted shooting the breeze with the Bengali peacekeepers outside, and a few curt telephone exchanges with a public information officer (a total misnomer as the guy gave no information and seemed to relish hiding from public view) I went to interview the Abkhazian Foreign Minister which proved to be quite interesting and turned into a brief radio report.
It was late afternoon and all transport south had finished so I started hitching. One of my first rides was with an enormous police officer in a gray camouflaged uniform with a single star. A major in the police force, his tiny automatic pistol was barely visible beneath his enormous gut. We hadn’t gone five kilometers when he suggested we stop for a drink. He had the gun and badge so I was in no position to argue.
We sat around drinking beer with one of his colleagues and some suspicious characters with a lot of gold jewelry. Some said they were cops. Others were circumspect. Criminals? I asked. They answered with a nervous chuckle. A guy walked past our table, bought a bottle of sickly sweet Ukrainian champagne and promptly disappeared. The others were understandably not interested in the champagne but the good major offered with such flourish I could hardly refuse. A bit light-headed we both got back into the car.
“What about the bill?” I asked.
“Ach! Leave that for the criminals,” he replied.
We proceeded barely 10 kilometers further to a police station and checkpoint. He had to work but would have a friend heading south to the next large town – Gali – in about an hour and I should wait, he said.
I walked past the checkpoint and the explained to the cops that I was hitching. They looked skeptical but offered no resistance so I continued walking. As the next car stopped at the checkpoint I could see the officers pointing toward me. They motioned me over. The cops had found me a lift, apparently.
It was a slick-black SUV and the driver spoke some English. I got a pain of homesickness as we weaved through a stand of Eucalyptus trees as the driver drained a bottle of Miller beer. It was a scene I’d lived many times in my native northern California.
I protested as he threw the bottle out the window.
“Abkhazia. It’s India. It’s Africa. Wooo! Woo! Woo!” he flopped his hand over his mouth in a crude Native American war-whoop. I tried to disguise my amusement.
I haven’t been to India. Yet. But one parallel are the sacred cows.
Wherever we went cows would sit in the middle of the road, chewing their cud lackadaisically as automobiles would scream by at 70 mph on either side. One driver explained that to hit a cow incurs an automatic $500USD payment to the farmer – no matter what. I made a point of practicing how to say sacred cow
in Russian as a conversation piece.
He left me along a lonely road and I walked for more than an hour as the sank lower in the sky. I tried to keep my spirits up but was dismayed by the number of UN trucks and SUVs from international NGOs that refused to stop for me. Eventually I came upon another police checkpoint and the situation was repeated. The next car to arrive was instructed to take me as far as it could.
This time I was with a group of teenage boys. They tried to scare me with their fast driving and I made a point of not letting them get a rise out of me. One kept asking to see my passport but I refused. When they swerved down a side road my patience was at an end. I protested and when they didn’t stop, opened the door as if to jump. They stopped and I grabbed my bag and started walking back to the main road.
One of them grabbed me, again asking for the passport, but I shook him off violently and he backed down.
A black Mercedes and Land Cruiser sped by from the opposite direction and seeing me hit the brakes. They backed up quickly and about a half-dozen armed police jumped out. The same questions. Where was I from? What was I doing? They were incredulous that I was hitching alone down to Georgia – their enemy’s territory. They explained it wasn’t safe and that I would have to wait for transport. The questioning lasted about two minutes and soon it was back to bullshitting, backslapping and chewing sunflower seeds by the roadside.
A police jeep appeared and whisked me to Gali. We drove at breakneck speed and the cop in the passenger seat kept trying to “buy” my watch off me. I kept refusing. Then he pulled his revolver.
“What are you, a bandit?” I asked. He laughed. In retrospect, I think he was offering to trade.
An Abkhazian police officer’s service revolver would’ve made quite a souvenir. Hindsight is always 20-20.
We picked up some more police and continued down the road, avoiding the cows. One handed me his Kalashnikov rifle to hold which I cradled between my knees. He thought it hilarious but the commanding officer thought better and disarmed me.
After some cursory questioning at the Gali police station where my documents were copied, the cops took me to a taxi stand and instructed an elderly driver to take me to the border. He agreed to take me for a pittance and I realized it was largely out of police pressure. He was an ethnic Mingrel – a Georgian tribe that speaks its own language – and told me the cops sometimes hassled him. I felt sorry for him as he piloted his ancient Soviet-era Volga sedan over pitted roads in a rainstorm. So I tipped heavily before making a dash through the rain to reach the border guards’ hut.
Inside awaited a champagne reception. It was the same brand of sickly sweet Ukrainian champagne. They’d obviously started without me as one of the guards was slumped over the table with his head in his arms. They poured me a glass and I toasted to a free Abkhazia. And a free Georgia and in peace, I added as I left.
I made my way across the Ingur Bridge that separates the no-man’s-land between Georgia and Abkhazian territory. The Russians were inside their huts staying dry even as the downpour slowed to a drizzle.
On the Georgian side the soldiers were in mid-meal. In typical fashion they offered to share but I had a night train to catch, I told them. After a few cursory questions and them recording my name (incorrectly as “Jacob Alexander” – but I didn’t quibble) in a ledger, I was free to go. Soon I was boarding the night train to Tbilisi and leaving Abkhazia behind once again.