I remember thinking in Akhaltsikhe that I had basically been to two types of countries before Georgia: westernized, modern societies and places that never had much to begin with. (I stop short of using the term “third world” because I’m not sure how to properly define that, but I’ve been to orphanages in Jamaica and remote fishing towns in Mexico.) Either Georgia is more complex than my previous experiences or my pigeonholes are just too simplistic (probably both). I’ve never personally been to a place that felt so post-apocalyptic. The cities especially are full of reminders of their history, some of it more recent than I can really comprehend. Soviet hints as big as formerly-swank dive-hotels, and small as Stalin’s bust adorning random home gates.
The most memorable example of this happened while we were on a four hour marshrutka ride to Kutaisi. I was reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and Alicia was teaching herself the Georgian alphabet. At the exact moment she realized she could read, I was set in the midst of a deep mind-swim (as that book is prone to do). It was truly exciting for her – seriously, she just realized that she could READ – but I had just looked up into a thousand-yard-stare, realizing how much I was like a character that I really did not expect or want to be anything like. So I’m getting all existential (as I am prone to do) and Alicia is excitedly pointing out that she can read the names of all the towns on a little sign above the driver that showed the fares. I was impressed but it was at a moment that made it hard to match her excitement.
Realizing how lost I was getting in my own head, not to mention a touch car sick from trying to read while on Georgia’s favorite form of public transportation, I looked out the window. My self-diagnosed-adult-onset-ADD pulled me straight out of the fog at the sight of the ghost town we were driving through. We were still somewhere east of Kutaisi, but out of the countryside. The fact that it was so empty wouldn’t have been so striking if it weren’t for all of the huge industrial buildings. They were solidly built, not many of them were crumbling, but most of them were covered in rust that poured down from their metal roofs. Windows were all either hazed over from the sun and dust or broken out, some from trees growing through from inside. This went on for miles. It wasn’t just a single factory location; you definitely got the impression that entire communities were symbiotic to whatever product was made or refined there. I was never able to figure out exactly what that product was, but I got a clue as to what it was probably used for.
It wasn’t going to work to ask the driver to let me out for a few photos (and I couldn’t anyway, my only translator was just learning her ABCs). And no one would have been happy about extending that ride for longer than it already needed to be, especially for an American who wanted to take some shots of abandoned factories. Probably not even for the twenty foot tall mosaic of a Soviet astronaut on the side of one of those buildings. One arm raised up triumphantly; soaring toward you like Superman with the earth behind him, likely as colorful and bright as the day it was pieced together. I might have been the only one to see it. Alicia was still gleefully looking around the van for other Georgian words to read. The other passengers had most likely taken that road enough to be unimpressed. Or maybe they had lived with enough reminders of what used to be that they didn’t need to take it in again.
Several of them crossed themselves when we drove by the next church, and I tried to remember what was so important that had me lost in my own head earlier.