onsdag 17. august 2011

Georgia: Paying it forward


A backsteet in Tbilisi's Old town, not many meters
from the main, pedestrian tourist street.
Take a look at this picture from the old town in Georgia's capital Tbilisi. I'd say it tells something about the country's economy. The photo is not taken at complete random, but this wasn't the only street where the houses are leaning like palm trees over the street, and the roofs shed tiles in every storm.

After the breakup of the USSR and the 2008 war against Russia, Georgia is a dirt poor country. Therefore, the generosity of the Georgians is even more impressive.

Like this little banality that welcomed me into the country:

I was taking bus 37 from the airport to the centre of Tbilisi. What I didn't know, was that you don't buy the tickets from the driver but from an automat.

That didn't worry me much. I had several 1 lari coins after changing my Ukrainian money on the airport, so I put my backpack under my seat and started working the automat.

Or so I thought. As it turned out, bus 37's ticket machine only accepts coins of 10, 20 and 50 tetri (the subunit of lari, 100 tetri=1 lari). I was contemplating to go without a valid ticket, at a - for me - unknown risk, but first I had one last straw: I asked the two elderly ladies in simple greyish coats and plastic bags on their laps if they could change one of my lari coins.

They don't answer. Instead they smile and one of them walks up to the machine and pays my ticket. And all my attempts on persuasion are useless. They want to pay. They insist.

Now this is a small gift. For me, from oil-rich Norway, 50 tetri is absolutely nothing.

But for a Georgian? These two ladies don't look like particularly wealthy people, even for Georgia's standards.

That means poor in my book. Georgia's GDP per capita of $4900 only gives the country a 150th place in the world, and according to the UNDP, Georgian households spend a mere $3913 on private consumption a year, more than 1000 dollars less than e.g. Iranians. 13,44 per cent of the population lived on below $1,25 in 2005 - before the 2008 war with Russia.

Nonetheless, they paid for me - a wealthy North European on vacation (how many of the Georgians can afford that?).

And I accepted. I think that's the only decent thing to do. Respect your fellow people's urge to be helpful, generous and kind - and that even poorer people have the right to decline your payment.
Window shopping in Tbilisi also involves potatoes...

I guess that, instead, we can learn from it. To be generous too. To pay it forward, or as Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote: "But the benefit we receive must be rendered again, line for line, deed for deed, cent for cent, to somebody."

Personally I rarely see people short of cash on the Oslo subway. Instead I have donated money to the Norwegian Refugee Council, who works for people even worse off than the Georgian ladies.

tirsdag 9. august 2011

The kindness of a stranger


Broad, dusty street in a town somewhere along the road between Inezgane (Agadir's transport hub) and Laâyoune in Western Sahara.

Hamoud was the first to teach me anything about camels except what I had read in a book: "A camel can smell water from far away. If you ever run out of water, stick to the camel no matter what happens," he said.

I was lazily looking out the bus window. There was nothing there, except some sand-drizzled bushes spread out like rocks in a flat no man's land. It was Hamoud's landscape, here he was at home and I was definately on strange ground, completely devoid of any survival skills. Now, at least I knew one thing: stick to the camel, more experience would come later on.

From here I would have to manage alone anyway. Hamoud and I had been sitting beside eachother all the way from Inezgane, for several hours the skinny Saharawi with donkey teeth and I had kept every hint of the monotony the landscape offers away; we had conversed on music and death, the dream of Europe and Morocco's occupation of Western Sahara, we had been singing, and Hamoud had assisted me in bying my first ever turban in Goulmine where the bus stopped for a break. Now our acquaintance was over, he and his sister were set for Tan Tan, while I wouldn't rest until Laâyoune.

Roadside café in Morocco.

"Join us for tea. Laâyoune is a long journey from here," Hamoud insisted before going off in the outskirts of Tan Tan, but I turned the offer down. My ticket held a promise of even more miles towards the south, and I wanted to push on. Little did I know about how lonely I would feel once at the bus station.

There it all stopped. Every rice bag and bulging suitcase was unloaded from the bus' hold, and one after another my fellow passengers disappeared into the low, square brick buildings of the town. I was the only one still there. And the ticket collector. After some hesitation I approached him.

"There is no bus from here to Laâyoune," he replied.
"But I hold a ticket there, from your company," I complained, ready to hand him the paper note I had been clutching since I realized that something was brewing; on the note it surely read "La-y---e", even though the hand writing would have made even a blind doctor blush.

"Let me see!" the ticket collector commanded and as soon as I opened my palm in front of him, he pinched the note, and studied it short-sighted only to tear it into pieces before my eyes, small piches of paper that he let fall to the dust and earth; my ticket! I mumbled some phrases of kind-of-french from my Linguaphone but the words refused all intelligent shape. I had to resign. I would have to continue on taxi brousse.

Taxi brousse, grand taxi, bush taxi
- depending on where in Western Africa you are travelling - have one advantage: The driver will never screw you (except sometimes by demanding you pay for your luggage). The con is that they won't drive until full, and that the drivers have an understanding of the word full that differs substantially from ours; in "my" Mercedes Benz we would be four people squeezing into the back seat while a married couple was sharing the passenger seat in front.

While waiting for the last two seats to fill up, I couldn't help from missing Hamoud, regretting my rush to get to Laâyoune, which I had no pressing need to reach until at least the next day.

I also thought that there was a lesson to be taught: Never decline the kindness of a stranger. Or alternatively always doublecheck the tickets before you buy them.

The market in Goulmime, where the bus stopped for a short break.

Sunset - time for prayers.

Three in the front seats and four in the back, that's the way in a Moroccan bush taxi.

onsdag 3. august 2011

A siesta in Praiano


The waves won't move his cradle, but at least he has the sound of the ocean, the man who sleeps in his boat on shore in Praiano. (Sorry for the photo quality, it's a scanned dias.)

Armchair travelling has never been easier. Guidebooks, newspaper stories, advertisement brochures and - maybe even more so - blogs don't just tell us what we can and should see, with photos already showing it, but also contain all sorts of practical information about business hours, prices, timetables, the whereabouts of the post office, and which beach bar that offers the most beautiful sunset.

A traveller can easily be fooled into making the journey nothing but a walkthrough of all this information.

Probably just as common is to fool oneself into unrealistic expectations like those described by Alain de Botton in "The Art of Travel": The decision on where to go and the anticipation on what we will see there, are often made based on just three glossy photos in a brochure. When we actually arrive we are disappointed because reality also includes things like power lines, posters, and office buildings that are just as square and soulless as the ones at home.

I'm glad to say the world has more to offer. I guess that's the reason why some of us are constantly planning our next adventure with a backpack, a phrasebook and an open mind.

Take the picture above. It's from Praiano, a small village on the Amalfi Coast, one of Europe's most famous - and dramatic - stretches of coast. On Unesco's World Heritage List, written up in glowing terms by John Steinbeck, and described in detail in guidebooks (most publishers, like Frommer's,Lonely PlanetandThe Rough Guidehave their own books on Naples and Amalfi alone).

But still, neither the detailed guidebooks nor my simplistic preconceptions prepared me for the one moment that I remember best from my first trip to Amalfi:

I had given up renting a moped or bike (too expensive), so I set out from Atrani to Positano by foot. In Praiano I went down to the tiny harbour on the pebbly beach for a rest. I pulled up my tripod, and started taking photos of the boats lying there. Just then an elderly fisherman came walking by, almost passing me before he clambered on board one of the wooden boats I was studying. There he went to sleep, covering his face with a handkerchief and one arm. A nap, a siesta, a stolen half-hour somewhere his wife would never find him. I have no way of knowing. The fantastic parenthesis was not described or explained anywhere (and I would never wake up a sleeping man to ask him).

So, you say, a sleeping man? It's not exactly the Sistine Chapel. But still, it's this kind of moments that stick. Because they could not be planned, and not be imagined by an armchair traveller. Moments like these only come to the ones who travel.

Ironically this blog can lead someone to do just that: walk down to the harbour in Praiano hoping to see an old fisherman take a nap in one of the boats lying there.

They can just forget about it. But I still recommend Praiano. Maybe there, they will see another next-to-nothing episode that they had never imagined.