onsdag 17. august 2011

Georgia: Paying it forward

PLACE: TBILISI, GEORGIA

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.

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