Tbilisi, Georgia: April 2, 2002: I wasn’t really anxious to head back to the old Soviet Union again. My last half dozen trips through the strange world of Moscow had erased some of the old original excitement and challenge of exploring the land of the angry bear and the cold war. I had tromped through nearly every one of the old republics throughout Eastern Europe and Central Asia. And I had already taken too many photos of cockroaches crawling up hospital walls and antique x-ray machines with broken parts, frayed electrical cords, and unprotected nuclear units that zapped everybody with radiation when a picture was taken.
My dislike for traveling in the old Soviet Union had eased up a little when other airlines started flying around Eastern Europe and I no longer had to fly Aeroflot. I also learned that I could avoid traveling through corruption-ridden Moscow with just a bit of creativity, and that helped.
When the Soviet Union crumbled into bankruptcy in the early 1990s the hopes of the free world soared, eagerly awaiting the oppressed and decadent Phoenix to begin to rise from the ashes of Lenin’s debauched experiment. But for ten years the glorious transformation just never took place. The only thing that rose was the crime rate and the power of the Russian mafia.
Georgia was somewhat different from the other old Soviet states. Its history had always included the need to fight in order to retain its identity and sovereignty. Georgia had historically been invaded or occupied at one time or another by Romans, Arabs, Persians, Turks, or most recently, the Ruskies. But in spite of their hardships and need focus on self-protection, they always saw themselves as powerful, pragmatic, and very positive and proud.
When I first visited Georgia, after the breakup of the Soviet Union, they were really struggling to revive themselves from the cruel Stalinist years. No one was going there to help with rejuvenating their commerce or economy, and even though they were crying out for the West to teach them the ways of free market and entrepreneurship, most Brits and Americans generally ignored their plight.
But even then, the Georgians had tried to retain their positive nature about their future and put forth great effort to catch up to the pace of the rapidly moving, technological world of the West. They had always considered themselves to be linked to European and Western civilizations rather than their Persian or Central Asian neighbors.
Tbilisi, the capital city, was founded in 459 A.D. in a valley along the Mtkuari, or Kura, River. It was rather nestled down between the slopes and high hills of the Caucasus mountain range and had weather and seasonal patterns not a lot unlike Colorado.
Georgia adopted Christianity about 337 A.D. and in spite of the attempts of their continual invaders they had held on to their Christian heritage as a nation. Even during the atheist and communist regime, the Georgians believed that the tenants of Christianity needed to be cherished if they were ever to survive as a western culture. The Georgian Christian Church remained autonomous through the years but had always been closely tied to the Greek Orthodox Church in belief and ritual.
One of the highest values maintained and stressed by the Georgian people had always been the sacredness of the family. They really valued family and friendship and continued to emphasize taking rather formal evening meals together and enjoying pleasant times together with their close friends. As I had often experienced, their “table” ended up being a friendship and eating ritual that could last from 8 p.m. to midnight. And they had historically prided themselves in growing and consuming their famous Georgian wine.
The population of Tbilisi was about 1.4 million people while the whole country boasted of a population of between 5 and 6 million. As I had observed on previous contact with the Georgians, their healthcare system was pretty much in shambles when the Russians packed up and returned to Moscow in 1991. Now, they had the challenge of transforming their communist controlled public health system to a free market-oriented system where they would charge for their medical services. Most healthcare facilities really needed everything.
Dr. Jim Marlin, a Rotary district chairperson for international projects, had been encouraging Project C.U.R.E., with great insistence, to travel to Georgia and participate in a healthcare project in the Tbilisi area. He had traveled to Georgia previously and returned to Colorado determined to get Rotary involved. The plan was for Project C.U.R.E. to donate container loads of supplies and equipment pieces; by matching grants of local Rotary clubs, international Rotary organization would cover the cost of the shipping.
We had tried to schedule a needs assessment trip to Tbilisi with Jim Marlin the previous year, but my travel schedule would not cooperate. April 2-10 would now be the targeted dates.
I had never met Dr. Marlin in person so I had to guess from the crowd who would be my travel partner for the next week. He wasn’t hard to spot, a professional Midwesterner in his late 60s with a tall frame and a protruding belly and a “glad-to-meet cha” handshake. Dr. Marlin had recently retired from teaching economics at the University of Colorado in Boulder and had decided to try to make a contribution to the real world through concentrated efforts within the Rotary organization. In spite of his impetuous demeanor, I felt very comfortable that we would have a good time traveling together in Tbilisi.
April 2, 2002
Together we boarded United Airlines flight #262 to Chicago. With just a brief layover we continued on to London’s Heathrow Airport on flight #938. It was very fortunate that we had caught an error in United’s luggage routing. While looking at our luggage tags we discovered that my bags were ultimately being sent not to Tbilisi, Georgia, but to Papua New Guinea. Jim Marlin’s bags were being sent to Brasilia, Brazil.
You could only imagine that when we reached London we were flopping around like two mad hens in the barnyard getting attention called to the mistake that we had discovered. At the United counter at customs in London we raised a hissy only to be told that our luggage pieces had already been handed over to British Airways’ subsidiary airline called “British Mediterranean.”
Again, having not been there with us, you can only imagine the pressure we brought to bear on the United baggage man behind the counter in London. If not corrected, the situation would have resulted in our having our luggage parked in an entirely different place than where we desperately needed them while in Georgia. Finally, the poor little Brit behind the counter who had been totally innocent of having committed the blunder, smiled through pallid lips of his blood-drained face and assured us that our bags had been “captured” and the “destinations corrected.”
My anticipation to reach Tbilisi, Georgia, then centered on my being able to once again successfully touch the canvas textured case of my black Samsonite bag, rather than to meet and greet our future Georgian hosts. Would I be with or without my necessities for the whole next week?
It was 2:30 in the morning when our British Mediterranean flight screeched its landing tires on the rough Georgian tarmac. The flight was going on to Yerevan, Armenia, so I tried to gingerly step over and around the sleeping passengers who were staying on. Still consumed by thoughts of my errant bags, I stepped to the top of the deplaning ladder. It was like being an innocent embryo forcefully pushed from a mother’s warm, comfortable womb into a screaming blizzard. I had thought it would be springtime in Georgia not January in Siberia. “How do these people live in the blasted harshness of the old Soviet Union?” I asked myself.
Walking from the airplane across the runway to the terminal the bitter wind ripped at my lightweight blue sport jacket. The icy cold was dropping directly down from the peaks of the Caucasus Mountains making cold tears run from my eyes. “What in God’s green earth am I doing here when I could be snuggled up closely to my warm beautiful bride in Colorado?” I knew better somehow than to try to answer that question between there and the immigration line.
I eagerly stepped to the luggage delivery box where they had started unloading the bags from the tote cart. My mind replayed the scores of times when my luggage just didn’t show up, like the time in India a year before when I had to buy an airline ticket and travel all the way from New Delhi to Bombay to retrieve my bags because the airline had made a similar mistake.
But this time Papua New Guinea was not going to be the unexpecting recipient of my bags even though United Airlines in Denver had sent them there. Our little friend in London had successfully “captured” our luggage and had successfully forwarded them on to Tbilisi.
To meet us at the airport at the uncivil hour of 3 a.m. were two of Jim’s friends with whom he had become acquainted on an earlier trip to Georgia. Dr. Archil Samadashvili had been a professor at Georgia State University for 27 years; his brother-in-law Tomaz Gugliashidze also had his doctorate and taught at the university. They had married twin sisters, Marina and Irina, who were both highly educated and possessed extraordinary credentials.
Dr. Tomaz, Dr. Irina and their two teenage children had willingly moved out of their flat located on the fifth floor of an old Soviet bloc-house in the center of Tbilisi so that the two American gentlemen from Colorado could have a place to stay for the next week.
The wind continued to rip through the side streets of Tbilisi and along the thoroughfare that paralleled the main river of Georgia. The only thing darker than the abandoned streets of Tbilisi was the haunting stairwell of the apartment building where we were to stay. The folks just didn’t spend a lot of money on lighting up the buildings or streets of the old Soviet towns, even though Tbilisi was actually a city of over 1.5 million people.
Tomaz showed us where our beds were and the room where the toilet was located, which was not the room where the sink and bathtub were located. At about 4:15 a.m., his parting words were that Irina and Marina would be returning to the flat at about 10 a.m. to fix us breakfast. I hung out my clothes and fell into the hard Russian-style bed to get a few hours of desperately needed sleep. It had been a long non-stop trip from Denver to Tbilisi, Georgia, via London Heathrow.
Next Week: We want to be Entrepreneurs