What a remarkable trip. A journey like this, while simple today, would have been almost impossible only twenty years ago when this part of the world was an integral part of the Soviet Union.
To travel within the USSR required a degree of planning and cooperation that left most tourists visiting only the main, keynote cities and sites. I most certainly would not have been allowed to travel on a ship as I did, and would never have been able to spend time with, and get to know Andre, Archi, Ia, Tony and Aydin as I have been able to do.
My journey would have been grey; it would have been coloured only by sporadic flashes of life surfacing in unexpected places. As it was, I saw countries that are deeply troubled in many ways, but alive and with a sense of community that is often driven by a shared hardship.
I was left to wonder about many issues that we take for granted. Has the liberalisation of the economic environment really helped the majority of citizens? Has the disappearance of the “black market”, or perhaps more accurately the “parallel market” caused greater hardships for those unable to reach the comparative productivity of the west? How have so few been able to amass so much, so quickly, and will the spoils of the undeniable riches of the region ever get shared?
Business is difficult, with a bureaucracy that can defeat all but the most fervent; capital is hard to come by and credit expensive, and often denominated in foreign currencies and carrying a huge exchange risk. Think Iceland. Local money is short, think of the 10% reduction in ridership on the Baku metro in answer to a fare increase from $0.07 to $0.20; this is not indicative of well spread wealth.
An average monthly salary in Georgia may be about $200; insufficient cash to drive much expansion and these levels of income live side by side with those fortunate enough to be involved in the global economy, and making salaries comparable to their western counterparts.
My days in Baku left me with a bewildering sense of “user pay”; from petty traffic violations to, and I have to be honest here, the ability to bypass a queue of 1000 or more at airport security by slipping $10 to a willing policeman. Georgia, formerly regarded as the most corrupt country in the region has really cleaned up its act, although its relative poverty and the inability of most to be able to grease the outstretched hands may have had much to do with it. The Ukraine defies imagination in regards to the level of user-pay officialdom that permeates society, and forces a sclerosis as deep as the Soviets.
I love travelling in the region, and intend to continue to do so, and get to more of the more remote areas in the mountains bordering Russia. To visit even the capitals is a treat and a reminder of travel in the past, tinged with the very real global economy that has laid its mantle firmly over the economic future of the region. I have met so many warm, kind and truly hopeful people; I have seen sights, both geographic and natural that leave me speechless; I have eaten food, in rather generous portions it has to be added, that bring desensitised taste buds roaring back to life, and had the rare privilege of sharing a flake of a completely different life.
And so time to go home; I write this as I sit in the Istanbul waiting for my flight to Chicago and home to Winnipeg. It is a treat, today, I think as I am the only passenger booked in the First Class cabin, or so they tell me, and I am looking forward to a rather decadent day