Monday, February 04, 2013

Field Jacket (Pt. 2)

Older and wiser yet dumber somehow – the addition of years is in sum an act of subtraction – I have come to find myself in the middle seat of the middle bench of a marshrutka bound for the middle of nowhere.

If the word marshrutka sounds Russian, that's because it ain't. Long, long ago – well before the invention of the hydraulic brake, apparently – the Russians borrowed and slightly transmogrified the German Marschroute (march route) and applied it to an inbred breed of four-wheeled irregular rectangle that, true to its etymology, amounts to the public transportation equivalent of a forced march at Nazi gunpoint through inner Siberia.

A lot has changed in Georgia since the advent of the macro-minibus. World War II bombed itself to death. The Cold War chilled the fuck out. Slowly and dubiously, some tyrant-friendly form of representative democracy trickled its way down into the Lower Caucasus. But the Russo-Germanic loanword marshrutka, for better and overwhelmingly for worse, remains part of the modern Georgian lexicon.

This particular marshrutka isn't so bad, as marshrutkas go. It is slightly curved in the front for ostensibly aerodynamic reasons, and its hull bears a lower-than-average number of battle scars and barnacle welts relative to the standard street-tested Georgian automobile. The driver is not visibly drunk; the cabin is full beyond capacity but no further. Things are good, all things considered. Still, I can't help but feel ill at ease, like I forgot something at the airport bar three layovers ago.

And I probably did. But there are any number of more existentially pressing reasons why I should feel ill at ease about this: my latest venture into the netherworlds of the world. I'm 29, for one thing, and as I whiplash my way across Georgia's midsection in the middle seat of the middle bench of a marshrutka, it is no longer at all obvious to me why the hell I should be doing that sort of thing at this age, nevermind where I'm headed: the border between Georgia and Whatever Lurks Northwest of Georgia, a border that was once – and yet remains – a very disputed border, indeed.

Moreso than most trips, there is the sense that I have volunteered for my own demise this time around. At no point in Georgia have I felt safe in my own skin. Tbilisi did not woo me during my two weeks there. Plenty of black-jacketed, lobotomized-looking Georgian thugs; hordes of unibrowed Armenian pimps; gypsies galore, hungry hands extended; woeful nights kicking it in the kinds of clubs where you order a rufie and hope to god somebody slips you a drink. And now, a marshrutka. Christ. The marshrutkateer swerves us into oncoming traffic. Death is very palpable, indeed. We barrel past four other marshrutkas, juke out of the path of an onrushing marshrutka, swerve off the road momentarily and skitter back up onto it just in the nick. Palpable, nay: death is inevitable. Outside, the sky is the color of a tombstone, the crabbed winter earth all brown and dead, the houses we pass crumbling and moss-eaten like tombstones. Flooring it into oncoming traffic, the driver lets go of the wheel so he can jaw into his cellphone and cross himself – down, left, right, up; down, left, right, up – as we whoosh past a roadside Georgian graveyard. One wonders how the man can even see a graveyard at light speed. One wonders, too, how many fresh tombstones are planted every day on account of Georgian Orthodox marshrutka drivers genuflecting orthodoxically as they pass Orthodox Georgian graveyards. I'm too old to be doing this shit.

But then, I am too young to be doing a lot of other, more boring shit. At the very least, I am no longer working for the Republicans. I have crawled out from under a desk, hurdled the cubicle walls, etc. No, I signed up for this misadventure, so I might as well enjoy it. And I am enjoying it, in a way. There is something fundamentally liberating about confronting vehicular manslaughter head-on. I'll be getting somewhere delightfully weird, assuming I ever get there. All horrors aside, I am quite enjoying the sensation of being marshrutka-ed – or I am quite enjoying the sensation in general, I should say. There are other secondary and tertiary sensations that I am not enjoying nearly as much.

Secondary and tertiary sensations I am not enjoying, in the order that they occur to me:

1) That of the tightly clamped Georgian buttoxen on either side of me, and that of their compressing my own buttocks into a state of very tight clampedness, in the middle seat of the middle bench of aforementioned marshrutka bound for the middle of nowhere.
2) The odor of aforementioned buttoxen.
3) That of knowing with absolute certainty that every single onrushing marshrutka will slam head-on into my own marshrutka, annihilating myself, marshrutka, and this blog post well before any of them have reached their final destinations.
4) That of having to pee.
5) That of having ingested four slices of Georgian khachapuri at the last rest stop because I screwed up the order, and having ingested two more slices after that because someone else screwed up the order same as me, and having ingested one more slice after that because someone else screwed up the order same as everyone else, and then having to carry three leftover slices of so-called Georgian pizza (only the grease-to-bread ratio is comparable to actual pizza), absurdly, in the palm of my hand for the remainder of the second leg of what is proving to be a buttoxen-numbingly long marshrutka ride, indeed. None of this is digestively or sensorily enjoyable.
6) That of feeling that I have forgotten something.
7) That of feeling that I have forgotten something, but also that I have forgotten what I have forgotten.
8) That of feeling that I am once again lapsing into unhealthy amounts of metacognition. 
9) That of having to pee (aforementioned).
10) That of the onrushing marshrutkas, etc. ... (aforementioned).
11) That of having to pee (thrice aforementioned).
And so on.

Five of my fellow volunteers are marshrutka-ing along with me. But we aren't really in any position to talk. Our handlers saw fit to distribute us evenly about the cramped and aromatic cabin. We can exchange amorous glances but only few words. We are surrounded on all sides by our school directors and host parental guardians, and by craggy-faced Georgian babushkas who cluck their tongues, bow their heads and genuflect orthodoxically at the satanic sounds of English. Down, left, right, up.

I know where I'm headed, which is to say that I know the name of my final destination. This is not to say that I know anything about the place. My home for the next four months is a mountain village named Jgali, stashed way up in the northwest corner of a far-flung northwestern province the Georgians call Samegrelo. Last night's Google search yielded some gruesome amputation porn, but no information whatsoever as to why so many of Jgali's 300-odd inhabitants have been amputated. The village is precariously close to a Russian puppet state, so that could be one explanation. Samegrelo is also downwind from Chernobyl – that might be another.

I know that I have a host family waiting for me and that my host family consists of a mother, a father, a sister and a brother. I know their ages. I do not know their names. None of them are on the marshrutka. They did not come to pick me up. I have not met them or spoken to them or corresponded with them in any way. I know that they don't care if I smoke. I'm trying to quit but I don't quite believe that I will. I know that they have the internet, running water, and a western toilet. I don't quite believe that they will have any of those things.

We pass through Kutaisi, Georgia's second city. Some odd English graffiti here. "I love plant." Fair enough. Something I've noticed about the license plates in this country: it's always three letters followed by three digits, a formula that has spawned a surprising proliferation of accidental vanity plates. TIT 690, to name one I've spotted. LOL 420, to name another. It is doubtful that KKK 666 is as bad a guy as you'd think. BMW 389 is the proud owner of a 1972 Lada Niva.

I stash the rotten khachapuri under the seat. The sun goes down. A babushka asks the driver if we can stop to take a whiz and the driver says no. It becomes clear that the last rest stop was indeed the last rest stop. We are nearing Zugdidi, which is close to our villages but not close to anything else in particular, other than the Abkhazian border. From here on out, we go native. I think about the other five volunteers marshrutka-ing along with me. Perhaps we'll find ourselves stranded in neighboring villages, will burn those villages to the ground in the months to come. Or perhaps this is it: a last hurrah by way of clammy handshake at a connecting marshrutka stop in the middle of nowhere. Not even a goodbye at the end of our contracts. Who knows? Who knew?

The weather has taken a turn. For the better part of seven hours, we have blasted through barren, rust-fenced plains stillborn somewhere between winter and spring. Now, as we climb up into the mountains, snow starts to fall. Further up and further along, it comes tumbling down in huge white bowtie-shaped tufts. When the marshrutka finally shudders to a stop in Zugdidi, it is pitch black out but for the snow catching the snarky sidelong glare of the piss-yellow streetlights.

Turns out there isn't even time for a handshake. Once I've finally gotten all my shit out of the back of the marshrutka, Irish Michael and British Tom and Oregonian David and What's-Her-Name-From-Wherever-She's-From are gone, have already been spirited away by their handlers. Only L.A. Tommy and Nebraska-Ass Me remain. We are not spirited away, but prodded and nudged by our handlers towards a cigar-shaped and practically cigar-sized Lada 1600 snoozing up against the curb. The car sags ominously as we load our bags in the trunk, and sags even more ominously when we duck into the back seat.

There is a portly old fellow behind the wheel and a boy sitting shotgun. A Lynchian touch: the kid is holding in his lap a bathroom mirror, complete with overhead lights (though they are not lit (a decidedly non-Lynchian touch)), and the mirror all but blocks out our view out the front windshield, replaces it with a reflection of Tommy and I huddled in the backseat, looking greasy, disoriented, and somewhat terrified. A full-on blizzard is raging outside. The lowly Lada doesn't even seem to have one-wheel drive. How the hell are we going to get where we're supposed to go and what the hell is going to happen to us when we get there?

After a couple rumbleshot miles of broken Russian, it emerges that these two dudes are Tommy's host dad and host brother, respectively. Handshakes are exchanged, but not with me. I sit there mostly mute. It is communicated to me that I am to be dropped off first. And here is where my night turns into Are You My Mother? We sally forth into the darkness, the black two-laner painted dimly by the flickering headlights, all else all snow and nothing else. We stop, exchange words with a shrouded figure in the gloom. Is this my host mother? No, it is some stranger I will never see again. Or it is some stranger who has been expecting us and knows where we're going. Or it is some stranger who helps scrape the ice off our windshield while shivering cigarettes are smoked all around. And meanwhile, there is this mirror blocking the windshield, and me looking back at myself, sleep deprived as hell and getting tired of my own beard, thinking I'll maybe shave it whenever I get home, wherever that is.

We drift into a snowdrift along the side of the road, and only after we stay there a while do I realize that it was a deliberate maneuver on the part of my chauffeur. A couple minutes later, a pair of headlights flip on and off across the way.

"You," says the driver, "hello director."

I get out of the car, or try to. So bushed am I and so atrophied are my legs that my backpack nearly throws me ass-over-head into the snow. The contents of President Mikheil Saakashvili’s canvas gift bag – two bottles of Georgian wine, a box of chocolates, an out-of-season Season's Greetings card – are sent flying all over.

"Dude," says Tommy, "you're a mess."

I do not disagree.

A shadowy figure in the distance is approaching me, so I decide I may as well approach the shadowy figure in the distance. We shake hands.

"Sprechen Sie Deutsch," she says, halfway between a question and a statement.

"Jawohl," I reply, very unsure of myself. "Ich spreche ein bisschen Deutsch."

Hello, director. She'd been reading my resume on the way over. I load my shit into the trunk of her Georgian Geo Metro and we shuttle off through the snow.

The drive takes about an hour, though the Russo-Georgian street signs tell me that we only cover five kilometers. My director is none too good at driving, and her car is none too good at same. We have to stop so she can scrape the ice off the windshield with an ABBA mix CD reserved for said purpose. We have to stop so she can let the engine rebuild itself, so she can wait for the snow to clear just enough to reestablish where the road is.

We slide up in front of my host family's house. It's straight out of Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Darkness all around. Four alien figures, corona-lit by the porch lights, shuffling their way through the snow. The director doesn't even get out of the car. Here you are. You're on your own. Here is your mother.

Only after we've shaken hands and said hello – only on the walk towards the house, when my host mom nudges me, shrugs her shoulders, grips at her collar, and tilts her head by way of posing a question does it hit me. I did forget something, though not at the airport bar three layovers ago. I forgot it in the damned marshrutka. I have forgotten my beloved field jacket. Fuck me. You'd think I'd have noticed when I started freezing my balls off four hours ago.

The whole rest of the night, I'm not really there. I sit down with my host mom and my host dad, my host uncle and my host aunt. They introduce themselves but I forget their names instantly. The neighbors show up and before long I can't even remember who's in my host family and who isn't. We crack open Misha's wine. Me and the host dad knock it back, shot after shot, shooting it from cow horns hollowed out for said purpose. But at no point do I feel drunk. Toasts are made on my behalf. I make toasts on the host family's behalf. Is there a patron saint of lost jackets? I'm not really there. I left part of my brain in the back of that marshrutka. It's like I've been amputated, or lobotomized, or worse. A snail deshelled. My field jacket is gone.

Who knows what sort of post-adolescent, punkish impulse led me to adopt the orphaned jacket in the first place. It was my mom's, for one thing. But adopt it I did. It traveled the world with me. Europe and Asia. Latin America, too. I'd lived in it, slept in it, puked all over it. I'd even lost it several times, most notably in Berlin, only to have it return to me, every time, and most notably on a bleary New Year's Eve in Omaha.

"That's a bad-ass jacket," I'd said to my good friend/ex-Berliner roommate Ben Pham. "Where'd you get it?"

He shifted around in his Chuck Taylors.

"Well, er," he said. "Um."

Then it clicked: Ben Pham looked so good in that jacket it that it reminded me of another fellow who looked nowhere near as good in it.

"Fuck me," I said. "That's my jacket."

I'd left it behind in Berlin a year or so before. It was by a weird whim that Ben Pham had noticed it in his roommate's closet and adopted it as his own. And he'd brought it back to me. But this time, I know it's gone. I've lost it. I'll never see that field jacket again. And I'm not ashamed to say that I downed my last shot of wine and went straight to my brand new host bedroom and cried about that shit. The blankets are thin and so are the walls. I've since put on three sweaters. It's colder in here than it is out there. I'll write and shiver and write my ass to sleep. It's going to be a long-ass, cold-ass winter.

Field Jacket (Pt. 1)

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