Sunday, March 31, 2013

Iranian Rain Dance

One more Saturday night. One more Sunday morning. I was the last man standing. I was the last man sleeping.

I woke up around noon and everyone was gone. I left the last of my money with the hostel babushka, gave the thoroughly pregnant hostel cat one last pat on the head. I walked back into town. Along the way, I realized that I was carrying a plastic bag full of everybody else's crap: Pringles tubes, empty packs of Pirvelis, half-full bottles of beer. There wasn't a trash can in sight, but there was a dumpster up ahead. Just to make sure nobody was living in there, I scaled up the side of it and stuck my head over the rim: inside, the usual Georgian refuse - Pringles tubes, empty packs of Pirvelis, half-full bottles of beer. With my good arm, I heaved the bag into the dumpster and heard it chock against the bottom. An instant later, I saw a big fat Georgian man come storming down the hill. No! he was shouting. No no no no no! I stood there like an oaf and waited for whatever was to happen next.

Huffing and puffing, the man looked me over. He looked at me. He looked at my cast. He pointed at the dumpster and said, "Pick it up."
"Excuse me?"
"Your garbage. Pick it up."
I held up my cast, shrugged my shoulders.
"I don't care. Pick it up."

I scaled up the side of the dumpster and reached for my bag of trash. It was unreachable from all angles. My wrist was smarting like hell. The Georgian dude got tired of watching me struggle and climbed into the dumpster himself, fetched my bag of trash, and climbed back out. I thought he was going to hand the bag back to me. Instead, he smacked me over the head with it. Then he handed it back to me.

"Thanks," I said.

It was my first premonition that things in Georgia were about to head south. And they would head very far south, indeed. But for the time being, the whole summer stretched between me and the tattered threads of my worn out welcome mat.

I got my cast removed a couple weeks later.
One of the nurses asked me if I was married.
"No," I said.
"That's good."
"You're right," I said. "It is good."

Everyone I knew had left Georgia on the Georgian government's tab. Weird Beard had flown to Spain. The Irishman had retired to his native Ireland. Jerry was back in Arkansas, soon to relocate to Korea for good. Laura was in Turkey, bound for Poland and The Ukraine. I couldn't for the life of me decide where to go, so I wound up staying in Georgia. I'd spend my weekdays reading in bed, reading on the porch, getting into mild-mannered mischief with my host brother, going on long walks by myself. On the weekends, funds permitting, I'd sneak off to Zugdidi and shack up at the hostel and get into some international mischief with the United Nations of Tourists. All sorts of people came through that summer. There were delightful Britons, and wonderful Czechs, and lovely Poles. I'd mention to the Poles that I'd once lived in Poland, and when I told them where, they would giggle uncontrollably for the remainder of the evening. Comedy comes very naturally when your whole life is a joke. There was an Israeli dude who objected to my smoking while he ate his dinner on the patio. I apologized profusely and retired to the dark corner where the pregnant cat hung out and I stroked her head and smoked my cigarette. When I returned to the patio, the Israeli dude was smoking a cigarette himself. I blinked.

One morning, I woke up with the hostel all to myself. There was a strange squeaking noise issuing from under the bed. I rolled over just in time to see six kittens come tottering out. One by one, they clawed their way up into my bed and settled on my bare chest to knead my manbosom and nap. The hostel babushka found me sleeping that way later that afternoon. I could hear her talking to herself. She thought it was cute. I think I earned some points, there. But I was to lose them all before the summer was through. We were, all of us, to lose a lot of points before the year was through.

Then, back to the village. More boredom. More books. Three square meals of potatoes and cucumbers. Plenty of Georgian television. Every once in a while, I'd hike into town to read an email from Weird Beard, who was washing dishes and slowly screwing his way across the Iberian peninsula, or from the Irishman, who was getting rich on the dole, smoking himself into a vortex and drinking twenty cups of tea per diem, or from Laura, who had managed to get her leg squashed by a boulder in a Turkish earthquake. Then I would hike back home and go to sleep at nine PM, or whenever the power crapped out, which was usually pretty early in those overheated days.

When I received my pay at the end of July, I decided I'd blow it all in Batumi: the Black Hole on the Black Sea. I fell asleep on the marshrutka but woke up in time to read the overhead sign as we arrived in Batumi proper: "'In five years, Batumi will be the best city in the world.' - Donald Trump." I blinked.

If you've been to Puerto Vallarta, you've been to Batumi. If you've been to Cancún, you've probably been to Batumi, too. In short, Batumi is the sort of place you might go with your gaggle of spring break girls, or your posse of spring break boys, but not the sort of place a single man should visit alone. That's mostly how I felt from the moment I got off the marshrutka: painfully, woefully, oafishly alone.

I'm not sure how long Batumi has been around. "Not very long" would be my guess. Certainly, it didn't begin to exist the way it exists now until a couple of years ago, when a glut of oil money washed up along its shores. It's not a bad place to be if you happen to find yourself in Georgia with plenty of friends and a bunch of hard currency to blow. The weather is tolerable pretty much year round. There are beaches, though they are decidedly not the sorts of beaches you'd want to write home about, not unless your parents are geologists who happen to specialize in large, abrasive beach boulders. It costs five bucks to rent out a beach chair - something I found out the hard way - and the bars charge outrageous covers but still play Kenny G, same as anywhere else in Georgia. Still, Batumi was a much needed respite from the village life. There were foreigners everywhere, none of them Westerners, but foreigners nonetheless. And there was a certain Chinese weirdness to the place that I found appealing, if only because I lived in - and loathed - and actually kind of missed - China.

Much of the city was under construction. Perhaps that's why it reminded me so much of the People's Republic. More to the point: the buildings were being built the same way they build them in China. Cheap stone, cheap labor, crummy scaffolding; it looked as though everything going up was about to collapse. The signage reminded me of China. There was a banner above a construction site that read, "APOLOGIZE FOR ALL TEMPORAL DISCOMFORT." I reached for my camera but remembered that my host sister had broken it months before. The sides of unfinished skyscrapers were draped over with massive plastic tapestries festooned with internet clipart of beachside resorts that in no way resembled the dilapidated concrete monstrosities under construction, photographs of pasty, pasty white couples sipping dirty martinis on pristine white patios. The American dream. If the Chinese can achieve it, why not the Georgians? I used to walk up and down the Batumi boardwalk along the Black Sea, ogling these architectural nightmares, darting furtive glances at the stroboscopic night clubs as I passed, thinking I'd maybe pay the cover if it meant a shot at dancing with a pretty girl from an exotic former Soviet republic, and then, catching a snippet of C+C Music Factory, I'd decide emphatically against it, and I'd walk along the boardwalk until the boardwalk came to an end, and then I'd walk all the way back to where I'd started and then I'd walk all the way back to the hotel and go to sleep.

One evening on the boardwalk, this freakishly musclebound dude came jogging towards me at a very brisk pace. The moment I saw him, I knew he was an American - perhaps the first American I'd seen since I'd arrived in Batumi. The self-obsessed musculature, the backpack, the iPod, the earbuds, the revoltingly clingy Under Armour running shorts. I could barely suppress a sneer. He came to a stop right in front of me.

"You speak English?" he said.
"You can take picture of me?"

So he wasn't an American after all. I regrouped, tried to gauge the accent. German, maybe? He handed me his camera and got into position. I maneuvered myself such that the sun was setting over his right shoulder.

"No no no," he said. "Not like that."
"But the sunset, I - "
"No sunset," he said. "I want you to take picture so that rays of sunshine are, yes, glistening off my body."

An odd request. But to each his own. When in Georgia. I repositioned myself such that the achingly lovely sunset was in no way featured in the picture, only the rays of sunshine, yes, glistening off the dude's body. He struck a pose, flexed ever so slightly. Then he hustled over to see the finished product.

"It is not bad," he said. "Two more photos please."

Here was a man for whom there were only six wonders of the world, all of them conveniently located on the northbound happy trail that traversed his abdominals. We did two more shots.

"Many thanks," he said. "Would you like to eat an apple with me?"
"Sure," I said. "I like apples."

We sat down on a nearby bench. He reached into his backpack and took out a plastic bag full of fruit. He and I noshed on a couple of apples. Georgian tourists were already slowing down to stare at us as they passed. One reads about animal odd couples on the internet, but what the hell would the Huffington Post make of this? Six foot five musclebound health freak with indiscernible accent befriends twiggy chainsmoking ginger bearded American oaf. Life is just the universe making jokes at our expense.

"You are from?"
"America," I said. "What about you?"
"Iran," he said.

Racking my brain, I realized that I'd never in all my travels met an actual Iranian before. This Iranian, in particular, did not line up at all with any of my Iranian stereotypes. It occurred to me that I had no idea how to talk to an Iranian. What was off limits? Was there anything that wasn't off limits? Perhaps most troubling of all: a half-naked bodybuilder had just offered to watch the sunset with me. And now we were eating apples together. Was I getting into something that my libido didn't want me getting into?

Disarmament came swiftly and organically. He observed that President Ahmadinejad was a nutjob, something I agreed with. I observed that certain American military adventures in the Middle East were a mistake, something he agreed with. We both concurred that all religion was a farce, that Georgia was among the strangest countries on earth, and that cha-cha was pretty much the most vile substance ever imbibed by man. Fast friends.

"I have proposition," he said. "Do you like cigarettes?"
I nodded, smoking.
"Do you like wine?"
I nodded again, wanting a drink.
"I propose we go to my hotel and smoke cigarettes and drink wine."

This came as a surprise, seeing how he'd spent much of the past hour trumpeting the virtues of teetotalism and slagging off on the sad, fat state of the average Iranian man. But it was a welcome surprise. I saw no better way to spend an evening with an Iranian dude who could easily twist my head off in the crook of his index finger.

Almost immediately, I recognized his hotel for the brothel that it was. There was mouth herpes everywhere. The lingua franca was Ukrainian. We were ogled as we entered. The Iranian - his name was Hamid - cracked open a door adjacent to the main lobby. Inside were about eight men, all of them fat, dancing rather close to each other to the tune of C+C Music Factory.

"It is strange, no?"
"They are all of them Iranian."
"Do you know them?"
"No," he said, "and I do not want to."
He shut the door.
"Where are the girls?" he cried, unable to hide his disgust. "To dance is very fun, but where are the girls?"

We went upstairs to his room. In the hallway, an Asian-ish woman gave Hamid the eye. She gave me an eye, at least, if only in retrospect.

"Prostitute," said Hamid. "All of them prostitutes."

Hamid invited me to sit down and demanded that I eat several pears, apples, and oranges while he took a shower. In the fridge were a couple plastic bottles of Armenian wine, and he said I could help myself to those, too. He would prepare a dinner of canned fish when he got back out, but in the meantime, I was to take off my shoes and make myself at home. He waited around to make sure I took off my shoes. Then he hopped in the shower. I poured myself a Fanta. In the fridge was a XXL jug of protein powder, and a XXL jug of some nutritional supplement I'd never heard of. I ate a pear, then I ate an apple, then I ate an orange, just for something to do. When Hamid came back out, we ate canned fish, then we gathered up a couple bottles of Armenian wine and went out to the front porch.

Almost immediately, it started to rain. Hamid was in hysterics.
"Have you ever seen this?"
"What?" I said. "Rain?"
"Yes! Rain!"
"Plenty of times."
Hamid had gotten out his digital camera and was recording a video of the rain.
"I have never seen the thing like this," he said. He turned the camera towards me. "Never in my fucking life! What do you think, Keith?"
"It's a fuckton of rain," I said.
"Yes," he agreed. "A fuckton of rain."

It was a fuckton of rain, too. I hadn't seen anything like it, either. Not in Georgia, at least. We went back up to the room and sat out on the balcony, taking in the squall. Much thunder, much lightning. The streets were already starting to flood. Hamid's enthusiasm was not to be contained.

"Rain! All the rain! All the rain in the fucking world!"

He offered me one of his cigarettes, poured us both a glass of Armenian wine. We drank and smoked and watched it rain. On the next balcony over, the Asian-ish girl had appeared and was giving Hamid the eye.

"Where you sexy boys are from?" she called. "American?"
"He is American," said Hamid. "I am from Iran."
"Me Tajikistan."

This, apparently, meant that they both shared a little Persian in common. They got to talking. The long and short of it was that Hamid didn't want to sleep with her for five dollars, and neither did I. She eyed me with mild disbelief and went back inside.

"It is okay for I said you didn't want?"
"It is very okay, indeed, Hamid."
"Good. You have taste. Five dollars? Jesus."

Across the street, in the thick of the storm, a Georgian man had walked out onto his balcony, shirtless and wielding a broom.

"What is this here?" asked Hamid. "What will Georgian man do?"

The man reached up with the broomstick, trying to nudge a satellite dish mounted some fifteen feet above his head.

"Bummer," I said. "He can't get the Saakashvili Hour."

The man clambered up the banister, perched there. Poked around with his broomstick. He was seven stories high. Perched atop a narrow rail, an inch or two of rusted metal. I thought I might puke. He couldn't reach the satellite dish. Hamid busted out his camera, started recording.

"Hello, Iran. Today Georgian man slide and fall to death."

Meanwhile, down below, the streets had flooded completely and a remarkable scene was taking place. The eight Iranian dudes had poured out of the herpes lobby disco and out into the street and were now dancing like fools, fat and shirtless and joyous in a thunderstorm. They had never felt rain before. The flab was flying every which way.

"My God," said Hamid. "This is pathetic. This is so bad. This is why I never want to return to Iran."

Me, I thought the moment was passably sublime. Hamid recorded the whole thing. An Iranian rain dance. It went on for ten minutes and was very nearly escalating to a certain kind of transcendence until one of the guys puked and another one ducked into a cab with two Asian-ish prostitutes.

"He is getting lucky. I speak to him earlier. It his birthday," said Hamid. "Happy birthday, you fat bastard."

Plenty enough wine. Plenty enough cigarettes. I walked back to my hotel with a sweater pulled over my head and fell asleep watching the Olympics. The next afternoon, I got up and walked up and down the boardwalk again. I didn't run into Hamid as I'd hoped, but I came across a zoo, so I went to the zoo. They had one of those Japanese monkeys that tend to chill out in hot springs, except this one was sitting in a cage, wallowing in its own shit. There was a concession stand that sold hot dogs, so I ate a hot dog. Then I got bored and caught a marshrutka back to Zugdidi. I couldn't bear another night at the hostel, so I hitched a ride back to my village. I lost Hamid's email at some point along the way. So I never heard from him again. May the sun glisten photogenically off his six-pack, wherever it may roam.

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