Thursday, May 05, 2011

Derek on a bike, the media sensation!

I don't really know much about the news industry, but I have noticed that whenever I meet foreign journalists in Tbilisi, they always seem to be working on multiple articles, usually on totally unrelated topics. Example: today two Swedes stopped by the office to interview my colleague Mathias about some of the work that TI Georgia is doing (for those not in the know already, we're an anti-corruption organization). Twenty minutes into the interview, Mathias came down to my desk and told me that they also wanted to talk to somebody about bicycles. I guess this makes sense--if you're going to pay 1,000 euros to fly a reporter and a photographer out to Tbilisi, you ought to get more than one article out of them.

Anyway, the Swedes were very nice guys who were shocked that they hadn't seen any bicyclists all day (for context, I saw three or four cyclists on my ride home yesterday, which might be a new personal record, but today it was rainy). In retrospect, I'm not sure I did a good job selling Tbilisi as a city for cyclists; at one point they asked me if it would be fair to call riding here an "extreme sport." After a few more questions, we went outside and I posed for a few photos by riding my bike up and down the hill next to our office. They seemed very happy with all that material, so in a month or two I expect I'll end up in a tiny photo accompanying a 200-word sidebar article in a Swedish bicycling magazine. Good thing I wore my aqua argyle socks.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Beggars as cultural psychologists

The north end of Rustaveli Avenue, Tbilisi's most famous street, is fraught with danger for the groups of young Georgians who like to stroll, arm in arm, past its glitzy shops on warm Tbilisi evenings. The danger is a group of beggars, all children, who harass passersby. Some locals tell me that the beggars are Roma, but I don't know where they come from; the point is that they are beggars, and fairly aggressive ones. It's common to see one of the young children clinging tightly to a pedestrian's leg, with the unfortunate Georgian's companions (the beggars rarely target lone individuals) futilely shouting at the child. Eventually someone usually digs into his pocket for a few tetri, a small price to pay to extricate his friend (often his girlfriend) from the child's clutches.

The interesting thing to me about all this is the beggars' selection of tactics, because I've seen it before. In India, when I was sitting in a rickshaw stopped at a traffic light, it was fairly common for beggars to approach me and to begin stroking my leg, arm, or whatever body part they could reach. It was an intensely awkward experience, and I'm sure many Westerners living in Delhi pay to avoid it. This is of course the whole point -- the beggars know that if they can make their targets uncomfortable enough, many people will pay just to get rid of them.

Which brings me back to the north end of Rustaveli. The beggars there have the same general strategy as the ones in Delhi, but their tactics are different. Instead of stroking your leg, they grab it and hold on, or they follow you down Rustaveli, plucking your clothing and generally getting in the way. There are plenty of possible explanations for this; maybe there is a cultural difference in the "acceptable" methods of begging between India and Georgia. Maybe the Rustaveli beggars are simply using different tactics because they don't have the luxury of approaching Westerners stuck in traffic in tiny vehicles with no doors.

The possibility I find more interesting, however, is that the beggars are adjusting their tactics to best annoy their targets. They certainly have the motivation to do so -- the more they can annoy their targets, the more money they make (as long as they aren't assaulted or arrested). If this is true, then the beggars are conducting a sort of social experiment in awkwardness, optimizing their tactics so that they are most aggravating to targets of a certain culture.

I'm not sure if this is true, but it wouldn't surprise me if it were; certainly having my leg stroked in India was incredibly uncomfortable, whereas the Georgians seem to find it much more difficult to ignore the harassment of the Rustaveli beggars than I do. I'm also not sure what conclusions to draw, if it is true that physical contact is more effective on Americans, while harassing someone's friend is more effective on Georgians; maybe something about the relative value of friendships versus personal space and individuality. I don't really have anything more insightful than that to say, but I do like the idea of the free market leading to an optimal level of social awkwardness.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Trip to Istanbul

I just got back from an amazing trip to Istanbul, and as you might expect, I took a LOT of pictures (about 500). They're all up on Flickr if you want to see them, but since I know most of you (except my parents) will click through only a page or two before getting bored, here's a short selection of my favorite photos that I took. These aren't necessarily the best ones, but I tried to select shots that would quickly show you everything I did and highlight some of the more interesting bits.

The Blue Mosque, which was within walking distance of my hotel.

The Hagia Sophia, also within walking distance of the hotel. These two photos were taken on the same day, a few hours apart. Istanbul was often cloudy in the morning and sunny by noon.

My pathetic attempts at capturing just how enormous the Hagia Sophia is.

I thought that this light was very tasteful and blended well with the surrounding architecture.

This is probably one of the least intelligent things I have seen a parent do with his child. Yes, this is on the second floor, 40-50 feet up.

Now over to the Blue Mosque (which is only bluish on the inside).

Two interior shots for awe inspiration purposes.

And then onto the Basilica Cistern. The scary lighting got old after a while.

But I did quite like the Medusa head that had been repurposed as the base of a column.

On my meanderings through the west side of the Old City, I stumbled onto a pedestrian underpass that was also an enormous bike market.

The Suleymaniye Mosque, which apparently inspired the Blue Mosque.

The interior of the Suleymaniye Mosque. Not as flowery as the Blue Mosque, but I like this one a lot too.

This is the (overpriced) Spice Bazaar. I ended up finding spices at a nice place across the river for much cheaper.

How many Turks can you spot? That's why it's overpriced.

The tiny (but free!) Istanbul Railway Museum, tucked into a single room in the train station near the Spice Bazaar.

The very pleasant park next to Topkapi Palace.

The church, not mosque, inside the palace grounds.

Some tiling on the walls of Topkapi Palace

The library in Topkapi Palace. I think I would be happy if my house had only one room as long as it looked like this.

The War on Terror commemorative chess set! Complete with twin towers as castles. Hilarious...except not.

There are a LOT of cats in Istanbul, and they basically own the place, as this one demonstrated.

On a whim, I decided to visit the Prince's Islands instead of viewing yet another very old Ottoman palace. That was probably the best decision I made during the whole trip.

The heavy machinery at the port on the Asian side of Istanbul.

Exiting the harbor.

The boat ride is about an hour long, so feeding the gulls is a favorite pastime.

Wish I could have stopped at that island.

On the main island, Büyükada, there isn't really anything to do except rent a bike and ride along this road overlooking the ocean. Which is fine by me.

A sailboat near the shore on Büyükada.

There were a lot of nice houses on the island, but I thought this one was particularly cute.

Not all the houses were in good condition though.

I was a little creeped out by the shoes lying in the courtyard of this abandoned house.

Departing Büyükada in the late afternoon.

Monday, March 14, 2011

Bicycle commuting in Georgia

I'm not going to spend a whole lot of time talking about my bicycling background; if you know me, you know that I cycle practically everywhere, and Tbilisi is not an exception. However, the reaction by Georgians and expats alike when they see me using a bike as transportation is usually something along the lines of "Wow, you're brave! It must be pretty dangerous out there, huh?"

This is a common reaction because drivers in Tbilisi are widely acknowledged to be crazy--Georgian machismo combined with lax traffic enforcement leads to dangerous speeding, aggressive tailing, games of Chicken, and lots of accidents. In six months in Georgia, I've personally witnessed two rear-end collisions, had the city bus I was riding in scrape the side of a taxi, and driven or walked past three multi-vehicle high-speed accidents. Not the biggest sample size, of course, but I'm pretty sure the statistics support me on this one.

Despite this, I actually feel pretty safe riding my bike around Tbilisi, for a few reasons.

The first reason is simply experience: I've ridden thousands of total miles on dense, high-traffic streets in Chicago, and while Chicago is a very bike-friendly city by American standards, it has its fair share of crazy drivers. Knowing how traffic flows, and how to position yourself in the road is a key part of safe city cycling (I suggest The Art of Cycling to anyone who wants to learn more about city riding; I haven't read it, but based on the review, it sounds comprehensive and agrees with pretty much everything I would teach a beginning city cyclist).

The second reason is novelty: There are plenty of cyclists in Tbilisi, but they tend to fall into two categories. One group is teenage boys who ride bikes in order to look cool. They generally ride hideous bicycles that are apparently designed to look like monster trucks, with lots of superfluous shock absorbers and needlessly massive (and heavy!) tubing arranged in the most aggressive-looking way possible. These guys basically ride around on the sidewalk, weaving through pedestrians and generally being idiots. The other group are recreational riders, who use their bikes for sports, like mountain biking, or touring through Georgia's gorgeous mountain roads.

However, there are precious few people who use bicycles as transportation, on city streets, on a daily basis. In an American city, this is generally a bad thing. When American motorists aren't used to looking for cyclists, they're more likely to hit them, because cyclists appear in different places than cars do. However, in Tbilisi I find that the rarity of bicycles on the road is actually a good thing. The drivers here are aggressive, but they're also attentive--all the chaos here forces you to be alert when you drive. Drivers here are more likely to see cyclists because they're watching the whole road, and when they do see you, the novelty really helps--drivers generally freak out a little bit when they see a bicycle, and will give you space in a way that they don't in Chicago where awareness of bicycles is higher.

The final reason is the lack of animosity. In most American cities, there is a certain group of drivers who actively resent the encroachment of cyclists onto "their" roads. These guys will deliberately make cyclists' lives miserable, simply for being on the road. They will cut in front of you, honk their horns to try and scare you, or spray you with windshield cleaning fluid (I'm not the kind of cyclist to key someone's car or bash their windows with a U-lock, but I was pretty close with the windshield wiper guy). I think that this attitude is only possible because American roads are so pleasant to drive on and American drivers so law-abiding--in Tbilisi, the average driver has to contend with so many things getting in their way that anyone who flew into a frothing rage at the slightest infringement on "their" patch of pavement would get arrested instantly. Once again, chaos makes for safer biking--rather than an "intruder" into the automobile's rightful domain, drivers view cyclists as simply another obstacle to be avoided.

I wouldn't recommend street cycling in Tbilisi to everyone -- it is often chaotic, and it's challenging to do safely. But that's true about every city I've ever cycled in, so if you're an avid bicycle commuter already, Tbilisi's not so different.

Sunday, October 24, 2010

Lovely cheese!

Georgian food sometimes reminds me of The Loch Ness Monster -- everyone has heard of it, but practically no one outside Georgia has ever actually seen or tasted it. In the case of Georgian cheese, that doesn't change even once you get to Georgia, where the most popular type of cheese by far is this: PA230782.JPG

This cheese dominates every supermarket, hole-in-the-wall food shop, and farmers market that I've visited. I'm not exactly sure what it's called, but it's a very salty cheese with the texture of hard rubber, and to be honest, I'm not really a fan. I bought a hunk of this stuff after about a week in Georgia, and it's so salty that I still haven't managed to finish it off (I'm getting really, really close). Luckily, it seems to keep well. Being saltier than the Dead Sea probably helps.

Anyway, I've been on the lookout for other Georgian cheeses, since, like Nessie, they're supposedly out there...somewhere. I haven't really had much luck, however, until now. This weekend was Tbilisoba, which is a festival held by Tbilisi to celebrate itself, as far as I can tell. It's standard festival stuff: face-painting, concerts, magic shows, balloons, carnival games, and so on. But Tbilisoba has a Georgian twist, because there was also plenty of wine, and even a cheese expo! I made a beeline for the cheese booth first thing in the morning, and it was great--every cheese I sampled had a unique flavor and texture, none of which were really anything like I've ever had--one tasted almost like wine. I'm not a cheese connoisseur, but I'm a pretty big cheese fan, and this was some seriously good cheese. Maybe not quite as cool as seeing the Loch Ness Monster would be, but then, you can't eat Nessie.

Here are some photos; if you're particularly interested by any type of cheese, leave a comment and I'll do my best to transliterate the label so you can Google it (although some of them are in English already).


Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Camels and needles

Georgian traffic is not exactly lawless, but Georgian drivers give far more expression to their desire to dominate the road than the average American, who settles for buying a pickup truck or SUV with spiked wheels. This is not limited to cars; most bus drivers are loathe to admit that their bus is any different from the BMW 3-series driving next to them.

Case in point: many bus stops are located on sidings--short sections of street that run parallel to the main thoroughfares that allow buses to stop and pick up passengers without interfering with busy traffic. Today, the siding was blocked by a bus that had broke down, and since the sidings are one-way, there wasn't enough room for my bus to pass the broken one.

Well, not enough room on the street, anyway. The sidewalk, though--that's another matter entirely. The bus stop is next to a big casino, so the sidewalk is fairly broad--for a sidewalk. Spying a potential escape route, and supremely confident in his maneuvering abilities in the way that only Georgian men are, my bus driver slowly began driving his 35-foot-long bus up onto the sidewalk and around the other bus. Things got a little hairy when it turned out that there was a light pole on the sidewalk near the front of the other bus, but by that time all the guys drinking in the nearby bar had poured out onto the street--ahem, sidewalk--to watch the fun. There was no turning back.

With the help of the driver of the stalled bus, and after ten minutes spent creeping forward an inch or two at a time, we squeezed through the gap with no more than a finger's width to spare on either side. Sure, it might have taken three times longer than just backing up and getting back onto the main road, but obstacles are made to be overcome!

Saturday, September 25, 2010

The Georgian Museum of Fine Arts

Anyone who is reading this blog probably knows by now that I'm living in the country of Georgia. I have some ideas for longer posts, but right now I'm busy with work and learning a rather difficult new language, so I want to get things started by mentioning that I went to the Museum of Fine Arts in Tbilisi today, and viewed their wonderful treasury, which is mostly Christian iconography. They wouldn't let me take pictures, so I don't have any to post, but I did get to see the Khakhuli triptych, which was pretty amazing.

There is other stuff in the museum that I think I might be able to take photos of, but my Russian is bad enough that the lady at the front desk was getting frustrated by the time I managed to buy my tour ticket, so I didn't want to push it by asking more questions. My guidebook says the treasury is the highlight of the museum, so I was happy to have seen that. They let me take the tour twice, in Russian and English, which was very nice of them--the guide was more comfortable in Russian, so although I didn't understand very much beyond what was depicted and the age of each piece, I think I probably got more information from the Russian tour because the guide pointed out which pieces were exceptional, even if I didn't always understand exactly why they were special.