I wish I could tell you that I went to the former Soviet Republic of Georgia in that winter of 2003 because I wanted to help make the world safe for democracy, but that would have only been one third of the story. I went to escape the boredom of a serious relationship, and I went because I needed to be bad. I managed to accomplish all three.
That winter, I wanted to be Laura Croft, Tomb Raider. I wanted to leap out of buildings and shoot automatic weapons. I wanted to smoke cigarettes one right after the other, lighting one with the next. I wanted to have an excuse to not shower, stay up late, curse and be politically incorrect. In a boring existence where I was always striving to be good and do the right thing, I wanted-no needed-an excuse to feel naughty. And naughty I was.
This is the BBC and these are today's top headlines... polling stations open today in Georgia... could this be the end for Shevarnaze?
The vintage car radio carried the broken British accent of a BBC reporter through the one functioning speaker of a rusty red Peugeot speeding East through the snow dusted hills of Turkey towards Adjara. I focused on the crackle of the voice to deter the vomit rising in the back of my throat caused by the sort of driving one would experience on a Disneyland attraction. But at Disneyland, because of an ever rising litigious nation I can pretty much assume I wont die. But there is no such knowledge of safety on the backroads of a nation fighting for their freedom and poised on the edge of revolution. Little Ms. Adventurous gripped the door and prayed.
I wanted to save my accidental over seas death for something exciting, like being shot admidst a rush on Parliament. I would rather not die lying in a ditch, gripping my recently amputated left leg, waiting for another driver to happen by and stop to help. My efforts to slow the driver resulted in a 30 second reprieve of the foot against the gas. But as soon as my grip on the car door loosened and the blood returned to my fingers, the assault on the gas continued. I closed my eyes. I could hear my driver change the radio station and I could make out the local dialect reporting on the election.
Polling station number 168 has been.... masked gunmen…. Ballot Boxes have been removed….
Without turning my head, I addressed Henrik in the seat next to me.
“Did you hear that?”
The aging Austrian diplomat was silent. I risked an eye and looked over to see Henrik’s head dipping into his chest and then bolting upright with every turn of the cars wheel.
How the hell could Henrik sleep with this driving? He was pretty old, perhaps he was closing his eyes to concentrate on maintaining his breath. A retired member of the Austrian Parliament, Henrik had signed on to this mission to do some Baltic sightseeing. He preferred lunches and tours of the botanical gardens to primary school buildings filled with smoke, turned into make shift local polling stations.
This sucks! While the other observers are getting action, all we get is closed polling stations and people voting twice. The others are being overtaken by masked gunmen and my greatest thrill is watching Henrik try not to fall asleep in a position undignified to a National Diplomat.
I sulked in the back of the car.
But before long, I had a plan. I pushed myself up into the front seat, between my driver and my translator and used a little broken Georgian.
“Any suspect polling stations where we might find a little corruption?”
My driver looked sideways at the pretty young translator and then back at me through the rearview mirror. He turned down the radio.
"We are instructed to take you to station no. 34."
"Where would you like to take me?"
He paused and continued to stare at the road.
"Down in no.13 they stuff the ballot box. You can find a staff in the back office just checking off names and stamping ballots valid.”
“Ooh, that’s good. Let’s go there.”
My driver snuck a smile and traded a look with the translator. She flashed a grin back and our driver pressed his foot down on the gas sending me abruptly back into my seat, jostling the arm of poor Henrik and causing him to wake from his peaceful slumber.
"Is it time to eat? Or is it the faster we drive, the faster we arrive in the next town, and the faster our driver gets to smoke another cigarette?"
Henrik wrinkles his brow. "Please Tell him that I would rather he break the rules and smoke a cigarette in the front seat then kill us en route to his certain lung cancer."
But instead, I used my limited grasp of the Georgian language to ask the driver who sings the song playing on the radio.
Henrik turned his body and tried to rest his head against the window. And I got ready to uncover a little corruption. But had I known what I know now, about the sort of corruption I would discover at polling station 13, I would have asked the driver to keep on going until we got to Adjara.
To be continued...