Tuesday, 24 June 2014

Wanting what you have and not what you don't. Ossetia and perspectives!

I have tried my hand at doing a bit of travel writing. It's not really my style. The first person perspective is the way I write so that part is easy and we all know I like rich descriptions. I guess for me the challenge is capturing the emotion or feel of the area I am trying to capture for you. In a story, I have the character to give you passion, but lacking this emotional vehicle I find I struggle.

So when we struggle, we get stronger. If this is true then struggling through a little travel style writing should give me a better perspective and ability when I write fiction. This is at least the premise, as faulty as it might be, that I am going to go on. So come along for a short journey into a quaint little town a few miles from the Georgian border. Only a few short years out of a very disturbing war that no one really heard about.

 The ribbons of asphalt lead out of the big city of Vladakavkaz, past railway lines that are the lifeblood of the communities. The other vehicles sharing the road actually share it. Instead of competing for space a few meters closer to their destination they seem to all understand that the road is narrow and the wide variety of cars and trucks force cooperation. No one gets angry when being passed and all are aware of what is beside, behind, and in front of them. Horns are used to say hello, a short beep, or it's clear to pass, two short beeps. A long single horn is a signal to pay attention and is used very infrequently. It is as close to aggression as Russian drivers get.

The cars range from very old Ladas to new Mercedes.' While I believe it is the law to wear a seatbelt, no one does. Believing instead that being thrown from the car a better alternative than trapped. Car seats are very rare and children are free to sit in the back like I did as a child. This seems a little reckless bordering on careless even, but it is the way things are and as it was the ways things were when I was a child it's hard to put into perspective. Does the relatively false sense of safety a car seat provides support people to drive with less care? Perhaps it is better explained this way. Back in the day, before drinking an driving laws were so strict, if you had a few and had to drive home you did so knowing you were a little pissed and as such corrected your driving style accordingly. I get not everyone did this, and some people fueled on liquid courage just tossed caution to the wind, and in doing so their lives and usually someone else's as well.  But I remember personally driving slower and with far more care than my usual "I'm sixteen and invincible" style. I don't want to encourage debate over drinking and driving, rather I am comparing what was to what is.  Struggling to find this view, as the corn and fields of wheat flow past the window.

The short off ramp removes us from the highway and onto a gravel road. This reminded me of Alberta as did the rural countryside. Driving now takes on the challenge of men's giant slalom. Pot holes threaten to rip an axle off or remove a wheel entirely.  So drivers now engage in a synchronized collection of movements to traverse the new side road. Cows and goats are tethered along the way like Olympic judges bored by the progression. Children of all ages play games only they understand and yet take time to wave at the familiar vehicles they see. Drivers all respond with a polite, short beep and together they enjoy life in this quiet and challenging small town.

 This area is officially listed on the Canadian Foreign Affairs website. Warning travelers not to go as it has a high risk of kidnapping, and other nefarious behaviors. There is a train station in the actual town and I thought we'd get off there and avoid the thirty minute drive from the city, but the train doesn't stop unless it needs to. This gave some substance to the Canadian warning and had me paying attention.

Going into this region I had, of course, done some research. My own threat risk assessment had uncovered some facts and issues that while old could still affect my trip. I knew that only ten years ago a horrific event had taken place in Beslan a short twenty minute drive from where I would be staying.

 On September first, the traditional start of school for children here in Ossetia and in Canada, a hostage crisis took place. Unlike Canada, Knowledge Day or "First Bell" is a celebration that is attended by children and their families. Islamic guerrillas from Ingushetia and Chechnya attacked these festivities and took 1100 people hostage, including 777 children.  334 hostages lost their lives that day including 186 children. This kind of wound never heals. Answers no matter how accurate can never fulfill the questions asked by those suffering from this kind of act. In a community already displaced by war, this compounded the suffering already faced by many of these families. As horrific as this event was very few people outside of Russia know anything about it. The memorial got very few visitors from outside of Russia and had I followed my countries less than up to date or accurate advice, I too would know very little past the talking head CNN coverage.

This may be the reason that in the town, wherever I walked, people seemed to hold their children a little closer. Adults stopped and played if only for a moment with children that may have been a relation or just a member of their community. What I do know is that sense of community, the connected feeling was something visceral. Eyes identified me as an outsider, and people made the time to struggle through the language barrier to discover who I was. Then they invited me with open arms to share a coffee or a meal. Being a farming community this included fresh produce and local delicacies like Cha Cha.

 When I had discovered the train didn't stop in Inga's parents town, I had asked the train attendant why. She had tried her best to answer. I hadn't understood much of that exchange past it wasn't because of any danger and the words Cha Cha.

Cha Cha is a slang word for homemade Ossetian vodka. It is made from various leftover items past what is consumed, canned, or pickled. It is good! So good, in fact, the Russians in Moscow will often ask for friends to bring back Cha Cha. This was so popular that the people in charge of where trains stop, forbid the train from stopping in the very town I found myself in. I have some experience with homemade booze. I have made my own and sampled friends and even passed on some home cooking tips. Now I found myself in Ossetian JCha Cha. Mecca, and it was being offered continuously. This is not to suggest drinking is rampant. It is like any other city in the world. But culturally when guest arrive they don't do so empty handed and the hosts are equally gracious. Combine this with the first person, anyone could remember, visiting from Canada and you have an occasion. Occasions call for Cha Cha., as despite being very humble they know this is the best it gets anywhere.  Cha Cha. ranges from 35 to 75 percent pure and takes on a bouquet of scents and flavours as varied as the cooks. I tasted light pear to peppery garlic. Subtle cherry that changed to anise and finished with black pepper while the initial sip slashed your tongue like a straight razor. Other sips left me wondering if there was any alcohol content at all until the light burn in the tummy confirmed the deception. Like proud fathers, these hosts poured their Cha Cha. from large containers for themselves and me. Should you fail to finish the shot in one sip, they think you don't like it. Something akin to not accepting a baby thrust at you by his or her mother and upturning your nose. So my apologies to the Canadians that follow me and lack the Irish genes and years of trading alcoholism for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder, I set a pretty high bar in consumption. The locals now all believe Canadians can drink enough Cha Cha. that language barriers become invisible.

 This being a farming first community the fancy big city things are absent or go unnoticed. My limited edition Robert Graham shirt was commented on only because it resembled Russian Spetnaz camouflage. One person noticed my Sea Dweller and commented he had the same, presenting an Invicta with a similar style. I smiled and slapped his shoulder and said he had good taste. We all laughed and tapped some sliced tomato into a communal salt dish and ate. I thought this is really the life, not yearning for things you want, but wanting what you have. These people were truly blessed in that they had all that they wanted. Family was their focus and unlike some religious fanatics that share that moniker, they honestly were happy and content with life despite all the horrors that had befallen them. Some of the people I was enjoying this meal with were of the age to have been at Belsen, some the Georgian war, and all gathered knew off it. Yet here they are enjoying a meal with a stranger laughing and giving me the gift of their community and friendship.

To say things are fresh here is stating the bloody obvious. But things are fresh and different at the same time. I am not sure why, but familiar things taste so different. Perhaps different is the wrong way to say it. If you go into a McDonalds and look at the pictures and pointed to something what you receive would look far different. So different that unless you were aware of this fact you would probably send it back. Fruit and vegetables here are like that. Tomatoes and peaches and everything are like that. They taste like your brain thinks they should taste. At home, they taste like they came out of some sort of replicator  or were space food made to taste like what you think you're eating. Organic foods are everywhere, in fact, trying to describe this difference is impossible for the locals to understand. Even potatoes taste different. Everything is fresher and realer than what we eat at home. I am not sure if it is because so much of our food is genetically modified or travels such a long way, but the end result is eating back at home will be hard.

Meat, dairy, and eggs are the same way. It is one thing to know the farm the provided the food it is an entirely different thing to know the name of the creature gracing your table, or produced what your eating. Let's take chicken as an example. Inga's Mom makes a special cooked food for the chickens in a coop, when they got sick she personally gave each one of them medication for this common illness. The eggs they produce are rich and full of nutrients. So much so that two eggs is more than enough for breakfast and the shells are hard to crack. As I write this negotiations are ongoing for a pig named Dmitri that is currently running about on several meters of land, doing what small pigs do. Tomorrow, if negotiations go well, Dmitri will be barbecued for our and several families enjoyment. At issue is if I can find some maple wood to show them what maple smoked bacon tastes like. This is the life…

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