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August 11, 2008 10:34 AM

Eye, Media

Dispatches from Georgia

It all happened so fast. After three weeks in Tbilisi interviewing dozens of Georgians about media relations with the government, my lanky translator, Otar; my steady driver, Murad, and I had become a team. We raced around Tbilisi's reckless streets....

It all happened so fast. After three weeks in Tbilisi interviewing dozens of Georgians about media relations with the government, my lanky translator, Otar; my steady driver, Murad, and I had become a team. We raced around Tbilisi's reckless streets. Just last Thursday we started talking about a trip to the countryside for fun. But by Friday, all thoughts of our idle romp were blown away by the surge of Russian troops into South Ossetia and the Georgian border.


Murad's mood turned dark; Otar looked bewildered. All I could do was sit in my cavernous Tbilisi apartment and click from CNN to the BBC to the Web for the latest news. I checked the skies over my balcony for Russian jets, and think I saw one.

When should I leave? Flying out seemed improbable -- rumors abounded about bombs at Tbilisi's sparkling airport. The train to Baku takes 12 uncomfortable hours. The roads into Yerevan, Armenia (where I am now) are mountainous, and drivers in this part of the world seize asphalt regardless of blind curves or oncoming trucks. We decided to leave for Yerevan at 8 a.m. Sunday. Just out of town Murad waved his arm at a factory that had been bombed hours earlier. We could still smell the bomb.

By the time we got to the village of Marneuli, we saw Georgian soldiers shouldering machine guns at every bridge. A nearby military airfield had been destroyed over the weekend. Murad raced past a convoy of German diplomats -- we knew from their license plates. Yellow squash blossoms fell over the road. Corn tassles blew. Acres of heavy grapevines that would, hopefully, become irresistible Georgian wine fanned over low hills. Sunflowers bent under the sun.

In two hours we stood at the border. It was crowded with Georgians afraid they wouldn't be allowed to leave, and noisy expats being expedited by a tall German in an orange vest. A young American student, Noah, was trying to get to Moscow. Out of line and dragging our bags toward the Armenian side, Noah started negotiating with a taxi driver for a ride to the Yerevan airport. "Come with us," I told him. Noah reciprocated by paying my toilet fee before we tackled the last four highway hours. Our driver raced. Noah and I worried about carsickness. We were starving. 

Finally, we were in downtown Yerevan. Noah and I had talked the entire way -- Obama, McCain, Russia, guidebooks, U.S. foreign policy, Mikheil Saakashvili, Americans abroad, Georgia.

"Travel well," I told him when he unloaded his bag at the airport. We sped off and in 10 minutes I was unloading my bags at the Marriott. "I so deserve this," I said. I've got soft cotton sheets, six pillows, and no Russian jets overhead. I leave for home on Wednesday.
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