My Foreign Letter of Introduction

The border guard at Lagodekhi, Georgia, had his finger curled around the trigger of his old Kalashnikov as he ordered me into the guard room. Five minutes later, I was calling him Aslan, laughing with him over a mug of hot sweet chai. One thing my six-week-long hike through the Caucasus taught me was that people, by and large, are nice.

Perhaps I should qualify that by adding "given the chance." Given the chance, people are nice. And what gives them the best chance is having a bit of information; knowing something about you.

Say the car wouldn't start, you're late for work, and you're standing at the bus stop with a face like a wet Sunday afternoon. People might be excused for thinking you are a miserable old coot. But if they knew what had happened they'd probably offer you a lift.

The implications of "not knowing" became highlighted as I prepared for my trek through Georgia and Azerbaijan. First there was the language thing. Georgians speak Georgian, Azeris speak Azeri, and I spoke neither. Then there was security. These countries were dangerous places. A state of virtual anarchy had succeeded the ousted communist regimes, and lawlessness was common. How was I to tell the "baddies" from the "goodies," and how were they to judge me? I could be a Russian Army deserter or an Armenian spy.

The answer I came up with was born of naivet and inexperience: I would write a letter. It would be in the languages of the countries I intended to visit and would say that I was from Scotland, interested in their country, and traveling in a spirit of international goodwill. I would fasten it to the back of my rucksack.

"You must be joking," said an official who had traveled widely in the former Soviet Republics. "These people are desperate. They won't care who you are or where you come from. All they will be interested in is your money, your food, and the clothes on your back."

Well, he was wrong. People did care. Even the mafiosa. I'd been warned about the mafiosa.

"Look out for white Volgas, driven very fast by men in dark glasses," I was told. Five miles out of Gombori, Georgia, as I walked on a lonely mountain road, it happened: A white Volga roared past me, braked 50 yards up the road, and backed down to wedge me between its front bumper and the bank. The window slid down, and I looked into eyes concealed by dark glasses.

I don't know what the man said, but it wasn't "Have a nice day." I spread my hands in the international gesture of incomprehension and then, very slowly, I turned around and patted the letter on my back.

There was a pause, and then a tap on my shoulder. I turned back cautiously. The sinister glasses were raised, and the bandit's eyes were smiling. Instead of a gun in his hand, he held a 10,000-ruble note that he roughly stuffed into the pocket of my shirt. Then he was gone in a cloud of dust and flying gravel.

That letter became my trusted ambassador. It found me lodging when I was drenched and despairing in the mountains, got me out of a prison cell in Keda, Georgia, introduced me to two fascinating lady academics, and saved me innumerable times along the 850 miles from Batumi (Georgia) to Baku (Azerbaijan).

People are nice, and people in those two countries - who had little reason to be so - were as nice as any I have ever met. They looked for any opportunity to show their friendship; they gave me apples and walnuts gleaned from the roadside, and if they had nothing to give, they gave a smile or a hug worth more than gold.

It was all prompted by that innocuous sheet of paper with its sketchy picture of an ordinary man, someone with whom I hoped they could empathize.

AN odd, utopian idea sparked in the warm afterglow of my trip. I started to think of an informal system of exchanging information. Imagine if you were sandwiched between fellow commuters on the 7:45 a.m., keeping yourself to yourself behind your Monday-morning mask, when your attention is drawn to a man sitting opposite you. He's conventional in every way except ... on his lapel is pinned a small card. Trying not to look, you manage to make out the neat handwriting. It says:

"Last night my first grandchild was born."

What would your reaction be? Wouldn't you smile, even venture to inquire whether it was a boy or a girl?

We could do something similar with our cars and extend the trite bumper-sticker idea by fitting a small visual-display unit on the rear window that we could program from the dashboard:

"I'm tired, the children are being awful, and I forgot to get bread."

"This is my first time in London/New York/Timbuktu."

"I'm up from the country," or simply, "I have no idea where I am." That might turn a scowl to a smile.

Imagine discovering that the bank-managerish figure reading The Economist across the aisle had an Old English sheepdog named Ben, and the lady you helped on at the last stop was looking for a lodger - and you had searched for weeks for a room for your university-bound son. Wouldn't it influence our perceptions?

That letter taught me a lot. It was intended to be a message for others, but it was also a message for me. It stated that whether Georgian, Azeri, Christian, or Muslim, we are all human. Underneath the faades we may use to protect our identities, our concerns and joys are shared. By making them known, we declare our brotherhood. That is how I got to know Aslan, the border guard. That is why he propped his Kalashnikov against the windowsill and put the kettle on.

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