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Midnight Plane to Georgia

Late October 2001. Tick, tick, tick, tick.

The second hand begins another interminable sweep of the clock. We wait, and wait. In our Heathrow departure lounge, rumours circulate. That the scheduled London to Tbilisi flight is to be cancelled.

I slump down in my chair. A curved piece of hollowed steel, it is shaped for anything but the human body. Underneath, various magazines, now dogeared and discarded, decorate a stained purple carpet.

I am edgy and irritable. Refereeing an enticing test match between Georgia and South Africa is on my docket. To miss out will be a crushing disappointment.

Hours later, blessed relief. A back up aircraft is available.

We hurtle east through inky darkness. The five-hour flight and three-hour time change combine to ensure we do not arrive at Novo Alexeyevka airport until the wee hours of the morning. The terminal is deserted, save for two bored immigration officials and several grim faced, gun toting security guards.

Sleep proves elusive. Come dawn, I search for coffee, traipsing through downtown. Poverty and wealth exist side by side. Packs of young men idle at street corners, cigarettes cupped in nicotine stained fingers. Their battered trainers, faded jeans and heavy sweaters contrast starkly with the tuxedoes worn by doormen patrolling the nearby casino entrance.

I try to make sense of the daily newspapers. The “Lelos” are the national team and rugby the country’s main sport. The city is abuzz with anticipation of the South African visit, the game set for the famous Lokomotivi Stadium.

It does not disappoint. A passionate crowd of 25,000 scream and shout from start to finish. The favoured Springboks, thanks to an edge in experience, triumph 31-17 in a high octane, ferociously physical affair. Still, the hosts cover themselves in glory. The media trumpets that the players will put "bodies on the line" for their country. Which they certainly do.

The following day I am free to wander. Nikoloz is with me, an English speaker of sorts and my guide, provided by the local union. He confirms that Tbilisi, founded in the 5th century, lies on the banks of the Kura river. Home to well over a million people, it has had a rough and complicated history, enduring periods under Persian, Ottoman and Russian rule.

On a hill high above looms the Kartlis Deda. Erected in 1958, to celebrate the city’s 1500th anniversary, the monument is over twenty metres in height. It symbolizes the national character. In her left hand this iconic “Mother of Georgia” holds a bowl of wine, to greet those who visit as friends. In her right hand is a sword, for those who come as enemies.

Equally impressive is the Narikala, an imposing fortress. Within the walls lies the recently restored St Nicholas church, decorated with stunning frescos from both the Bible and Georgian history.

However, rugby and architectural treasures aside, an early morning visit to the Desertir Market leaves a deeper impression. Despite the hour, the stalls are hives of activity. Vehicles of every description, including huge buses shorn of their seats, reverse into the central holding area, belching smoke as they unload sacks of potatoes. Bundled up against the chill, customers in long, ragged lines wait impatiently to be served.

Nearby, several elderly women, draped in black scarves and shawls, hope to sell posies of tired looking flowers. One, huddled nearest the corner, must be 80 years old.

I learn her name. Miriam is a widower who has endured a difficult life. Nikoloz translates back and forth, tells me she was born just after the Russian Revolution of 1917. Her country gains a very short-lived freedom, before the Bolshevist Red Army enters Tbilisi four years later and declares Soviet rule.

The city eventually becomes the capital of the Georgian SSR and an important political, social and cultural centre of the Soviet Union. Yet, severe pain and hardship are never far away. During World War II, the country supplies some 700,000 troops to help combat Nazi Germany's drive towards the Caucasus oil fields. More than half do not return.

Then, at regular intervals over the ensuing forty years, numerous anti-Soviet demonstrations are ruthlessly suppressed by the authorities. Independence is finally achieved in 1991, but only with the break-up of the USSR. The greater Caucasus region goes through turmoil, as several years of gruesome warfare, anarchy and ethnic cleansing demonstrate how bloody and messy the death of an empire can be. Crime and corruption are rampant, with the less fortunate in Tbilisi severely impoverished due to a crumbling economy.

Nikoloz brings class to a close. Half an hour has slipped by unnoticed. We prepare to go. I nod goodbye to Miriam, leave several notes and coins, far too much money for a few wilting flowers. See a flicker of light in her eyes before the distant stare returns.

Next morning I begin the long journey home. I reflect on my extreme good fortune. Compare it to that of a brave, resilient woman and her lonely, bleak existence.

Far too often, life just isn't fair, a harsh reality regularly reinforced. In this case, for me, on a trip that almost didn’t happen.

Then did, all because of a midnight plane to Georgia.

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