Skateboarding is an art form that evolved from exploring a world covered in cement. Last year in March thanks to RedBull our search for undiscovered spots brought us to three cities in the largest Indian state Rajasthan (“Land of Kings”): New Dehli, the massive and insanely crowded capital; Jaipur, better known as “The Pink City”, which once housed the royal family in the famously opulent City Palace; and, finally, Jodhpur, “The Blue City”, located in the Thar Desert, made famous by Steve McCurry’s extensive photographic work showcasing the city’s vibrant narrow alleyways.
To say skateboarding in India was difficult is an understatement. In addition to some of the most neglected and dilapidated cement on the planet, the local population was so amused by the act of us riding a board that any attempt at filming a trick resulted in huge crowds of people, which were almost impossible to manage. To top it off, because of the thousands of flies and mosquitoes, and the unhygienic practices of the local populations, almost everyone in our group contracted a virus and fell ill. So why go? In fact, India’s draw is in its repelling qualities. We came because no others wished to, in search of a unique experience shared by few.
The country of Georgia is situated centrally in southwestern Asia in the Caucasus mountains and shares its borders with Turkey, Armenia, Iran, Azerbaijan, and Russia. Nine hundred years ago Georgia, or Sakartvelo, the name Georgians have always used to refer to their country, was invaded by the Persians who called it “Gurgan, Land of the Wolves”. Yet, despite invasions, occupations, and its proximity to other countries, it is the only country in the region that has its own alphabet. The oldest found inscriptions of this alphabet show no resemblance to any other language, which adds mystery to its origin and to the country itself.
In 1918 Georgia established itself as a nation. Three years later, it was invaded by the Soviet Red Army. With the government under Bolshevik control with direct ties to Moscow, Georgia became one of the many vassal states subservient to the growing Soviet Empire soon to be ruled over by Joseph Stalin, himself a Georgian, who eventually rose through the Bolshevik ranks and took over Lenin’s position as the leader of the communist state. It was Stalin who would replace Lenin’s form of socialism with a highly centralized command economy and shape the Soviet Union politically while exterminating and imprisoning millions of “enemies of the state” in his Gulag labor camps. And so, over the next 90 years, more than 900,000 Georgians, including the Georgian royal family, aristocrats, artists, actors, musicians, scientists, intellectuals— anyone suspected of being a member of bourgeoisie—were either executed or exiled.
Finally, on May 26, 1991, Georgia declared its independence from the Soviet Union and immediately thereafter was embroiled in a brutal and violent civil war that lasted until 1995. During that time ethnic violence, instigated and supported by Russia, erupted in South Ossetia and Abkhazia, and roughly 275,000 ethnic Georgians were either massacred or forced to flee from both those regions. The result was that South Ossetia and Abkhazia became breakaway states propped up and protected by Russia. To this day this stalemated situation continues to be a source of tension and dispute between Russia and Georgia.
In 2003, the incumbent Georgian government was caught manipulating the parliamentary elections. This gave rise to massive nationwide protests dubbed “The Rose Revolution”, which led to the overthrow of the corrupt former government and the installation of the United National Movement Party as the new governing body. The new government instituted political democratization and market reforms that resulted in a steep decline in corruption, which is still rampant in other post-Soviet era countries.
Throughout the region, the Soviet rulers were masters at erasing history and culture, destroying priceless relics and architecture, while covering their satellite nations in a smothering economic socialist cement. In Georgia scars still remain from the long Soviet occupation and much of what remains is a decaying reminder of the past. Nearly abandoned resort towns, which were once bustling with well-connected Moscovites in search of sulphur baths and healing tinctures, now see a fraction of their visitors. Almost empty castle-facaded hotels, which in the past offered luxury spa services that even included blood and fecal analysis, stand crumbling in the beautiful Georgian countryside.
Yet, modernization and economic development, once only a dream, are beginning to take hold, and because of Georgia’s natural beauty and the strength of its rich culture, the world is beginning to take notice. Just this year Georgia was rated by the New York Times as a top 50 destination for tourists. A country braced for change, ready to reconnect with its severed past while embracing a hopeful future.
When I visited Myanmar for the first time, it had been ruled by a corrupt military government, which secluded the country from the outside world for more that 50 years. Then I was transported to a forgotten era where a few aged cars ran on near empty streets lined by rows of dilapidated colonial buildings. The chug of aging generators could be heard as hotels and restaurants used them to augment the barely functioning electric grid. Yet, despite the dire economic condition in which the people found themselves, they beamed with happiness and smiles and shared a widespread, truly genuine appreciation and respect for life, each other, and foreign strangers such as me. It was a most beautiful and positive experience.
During these past few years Myanmar has transitioned from its seclusion and military rule into a “democracy”. The result of this transition is a very surreal and sudden flood of foreigners, foreign investments and 21st century products into a culture that had, essentially, been frozen in time. I recently returned to Myanmar and found the streets now overflowing with modern cars with a flood of new hotels being built at incredible speed. Despite this abrupt transition into modernism, the sincere, beautiful people remain unchanged from the first encounter I had within the country years ago.