Category Archives: Travel
One thing that fascinated me when I was in Portugal was the ubiquity of the ‘Pastelarias’, the little cafes—one espresso machine, four or five wooden tables, pastries behind glass—on nearly every corner.
But the ubiquity wasn’t the most interesting thing about them, it was the uniformity.
Each of them appeared to be an independent business. They didn’t have the same brand name or the same décor.
What they did have, though, was the same pastries. Not, like, a similar selection. The exact same pastries. Same size, same shape, same flavors, same perfect little char-marks on the custard, everything.
It wasn’t til I saw the same pastries in a grocery store that I started to get curious about what was going on. Most of these little hole-in-the-wall bakeries aren’t big enough for proper baking equipment, and seem understaffed as it is.
I was convinced that all these cute little bakeries were actually frauds, they were getting shipments of pastries from some suburban warehouse every morning, putting them in the window, tricking me into thinking they’re all charming and artisanal.
I imagined some vast conveyor belt near a suburban motorway. Chinese workers sweating into hairnets, mechanically charring an endless line of snack-size custards.
It turns out it’s not as bad as that. In a random bookstore I came across a coffee table book called ‘The Design of Portuguese Semi-Industrial Confectionery’, and I learned some things:
First, Portugal not only has the highest number of food establishments per capita, but also has the highest percentage of people who eat breakfast outside the home every day. This is why, I eureka’d, it’s the only European country I’ve been to where cafes are open before 8am.
Second, there’s not some beltway warehouse making millions of pastries every morning and trucking them into the city. It turns out there’s a standardized baking school curriculum, and a strict licensing regime for confectionery makers.
Not only that, but a lot of the pastries are made with powders and mixes (even the eggs, ew), minimizing the time and skill required to make them.
These three things—high demand, standard methodologies and effort-free production—mean pastries are a viable and profitable business model.
Due to the country’s history as a trading post where a lot of these recipes originated (the book’s version was that when Portugal Inquisitioned out the Jews starting in the 16th century, they all went to Vienna and became bakers), this business model is supported by government policies on opening hours, licensing, taxes, etc.
If you’re gonna pick something for government subsidies and high standards, you can do worse than pastries. Still, I don’t know if bags of Bisquick and buckets of egg whites are any more edifying than a giant suburban croissant factory.
The sustainable food movement wants to increase the availability of food that is ‘local’, ‘handmade’, ‘fresh’. These pastries are all of those things, at least technically, but there’s something about the process that leaves a bad taste in my mouth.
Metaphorically speaking, I mean. Literally, the taste they leave in my mouth is delicious.
But maybe that, more than anything, is what foodies should be afraid of.
I arrive in Mauritius at noon, still drowsy from the 12-hour flight and the two diazepams I took to help me sleep through it.
Just outside the arrivals, about a dozen Taxi drivers are gathered holding placards with European-sounding names on them. Mr. Schmidt, Dr. van Veen, Mrs. Cielé. Behind them are about three dozen more, no placards, just shouting ‘Taxi? Taxi?’ I walk through the scrum, looking determined so they won’t come after me, then realize I do need a taxi and turn around.
I have a feeling, based on no evidence, that the older the taxi driver, the less likely he is to scam me. I find one who looks in his 50s and tell him ‘yes, taxi’. He tells me its 40 euros, I say 30, and so on until we agree on 36.
Now that that’s done, he can be my friend. As he drives, he asks me where I’m from, what I’m doing here. That takes about 15 minutes, then we’re both silent for the rest of the 2-hour drive.
I look out the window at the sugarcane fields going by. The mountains on the horizon look like a seismograph.
Mauritius is a tiny dot of an island in the Indian Ocean, 1,100 kilometres east of Madagascar. It was discovered uninhabited in the early 1500s, then settled by the Dutch in 1638. They discovered huge crops of ebony on the island, and started importing African slaves to harvest them.
They could never make the island economically viable, and abandoned it in 1710. The French, like a new manager taking over an existing business, took their turn in 1715. They switched from ebony to sugarcane, imported more slaves, and made the economy profitable.
Eventually the British came, defeated the French (think of it as a hostile takeover) and imported their own labourers, mostly from India. Mauritius declared independence in 1968, and now Africans, Indians and whites live in (relative) harmony.
Most people on Mauritius still speak Creole. Creole traditionally had no written language, so it’s basically a phonetic version of French. my taxi driver tells me, by way of example, that in Creole ‘moi’ is spelled ‘mwa’. I love this.
We arrive in Grand Bay, where I’m staying. It’s at the northwest shoulder of Mauritius, a beach-rimmed inlet the size of a few football fields. The water is full of boats and swimmers, the land around it full of tourists and the shops, restaurants and guides catering to them.
My hotel is three stories of peach stucco, right on the beach. It’s cheap and simple, and has wifi and airconditioning, the only two things I actually care about on vacation. I drop off my luggage and walk up and down the beach until it gets dark, then eat octopus curry at a beachside café, fork in my left hand, scrolling through an Instapaper article with my right.
After dinner, it’s been dark for two hours but it’s still 30 degrees C. I go back to my room and sit on my balcony, reading and Instapapering until 10.00, when I can’t stay awake anymore.
I wake up to my alarm at 6.30am, take a shower and go down to breakfast. My waiter is a male-to-female transsexual who wears lots of makeup and wants to know where I’m from and what I think of Mauritius so far.
‘It’s beautiful,’ I say. I always say this to locals, no matter what country I’m in, and I usually mean it. She brings me an omelette, bacon and beans, and is utterly baffled when I tell her I don’t want bread.
‘I’m allergic,’ I say.
‘You don’t like bread?’ she says. English is the official language of Mauritius, it’s on all the signs, but it’s not widely spoken.
‘Allergic. I cannot eat.’
‘OK,’ she says. She takes the bread away but leaves me the plate of butter and jam. I put some on my omelette.
First things first: Bicycle. The tour company next to my hotel rents them, serious-looking Treks with Shimano derailers and front shocks. I say I want one for the whole six days I’m here, and the guy behind the counter, who can’t be any more than 16, brings a bike around from the back.
‘Last one,’ he says.
‘Anything else?’ I say.
‘We give you lock.’
He makes a phone call, and two minutes later another teenager arrives on a scooter. He takes the money the first teenager gives him and drives away.
‘Five minutes,’ he says.
Thirty minutes later, the guy on the scooter returns with a lock. He’s just bought it from the hypermarket up the street, it still has the packaging on it. He gives it to me and I take the cardboard off.
‘You good to go,’ he says.
The pedals rattle and only three of the gears work, but the brakes are fine. It makes creaking noises as I set off through Grand Bay. Pedestrians hear me coming and step aside.
The capital of Mauritius is Port Louis, about 25 km south. I decide to bike there the long way, along the coast, and it takes me all morning. I end up stopping every few hundred meters to take pictures. They all look the same: Emerald water, sharp rocks, a cloud of coral under the water about 50 meters out.
I pass through a few small towns on the way They consist primarily of fruit stands, pharmacies and warehouse shops selling Nike and Abercrombie & Fitch polo shirts. I notice that most of the people I bike past are wearing these polos.
I arrive in Port Louis around 1 pm. It’s a small city, just 135,000 people, but it has the traffic and bustle of a city ten times that size. The streets are narrow with street vendors selling clothes, shoes, household items like shampoo and hardware. None of the prices are marked, and I can see customers, their hands full, haggling with the shopkeepers in creole.
I turn around and park my bike on the fringes of the crowd, and walk through the markets. It’s heaving with buyers and sellers, a cacophony of offers and refusals, and it takes me an hour to walk a kilometer.
The freeway goes through the middle of Port Louis, and to get to the waterfront I have to walk through a tunnel underneath it. I leave the din of the market, go underground, and emerge into the tourist area. Seafood restaurants, a multiplex, a few Starbuckses and, I guess inevitably, warehouse shops selling Nike and Abercrombie & Fitch polo shirts.
I walk around for a few minutes, sort of missing the crowds back at the market. I sit at an outdoor café and eat an octopus salad and read Karl Ove Knausgaard’s ‘My Struggle,’ which describes a Norway, a winter, that are the opposite of where I’m sitting.
I feel like I should do more in Port Louis, see a museum or something, but it’s beautiful and warm outside, and I don’t want to miss it. I walk back to my bike, buying some cute polo shirts on the way, and point myself northwards. I bike for a bit and realize that this isn’t the road I took into Port Louis. I can tell from the sun that I’m going north(ish), though, so I figure I’ll end up where I need to be eventually.
I’m on a two-lane road, barely wide enough for cars to pass each other, and it’s choked with traffic. Passenger cars, delivery trucks, buses, I’m obviously on the main spine of the island. I weave in and out of traffic—now on the shoulder, now in the oncoming lane, now dinging pedestrians out of my way—and feel bad for enjoying it so much.
After about an hour, I’m ready to find out where I am. I stop to ask a shopkeeper, dripping sweat on his countertop.
‘I’m trying to get to Grand Bay,’ I say.
‘That easy,’ he says. He’s wearing a polo shirt identical to the one I just bought. ‘Just take the freeway, you go straight there.’
‘The freeway?’ I say. ‘Is that safe?’
‘Safe all safe. You get fast. Direct.’
He shows me on the map and, sure enough, the freeway is the directest route back. I’ve got about two hours of sunlight left. Fuck it.
The freeway turns out to be less harrowing than I expected. It’s two lanes wide in each direction, with a generous shoulder. The cars are traveling 110 km per hour, or at least that’s the speed limit. My bike, which I’ve named Rickets, tops out at a groaning 20 km per hour. Even with the wide shoulder I can feel a punch of air every time a car passes. They don’t honk, don’t pass uncomfortably close and I never feel unsafe.
About five minutes after I get on the freeway, it starts raining. First a caress, then an assault. I look out to the sky and its thick, dark clouds all the way to the horizon. This isn’t going to let up. Meanwhile, the sun is starting to go down.
There’s no cover on the roadway, and after 10 minutes I’m as soaked as if I had jumped into a swimming pool. The water is grey on my arms where it mixes with my sunscreen, and I have a sour, hollow taste as it washes down my face and into my mouth.
Once you’re that wet, you can’t get any wetter, and a kind of calm comes over me. Ah well, it’s just water. My camera is wrapped in waterproof case, in a waterproof backpack. It, and I, will survive.
When I get back to my hotel an hour later, my shoes slosh as I walk up the stairs. I shower (To get the water off? I don’t really know why.), then sit on my balcony wearing nothing but a towel for the rest of the night, working on a freelance editing assignment and listening to the rain drop through the palm trees.
It’s Christmas day, and I wake up early to Skype with my parents and brother. My parents live in New Zealand and my brother and his wife are visiting for the first time. My dad paints watercolors, my mom writes books and my brother makes techno albums. We talk for an hour about inspiration, how we hate slash love social media, how to improve the quality of our work. I tell them I’m reading Steinbeck’s ‘Travels With Charley’ and am considering writing a similarly uneventful travelogue, just to see I can make it interesting.
‘That sounds like a terrible idea,’ my brother says.
I’m outside at the breakfast café at my hotel, shouting over the trucks rattling past. When the call’s done it’s only 9 am, but it’s already sweltering.
I check a few gyms, but it seems none of them are open. I’m on my third try when I realize that it’s Christmas, of course they’re closed. I get an espresso at a café and ask the waiter if he knows somewhere I can go for a long swim. He suggests Cannonniere, a thin finger of land pointing northwest from the island, about 20 minutes’ bike ride away.
Yesterday I read online that all the beaches in Mauritius are, by law, open to the public. Cannnoniere has a public park with a beach, right next to a five-star hotel. I park my bike next to the road and walk along the beach onto the hotel grounds. A security guard stops me and I tell him, ‘I’m not staying here, but I’d like to use the beach. Is that alright?’ and he says ‘Of course sir.’
I drop my backpack and change into my swimming suit under a towel wrapped around my waist. I ask the security guard how far out I can swim.
‘You see bobby?’ he says. I guess he means the buoy, bright red, about 500 meters offshore.
‘Sure,’ I say.
‘That is limit.’
‘So I should swim out to the buoy…’
‘Not swim to buoy,’ he says. ‘Bouy is limit. ‘Farther, is currents. Boats with vroom.’ He makes an engine noise.
‘Thanks,’ I say. I put on my goggles and wade into the water.
For the first 200 meters, it’s only 18 inches deep. I swim breast stroke, and occasionally push myself along the bottom, using my arms like a Venetian gondola. Then, suddenly, it’s three meters deep. I switch to crawl stroke. I can see some coral along the bottom. It looks worn out, droopy, like it’s been left in the microwave too long.
Finally I make it to the buoy. It’s bigger than it seemed from the shore. And, indeed, the swells are getting bigger out here. I touch the buoy, just to make it official, and swim back to shore, crawl stroke until my fingers touch the bottom.
Now I’m all energized from the swim, so I do handstands in the grass for five or ten minutes, getting used to the slope. There’s a cute tourist on a beachbed nearby. I think about saying hi, but we’re both only wearing speedos, and I’m afraid it will be irredeemably awkward.
I thank the security guard, get my backpack and bike back to my hotel in my speedo. I write the rest of my family Merry Christmas e-mails, eat grocery-story yogurt for dinner and I’m in bed by 11 pm.
The next morning, after breakfast I meet my nextdoor neighbour on the balcony. I never get his name. He’s German, in his late 30s, here on holiday for three weeks to escape the German winter, just like me. He has plans every single day: Scuba diving, rum distillery tour, catamaran trip. He can’t decide if skydiving is really worth 200 euros. I tell him I don’t know anyone who has gone and regretted it.
We chat for awhile, then I go back to my laptop. He sits on his balcony, hands folded in his lap. No book, no newspaper, not even a cup of coffee to occupy his hands. I marvel at this, stimulus-free sitting. After an hour, he gets up, says goodbye and heads out for his catamaran tour.
Yesterday I biked around the island counterclockwise. Today, it’s clockwise. I put on as much sunscreen as my skin can soak up and set off.
After an hour, I’m in Grand Gaube, on the northeast corner of Mauritius. I order eggplant and fish curry to go from a roadside restaurant, and bike, the meal dangling in a plastic bag from my handlebars, to the beach. I sit crosslegged on the grass, stabbing the food out of Styrofoam containers.
A man walks up to me and says something in Creole. He looks like he’s asking for money. I tell him I’m sorry, I don’t speak French. He sits on a bench near me and every once in awhile says something in Creole, whether to me or just out loud, I don’t know. I ignore him, finish eating and say ‘au revoir’ as I leave. I wonder how they spell that in Creole.
I keep biking along the coast, going south now. It’s the hottest part of the day, and sweat drips off my nose. The route is repetitive after awhile: Park, shops, beach, park, shops.
The only thing that changes is the ethnic makeup of the towns I pass through. Some appear to be mainly Indian, the signs in English and Hindi. Others seem to be primarily populated by Africans, signs in French and shops advertising ‘poulet frais’. I’ve been told there’s a significant Chinese minority on the island. I never see any majority-Chinese towns, but every town I pass through has exactly one Chinese restaurant, right on the main street.
After about 30 kilometers along the coast, I turn inland to complete my loop. I rise through endless fields of sugarcane, then descend toward Grand Bay. There are fewer towns now, but every half an hour or so I pass by a complex of newly built apartments. They have names like Sweet Paradise, and each one gets its own exit from the highway.
I arrive in Grand Bay just as it’s getting dark. I order a plate of shrimp up to my room and eat it on the balcony. The German guy tells me about his catamaran tour, still lubricated from his stop at the run distillery.
I finally find a gym nearby. It’s at a five-star hotel called Hotel Mauricia, right on the beach. They charge me 15 euros just to use the gym, so I decide to stay there all day to get the most for my money.
Most of the guests appear to be European families. Mom and Dad look tanned and patrician, and their sons and daughters look like they came straight from lacrosse camp. The French-speaking ones have the best hair, the Dutch speakers the nicest bodies.
I stay there swimming and reading almost until dark. My ear is still plugged with water from swimming on Christmas. I bash it with the heel of my hand to get the water out every few minutes, but it stays plugged. Shaking my head like a dog doesn’t work either.
When I get back to my hotel, inexplicably exhausted after a day of barely existing, I meet my other neighbour. He’s in his 80s, from South Africa, and has been coming to Mauritius every year since 1984. I ask him why he travels from one warm country to another one every summer.
‘Well, as you know, South Africa has problems,’ he says. I brace myself. ‘We had a white government before—Apartheid—and it wasn’t perfect, but things worked pretty well. Now we’ve got a black one. They’re still learning the ropes, you see.’
I want to just get up without saying anything, just go inside and close my door, a kind of personal boycott of the statement he’s just made. But it’s warm, with a nice breeze out here, and I’m planning on having some more Skype calls. I don’t want to go inside for the rest of the night.
Instead, I resolve to simply ignore him. I go back to my laptop and resume typing and scrolling like he isn’t there.
He keeps talking. Maybe my symbolic gesture was too subtle. In the next 10 minutes he tells me how much he loves Mauritius, how all the races living together should be an inspiration to the world. He says racism among white Mauritians is a real problem, then adds that it’s the Muslim population’s fault for being incapable of living non-violently.
He keeps talking like this, defaming a demographic group, then lamenting the racism against them. It’s like he’s trying to set some sort of discrimination speed record. I’m completely ignoring him now, typing an e-mail to my aunt and uncle and hoping for him to stop talking. It takes him seven more minutes—I’m watching the clock in the corner of my screen, aghast—before he says ‘well, it looks like you’re busy. Good night.’ I don’t say anything in return.
Today’s my last day here, I’m flying out at 10pm. Yesterday the woman at the front desk, in French-accented English so lovely I want her to read books to me before I fall asleep every night, said I could stay in the room as long as I want today, since no one has booked it after me.
My ear is still plugged. I google around during breakfast, and it seems I have swimmer’s ear, meaning there’s a bit of water trapped behind my eardrum that’s attracted bacteria and now my ear canal is slightly inflamed. I remember getting this when I was a kid. Your ear is plugged, like it’s about to pop, then clears with a satisfying whoosh a few days later.
I don’t want to do anything ambitious today because I have to leave for the airport at 7pm, and I’m paranoid that a flat tire or a bus breakdown in some faroff city will cost me my flight home. I go for a jog, read by the pool at the fancy hotel, then bike to the brand-new mall on the outskirts of town and wander around the shops, enjoying the airconditioning. All day I’m popping and unpopping my ears, waiting for the whoosh.
I go back to my hotel around 4.30 to shower and pack. I’m hoping the pressure change on the flight will clear out my ear a bit. I Google “swimmer’s ear airplane”. The first link is a message board full of people describing the pressure change as absolute torture: ‘It was the worst travel experience of my life’ … ‘I wanted to literally shoot myself on decent’ … ‘I had permanent ear damage to my right ear’ …
I’m slightly nervous now. But it’s just random people on a message board. The second link is from eHow, and says ‘refrain from flying on an airplane until you have cleared up the infection, because flying makes swimmer’s ear pain much worse’.
That’s a little more credible. I check WebMD and find the same thing: Flying with swimmer’s ear can cause the water in the ear canal to swell, pushing against the eardrum and potentially bursting it.
I have less than three hours before I have to leave for my flight. I dash down to the reception and ask the lovely desk-lady if she knows the number of a doctor who will be working on a Saturday afternoon between Christmas and New Year’s. She gets a health clinic on the phone.
‘I have an ear infection,’ I tell the French-accented voice on the other end of the line. ‘Can I fly?’
‘We would have to examine you before we could say,’ the voice says.
‘Where are you?’ I ask. I don’t know why, but I add ‘I have a bike!’
The voice gives me the address and I bike there like I’m being chased by a bear. I arrive covered in sweat, my heart racing from the bike ride and the anxiety—What if I have to cancel my flight and wait a few days? How much will it cost? Will I have to wait to start work again?
The clinic receptionist hands me a form to fill out. As soon as I hand it back, the doctor comes and gets me. She’s my age and polite, but doesn’t share my sense of urgency. She walks me, slowly, down the hall to her office.
I tell her my problem and she puts on a rubber glove, tightening it so every finger fits. She pulls out a little hammer-looking instrument, fits it with a backwards-victrola tip and looks inside my ear.
‘It’s wax,’ she says, snapping the glove off. ‘You can fly.’
She stands up and leaves the room without another word. I get my bag, still sweating, and walk back down the empty hallway to the front desk. They have my paperwork out and an invoice ready. It’s 30 euros for the five-second consultation, but I’m so happy I don’t care.
It’s raining when I get back on my bike, but I feel waterproof. I arrive back to the hotel soaked. I shower and finish packing. When I come down the stairs, the taxi is already waiting.
‘Where are you going sir?’ the driver asks.
‘The airport,’ I say. ‘And then home.’
Imagine it’s 2003, and you’ve just been elected the president of a failed state. Its name is Georgia, a little wedge of forest nestled between the Black Sea and the Caucasus Mountains. It has spent the last 900 years as a trinket passed back and forth between Russia, Turkey and Iran. If it ever comes up in conversation, which is rarely, people are likely to think you’re talking about the land of peachtrees and Ted Turner, not eggplants and Joseph Stalin.
Nevertheless, it’s 2003, and you’ve got a job to do. Your country has 4.5 million people, an unemployment rate of 50 percent, a median income of about $10 a month and, in its most fortunate cities and regions, two hours of electricity per day.
This was the situation Mikheil Saakashvili found himself in nine years ago. His country had declared independence from Russia in 1991, and the ensuing 12 years had been a countrywide game of Hungry Hungry Hippo. The police force was neither police nor a force, but a mobile fraternity of bribe-extractors. Politicians and civil servants performed the routine functions of governance—issuing licenses, allotting budgets, delivering services—with reluctance so severe the World Bank referred to them as ‘criminalized’. Getting a business license required approval from 29 government agencies. Who even knows how many bribes you had to pay.
Saakashvili studied at Columbia and George Washington University. He had a fellowship at the US State Department in the early ‘90s, and studied human rights in France. It’s sort of surprising he hasn’t given a Ted talk. He was pulled away, his political biography tells us, from a gig at a US law firm and general international awesomeness in 1995, and convinced to come back to his humble homeland, stand for elections and rescue his wedge of Caucasan forest from Russia, Turkey, international donors and, possibly, itself.
Saakashvili got 95 percent of the vote in something called the Rose Revolution, something we all skimmed articles about in the New York Times in 2003 and then immediately began confusing for all the other ones (velvet, orange, etc) we mix up at pub quizzes.
As the spotlight of the world’s attention dimmed, Saakashvili began the impossible, invisible task of making a country work. The way he did this was by giving the entire country the Alec Baldwin speech from Glengarry Glen Ross:
First prize is, your salary goes up by a factor of 20. Second prize is, you get to keep your job. Third prize is, you’re fired.
First up: The cops. Overnight, he fired all 16,000 of them. He replaced them with applicants trained in community policing, crime reduction and citizen services. Salaries increased 23-fold between 2004 and 2011.
‘Wasn’t there a period when no one was policing the country at all?’ I asked my friend who works at an NGO here. ‘Wasn’t it just chaos in the streets?’
‘You’re assuming there was policing going on at all,’ he said. ‘Georgia was basically Somalia in 2003. Crime went down after all the cops were fired.’
It didn’t stop there. Police officers were given new uniforms, glass-fronted police stations (transparent, get it?) and—without their knowledge—squad cars equipped with listening devices. The first cops found to be taking bribes, plotting against their superiors or otherwise fucking with their new mandate to protect and serve were accused of such on national television, and sent to prison for up to 10 years. No, seriously, these measures said, we mean this.
Next, politicians and civil servants. Saakashvili made sure every single one got the same message: I don’t care what you did yesterday, I don’t care what you do today, But starting tomorrow, you’re going to hep this country run smoothly, or you’re gone.
He fired 40,000 of them the first year. The rest were watched by cameras, tracked by spreadsheets and evaluated by superiors and customers alike. The better services worked, the more he raised their salaries.
And finally, everybody else. In 2003, tax revenue was only 12 percent of GDP (in the US, it’s 24 percent. In the UK, 39 percent.). Most retailers kept ‘official’ and ‘actual’ books to avoid reporting income.
The first thing Saakashvili did was ban informal vendors—those dudes who sell fruit while you wait at red lights, for example—from city streets. This is too harsh, they protested. Fine, came his response, but at least it’s consistent.
For the formal vendors—corner stores, restaurants, hair salons—It was Alec Baldwin again: You’re all going to install special cash registers that tell the government, in real time, what you’re selling and what you’re earning. If you don’t like it, you don’t stay in business. Oh, and you have to buy the cash registers yourselves. That’s too onerous, they protested. Fine, came his response, but it’s not unfair.
Within months, everything bought and sold was now tracked and reported. The new, policing-focused police force sent undercover officers to stores all over the country to check if vendors were using the cash registers. Saakashvili also worked on the demand side. The special cash registers spit out receipts that had built-in lottery tickets. Each had a barcode that, for a lucky few, could be redeemed for cash. All of a sudden, ‘where’s my receipt?’ became as common in Georgia as ‘have a nice day’ was in America.
Next, he went after the bigwigs. For months after he came to power, the news was animated with raids on Georgia’s biggest businessmen, mafia, oligarchs and political fixers. He gave them all the same deal: You’ve got two options: Go to jail for all the warlord-ass shit you’ve pulled over the last decade, or pay restitution and get a full amnesty. The restitution for some of them was as much as $14 million. There was no special receipt.
The bigwigs didn’t even protest. They knew the response before it came.
At the same time he made everyone pay their taxes, he made sure everyone knew what they owed. He threw out most of the old tax code and installed a flat tax: 12 percent on your income, 20 percent sales tax and 10 percent on any interest you earn. The rates were crazy-low, but everyone was paying them. Tax revenue went from $300 million to $3 billion between 2003 and 2008.
These reforms built a fence and fertilized the soil. All Saakashvili needed now was for the private sector to come and plant the seeds. And came they did: Between 2003 and 2007, foreign direct investment in Georgia rose from $330 million to $1.7 billion. In 2010, two years after the financial crisis, it was $810 million. Two new oil pipelines link Georgia with Asia and Europe. I hear the lines at Carrefour on Saturdays are brutal.
Meanwhile, Georgia’s rank on the Economic Freedom Index went from 93rd in 2005 to 34th in 2012. The World Bank says Georgia is the 16th easiest country in which to do business.
There was other stuff too. The education system got pegged to a nationwide standardized test, ending its reliance on the former ‘pay your teachers for grades’ model. Healthcare was privatized (I know, I know), which reduced corruption among doctors. Border guards and customs agents got their own version of the ‘you’re all fired; the new guys get new uniforms!’ program.The government posts all of its tenders and procurement contracts online.
Georgia doesn’t require a visa for most foreigners to work or start a business. Georgia doesn’t want your tired, your poor. It wants your rich and energetic.
Nine years ago, Georgia was basically Deadwood on the Black Sea. Nowadays it’s not exactly Blade Runner, but it’s not Mad Max either. The lights are on, trains and buses work, construction cranes provide shade for clinking outdoor cafes. Nearly 80 percent of the population reports that they’ve personally experienced a drop in corruption. Violent crime was cut in half, and the homicide rate is the same as the United States. Per capita GDP is $5,400. OK, that’s the same as Angola, but when you consider that a decade ago it was $400, you have to give a little whistle.
Last Monday, Saakashvili was voted out. If it all goes smoothly from here (Saakashvili has to voluntarily hand over power to the James Bond villain who defeated him, a mysterious billionaire named Bidzina Ivanishvili), it will be Georgia’s first democratic transition.
Saakashvili’s zeal for reform, for tearing down existing structures and installing new ones, left some holes in the plaster that he filled with his own power. Saakashvili’s towering achievement is that the state is no longer a vehicle for politicians, civil servants and police officers to enrich themselves. The problem is, it may have become a vehicle for Saakashvili’s party, the United National Movement, to do so instead.
Crackdowns on journalists, political firings, restriction of free speech, and various backroom sketchiness have increased in recent years, and some of the post-revolution reforms (restitution and amnesty for organized-crime lords, seriously?) have left a bad taste in people’s mouths.
There’s also the prison rape video.
Over the last decade, all those no-tolerance sentences for petty criminals, crooked cops and corrupt bureaucrats swelled Georgia’s incarceration rate to the 4th highest in the world, above even Russia. In September, a video hit the news showing prison guards sodomizing prisoners with broomsticks. The media went to the citizens, citizens went to the streets, politicians went to the media. Saaksashvili’s party got 40 percent of the vote. The opposition, 55 percent.
I want to use the cliché that Georgia is a shadow of its former self. But more accurately, its former self is a shadow that refuses to disappear. Everything Saakashvili has done is fragile. The minute you turn off those cop-car microphones, delete those civil servant spreadsheets, hide those procurement documents, the cost-benefit analysis goes back to where it was, and behavior will adjust to fit.
I don’t know if Saakashvili deserved to lose the election. In a world full of leaders who get elected promising to reduce corruption, he’s one of the only ones who actually did. Georgia, for better or for worse, is a country where someone demonstrably wanted the government to work better, and wasn’t afraid to slap a few hands reaching for the cookie jar.
Mikheil Saakashvili made his country work. He made citizens safer, government more effective and businesses more profitable. And then he paid the cost.
Imagine yourself in his shoes again, this time in 2012. As you look down from the hills above Tbilisi, maybe you’re thinking that in the end, nothing is free, not even the market.