Odessites are marvelous people.
Well, that’s that. Traveled down to Zaporizhzhya on Wednesday, home of the Cossacks of legend, for one final meeting with my Kiva Coordinator. Conducted my exit interview and final debriefing over Skype on Thursday. Sent in my final surveys today, the last deliverable I had to complete. And just like that, I am now no longer a Kiva Fellow.
I’ve been abroad for almost nine months at this point, over double the tenure of most Kiva Fellows. At training in San Francisco last August, I became fast friends with the amazing fellows of KF16; we all shipped out together, found our feet together, grew into our roles, rode the highs and surfed the troughs – and then I watched them all go home until I was the only one left in the field. In the back of my mind, it feels like the same is happening again now: that everyone else’s fellowship is coming to a close, but that those things don’t apply to me, that all the other names and faces are ephemeral but I will, as ever, remain. I still haven’t grasped that the curtain has dropped. You mean Kiva Fellowships end? You mean Kiva Fellows eventually have to go home?
Well, this one isn’t, at least not yet. I do believe I have a month’s worth of travel left in me. A few days each in Belarus and Moldova, followed by a plane back down to the Caucasus, my current most fascinating region of the world; a week and a half discovering western Georgia, from the Black Sea resort of Batumi to the absurdly gorgeous 17,000-foot peaks of Svaneti, followed by as much time in Armenia, the mysterious and beautiful country that was forbidden to me while I was working in enemy Azerbaijan but which I badly want to see. And then, on June 28th, the United States of America.
But no, I’m still beating around the bush, because this isn’t the heart of my trip. What I plan to do, really, is a Grand Tour of Disputed Territories of the Former Soviet Union: a circuit of all the breakaway territories and occupied zones that have seceded from their original countries and now exist as bizarre half-states with their own governments, their own currencies, and their own delusions of independence. Why? Because I am an abnormal person, and I find this more appealing than, say, a Grand Tour of Italian Art Museums, or a Grand Tour of London Pubs, or a Grand Tour of Anywhere My Travel Guide Told Me to Go. I try not to play by the rules.
First comes Transnistria, a narrow Russian-speaking strip of land that has seceded from Moldova and rejoined the USSR – yes, I said the USSR – a phantasmagoria of concrete apartment blocks and Lenin-glorifying murals and stores named “Meat No. 5” and “Milk No. 17,” where bribery remains a daily occurrence and service still comes with a snarl. Then beautiful seaside Abkhazia, once the equivalent of the Georgian Riviera, now a restive Muslim region that attempted to violently secede from Georgia in the 1990s and, in 2008, jumped at the chance to get itself occupied and de facto annexed by Russia. Then South Ossetia, the mountainous patch of land over which Russia and Georgia fought their 2008 war, now a Russian-occupied bulge of land only 30 kilometers from the Georgian capital (this is the only politically unstable territory on the list, and I pledge to monitor the situation and play it safe in deciding whether to go at all). And there is one more as well: one about which I am not at liberty to write, except to say that the thought of finally getting to see it sends chills down my spine.
How many people have a list of Countries Visited that requires asterisks and footnotes that ruminate on the definition of a country? Mine will.
By the way, do you remember those Kiva blog posts I wrote about Nagorno-Karabakh IDPs that got rejected because Kiva didn’t want to touch that ongoing war with a ten-foot pole? Well, now that I’m no longer a Kiva Fellow, I’m free to put them up; watch this space in the days to come. But right now, I am in sun-kissed Odessa, city of jazzmen and gangsters and bathers and promenaders, and its streets are calling my name. I bid you farewell.