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GEORGIA ON MY MIND

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Five men with AK-47s stopped our bus on the road to Tbilisi, just after we'd crossed the border on a weeklong jaunt north from Armenia, where I'd been vacationing.

They weren't soldiers. They weren't policemen. They weren't even part of some pseudo-official militia. These were simple post-Soviet hoods on a hard-currency quest.Their leader, a bearded chap who wore Ray Ban Cats, dangled a cigarette from his lips, took a seat directly behind us and casually pointed his weapon at our backs.

This man and my traveling companion, an American friend adept in languages of the region, were able to communicate in pidgin Russian, and their short conversation went something like this:

Highwayman: "Are you Germans?"

American: "No. Amerikatsi."

Highwayman: "Oh good! Then you have dollars!"

American: "No, no! Only rubles!"

Highwayman: "Only rubles?"

American: "Only rubles."

Highwayman: (Skeptical) "Onlyrubles."

We can't say we hadn't been warned, but we went to Georgia anyway, maybe just because it was there, right across the border from Armenia, where I'd been visiting expatriate American friends.

This was September, the same month the U.S. State Department issued an advisory on the rural areas of Georgia, where lawlessness was escalating. President Eduard Shevardnadze was holed up in the capital, Tblisi, holding off an insurrection that within a matter of weeks would be entirely out of hand. The countryside, in the meantime, belonged to whoever happened to have guns.

Our assailants turned out, mercifully, to be either dull-witted or benevolent; it was hard to tell. They took our word for it that we had no dollars, though if they'd only looked inside the ripped seat back in front of us they would've found our stash of bills. They settled for "donations" from all passengers, most of whom were near-penniless peasants. We contributed 1,000 rubles, about 70 cents.

The thieves made a couple of speeches, thanked everyone and turned us loose.

"We're taking the train back," I said as we rumbled away.

Upon arriving in Tblisi, we were greeted at the station by a taxi driver who took us to the central district, collected our fare, pointed to a building and said, "Hotel."

We were grateful to this man, until we found out the structure wasn't a hotel at all, and that he'd left us to our own accommodation-finding wiles. Eventually we rustled up another taxi driver who took us to a regal, shining facility with glittering marble facades and glass elevators.

It was oddly devoid of guests, though the front desk was well staffed by a number of English-speaking young adults.

"You've got to be kidding - $525 a night!" my thunderstruck compadre shouted at the receptionist when she presented the room rates. "Who stays here?"

"Ambassadors," said the woman.

"We aren't ambassadors," he said. "Where's the phone?"

Acquaintances back in Armenia had given us the number of a young man named - appropriately enough - George. They said he might help us out in a pinch and he did come to the rescue, arriving shortly.

George was a godsend. He said there was no other commercial lodging in this entire city of more than a million people and that we would have to come home with him.

So began the better part of a week of intense and unrelenting Georgian hospitality. George's mother cooked for us night and day. His pregnant sister-in-law vacated her room, over our objections. His brother-in-law forced vodka upon us mercilessly. George himself became our tour guide. Everyone refused to be paid.

Through his eyes, we saw a city crippled by a crumbling economy and nearly broken by civil war.

Homeless people had taken over a grand hotel that had been bombed out and burned up in a battle between the government and rebels. Across the street, the national parliament building, like almost every other structure downtown, was pockmarked with bullet holes. Into the wee hours of the morning we would lie awake listening to the gunfire of automatic weapons just outside George's apartment complex. He was always sure to get us indoors before dark.

"At night," he said again and again, "anything can happen."

These were hard times in Tblisi, as in every city around the former Soviet Union. Bread lines were common, electricity was on and off, phones were out. About the only thing that ran with any regularity was the subway, so that's how we got around.

Random wanderings always produced the unexpected.

As I sipped a genuine-looking Coca-Cola outside a shop one day, a man appeared out of the passing crowd to ask, "Just out of curiosity, does it taste the same?" (It did.)

On a hilltop above Tblisi we explored a former four-star restaurant the rebel faction had used as an artillery base several months before. Shattered concrete and broken glass lay everywhere. We picked our way through the kitchen, through gaping holes in walls, up a set of stairs and past an untouched chandelier.

The train back to Armenia proved safer than the bus, though the trip was not without event.

At the border, the guards went shopping from compartment to compartment, and the one who went through my baggage found a nearly new chamois shirt I'd brought along for cool nights. He wanted it badly and asked if it could be his gift from a rich American. I said no, and he offered to pay a dollar or two for it. No, again. Finally, he said he might simply take it.

In a last-ditch attempt to save the shirt, I told him the only thing I thought might shame him into going away empty-handed.

"My mother gave it to me," I lied.

He apologized, folded it neatly and put it back where he found it.