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A Visit to Georgia

Wednesday, 10 August, 2016 -- Helen Wilson

“I thought I knew about volcanoes, how they erupted without warning and spewed molten lava over the side and threw up clouds of volcanic ash. I didn’t know that ash clouds could rise many thousands of feet and be blown hundreds of miles. I was about to find out.

“Just pop over to Georgia for a week, please Malcolm” said my boss. “You can fit it in before your trip to Turkmenistan”. I had not been to Georgia, so was not unwilling to have a look at the place. After all, it has a bit of history, being Stalin’s birthplace. Our interest in Georgia was due to our sales people selling a small, experimental air traffic system to Tbilisi airport, to gain a foothold in the country and hopefully do some bigger business. My job was to tune it the way the customer wanted it. A few days, maybe a week, was probably going to be enough to sort it out.

Unlike many of the former Soviet states, and indeed a lot of places round the world that I’ve found myself in, you can just walk into Georgia without any form of visa, or indeed any money. Just show your passport, they stamp it and you’re in. No queueing for visas, “$100 please”, or sending your passport away for a few weeks to an embassy and hoping it comes back with the appropriate visa. Georgia is fairly pro-Western, and not a fan of Russia, and in fact have had a few small wars in recent times with Russia. One street is named George W Bush Street, and they even go so far as to put a large photograph of Mr Bush above the street name so you know who they’re talking about.

But cutting to the chase, I was working my way through the list of requests without much trouble when the chief technician casually mentioned that there weren’t many aircraft flying over Europe that day. “Have a look at the radar screens, if you like”, he said. I asked the reason and he told me that a volcano had erupted in Iceland, the wind was blowing ash all over the continent and consequently no aircraft were flying. I was surprised that something so far away as Iceland was affecting aviation right across Europe, but he assured me it was true, and the BBC news bore him out. I assumed that it would all blow over, in both senses, by next day, and everything be back to normal barring a few delays, but it was not to be. The airlines were scared witless that their aircraft would be damaged beyond repair if any stray volcanic ash found its way into the engines, so they grounded the lot.

Now if all I had to do was sit it out in Georgia for an extra week, I wouldn’t have minded, but in a week I had to be in Turkmenistan. Unlike Georgia, Turkmenistan is somewhere that really does make it difficult for the traveller. You need a Letter of Invitation which expires three months after issue, so it’s use it or lose it. Once you have the Letter you can fly into the country but must pay an extortionate number of US dollars for a visa, then you’re in. My problem was that I had the Letter, but it would expire one week after I was meant to return home from Georgia. With the ash cloud about, it was starting to look uncertain whether I’d get to Turkmenistan in time.

History records that the skies cleared and that global aviation eventually recovered. I managed two days at home before leaving for Turkmenistan, and arrived there on the last day of the Letter’s validity. My bag didn’t, though: it was left in Istanbul between flights and only caught up with me three days later.

Moral of the story: All human wisdom, knowledge and skill (God-given anyway) are no match for God’s power.”

Malcolm Jones (1972)

Malcolm is pictured in 2015 at Lusaka airport in Zambia