Tuesday, October 30, 2018

Charlie Creates a Movement in the Caucasus Mountains

Charlie, enjoying a quiet moment in our hotel, Shatili Tower.
In his excellent TedTalk on creating a movement, Derek Sivers illustrates how a ‘lone nut,’ in this case a crazy dancing guy at an outdoor concert, can become the leader of a movement. In the video, a man starts out dancing wildly on his own, but soon finds himself in the middle of an ecstatic crowd mimicking his moves. 

I often showed this video when lecturing on social action in my Introduction to Sociology class. On a visit to the Republic of Georgia, I got to see this process in real life.  I watched my friend Charlie, a community newspaper writer and editor from a small town in New Hampshire, create a movement. From a 'lone nut' moving rocks by hand on a washed-out mountain road, Charlie became a leader. Stranded but newly motivated strangers followed his lead, bent down alongside him, and moved rocks by hand. In the end, stone-by-stone, we all got home. 

Charlie, David and I, along with our Georgian mountain guide Vako, had spent a wonderful six days trekking and camping in the Tusheti region of the Republic of Georgia. We ended our trip with a couple of days in Shatili, in the Khevsureti region, staying at a rustically restored 'hotel.' Famous for its unique complex of medieval-to-early modern fortresses and fortified dwellings, in 2014, about 22 people lived in this village. The road into Shatili is unpaved, carved into the rock-faced curves of the mountainside. In winter is it impassable. In summer, it is a stop on the hiking trail for foreign tourists, while residents of Tbilisi drive up for the weekend to escape the unbearable city heat. 

The night before our departure it rained heavily, but the morning was clear and bright. After breakfast, the four of us set off for Tbilisi, four hours away, in Vako's SUV. Our driver was his good friend Celo. A short way into our journey we came to a place where the road had been washed away by the previous night's heavy rains. Boulders and rocks had tumbled from the mountainside onto to the path, and water was rushing down the cliff, crashing into the river hundreds of feet below. We all got out to survey the situation. 


Charlie (in khaki), David (blue) and Vako (green) fixing the road. It drops off to the left.


Vako shrugged and said we’d have to wait for a construction crew to fix the road. Celo got into the SUV and drove back towards Shatili to see what he could find out. David admired the scenery and I took pictures. Charlie, on the other hand, had an idea: “Give me two hours, I can fix this!” He then started to move the rocks by hand in an effort to straighten out the road. By nature Charlie is an optimist; however, we were not convinced. I continued taking photos while David and Vako talked about the situation; Charlie continued to methodically, painstakingly and with much thought, fling rocks. Referring back to Sivers, here we have Step 1 on creating a movement: our leader, or 'lone nut,'  has the guts to stand up and risk being ridiculous. 

While our group was the first to reach the washed-out road, other travelers returning to the capital  starting pulling up behind us and stopping. People would get out of their cars, vans and mini-buses, wander up, look at the road, look at Charlie, shake their heads, mutter in their various languages, and go back to their vehicles. 

Next we have Step 2 of the movement: the leader embraces his first follower/followers and transforms them into leaders too. Eventually, maybe not completely convinced of the outcome but with nothing else to do, David and Vako joined Charlie tossing rocks. Charlie had a clear vision of the process and directed them both, stopping periodically to discuss the next move. He had picked up tips from his Uncle Brock back in New Hampshire on how to move really big rocks by placing a small wedge underneath and slowly getting it to lift without using brute strength. Charlie, David and Vako put their backs into the work. I took on the role of ethnographer, photographing the unfolding saga of the road repair. 




Everybody helps.









  
Fellow stranded travelers, a family with mom, dad, Grandma and the kids, an all female Czech hiking group, weekenders from Tbilisi, continued to stand around and watch. Pretty soon, perhaps seeing that this might actually work, an exasperated Vako shouted, “If you people want to get to f*cking Tbilisi tonight, get over here and help!” A few people, not everyone, joined in. Charlie stayed the course, maneuvering rocks, encouraging the group, noting the progress. According to Sivers, as more people join in, the fear of ridicule gets less risky and it becomes more embarrassing not to join in. After a few minutes everyone, including me and Grandma, was tossing rocks trying to bring the road back. Sivers finishes his overview on creating a movement by saying that it is important for a leader to nurture his followers as equals, so they become leaders too. 

Here we were, men and women, boys and girls, teenagers to grandmothers and pensioners, different nationalities and abilities, in street clothes and hiking clothes, all doing the same thing working towards the same goal. Good job Charlie!

Better to join in :)



Everyone had to keep an eye out for errant flying stones, and a few fingers and toes got slightly squashed, but eventually the road evened out and it seemed some vehicles might just be able to get on their way. The first to try was a small bus, but the body was too low and long to get over the uneven surface. Next was Vako’s SUV. He guided Celo from the front while another traveler stood scarily on the cliff side pushing the vehicle and shouting directions. I'll admit, it was tense, but it was also a success! 

This bus was too low and long to clear the rocks. But the SUV below had success!



Our little group hopped in and said good-bye, leaving the other travelers to figure out how to get their vehicles through. We were on our way to Tbilisi! Not five minutes later however we reached another washout. This time we jumped out and immediately started tossing rocks. Not long after the family with Grandma came by and joined in. This road was not in as bad a condition as the previous one, so it was fixed quickly and we soon continued our journey. Thanks to Charlie, in Tbilisi that night a good meal was had by all.

Looking back as we drive away, good luck fellow travelers!
Our happy travel family after a safe arrival and a good meal in Tbilisi. Vako, Jeannie, Charlie, David and Celo.

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