Fairytales

*My dad, after inspiring and encouraging me to see the world on my own, helped me out this time. More than words can say, thanks for sending me on the trip of my dreams! The only thing that would’ve been better is if you had been there as well.

**So many thanks to Tomas for being a tour guide and recommending places to see and being such a gracious host. It was so great to catch with a member of TeamMalaysia–two years is too long!

I think I’m in good company when I say that Ireland has be high high high on my “must see” list since I’ve had a “must see” list. Green rolling hills, cliffs that drop dramatically to the sea, and of course those glorious Irish accents (ladies amiright?!). So when a trip to Ireland fell into my lap (didi madloba Dad) I was a little excited totally over the moon. Dates were picked and flights were booked and then I realized: I have never planned a trip, minus the occasional weekend. Cue irrational and long-lasting freakout. I agonized over which cities and landmarks deserved some of our limited time, and the timeline and where to stay and what to pack and how to drive ON THE WRONG SIDE OF THE ROAD. Truth be told, I had nightmares about the driving situation. None of which came to fruition, thankfully.

Finally, there were no more decisions to be made and I was in Ireland with my best friend for what was going to be a whirlwind Irish tour. We rented a car and had a trusty GPS and my phone full of notes and phone numbers and addresses. I survived driving from the airport into the heart of Dublin, but after circling our hostel three times with no parking to be seen and quite a few instances of me almost forgetting which lane to be in, I handed the wheel gratefully over (fine, I demanded Thornton drive because I was finished with this nonsense) and enjoyed the scenery for the rest of the trip.

Dublin: Pretty, historic, home of the Temple Bar and Saint Stephens Green and a sassy statue of Oscar Wilde. But I had romanticized Ireland too much, so Dublin didn’t feel like Ireland at all to me. It felt like any other European city, and I enjoyed exploring. Would I recommend it? Yes. Does is take precedence if time is short? No.

We hopped through Waterford, Killarney and Galway before circling back to Dublin to fly out. And the further outside Dublin, the more beautiful Ireland became.

From Glendalough to Tramore Beach and Ballycarberry Castle on the Ring of Kerry to the Cliffs of Moher, Ireland is prettier than a picture book. Around every curve (and there are plenty of those on Irish country roads) there is a picturesque scene. Every lake deserves to be painted. The coast is painfully beautiful. Even the small towns are perfect in their mix of quaintness and modernity.

Driving through the country with Thornton, our conversations were routinely interrupted as we exclaimed over every new vista. Or, in Thornton’s case, as he asked me to take pictures for him of every. single. new. view. I couldn’t begrudge him too much though…after all, he was driving and not complaining that I had stuck him with that odious task. But honestly, every part of Ireland screams for photos. Abandoned castles are ripe for exploring and side roads lead to lakes where you would swear you’ve stepped into a fairy tale. Coastal cliffs are breathtaking in their abrupt drop to teal water.

In essence, I was a tourist and I loved every single minute of it. If there is one country to see before you die, it has to be Ireland. Rent a car and drive. The country is small and there are hidden gems everywhere. This is a country to see, and the people are icing on top of a already delicious, and gorgeous, cake.

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Face Your Fears

That saying about how you leave a piece of you everywhere you go? It’s true.

In December of 2012, I graduated college as an overwhelmed, under-confident, confused and terrified girl. I knew who I wanted to be but not how to change into that person. I knew what I wanted to do, but not how to achieve it. I knew I wanted to feel alive, but I didn’t know how.

I hopped on a flight–actually I hopped on 19 flights–and every time I left a place, I left a small piece of that insecure and shy and unsure girl. Every time I hopped on a plane, I was different–I gained vision or confidence or fearlessness or a feeling of comfort with who I am. I gained a sense of sureness in me and my judgment and my sense of humor and my decision making. Throughout eight countries, as I fought through talking with strangers and liaising with government officials and learning new languages and teaching, I found my sense of self.

Right now, I don’t feel a pressing need to escape–it’s a new feeling for me, wanting to stay (mostly) put. Whereas I can recall–and have the journal entries to prove–that I was desperate to change and be shaken before, now I’m not. That alone tells me that I’ve made progress.

Do I still have things to work on? I cannot say yes quickly enough! But this isn’t a celebration of my perfection–this is a celebration of my progress.

Now, less than 2 years later (21 months, actually) I wouldn’t recognize that other girl. I am well on my way to being who I want to be, and for the first time ever, I am happy with myself. I achieved what I set out to do. I have never felt more alive. This is my definition of success.

So my advice to anyone who is looking to grow: Do exactly what it is that you’re terrified of. For me, it was leaving my safety net and having to make decisions by myself. Throw yourself into those situations that you think will leave you paralyzed with fear.

Tbilis--the Griffin that guards the Burberry store.
Tbilis–the Griffin that guards the Burberry store.

I promise that you will surprise yourself. …I certainly did.

Down in Louisiana, where the black trees grow…

**FIRST listen to this song while reading. It is the reason I’ve wanted to go to New Orleans for ever. (Dad, if you’re reading, it’s Marie Laveau!)


I’m guilty of being an unintentional travel snob.

When I tell people I like to travel, I generally mean overseas. When others tell me they like to travel, I’m expecting to hear about ziplining in Brazil, getting drunk in Australia or volunteering in Liberia. In other words–I am really good at discounting all the parts of America there are to see. (I know, I know…I’m working on it.)

The first step in my de-snobbery program? An all-American road trip! N’awlins bound with two friends to eat, drink, and hold alligators.

1. Bourbon Street is everything the reputation claims–pass on the Hand Grenade but grab a Fishbowl. It comes with a handy lanyard for no-hands sipping.

2. Don’t go to NOLA if you aren’t hungry. Shrimps, gumbo, oysters, even the fried chicken is amazing in this jewel of a city.

3. It is hot. I would describe walking through a swamp, underwater (humidity–duh) that is on the sun. So you know, bring deodorant and perfume.

4. Those accents make you melt quicker than the heat ever could.

Now please feast your eyes, and not everyone at once schedule me to be your profesh photographer.

Check us cheesin' after we held behemoth alligator montsters.
Check us cheesin’ after we held behemoth alligator montsters.
dranks.
dranks.
Ever wondered why Cafe du Monde is such a big deal? Because it's sweet, fried dough covered in sugar. Waiting on the franchise opportunities with this one.
Ever wondered why Cafe du Monde is such a big deal? Because it’s sweet, fried dough covered in sugar. Waiting on the franchise opportunities with this one.
We watched a parade. And then became part of the parade. And then walked a billion million miles to this photo spot.  (and then walked back)
We watched a parade. And then became part of the parade. And then walked a billion million miles to this photo spot.
(and then walked back)
This graceful beauty, lounging.
This graceful beauty, lounging.
...and this graceful beauty too...
…and this graceful beauty too…
and me and my grin. I am holding a real-life dinosaur--don't be picky about smiles.
and me and my grin. I am holding a real-life dinosaur–don’t be picky about smiles.

staying put.

Traveling has always been my extravagant, guilty’ pleasure that I pursued in whatever way I could. That’s how I found myself teaching in the Republic of Georgia. And it was fun, and full of adventures, and a great way to spend 6 months! But while I had originally decided to go back in the fall, that plan has changed. 

I never want to dread traveling. Thinking about going back to Tbilisi filled me with dread. Yes, I want to see my friends and my would-be host family, but I don’t want to see that country. Or the inside of a school. I pulled up the Bible in Kartulad and had flashbacks to trying to navigate Didube station. I’m a bit traumatized. So it’s with equal parts contentedness and guilt that I announce: I’m not going back in September. As the time flies toward my would-be departure date, I feel more at ease with that decision. 

But talking with friends. I’ve heard a few comments along the lines of “traveling and living abroad just aren’t for you then”. While I know they mean well, and are trying to assuage my guilt over staying home, I hope they’re wrong! I love traveling. I like making a place for myself in a different place. If I was going back to Georgia to live in Tbilisi and have a job I wanted, I would hop on a plane immediately! Afterall, I’ve lived in a few different places and I think I’ve proved that it is something I like. But while others have moved to civilized parts of Europe/Asia/South America and stayed in one place and had a ‘home’, I didn’t get that experience. 

I was living in a two bedroom apartment with 10 people and access to a shower once a week. Just because I’m choosing not to go back to that situation doesn’t mean that travel is ‘not my thing’. I’ve just figured out a few more ways of living that I don’t care to partake in. Eventually I do want to live abroad. Maybe London, though, and not Rustavi. I do like my showers, after all!

For now, I’m on semi-hiatus. There is no international travel in my immediate future (though I am going to New Orleans in a few days!!) but it’s definitely still on my radar. I am staying put, with feelers out for travel in the future. Right now, I’m re-acquainting myself with old places and spaces and enjoying sweet, sweet Georgia. After all, there’s no place like home!

A peek at my world.

–I found this in my drafts folder. And please excuse my language skills–the phrases are by no means correct, but they get the job done. 

When I was twelve years old, I first heard of the country of Georgia, and the capital, Tbilisi. Since I grew up in Georgia (the state) this was of interest to me, and I resolved, in the arrogantly assured way of youth, to visit this other Georgia. Thirteen years later, I found myself flying into Tbilisi on a red-eye flight, the last leg of more than 32 hours of traveling. And after training in teaching methods and the Georgian language (Kartuli) I was sent out to live in the country. I am not a stranger to mentally hard circumstances, or pushing myself to succeed, but that first week living with a host family and with negligible communication skills was the hardest and most trying week of my life.

Now, five months later, I am comfortable here. I have a tenuous grasp on the most basic language necessities. I understand this culture and how I, as a woman, should interact. I can navigate the country on the marshrutkas, and haggle with taxis and home-stay owners over a price that’s too high. I have developed a small niche here, and a rhythm—one that will be interrupted for my ten week vacation in the States. Today, as I rode on a marshrutka from Khovle to Tbilisi, I had time to think back over my time here. I find it incredible that I am even here, that thirteen years after my youthfully innocent decision, I have immersed myself in this former Soviet republic. I wish I could encapsulate this experience.

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I wish that when people back home ask how it is, I could show them the juxtapositions and let them feel the frustrations. I want them to see springs with water so clear that you drink from them and the banks of the river that are covered in litter until the ground is obscured. I want them to understand that I should not smile at men, as a woman, but then take them to the underground bars that seem like a portal to America. I want to explain how time is a fluid thing here and a marshrutka that should leave at noon could leave anywhere from 11:30 to 1:15. Saqartvelo, as the country is called in the native language, is a nation on the precipice. There is a generation that speaks Russian and eyes Americans with suspicion. There is a younger generation that shouts ‘hello!’ if they realize you speak English and study at universities to move the country forward. Some men expect you to serve and stay quiet and please them, while others treat you as a person with valid opinions. Always, no matter their age, these people are concerned with how you find their country. Always, no matter my opinion at the moment, I respond with positives. ‘Tbilisi dzalian lamazi’. ‘Me miquvars Saqartvelo!’ ‘Khinkhali da khatchapuri aris ghemrieli.’ And Tbilisi is very pretty. I do love Georgia. Khinkhali and khatchapuri are delicious.

But there are facets of this country and this culture that taint the good parts. Worrying that if I smile at a man, he will take that as a sexual invitation. Being harassed so often that I have taken to wearing a ‘wedding’ ring is not a plus for this country. The fact that I have stories of taxi drivers who were ever so physical is not what I hoped for when I moved here. I did not want to ever say that I had to stop seeing a friend because he expected subservience because of my gender. My host mother and two sisters now work 12 hour days, 6 days a week while my host father smokes with friends. This gender gap disgusts me, and is an indication of how poorly race relations and LGBTQ rights are viewed here as well. Georgia is a country stuck in time, and that is partially charming and partially terrifying.

overwhelmed, constantly.

The past month has been a whirlwind of weekend trips, TLG conventions, wrapping up lessons, and most prominently for me, saying all my goodbyes to all the wonderfully crazy and talented people that I call my friends/teachers/fellow travelers. At the forefront of my mind has been my countdown until I fly home. From 30 days to 2 weeks to 7 days and now, the hourly countdown. (I am a bit desperate for first world luxuries…and my family.) However, looking forward so much and with such fervor, I haven’t had a chance to come to terms with this experience.

I still remember how overwhelmed I was arriving to the hotel at 4 a.m. I remember the camaraderie of training, the frustration of learning Georgian and the struggles of jet-lag that resulted in numerous ten minute naps between workshops (usually huddled in one bed because it was freezing and yet, no central heating!) The first night in Rustavi counts as one of the most lonely nights of my life. The successes of teaching, and the trials of communication, and the many long phone conversations venting/laughing/marveling at this country with my colleagues all made this experience what it was.

In one word, this experience has been intriguing. Not all of it was good, not all of it was bad, but together everything mixed into an eclectic dance. Daily, I asked myself what I was doing here. Now, daily, I ask myself why on Earth I decided to come back. In just over 50 hours, I will board a plane to fly home for the summer, and I am anxiously awaiting that landing. But in some weird way, it’s a little bittersweet.

When I come back in September, it will not be with wide eyes and anxiety. I will know how to navigate and haggle with taxis. I won’t be talking to Surfer Matt about the latest mind-numbingly confusing thing our co-teachers have said. Brittany and I won’t be sharing our latest crazy stories, or comparing this country to Asia. There won’t be sleepovers with Hannah or conversations with Alex about the (non-existent) pros of Tolstoy over Dostoevsky or late-night rants with Lyndsay about this misogynistic culture. I will be coming back less as a tourist, I think, and with less of a safety net.

These past five months were my time to figure it out (impossible) and find my favorite places and talk through the crazy. This is when I have to internalize and focus and pinpoint what I will do to make next semester work for me. This is when I re-live the hours, days, and months until I can accept what I experienced. Right now, I don’t know what happened. It was a blur to me.

It was bumpy marshrutkas and open stares. It was frustrations and triumphs at school. It was tears and curses when I felt so alone and so frustrated with this culture. It was laughter and smiles on the weekend trips. It was learning to let go of timing and planning and my love of luxury hotels.  It was trying to find any strip of normalcy, even if that was McDonald’s.

I have been overwhelmed constantly.

Maybe once I land, and eat a meal with vegetables, and shower, I will be able to finalize my feelings. Until then, my mind will be whirling as I try, and fail, to process.

Chillaxing.

real quick: actually Googled and debated how to spell the non-existent word that is my title. I’m nothing if not thorough.

Living abroad is hard. At least, it is for me. I’m sure there are people who can hop on a plane and revel in new customs with nary a thought of the familiarity they left behind. Those people are saints, or more likely they’re liars.

Living abroad is exhausting. I am tired, some days, from doing nothing more than navigating the city I’m in. This weekend, a friend and I were in Tbilisi and had this conversation:

Me: Please talk to this taxi driver. I don’t want to figure it out.

Her: Oh, but you know more words. I’ll take the next one.

Me: *immense sigh* Ugh. Fiiiine.

Because sometimes it really is that intimidating. There are days when all I want is to hide. There are days when even Skyping friends is so much effort that when I hear the call ringing through my laptop speakers, I cringe.

Some days I hide in my room and feel guilty for not socializing with my family, or walking in the city, or at least going to sit in one of the parks I’m lucky enough to have near my house. And then I think of how little Kartuli I know, and how little English my family knows, and how little I want to play charades, or be stared at, or be accosted with ‘hello!’ and I stay in my room. I want to relax, I reason. I want to watch some NCIS, or paint my nails, or sneak my Pringles chips without interruption. **this never happens without interruption. case in point: my host mother just came in my room to tell me I am a pretty, good girl, and hug me.** But I feel like I cannot relax in my room–I feel guilt from not seizing every second of every day.

I am not alone in this. I’ve talked to other friends here who feel the same way. This weekend, sitting in our hotel in Tbilisi, Brittany and I kept defending our decision not to do any exploring, even though we were perfectly content with a very chill weekend. And we need to stop pushing ourselves so hard to experience everything so quickly. Living abroad is different from vacationing abroad. We have time! Not a lot of it, but enough that it’s okay to take a weekend off from heavy traveling. Kick your feet up! Soak in a nice view! Go shopping, and not for souvenirs. Have a spa day. Carve out a life here–and the locals aren’t going to every spot on the map at the first chance they get. So take a page from that book and don’t feel guilty when you want a break. To quote one of my co-teachers, who is extremely worried that I am pushing myself too hard (I am sick a lot in this country) “Mari, we are not robots. We are humans, Mari.”

So when we are pushing ourselves to see everything, or work on lesson plans, or job search for after our time here–stop. Sometimes it is good and productive to push yourself. And sometimes you need to step back and breathe. And if I ever learn to take my own advice, that would be great.

Tbilisi at night from Hotel Bany. Gorgeous views! But what else would you expect when you hike up half a mountain to get to reception?
Tbilisi at night from Hotel Bany. Gorgeous views! But what else would you expect when you hike up half a mountain to get to reception?

 

just an old, sweet song keeps Georgia on my mind