Category Archives: Travel

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.
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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.

#georgianlogic

This country is nothing if not confusing. On a good day, TLGers refer to it as baffling or complex or charming. And on bad days I have sent (and received!) a text or two about this ‘backwards freaking country’. Some stories, in Twitter format.


A brimming cup of hot tea and a bumpy, swerving marshrutka. What could go wrong? #georgianlogic

My throat hurts? Better wrap a scarf around my neck…in the 85* heat. #georgianlogic

It’s 90* today? Still wear three layers and a sweater, but pour water on your head/lap to cool off. #georgianlogic

There are 16 seats on this marshrutka? That means we can fit at least 25 people, easy. #georgianlogic

It’s raining today? I better use this plastic bag instead of my umbrella. #georgianlogic

I’m complaining of a sore throat and ear infection? Better listen to my lungs and ignore my ears/throat before you prescribe five different medications. #georgianlogic

Oh, my family bought sour cream–that will brighten up the fried potatoes we have daily! Oh, no…okay. Sour cream goes on bread only. #georgianlogic

Co-teacher doesn’t want to teach today? Spend all class talking about traveling and complain when the ignored students become rowdy. #georgianlogic

Book two seats on the 3:00 marshrutka, only to be accosted at 2:15 by the marshrutka driver…who is waiting on you to take your seat so he can leave. At 2:15. #georgianlogic

Two-lane road with traffic steady in both directions? The perfect time to pass a semi-tanker stamped with ‘danger’. Bonus points if on a mountain road. #georgianlogic

I’m 23 and not married? Absolutely I would love to be your boyfriend! #taxilogic #georgianlogic #notgonnahappen

I’m 23 and married? Why don’t I have children yet? #taxilogic #georgianlogic #fakering

You want a girl’s phone number? Best way is to grab her phone from her purse when she isn’t looking and call your phone. Later, text her love notes. #georgianlogic

Ordered a Ceasar salad. Came with a cup of mayonnaise Ceasar ‘dressing’. #tasty #georgianlogic

“Whose car is that?” “It is ours.” “When did you get a car?” “Oh, I do not know.” “Did you buy a car today?” “Uh, yeah I guess.” #georgianlogic

Vegetables are finally in season? You should boil them into a tasteless mush before serving. #georgianlogic

Standing next to the trash can and you have trash? How convenient. Better throw the waste on the ground. #georgianlogic

Special thanks to Hannah, Matthieu and Brittany for their additions to #georgianlogic



 

**Bonus Story: A few weeks ago, I was struggling with homesickness and went to pick up the package my sweet Momma sent me. On the way, the taxi driver and I were having a very limited conversation, but it came up that I am from Georgia in America! Boy, he got excited and almost had a wreck as he hurried to show me his Willie Nelson CD’s! We jammed to, what else, Georgia on My Mind, and that was a good taste of home right when I needed it.

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?

 

Life Update (a.k.a Word Vomit)

Wow. It’s been a crazy month!

To start, my fellow teachers (newbies like me and veterans too!), and Georgian co-teachers were all herded to Tbilisi to take part in four days of training to learn how to teach effectively. Besides the odd timing (is the middle of the semester the best time to learn how to teach?) and the wonderful bout of food poisoning I was blessed with, it was a good time to enjoy free Wi-Fi and text to my hearts content and see all my glorious friends and drink too much a reasonable amount with dinner. There was also something in there about learning and seminars, but that was not nearly as fun.

After training, a bunch of us spent the weekend in Tbilisi, and then on Sunday went in search of our various adventures for…Spring Break! I went with Matthieu, Canada Matt, and Lincoln to Armenia and Nagorno-Karabakh.

Y’all. I went on an 8 day adventure, with no set plans, and I had to actually use a backpack because of the walking and not staying in hotels and moving every two days. To put it mildly, I was out of my element. To be truthful, I (and many of my friends) were convinced I was going to kill my traveling companions and end up in Armenia prison. Much to everyones relief, that didn’t happen. It was surprisingly one of the best Spring Break trips I’ve ever taken!

We took marshrutkas/buses from Tbilisi to Yerevan, and then first thing the next morning from Yerevan to Stepanakert, in Nagorno-Karabakh. Firstly, let me explain why no one has heard of this country. Nagorno-Karabakh isn’t a real country. It is a self-declared republic that is, for all intents and purposes part of Azerbaijan. However, they don’t want to be part of Azerbaijan, because the population is ethnically Armenia, so they have declared themselves a republic and are technically at war with Azerbaijan. Upon entering the ‘country’ you get a visa, and that visa means you can’t ever actually enter Azerbaijan, since you technically entered illegally when you entered Nagorno-Karabakh. Was that confusing enough for you?

The views were gorgeous on the eight hour bus ride to Stepanakert, and that city is amazing. Clean and neat and Wi-Fi in the public parks and the best Italian food east of Italy. Really. Also, it’s insanely cheap. More than Tbilisi, I am smitten with Stepanakert. However, there is another city, Agdam, that is bombed out and technically illegal to go to. Of course, our first stop after registering with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs was Agdam. We took a taxi tour through, and then stopped to explore some on foot. We ran into some soldiers, but they were nice and never told us to leave. Snapped some cool pictures of the bombed out city and the blue mosque, and then we were on our way! Initially, I was nervous because it was illegal and I wasn’t too keen on breaking rules. But after talking with the soldiers, I was feeling fine! …and then we were stopped in the next town by the State Police, taken to the station, and questioned for two hours about our intents and purposes in Agdam. And then I was not so keen on the going-to-the-illegal-city. Because I did not care for the “are you Muslim?” “are you Azeri?” “are you in the military?” “why were you there?” “did you take pictures?” line of questioning. Also, we had to delete our pictures, and lets be honest. Going to an illegal city in an unheard of republic is a thousand times cooler when you have the pictures to prove it.

We left the next day, spent some time in Yerevan (Mexican food!!!, Cascade Steps, Republic Square) and then headed back to Tbilisi! I still have the remnants of blisters on my feet *when walking most places for a week straight, pack good shoes!* but it was fun! And if you ever go to Agdam and make it out with your pictures, send me a few. I need to replace mine.

Be ready for adventure.

I have yet to spend a weekend at home with my host family. Instead, I find myself jetting off to Tbilisi, or Bakuriani, or, most recently, Batumi. These trips are always fun and filled with surprises, and the Georgian twist is that things never go as planned. With the Bakuriani trip, we couldn’t find the train station so ended up crammed on a marshrutka. (I was sitting on a stool in the aisle of the bus. I mean crammed.) I thought I had learned to expect the unexpected–that was until we decided to visit Batumi.

Batumi is a port city on the coast of the Black Sea, about 20 minutes from the Turkish border. It’s gorgeous and I’ve fallen in love and I will be going back very soon. But hopefully my journey this time will be a bit smoother.

It started out innocently enough. Brittany, Hannah and I decided to meet in Tbilisi and grab the sleeper train to Batumi. It’s about a 7 hour ride, and we could arrive well-rested and ready to conquer the city! Then, we could grab the sleeper train back and still have Sunday to explore Tbilisi and be home early and ready for the week. Naturally, as Americans we decide to meet at Wendy’s. (American food and wifi? It has become our Mecca.) All is going well–Brittany and Hannah arrive with no problems, and one of my Georgian friends shows up as well. We have a good time talking and laughing and then he offers to drive us to the train station. Not ones to decline free transport, we graciously accept–although the fact that we almost had a head-on collision may have made us regret that just a small bit.

Now we’re at the train station and we’ve bought our tickets and we have two hours to kill. I cannot lie–we are feeling pretty accomplished. Oh, how the mighty do fall. Hot Ryan (a fellow TLG-er who is, you may have guessed, pretty attractive) texts to say he is at the train station, and we meet up to chat before the train leaves. It’s quickly decided that he should join us on our trip! Now we have an hour to grab some snacks and run to his hostel so he can grab his bag. Two metro stops isn’t that far, we reason. We have plenty of time.

…We do not have plenty of time. Somehow, the time moves at warp speed. Where it was 10:15 five minutes ago, now it’s 10:38 and the train leaves at 10:45. As we hustle back onto the metro, we joke about Georgian time versus real time and how the train won’t leave until 11:00, at the earliest. (hint: We are lying to ourselves.) As you might assume, we dash back up the escalators in time to SEE THE TRAIN LEAVE. We were exactly one minute late.

Ever persistent, we brainstormed alternatives. Taxi to the next station and grab the train there? No, we don’t know where that is and it’s a long shot anyway. Marshrutka to Batumi? No, the last one left hours ago. Train to Kutaisi and then taxi? Nope–that was the last train of the night. Finally we admit defeat and decide to grab a taxi. To Batumi. Six hours away. At midnight. Sanity had clearly left us. So after paying more than twice what our train tickets cost, we are jammed in a taxi ready for the night. We’ve got makeshift pillows and snacks and we are trying hard to make this an adventure! I think we all manage to grab a little sleep, but it was most definitely worth it the next day!

A lemon-filled croissant on the sea wall, lunch in Turkey, and the sunset over the Black Sea most certainly tops my list of best days while traveling. And that night, we slept soundly on the sleeper train back to Tbilisi. Lessons learned: Roll with the punches, don’t ever leave the station with only an hour before departure, and always be ready for an adventure.