Tag 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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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?

 

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.

Am I a Teacher Yet?

First things first: check out Lyndsay (kittycat) Ballew’s blog for a glimpse at village life in Georgia. *hint–she went on a picnic and her food was still alive during the walk.


You can tell where you are in life by the thoughts you have, or what’s in your purse/murse, or how grateful you currently are for varying technologies.

Example: If you’ve recently thought ‘oh, good! I can get three hours of sleep tonight and still finish this paper!’ then you’re in college.

My life now is wrapped around thoughts like:

  • “Oh my gosh, getting these children to stay on the same page is harder than herding cats.”
  • “If I let this one sneeze on me, maybe I’ll get sick and can sleep in tomorrow.”
  • “Do not curse at the little munchkins. Do not curse.”
  • “Please stop talking.”
  • “She should get in trouble. She’s disobeying. But her persistence is admirable.”
  • “Oh good grief, child. The sentence is ‘He is running.’ Why is that hard?!?”
  • **about a teacher’s pet** “Was I this annoying in elementary school? Mrs. Aiken I am SO sorry.”
  • “Seriously, shut up.”
  • “Literally just said that word out loud four times. If you would listen you would pronounce it correctly.”
  • “You’re cute, but you’re not very good at being sneaky. Now I have to be the bad person and take your phone.”
  • **follow up thought** “Why do you have a smart phone at 9 years old?”
  • “You’re my favorite…Wait, can I have favorites?”
  • “Are you really gonna make me sit next to you before you pay attention?”
  • “I wonder what would happen if I just screamed at them all. Could I surprise them into silence?”
  • “Why are they screaming so much?!?”
  • “Thank you Jesus–I just saw the light bulb turn on.”
  • “Breakthrough! We just had a breakthrough!”
  • “Okay, maybe we are making progress.”

Those last three thoughts are what make this worth it, most of the time.

And my purse? It now has a ‘healthy’ (pun intended) supply of hard candies and a myriad of stickers.

….am I a teacher yet? Even a little bit? I hope so–because otherwise I’m exhausted for nothing.

Also, props to Brooks Stevens. Wikipedia says I have you to thank for the wonder that is the clothes dryer. (developing country problems)

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.

 

Why? Because…

Society seems to be addicted with wanting to know the reasons we do things. “Why do you choose to be vegan?” or “Why do you want to get married so young?” or the one applicable to me “Why do you want to travel so much?”. For a long time, I stuttered through an answer that sounded a lot like “Oh, uhm…passport stamps?” which is definitely not the reason but it’s a good deflector. For now, though, this is why I travel:

1.I love the sense of wonder and the curiosity and also the nerves (masochistic as that may be) that lead up to travel. I love those moments in transit where you are a blinking red dot on a map, constantly moving. I love the sense of anonymity that starts in the airport, and doesn’t fully leave you until you come back home.

2. I love what traveling does for me. The experiences I have had abroad make me a stronger person. Flying by myself at the age of 12 was a good start, and working through the hell that is homesickness (a real sickness, you guys. REAL.) and then finding the courage to move away again are evidence of the little bits of strength that I have gained. I like understanding now that there is no weakness in missing people, only in letting that feeling control your actions.

3.The person I am when traveling is the best version of myself, and the one I love the most. I am better at making decisions, I am more confident, and I am certainly more happy. …I’m also more sassy, which I love, but I’m sure others could maybe do without.

4. Being away makes me more appreciative of being at home. There is a sliding scale for this. If I leave for 10 days, I am happy with home for 4 days before I’m planning another escape. When I was gone for almost 6 months, I think I had a 2 month honeymoon period before it seemed like the walls were closing in. I love my family and friends always, but I appreciate them more when I cannot take them for granted. Occasional emails, Facebook messages, and Skype dates make me love who I surround myself with.

5. Mostly, I love the people I meet and the things we do while in a country. Feeding elephants with my team in Malaysia; Working with children in Peru; The weekend trips skiing or shopping in Tbilisi. These are fun moments that differentiate my trip to a country from others who travel to the same place.