I’ve been home for a week now, after 31 hours of planes and airports last Thursday, as well as around 50 hours with nothing but an uncomfortable nap. In other words, I took a long time to adjust (even now I still want to fall asleep at six). But the main reason I haven’t posted until now is the sheer amount that happened during our last week in Georgia, and I wanted to take time to think about it.
In Tbilisi we got to explore the Old Town and the semi-famous Rustaveli Avenue most days (the center of the city, basically), as well as a large market in another part of town. The subway we took to get there was an exciting two-minute escalator ride below the ground. Overall, our time in Tbilisi was short, though. Two Fridays ago we were on a two-day trip to Armenian villages in southwest Georgia, and the following Monday and Tuesday we were on a trip to Davit Gareja monastery on the Azerbaijani border, and Kakheti, the Georgian wine country. Our guide I mentioned in my last post, Archil, the renaissance man who’s been in a movie, had works published, and knows the history and culture of just about every village in Georgia, led us off the beaten path to towns with fewer people than my high school but more cultural influences and history than Washington state. While I regret not having a week to experience Tbilisi the way we experienced Bucharest, I think our bus adventures around the country were much worth our time.
Where do I begin? While I wish we’d been able to spend more time in each village, it was quite something to get to talk to some locals. In one Armenian village right on the Turkish border (but I mean, in Georgia), the caretaker of the church came up to us as we got off the bus and started speaking Russian (Georgia and Armenia being ex-Soviet states, most of the older populations speak mainly Russian. In fact, Georgia’s government is trying to implement programs to teach minorities Georgian, to make it more useful as a national language and bring people together). Luckily our professor could translate, and the old man very generously gave us a tour of the church and a bit of town history. The children of the town were super curious about us, and huddled near us the whole time. It was pretty cute, I’ll admit. In other villages, people offered us fresh fruit… or just watched us. Archil and I had fun with candid photography, and one time a mother and young son had fun running from each other for the camera. The real interaction we got was with a family in Cheremi, the last town we visited, in the heart of Georgia’s wine country. This was a house our professor had obviously taken students on previous trips, but nonetheless. They taught us (through a language barrier), how to make khinkali and khachapuri, traditional Georgian foods that we’d had almost every day. It was a lot of fun, but also surprisingly difficult! Folding dough is really an art. This was also preceded by making sweet bread, or at least baking it, for which they use a traditional stone oven. You flatten the dough out, then slap it on the inside wall of the oven, and let it rise. It tastes amazing, too. And finally, this was all followed by a huge dinner with the most food I’ve ever seen on one table. And it was all delicious.
An interesting story from this trip is that we actually walked into Azerbaijan. Literally, the Davit Gareja monastery is a short walk up a hill from the border, which is at the top of that hill and extends up and down that range, with nothing but a few ancient guard towers. Now, if a foreigner were to walk across alone, they might be questioned. But as a group, it is very regular for people to cross the border to see caves on the other side that were inhabited 1000 years ago. It’s an impressive system of caves, with stables, a dining hall, and Christian paintings all over. These weren’t even the first caves we visited, though! By the Turkish border, there is a much larger system of caves (still used by monks with an impressive church) called Vardzia. From around the same time period, these caves feature multiple levels of multiple rooms and tunnels which are, admittedly, quite fun to run through. Here’s a picture:
At the end of this adventure, I was exhausted, but when I got on the plane I was quite sad to be leaving. I’m already planning a trip back next summer (if I don’t choose to go to one of the millions of other places I want to visit…). There is no way I’ll ever be the same person I was before the trip. My group was the greatest I could’ve asked for too, and I made friendships that I know will last, as well as connections I couldn’t have made otherwise.
Arriving home, I truly didn’t know what to do with myself, because I was so used to living with less and out of a suitcase, exploring new places, seeing the same friends daily… but I also didn’t know how I viewed America anymore. I think these are all good things. If travel doesn’t shake your sense of normality, you didn’t go far enough. In reality, travel is quite a selfish thing. Unless you’re working on humanitarian aid or political issues, the truth is your presence doesn’t really help anyone you meet. Other countries are going to develop the way they do no matter what we do. Even if they’re more pro-America than I think is good or would expect from even ex-communist states (maybe my expectations were low, but I tried to not have any). But that said, I think travel’s a very necessary selfish thing. I don’t think we can develop as a nation without knowing, in person, what other people are doing, not just because there are other good ideas out there, but because it’ll always put our place in perspective. If anything, I’m even more grateful for what we have here, but I also see that greatness can go to our head, and that can actually hurt other countries as well. This battle between the East and West that’s gone on for centuries continues to be pointless (although the reasons are great insight into human nature), and destructive for nations like Georgia and Romania literally stuck on the border. Yeah, I still find Russia and the Middle East worrisome, but somehow seeing the actual place — even just from a mountain top on the border — and talking to people who have been there, makes them significantly less scary, because I have a whole new understanding of the area, including why it is the way it is. We’re scared of what we don’t know, and I think too many Americans, Westerners even, don’t know the East well enough. This makes it very confusing for nations who don’t know which direction to turn.
I have a much brighter outlook than that might imply, trust me. These new experiences, though, were so amazing and life changing that I’m permanently addicted, and this home life just isn’t gonna do it for me until I can afford a plane ticket again. The travel bug is something that really sticks, though I never want to get rid of it.