At the end of August, I left my safe nest in Oregon and flew abroad, for the first time, to the Republic of Georgia to teach English in a small village school just outside Telavi. I was one of a group of 60 volunteers accepted into a government-sponsored program the country started only three years ago in an attempt to boost its place in the world, gain acceptance into the EU, and strengthen interpersonal relationships with other English-speaking countries.
Although I spent an immense amount of time studying the country and solo travel before heading over there, it would be an understatement to say I was unprepared for the trip. Then again, I don't think any amount of extra research could've adequately prepared me. My 15 weeks there have opened my eyes almost, it seems, for the first time. Whoever said travel reminds you of how small a place in the world you occupy was not kidding.
In a way, I guess you could say I romanced my trip. The man stamping my passport didn't smile when he welcomed me to Georgia, like I had imagined he would. Instead he looked me up and down, checked my passport to verify a few details, then plunked the stamp down on one of the pages. "You can go," he said, waving me by. Waiting by the luggage carousel to pick up my bags, I listened to the people around me and realized all over again no one spoke English. All I wanted to do was Skype with my mom, chug a liter of water, then fall asleep for a few days.
When I first arrived, I was more than panicked. I was so overwhelmed that I had a headache each day my entire first week there. What had I gotten myself into? Perhaps if I'd been whisked away from the airport and into the loving and hospitable arms of a host family, my transition would've been smoother. But each volunteer was picked up from the airport by the program staff and taken to the Bazaleti Palace Hotel, a depressing building decorated in dark maroon-colored carpeting and everything smelled like smoke. While the people in the program were more than friendly, every single one of them had traveled out of country before. I was literally the only one who hadn't. It seemed I was the only one feeling the out-of-placeness I so wished to overcome and discard; file away in the "been there done that" box.
Before I came to Georgia, I read so many travel blogs, daydreaming of my own future trip to a beautiful country. The writer's experiences, especially from young women, made me think solo travel wouldn't be as scary as I once thought it to be. They adjusted well, met great people, and I hadn't read one post about anything "difficult." Once I was there, I couldn't help but compare myself to the writers of those blogs. Why was I having such a difficult time? It was only at the end of my trip that I realized my feelings were normal and I shouldn't have been so hard on myself. I didn't pick France, Italy, or England as my first trip; there is no doubt those places would've been easier. I picked Eastern Europe, next to Russia, Azerbaijan, and Turkey, with a history of strict Soviet attitudes still present in schools. Of course I would have those feelings of being lost, lonely, and scared! Each and every day there presented me with a new challenge.
There was the water, which my host family deemed unclean to drink and so we collected water in a bucket from a well or bought bottled water from the small village market. There was overcoming the language barrier and forcing myself to learn the difficult alphabet that is kartuli. There was walking around in my village or in cities and having everyone stare at me because I clearly looked foreign. And there was seeing the exploitation of children on streets, sitting or lying down on pieces of cardboard, begging for money, no parents around. I had seen homeless people in the states, of course, but never children left alone to do the begging. They and the endless amount of stray dogs made my heart hurt.
Perhaps the biggest challenge traveling abroad for the first time to a country that could be considered "third world," was remembering how incredibly lucky I am to have not only had this opportunity, but to have added a whole new perspective to my view of the world. Finally, I was in one of those faraway countries I so often saw footage of on the news. But there was a catch: I was constantly at war with myself as to whether I should feel grateful to have been born in a country where I have so many opportunities and knowing English truly is a blessing or guilty because the people in my village longed for the belongings in my photos from home and the same salary my parents earned. It was always an internal debate: do I remain honest and answer their question as to how much a certain profession earns in the U.S. or do I spare myself the sad looks, lie and say no, it's not double what you earn here?
I never fully adjusted to life in Georgia, but I learned how to get along well enough to do what I came there for: teach English to first through sixth graders. I fell in love with my students, who communicated with me through gifts of gummy bears and pictures of red and purple hearts. I fell in love with my host family, who gave me an unforgettable birthday celebration by lighting lanterns that would float off into the silent world one evening and who, even if I said I wasn't hungry, weren't convinced and would bring me plates of food and endless cups of black tea. They taught me the word family isn't just a noun or an adjective, but also a verb and it knows no continental divide.
Above all, I will always be thankful to Georgia for reminding me through a midnight panic attack of just how small I am in this big, big world. While lying in bed one night trying to fall asleep, the overwhelming feeling rushed over and covered me like a blanket. The feeling was exactly what I had been hoping to find while there: humbling. Far too often, many of us get caught up in our own lives, our own troubles, our own successes. We forget how small a space in the world we occupy and forget about the rest of the world. It is thanks to Georgia that I was put in my place. Pun intended.
To read more about my experiences in Georgia, check out my blog!