Friday, June 24, 2011

Almost home

Twice before in my blog I have shared my reflections from airports. The first one was written while on my way to the Republic of Georgia to begin this adventure.  The second one was written while in transit back to Georgia after a few weeks of seeing the world during my Christmas/New Year's break from school. I just read back through those two posts. It seemed fitting to do so, seeing that I'm sitting in a bar in the Kiev airport -- the only place I could find with an electrical outlet so that I could charge up my laptop for my long flight over the Atlantic. They have some great beer on tap, but it is only 10:30 a.m. So while lots of men and women around me are imbibing in pints or liters of foamy draft that do look awfully tasty, I've got a bottle of water sitting on the table beside me. Dehydration, you know.

Back to my previous posts. Despite wanting to give the text in the first one a good re-write (did I forget that paragraph-breaks are needed?), I was again reminded of the two recognition-constants for me in airports: people and situations. These are still true. Today I saw three people who looked like former students, one who looked like a friend I used to climb with, and another, one of my aunts. 

The second post about being "In-between".... Well, I didn't need to read it to be reminded of the "In-between-ness" of traveling; I've been living in a sort of limbo for the last..... how many days ago did I leave Shamgona? And what day is it now? Four days? No, for three days, I have been trying to get a flight out of Georgia. And for the next two days, I will be existing in the spaces between sky and the doorways to the sky.

That's what airports are -- doorways to the sky. You step through the doors of the airport, walk down a few hallways, through a few more doors and a tunnel or two, strap yourself to a seat, and suddenly you're in the sky. Then you reverse the process until you are back out the main doorway to the world and terra firma. But in that in-between space of transit, you're nowhere. The international spaces in airports aren't even a part of the country in which they are located. Well, of course, technically, they are, but barely. You can move freely within this small portal of "In-between-ness" without having to dispose of any water bottles that you buy. Until moving through passport control and customs, you are not really anywhere -- still in the space between the doorway and the sky. That's why, in the list of countries I have been to, I don't count the countries where I have only been in the airport: El Salvador, the Netherlands, St. Thomas, and now, the Ukraine.

It has been over 24 hours since I wrote that first part of my post. I was not able to continue it on the 10-and-a-half-hour flight from Kiev to New York City. Due to some changes made to the plane, no electronic equipment could be used -- there weren't even any video monitors on the plane. When my "single-serving friend" (Fight Club) and seat-mate asked the flight attendant what we were supposed to do for such a long flight with no entertainment, the flight attendant replied, "Read. Talk." I finished reading the book I had with me (Message in a Bottle -- if I hadn't guessed the ending, I would've cried), talked with my seat-mate (a former Ukrainian super-model who now runs her own modeling school), and dozed off repeatedly for fifteen or twenty minutes at a time ( -- a way to disorient yourself, for sure.) 

My layover at JFK was just as crazy-long as the flight there -- a 13-ish-hour layover. Overnight. 

My flight got in at 5:30 p.m., and since it was my first point-of-entry in the U.S., I had to pick up my luggage (It arrived!) and work my way through the Sky Doorway before I could venture out onto American soil. 

I was so exhausted, I actually paid $5 for a luggage cart at the baggage claim to haul everything around with me for the night. (When I was standing in front of the machine contemplating whether or not to fork over so much money for the cart, an airport security official meandered by and said hello. I greeted him back, and he nodded at the machine, "Highway robbery! Everywhere else in the world, they're free!") In the state I was in, I couldn't carry everything, so I paid.

I felt like garbage. I was freezing cold, yet my skin burned. My raging headache kept me from thinking coherently. Slow motion governed my every move. 

Since I would now be flying within the country for my last two flights, I had to change terminals from international to domestic. Once I stumbled to where I needed to be, in my bleariness, I scouted around for a place to sleep where I would be out of the way, but still visible. The space in front of the ticketing area was carpeted, so I picked a spot to the side where I would be out of the way of the constant swirl of people and luggage. I unclipped some of the straps on my backpacks and hooked the two bags together, then to the metal bars of the cart. I put my large handbag under the cart and attached it, too to the cart. My last carry-on was so heavy, I silently dared anyone to try running off with it. With the cup of tea that I had bought at Starbucks (Starbucks!), I took a Tylenol PM, blew up my inflatable travel pillow, set my watch alarm for 4:15 a.m., put earplugs in my ears, and lay down on the floor. I covered up with a long, jersey dress and leather jacket from my carry-on. The last thing I did before falling dead-asleep was cover my eyes with my travel-eye-cover-thing. It was 8:45 p.m.

When I went to sleep, I was the only sleeper at the edge of the check-in line chaos. But I awoke at 4:08 to a still room and a half-dozen other people who had taken a cue from my lead. Snaked all along the edge of the wall, passengers in a lull from transit, lay sleeping. The cleaning crew were the only people up and moving. 

Thank God for Tylenol PM. I felt much better after a relatively decent night's sleep.

Three flights down, one to go.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Travel karma

I have a new itinerary to go home. It includes four different flights over two days with 15 hours overnight at JFK. Fun times.

I want to believe that I am really going home, but, as another TLG teacher in my position observed, this situation is feeling a good deal like Casablanca.... we're all just trying to get out, and there are no tickets. I think a pair of Dorothy's ruby slippers may be more valuable and reliable than an e-ticket right now. I have a taxi scheduled to pick me up in the morning at 4:30, but until that plane is off the ground, I still have some doubts swirling around in my head that my ticket is really going to be valid.

I lit four candles at a church I went to today. If anyone out there wants to light some for me, please feel free. Or feel free to say a prayer or two. Or do a dance under the stars. Or hold your breath. Or cross your fingers. Or knock on wood. Or anything else that you feel will help my travel-karma stay good all the way home. 

But for now, I need to consolidate three bags down to two. Anyone have a shrinking ray gun??

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Back to my first Georgian mantra

Did I say that I am not surprised by anything that happens here in Georgia anymore?

I lied.

I spent a lovely day in Tbilisi on an architectural tour, a stop into the National Gallery, and a walk around the old town. I got to go into a church that I had been wanting to see and had a friend light some candles for me in another church since I wasn't dressed properly at that moment to go inside. I turned in my phone at the Ministry of Education, had my last lobiani (bean-filled bread) from my favorite lobiani stand, and went back to my hostel to make sure I had everything ready to fly out.

Another teacher was flying out at roughly the same time as me, so we asked the guy who runs the hostel, Misha, to call a taxi for us to come pick us up after midnight.

About 10 p.m., I was online looking at a map of Warsaw in preparation for my 10-hour lay-over there. There are some great sights that I am excited to see.

Suddenly my Yahoo! Mail tab displayed a "(1 unread)" in bold letters. I clicked that tab and was surprised to see an email from TLG Flights. I almost didn't click on it. My first thought was, "I already have all my flight information. I wonder why Alex emailed it to me." But I hovered over the [No Subject] with my pointer for only a moment and then clicked. This is what I read:

Dear Stephanie

I’ m very sorry

Travel agency called me now and they told me than ticket was canceled…

Your flight delayed until June 23 4:40 AM

I’m sorry again
Please please confirm email.

I’m very sorry again.

Please call me tomorrow any time



I had to read the message a couple of times before I realized what it said -- and that it wasn't a joke. Everyone in the common room in the hostel that I had been chatting with read my incredulous expression. They knew that something very unexpected had happened. The utter shock registered on my face loud and clear. Misha was sitting next to me on the sofa and looked at the email displayed on the computer screen. He said, "Oh wow." I read the email aloud for everyone. Exclamations of disbelief bounced around the room as everyone expressed their horror at my news. Misha poured me the glass of beer I had refused earlier and put on another of the extreme mountain-biking videos we had been watching on his laptop. It was just what I needed to detach for a few minutes while the news processed in my brain.

After a couple of glasses of beer and a few awesome downhill-biking videos, I sent a reply email to Alex. It read, "Okay. I'll come by the office tomorrow to get my new itinerary." Misha said that my bed from last night was still available -- good -- I'm going to need it. I gathered up my laptop and stepped out of the room to call my brother who would be picking me up in California and my mom who would worry if she didn't know what was happening.

Back in December I wrote a couple of posts about the time zone that Georgia operates in -- GMT -- which everyone lovingly refers to as "Georgian Maybe Time." It was at that time that I adopted the mantra that kept me sane for the first few months while learning to deal with the lack of regard for time and details and planning: "Flexibility and spontaneity." I have learned to go with whatever comes my way. No problem. No stressing out. No freak-outs. But this one was almost more than I could handle. Thanks to deep breaths, calm words from Misha, and my mantra, I didn't stress out or freak out. It's out of my control. Tonight I will sleep and look forward to an extra day in Tbilisi.

Who knows what tomorrow may hold?

(Hopefully, a for-real plane ticket home.)

Monday, June 20, 2011


She looked at her silent phone.

"One hour and a half."

Her eyes met mine across the table. Over the stuffed eggplant and peppers. Over the khatchapuri and salad. Over the cake and fruit. Over the bread and wine. The trappings of suphra lay witness to the rapid passage of time. Our eyes met in silent affirmation of connection and sadness and love.

"How can it be so little left?" She voiced our collective thought -- I found it fitting that the word "Time" was not said aloud. We both smiled the same slow, sad smile.

How could it have been so little time left?

I wondered this for the last few days that I was in the village. Days that seemed to fly by with no respect to the importance of each moment spent between kindred spirits. Time that should have dragged its feet through the mud of the Present, yet seemed to fly on the wings of the ethereal and eternal, with no thought for tomorrow or the sadness that it would bring as two close friends parted ways.

What is Time, and how does it pass by with devastating rapidity when all you want to do is hold it back and make it stay still -- not forever, but just long enough to give credence to the importance of the Time that is ending? It's like trying to grab ahold of a stream of falling sand. The harder you try to grasp the flying particles, the faster it sifts through the empty space between your fingers. Falling into the ever-widening Past. Becoming history before you have a chance to process what is Present.

I know that the metaphor of time as sand in an hourglass is cliche, yet it is fitting. (That's why it's so cliche!) The last few days, I have wanted to grab the proverbial hourglass out of the air and lay it down on its side for just a little while -- just a little "time-out" while the important things are said and held onto. Love and appreciation need to be expressed. The words of affirmation that have gone unuttered need to find voice. Thanks need to be given. The weight of my world hangs in the balance between Past and Present. And "there's no time like the present" isn't staying put. It's flying by faster than I can notice and process and react to.

That is how I felt during my last few hours in Shamgona.

Over the last seven months, Tea and I developed a relationship that is as close as kin. She is like a sister to me (I promised to leave her my Cholchis tetri in my will). And I know that I am the same to her. Yet our daily interaction has now come to an end. I will not wake up to her smiling face at the breakfast table. I will not discuss our day's lessons or students with her. I will not make cheese after she has milked the cows and buffalo. I will not giggle with her over the unintelligible things that "Our Grandmother" comes out with. I will not hear her mutter under her breath to the cows or chickens or turkeys or kids or husband..... And I will miss these things. But mostly, I will miss her. I will miss our discussions about education and culture. I will miss our times of silence.... the few precious moments that we enjoyed when they tip-toed in on stocking feet -- we recognized them and barely breathed so as not to scare them away. I will miss our looks of understanding without the need for words. I will miss her laugh. I will miss her heart and her soul and her mind. She is the kind of friend that everyone longs for -- the kind that few actually find.

And now, Time has separated us.

But that's the special thing about kindred spirits and friendship -- Time and distance make no difference. We will always be as close as we were yesterday.

So, although my mind's last picture of Tea is her standing in the dreary drizzle on the railroad platform in her A-line skirt, striped shirt, and flats -- weight on one foot with the other pointed outward, hands clasped on her hip, sad smile on her lips -- she will always be present with me in my heart and in my mind (and on facebook). A true friend that Time cannot taint nor distance separate.

And I love her.

Sunday, June 19, 2011

Every end is another beginning

I hate goodbyes.  I prefer to say, "See you later." Even if I don't think I will see that person again, I don't like the idea of never seeing someone again. Especially if they mean a lot to me. 

Like Tea. There's no way in this world that I will not see her again. 

I spent the day (Sunday) doing lots of "lasts." My last breakfast in the village. My last time greeting Tea with a cheerful, "Morning!" My last cup of coffee with Tea, enjoying the silence and the rain. My last run through Shamgona. My last shower in the green-tiled bathroom. My last time to wash dishes in the yard. My last time to pull up buckets of water from the well (inevitably getting my feet wet no matter how careful I was). My last supra. My last toasts to the friends that I have grown to love here. My last time to pack for a trip away from the village. And my last goodbye. 

But every "goodbye" to one thing is a "hello" to something else -- another beginning to something new. 

Right now I am on a train headed for Tbilisi. I have said goodbye to my wonderful host family who is truly family to me. Then I fly back to the U.S.A., and I will try hard not to have a heart-attack at the range of choice available at every turn in everything from shampoo and bread to cars and TV stations. Living for seven months with few, if any choices will make America's range of available products seem overwhelming, if not obscene.

My new beginning will include a few much-needed improvements in myself. I have written a bit about growth, and those are the lessons that I will strive to live out in my life from here on. Lessons that I have learned from these blessed people that I have lived with and around for the better part of a year. Lessons like generosity, hospitality, selflessness, and helpfulness. I am leaving Georgia a changed person.

For my counterpart in this adventure that has come to an end (Tea), this end is a beginning for her, too. She has also grown. Her English skills have increased exponentially in these months. She is a much better teacher now than she was at the beginning of this year. Her motivation and enthusiasm for her profession is driving her to learn everything she can about education and the best methods to use in her preparation and classroom management. She will pass her certification exams with no problem. I am sure of it. And she will influence many, many students to become the best they can be for their future -- potential, improvement, and possibility are all within their grasp. With a teacher like Tea, they will believe in themselves and fulfill their dreams. 

I leave Shamgona with a strange mixture of happiness and heaviness. I am thrilled to be headed home. But I am so sad to leave those that I have grown to love here -- Tea especially. At our suphra tonight, she told me that I am her closest friend -- the one that she can tell anything. My hope is that someday I can make possible for her what she has done for me -- to host her for an extended period of time in the U.S. Spending time in America will improve her language skills in ways that she only dreams of right now. So we have already started planning for that possibility in the future. I just need someplace to live… and a job so I can support her as she has supported me for these many months. 

As the train pulled away from the station in Zugdidi tonight, I looked out the window. Tea, Koba, Elene, and Zaza stood there, waving goodbye as a few drops of rain fell from the clouds. I waved back and blew a kiss to Tea. How I will miss all of them….

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Today was hard....

.... and tomorrow will be harder.

After I finished sorting and cataloguing the books in the library at the school, I interrupted the training session that my colleagues were having in preparation for their certification exam in a few weeks. It was time for me to say goodbye. All the ladies hugged and kissed me -- several with tears in their eyes. The lump in my throat pushed its way up and blocked any words from escaping my lips. I could only nod in agreement as each precious friend took my hands, kissed me, looked me in the eyes, wished me well, and said goodbye. When I finally found my voice, with tears in my eyes, I told them all how much I love and appreciate them. They made me promise to come back again, at least to visit. Lika walked me out of the building. Our teary goodbye happened at the front door. Then, for the last time, I walked out of the school building, through the front gate, and up the road to Tea's house.

Tea had left me several things to do today. We'll be having a suphra tomorrow before I go to the train station, and since she had to be at her training session all day long, I cooked in preparation for the suphra. I know my way around the kitchen well enough now that I can do the cooking with no problem. Several times throughout the day, "Our Grandmother" or Koba popped into the kitchen to see what I was doing. As I sliced up veggies, shredded carrots, fried eggplant, peppers, and carrots, they smiled.

When the preliminary cooking was done, I collected the dirty dishes from all over the house and took them out to the outdoor sink to wash them. I don't think I'll ever again be surrounded by so many animals  while washing dishes.

After I had cleaned and straightened up everything that I could in the lower house, I went to my room in the upper house. I stood in the middle of the room looking around as if lost. I needed to start packing, but somehow, I couldn't bring myself to do it. As I stood there, wondering what was wrong with me, I realized that I have come full circle. Just before leaving the U.S., I read John Steinbeck's Travels with Charley. In one of my very first posts in this blog, I quoted a passage from the book. It had to do with not wanting to leave what is familiar and comfortable for the unknown. Don't get me wrong -- I want to go home. But is really hard to leave.

I certainly prefer my lifestyle that is possible in the U.S., but I have grown accustomed enough to village-life to feel comfortable here. Nothing surprises me anymore. I have adapted to the culture and lifestyle. I am loved, appreciated, and accepted (mostly!). And now, I am going to start the cycle all over again...... culture shock included.

I finally pulled out a backpack and started the process of packing.

Friday, June 17, 2011

A piece of Georgian history

I come by my love of antiques honestly. I grew up surrounded by reclaimed, refinished, and refurbished treasures that my parents brought back to life and put to good use in our house. My favorite book in my personal library is an antique copy of Thoreau's Walden that my parents gave me. Another of my favorite possessions is a 1,700-year-old Mayan jade earplug from Guatemala that I bought in Chichicastenango. 

Today I was given another of my favorite antique possessions. But I'll get to that in a minute.

I spent a few hours of this rainy day in the school library sorting and organizing and reshelving the books in English. First I sorted them into categories: nonfiction, fiction, and children's books. Then I sorted the children's books by level. The nonfiction books were grouped into a few categories. Then I tackled the fiction pile. From that group, I pitched all of the Harlequin romance novels (not what the teenagers need to be reading) and then divided them into drama, mystery, sci-fi, and classic literature piles. It took me about four hours to get to that point in my organization. 

At that point, Lika came into the library and told me that Irina wanted us to go to her house to see her "house museum." She had told me about some of the ancient coins that she has in her collection of antiques, and she did not forget that I wanted to see them. So I left the books where they lay piled around the empty shelves, and went off to see Irina's collection. I can finish my job tomorrow.

Irina's house is situated on the bank of the river that forms the border with Abkhazia. Her house is riddled with bullet holes from the war. There are still ditches dug along the riverbanks that were used as foxholes during the conflict. Sobering.

But, alongside her house sits a small, wooden structure constructed in the fashion of the old days, timbers locked together at the corners like Lincoln Logs with a packed-mud floor, gated door, and fire pit in the center of the room. One single room is all that was needed in those days -- everything happened in one room -- living, eating, sleeping, cooking, and hanging out. Now, this room houses antiquities from Georgia's long and storied history. Everything from cooking implements to photographs to old phonographs and records to weapons to clothing to furniture, and what I really wanted to see, the old coins.

While Irina's husband showed us (Lika, Teona, and me) all their treasures, Irina prepared the table in the museum for a little suphra. After an hour of looking at the antiquities and hearing the stories behind them, we sat at the table and, in true Georgian fashion, ate and drank and toasted for a couple of hours. 

Partway through the suphra, Irina's husband left the room after starting the round of toasts for Georgian history. He came back after a few minutes and stepped behind me. He held out his hand and motioned for me to do the same. I did. He put a tiny silver coin into my hand -- one of the first coins used in Georgia -- a coin dating back to the 5th or 4th century BC. Then he put a little piece of paper in my hand, put the coin into it, wrapped it up, and closed my fingers around the package. I looked up at him agape. I couldn't believe that he was really giving me this piece of Georgian history. But he was. He did. I was speechless.

I will never cease to be amazed at the generosity of these wonderful people. In fact, for the toast for guests that I gave at today's suphra I said, "If Georgians ever stop receiving guests with such hospitality, they will cease to be Georgian."

I have been blessed over and over again by this essential quality of this unique culture.

Cooking pots hanging over the fire in the museum

Antique icon -- the bullet hole at the top of the icon is from the Abkhazian war

The suphra table

Irina and her husband toasting with wine-filled horns

Lika and I drinking from the horns "Vakhtanguri" (arms linked)

Irina and husband posed with me outside their house museum

My newest treasure