Tuesday, February 11, 2014

This is what happens when you don't travel enough

You run the risk of transforming into a fiction writer.

Join me over at my tumblr, a format I had written off as ridiculous and unnecessary, but when you don't have time to design something well, you might as well microblog.

Sunday, May 20, 2012

Travel Fatigue, or Exhaustion, or Mentally Checking Out

Dublin -> Barcelona -> Paris -> Vienna -> Prague

Roughly 14 days.

That's a little less than 3 days a city.

My biggest problem with my recent jaunt to Europe was not so much the lack of time, but a lack of will. I spent the first half of the trip (which logged up to Paris on the above list) doing as much as possible. By the 6th or 7th day, I honestly wanted to curl up and not have the responsibility of doing everything I had said I'd do. There was just too much. I'm glad I cut Munich out of my trip - I don't even know where I would have fit it in.

It so happened that a lazy day in Vienna brought on by a previous late night with many drinks and laughs came as a welcome respite. By the time I got to Prague, I just wanted to wander around.

Still, I managed to get out and do most of what I had set out to do. Next time, I won't overload so much.

I'll have more on my trip later. For now I'm going to nurse my jet lag.

Monday, April 30, 2012

In Keeping With Theme (This Being Candid Reflection On Travel)

Here's a piece of advice for travelers: don't cut your trip short.

I mean it, damnit. Don't do it. Commit to a set amount of time and stick it out, unless you are in mortal danger, debt, or (serious, serious) doldrums.

You'll regret it otherwise.

Oh, you'll convince yourself that you made the right decisions for you, but deep down you'll know it's a half-truth. Eventually, the worm of regret will bore its way into your memories, feasting on the negative and leaving a trail of sunshine and sparkles (I'm not sure what kind of metaphor I've constructed here). Shortly: you'll idealize your trip and there's just no escaping it. Leaving a path early always means you're running from something, and at the very least you'll think less of yourself for not rising to the challenge. At worst, the creeping realization that you have missed out on one of life's great gifts (opportunity) will find its way into your quietest moments. Rain won't hit the pavement with the same satisfying patter as on the road. Food - bland at best in light of your foreign cuisine. Conversations about your experiences will always end with a faint air of discontent.

I'm projecting so hard I can hear cars pulling up around me for the drive-in movie.

Let me start over: my name is Adam and I should have gone back to Georgia.

Despite everything you've read here, I know now that I would have benefited from more time. I don't regret my move to Chicago - the city has been amazing to me. I've met incredibly people and started to piece things together. Found a job, found another apartment, found hobbies, payed rent. And I miss Virginia - my family, my home. But still.

I don't yearn to hop on a plane and land in Tbilisi two days later. I would probably still have moved to Chicago had I spent another couple of months in Georgia (could I make this any clearer, Chicago friends? I wouldn't trade you for anything). But I could have had that extra time in Sakartvelo. And I should have.

I regret cutting it short because it was the wrong decision masquerading as the correct one. I was scared, lonely, and far away from home. And yet, even as I felt those things, I was adjusting. I was making Georgia my home. I gave it up because I was short-sighted and homesick.

Fortunately, I didn't lose much on the deal. It was a life-changing experience that didn't end in death, disease, or total bankruptcy. Maybe it would've - but next time I'll wait it out.

Lesson learned.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Welcome to the Windy City


Chicago, for God's sake, Chicago.

I moved up here recently. A while ago. A month, to be precise. Unlike previous adventures that led me far from the Old Dominion State, this one smacks of permanence. I've met people, explored the city, eaten the food, found a job, and invested like an adult, yet nobody told me it felt like this to grow up. Somewhere on the fifteen hour drive up here, my Honda loaded with most of my belongings, somewhere between Ohio and Indiana where the long bends of the highway stretched to the horizon and the dust started kicking up hard from the eighteen-wheelers, somewhere near where the timezone shifted an hour back and for my efforts I was rewarded with an extra hour - somewhere in the midst of these old travel familiarities I realized that I would be expected to take on responsibilities.

It was at that point that I began considering alternative exits. Still, I pushed on.

And there it was, cutting a formidable skyline against a gorgeous blue stage, buildings jutting haphazardly in all directions. Chicago laid out before me, corners hiding so many secrets that I nearly shook with anticipation despite the heat. A traveler with a destination like this needs no other reward than a clear sky and a world of possibilities.

Breathtaking.

After a month, the initial shock ought to have worn off, unless I have a thing for bustling city life framed by gorgeous architecture. There's always that. I'm not ruling it out, is what I'm saying. I have new friends griping with good-natured grins about how dull Chicago can feel at times, and I can only smile back - confident that they would just love the extreme night life of Hampton Roads. Italics in this case indicate sarcasm. In case that was not a signal you could identify.

I could take on a whole new identity here, but I miss Virginia far too much. So for now I'll be this weird bastard hybrid travel-child. Settled down - for the time being.

After all, I can't let the maps get too dusty.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Time and Distance, part 2

This is a continuation of my previous post, Time and Distance, part 1. So if you skipped over that, this post is going to feel awfully in medias res. Go back and read the first one. You wouldn't watch Star Wars IV-VI before you saw I-III, would you?

Wait...

4. What, if anything, have you learned from your experience in Georgia?

A lot of Georgian. Just kidding.

I didn't learn that much.

Kidding again. I learned that if I'm going to get involved with something like this again, I'm going to learn as much as possible about the place I'm going. Wikipedia articles and the occasional Lost Planet entry weren't enough. The unfortunate thing about Georgia prior to this program's formation was that the information available typically treated Georgia with a post-Soviet attitude - that is to say, it was written under the assumption that Georgia was most heavily influenced by the fact that it had been occupied by Russia. There's some logic to this. After all, when you spoke to anyone about Georgia last year, they would have either said "Isn't that a part of Russia?" (the number one most common response) or "Oh yeah, didn't they have a war with Russia a couple of years ago?" (referring to the South Ossetia war of 2008). Back then, I typically responded no and yes, respectively. My attitude was already shaped: it's a post-Soviet nation.

Having now lived amongst its people, I would like to say without qualifiers that Georgia is so much more than its Soviet past, because it is. However, that doesn't mean that it is unaffected by that chunk of its history. I glimpsed the bitterness the Soviets left behind in discussion with old Georgian men - haggard storytellers entrenched in their disdain for Georgia's northern neighbor. "It's not the Russian people I don't like," most of them would insist, "but rather the government." Whoever they don't like, they have still done very little to expunge Russian cultural influence from their country, a fact made clear by the persistence of Russian language on street signs and in textbooks (or more obviously, every time I was asked if I spoke Russian). There are some stops on the Tbilisi metro, a two-line affair I still managed to get lost on, that have signs only in Georgian and Russian.

Enough about Russia. I've said very little that you couldn't learn in a decent travel encyclopedia, or maybe Georgia for Dummies (is that a thing? Dibs). The nitty-gritty? Georgia's kind of crazy. Marshutkas flying everywhere, vodka at eight in the morning, weddings that last all night and into the next afternoon. Any excuse to throw supra, any chance to try out a little English on a foreigner, any way to impress upon visitors that Georgia has mastered the fine art of hospitality. They have, by the way. But that's a heavily gilded lily, and after a while hospitality starts to feel a little insistent. My favorite visits were the ones in which I stayed for long enough that the novelty of my presence began to wear off and those I was with began to talk amongst themselves. When this happened, I finally felt like a part of the family rather than a foreigner. Then I would go to the next party or house and the cycle would start all over.

I don't harbor any sort of resentment for this sort of thing. I imagine that this reaction stems from years of oppression and isolation. Any novelty must be particularly intense when you've spent so much of your life assuming that Russian control would be all you'd ever know.

I learned a lot about myself as well, something that a cursory sweep of my previous posts will reveal instantly. I learned how to drink like a Georgian man (quickly and always with a toast prepared). I learned how to motivate Georgian students (promise you'll play soccer with them after class). I learned how to live in a place entirely outside of my comfort zone (with lots of loving support from friends - and a cache of movies on my hard drive for those late, restless nights).

Since I've returned, I've learned how to process a long, difficult and truly unique experience.

5. What will you miss the most?

This is easy. I already miss the people like crazy. I miss my Georgian family, laughing and smiling and perpetually snacking on mandarins. Strangely enough, I also miss the freedom that living abroad affords. With such a low cost of living, adventures were often relatively inexpensive. One of the things that has stuck with me the most is the ability to travel across an entire country in five hours. I can't even cross two states in five hours.

Ultimately, I think I invested a lot in the people but not as much in the culture. The result is a perpetually jaded expression on my face - one might call it blasé - when people question me about my world travels. "Yes, I've lived abroad. Yeah, it was...interesting." But my eyes light up when relaying stories of the people I met, stories that become more grandiose with every recollection until I find myself a fisherman of sorts, exaggerating and embellishing and mythicizing my catch, the fish tale of my few months across the ocean.


6. Be honest - do you think the country and its people have a chance? Why? What do you think they need to change?

The fact that I'm being asked this question by Georgians and foreigners alike is indicative enough of the state that Georgia is in. To be honest, it confuses me. I tend to think of wildly disputed territories in the Middle East as hopeless, places where conflict has raged literally for generations. Or, do you remember when colonialism ravaged an entire continent? I'd call that situation pretty hopeless. Places where the wounds of brutal ethnic, religious, and socio-economic conflict are continually ripped open, never allowed to heal and scar over. Those situations could be called hopeless. Yet we cannot give in to the temptation to label any situation as irreparable. And for this reason I refuse to say that Georgia and its people do not have a chance. But what the chance is, or what they're trying to chance their way out of, is of key importance.

The situation is, of course, the oppressive and frustrating conditions in which many people in Georgia live. Instead of dealing with a tyrannical dictator (though recent protests suggest that Misha is not as well-liked as I, living in the Samegrelo region, was led to believe), the people of Georgia are combating their own attitudes.

I think this is the crux of the issue: Georgia needs to wrench itself out of its current state of mind, if only because it is hypocritical. The country was occupied by an oppressive, close-minded government for something like 150 years, and now the sweet taste of freedom has set Georgians to cursing their former occupiers ("The government, not the people"). Independence, they cry. Freedom. Democracy. Some even proclaim their love of America with grins and flashes of thumbs. This could be seen as progress, though you won't ever catch me claiming that a love of America is synonymous with a progressive attitude. Open-mindedness, however, is key.

Still, as my blog has highlighted, there is so much going on under the surface. Misogyny. Xenophobia. Tinges of racism, like poison seeping into a running stream. Things we struggle with here in the US, true, but here we have an overall push to close off the source of that poison. I didn't get the sense that liberal Georgians were altogether proactive about convincing their neighbors that a change of heart was necessary. Maybe that's not fair. I think instead that many have given into hopelessness. The rest simply can't be vocal enough.

This is all incredibly disheartening. I am truly digging at a foundation that is built solely upon my own experience and the collected tales of a few others. There is so much good in Georgia, love and generosity and laughter. But I saw pain, too, hiding behind the eyes of women who know that their lot in life could be better. On the faces of the students in my class who qualified as refugees and could not afford books the government did not supply. In the slumped, half-hearted trudge of drunks on the street.

As I have said before, this is all just my opinion, and others would probably disagree (and with vigor). This is just how I see it. And so, do I think that Georgia has a chance? Yes. Despite everything, Georgians are not uniformly-minded and change abounds. The first steps toward what could objectively be called a better Georgia have already been taken. The wheels are turning. For all of the things that I've listed, it comes down to two solutions. One is passive: allowing attitudes to morph as exposure to other points of view comes in the form of teachers and tourists. The second is a little more active: encouraging the continuing efforts of Georgians to open up and reach out to their neighbors as well as countries separated by more than just a few miles of disputed territory.

In this case, change in Georgia will come, I'd say, with time and distance.

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Time and Distance, part 1

A few of you may have read my post, "A Bad Case of the 'Can't-Hardly-Waits'", which I published a couple of weeks before I left Georgia in December. A follower of my blog posted a few questions in the comments and asked me to respond. They were pretty general questions and ones I was unprepared to answer for a while. And even now I feel my mind is ill-equipped to put such a cap on my time in Georgia. So think of these answers as fluid, not necessarily temporary but the product of a mind that is still processing everything that assaulted it last fall.

On my first full day in Georgia (the third for other volunteers) we stopped at a restaurant for an authentic Georgian meal

I have altered the questions slightly to accommodate the space. I believe that the commenter, whose profile is set as private, is not a native English speaker, and in one or two cases the meaning of the question was rather obscure, so I've done my best to interpret the meaning here.

Ups and downs: what do you think were your greatest accomplishments and disappointments during your time in Georgia?

Good starting question. It's always hard to analyze the success of volunteer work and my experience with TLG was doubly so. For one, the nature of the job means that my success was measured in small, nearly-undetectable ways. I was limited to only four months of teaching -- really only two in an area where I was actually utilized to my fullest -- and as such, I grew a lot more than those around me from what I could see. I expected this going in, having no misconceptions about glimpsing giant strides from my students. My mom was an English teacher for 30 years, and if there's one thing I knew going into the whole debacle, it's that teaching is an uphill battle. I guess my greatest accomplishment was, to borrow an idea from a fellow volunteer and dear friend, simply arriving in Georgia, having applied to the program and gotten myself shipped halfway around the world of my own volition. I found the listing for the program online, spent a week applying, planned my trip, purchased all of my necessities, and did everything short of getting myself to the airport (thanks for making the trip, mom and dad!). This sounds conceited so I'm going to wrap this up by saying that I wouldn't have gotten anywhere without the loving support of my friends, family, and academic peers.

I assume the poster meant "failures" when they wrote "disappointments" but I like disappointments better. Because, in all honesty, my biggest disappointment was the program itself. While many of the coordinators were helpful, kind, and incredibly devoted to the teachers' happiness, the program itself was running on a hobbled leg out of the gate. It was underfunded, understaffed, and lacked the cultural understanding to provide for such a large group of volunteers. That last one sounds a bit insensitive, but I don't mean that the employees of TLG are ignorant or intentionally frustrating. The Georgian government was making a massive push with this program, and one gets the sense that it bit off more than it could chew. As such, volunteers were routinely asked to accept things that would have been outrageous in other programs, particularly ones run by the U.S. government (the lack of sufficient training or information about host families, for example). These are cultural differences, I think, in that many countries and governments have experience running programs and hosting volunteers the likes of which TLG was charged with, and as such they know the do's and don'ts of a country-wide effort to, say, reduce illiteracy. With respect to this particular program, the Ministry of Education (or TLG specifically) was more like a confused yuppie tasked with running a startup business without ever having held even a shift manager position at McDonald's: well-intentioned but ill-equipped, lacking some foresight, and prone to lashing out at the wrong people.

Knowing what you know now, what would have done differently to record everything that happened, if you had such a goal?

I am not sure exactly what the poster meant by this question (the original word they used was "archived" instead of "record"). I included it because I figured I'd take a stab at it. Journalistic integrity and all that.

I would definitely have blogged more by allotting a regulated amount of daily time for writing. As it stood, I was frazzled and exhausted after a day of teaching, and usually felt like barring myself in my room for an hour or two and watching the first three seasons of 30 Rock. I would emerge bleary-eyed and disoriented when Lela called me for dinner, after which I would spend time laughing with her, teaching some new words to my host sisters, and avoiding my host father's calls for me to drink cha-cha. ("No, YOU dalie! You don't need to drink with an American every night, okay?")

Also, I would have purchased a Magti card early on, since my internet situation was null until sometime in November. Of course, I wouldn't have spent so much time on the phone with my friends, which would have meant my relationships would have suffered. I find hindsight, which they claim grants you hawklike vision, to be unrelentingly ambiguous.

Based on your knowledge, what would you recommend and advise to your colleagues who are already in Georgia and who will be volunteering in Georgia in the future?

I feel bad about this question, because I've had several soon-to-be-teachers asking me the same thing for a couple of months. Here's my honest explanation for why I didn't answer: I didn't know how.

It's not even a cop out. I was numb for at least three weeks when I got home. I withdrew into myself, only peeking my head out from inside my emotional shell to relate the occasional story to a friend or passerby. Those unfortunate enough to be caught in my verbal crosshairs were treated to a glimpse of my wildly fluctuating moods. This wasn't even a direct result of my experience, it was just my natural reaction to finally being home. I didn't know what to do with myself.

Now, I've had some time to reflect. Here's a couple of things I can tell my colleagues.

For one, you need to be prepared for a veritable barrage of confusing, sometimes upsetting cultural norms, and you need to let yourself experience those feelings...for a little while. Everyone gets culture shock, but the kicker is that everyone has a different opinion about it. For example, my time in Georgia wasn't exactly bookended by definite times of "shock." I slid into it gradually, as things became more and more overwhelming (and my unfortunate placement at the start certainly didn't help things). The loneliness and isolation of being in a village was perhaps the worst. I would stand on the edge of the small valley behind my family's house and think that I could scream as loud as my voice could go and no one within earshot would be able to understand the language, if they heard it at all.

It was difficult.

But you can't wallow in it. Acceptance and movement are important, and if you feel yourself being bogged down by what's going on, talk it out with other volunteers. The biggest blessing I experienced was the group of friends I gathered. I had two or three go-to people with whom I spoke on a daily (and later more like twice-weekly) basis. You can never be too prepared -- get to know your fellow teachers. You never know who will become a critical part of your time in Georgia.

The other piece of advice I'd give to my fellow volunteers is to know when to quit. "Quit" probably isn't the best word, but only you know your limits and while it's fine to push them, you can do serious damage to yourself if you push yourself too hard out there. This rings particularly true if you've never traveled abroad before. I'd been in Guatemala for some time before Georgia so I had a basis for comparison. This meant that I knew how to deal with the loneliness, culture shock, and homesickness. But others may not. If it gets to be too much, it's okay to rethink what you're doing and, as a last resort, get out of there. I don't feel like many people will wind up quitting if they come in prepared. Ultimately I think I'm just sympathizing with the few who decide either to leave early or not return for a second semester.

But don't quit. Stick it out, at least a semester, and have the adventure of a lifetime.

I'm going to publish this and return with part two soon. There won't be a three month lead time, I promise.

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Long-overdue reflection

Many of us speculated about reverse culture shock. I thought it would be a trifle, nothing to worry about. I would be too happy to be home for home to feel strange and unfamiliar.

Turns out I was right.

In fact, the strangest part of the whole experience of coming home was how normal it all felt. I must have been so tired and worn from a full day of travel (across several time zones, a topic I'll come back to momentarily) that my body probably just kind of forgot where I had been. It was like pressing the reset button on my mental and emotional state. The next day, I woke up feeling like I hadn't left. I was normal.

The same could not be said for my physiological condition. Along with the gifts I brought back from Georgia, I carried a nasty little cold all those miles which culminated in a cough that persisted for two weeks. It was so bad that I couldn't sleep a couple of nights. This did nothing to help the jet lag which, I can tell you, is no joke. I was up at 3am on Christmas morning which would have been par for the course when I was 13, but I haven't been that excited about presents in many years. My internal clock didn't snap back into place for at least 5 days, and when it did, what a glorious night of sleep that was.

But some weeks have passed, giving me time to reflect on my experience. Memories come and go, wrenched forth by some minute details in my surroundings. Stories about Georgia happen just as sporadically and involuntarily. It seems like everything these days pertains to those four months spent in my little self-imposed exile, and what should I expect? It was life-changing, for better or for worse, and I suppose I'll be relaying stories to countless uninterested ears for the rest of my life. Forty years from now, I'll sit my grandson on my knee and tell him long-winded tales of marshutkas, cigarette smoke, and a Thanksgiving spent in Tbilisi. Maybe he will make the same journey I did, following in the footsteps of his grandfather, eager to see first hand what I had only spoken of meekly. Or perhaps his eyes will glaze over and he will ask me, "What, was that a part of Russia?"

Who knows. We've all got stories to tell. The people I had thought would be the most interested in my journey have asked me the fewest questions, while others find it unceasingly fascinating, unapologetically berating me with inquiry after inquiry, curious about everything that happened following my decision to travel halfway around the world to some unknown little nation the size of South Carolina. I find my mood swings wildly when I regale them with my stories; often I find myself exhausted from the effort of drawing my memories forth, eager storyteller though I am. At other times, as I have mentioned, some topic of discussion sparks an impromptu story about the long walk to my school.

Mostly, I sit in silence, still dazed from the whirlwind of experience even a month and half home.