In my relief and joy at arriving in Giorgeti after a difficult marshrutka ride, I stepped out of the vehicle, noticed the idle group of people sitting along the road, and hugged my friend; the marshrutka started to drive off. But then it stopped and reversed towards us. I wondered why? I think every single person on that quiet village road wondered why? But we did not have to wonder long as the driver quite rightly stated that I had not paid my fare. As my cheeks burned in embarrassment, I managed the walk of shame towards the driver, whose wide grin revealed several gold teeth, and handed over my 5 Laris. It would have been alright had my absentmindedness not afflicted me in front of my friend’s neighbours; who will probably remember me as an unsuccessful fare dodger. I was glad to be taken inside my friend’s host house and shielded from the chaos of the afternoon.
When we had slowly moved out of the marshrutka station in Telavi during the early afternoon buzz, I had wondered about what awaited me in Giorgeti; a small village, about an hour and a half from Telavi, before Lagodekhi. It is located approximately five hours from the Azerbaijan border.
During the drive out of Telavi, the passing landscape changed quite dramatically. From busy streets lined with fruit and vegetable sellers and commercial buildings, we drove out of Telavi, and into the city’s suburbs. The colour and vibe of the city faded and gave way to a wave of grey quietude; we drove along residential streets occupied by a few people here and there. Then, as we passed the village of Akoura, the plain houses seemed to be shrouded in a uniform yellow pallor that seemed to reflect what felt like a slowing down of time the further we moved from Telavi. The houses eventually started to present themselves with yards that grew in size as we drove on; they were fertilized, muddy patches of land, planted with various crops. And then, on either side of the endless straight road, all I could see were crop fields. The as yet empty fields framed by the snow-capped Caucasus Mountains, were interrupted twice by stops in Gurjaani and Apeni; contained bursts of human and commercial activity within the now predominantly rural landscape.
The open fields eventually gave way to a line of spaced out houses, all with large yards; and this marked our entry into the village of Girogeti. Worn-out and somewhat dazed by the never-ending string of questions and comments from the marshrutka driver and fellow passengers, I was so glad to reach my destination that I forgot to pay the driver.
Anyway, it turned out that my friend’s neighbours were awaiting my arrival. And this is the first time since coming to Georgia that I have felt like an actual a foreigner. In Telavi, it is easy to conduct your daily business without much attention. Although, I am an outsider, I do not feel or experience this difference.
Once my friend’s friendly and hospitable host family fed me, they took us out on a village tour. My friend reminded her bebia that I wanted to milk a cow. Yes, it has been a lifelong ambition to hold cow teats between my fingers and relieve the cow’s udder; as it makes it into my top three things to do, I thought why not take this opportunity to fulfil this goal.
Our first stop was a drive up to a viewpoint from where you can see the whole village; a fertile landscape, divided by straight roads into a patchwork of brown and green blocks and houses.
The rest of the tour consisted of visiting some of the family’s relations; everyone was informed that the English girl wants to milk a cow; and after the initial ‘are you for real?’, I was given the smile of approval. At one house, it was refreshing to see farm animals: pigs, piglets, chickens and calves. This is the normal social activity that takes place in a village; you visit people’s houses, have chai and compote and exchange news. Everyone knows everyone, as well as everybody’s business; one cannot disappear into the anonymity of a city crowd, for no crowds exist.
On the way back to the house, I saw a woman taking clothes off the washing line in one yard; and in the other a young school boy was helping his father chop wood. We spent some time sitting outside in the sun, waiting to be summoned for the cow milking. The road was occupied at intervals with donkey carts as well as a few cars; all were led by male drivers.
And then it happened. I was led to a nearby house, was greeted by a woman and upon passing through the house-gate I found myself to be in the company of five cows; I was in udder heaven. The woman squatted next to one of her cows and placed a bucket under it. This was followed by what I can only describe as complete harmony between man and animal. Her fingers and the cow’s teats were in simpatico; and the milk came out effortlessly.
When my turn came, things did not go so smoothly. With my sleeves rolled up, I assumed the milking position and gripped a teat each between my index and fore-fingers and thumb. They were soft and squishy, gelatinous-like; and they were dry. Holding them from the top, I moved my fingers downwards, one after the other; the movement seemed to make the teats tough and nothing came out. I tried a couple more times and squeezed more firmly; a little drop. I tried again; and success. A powerful stream of milk exited the teat, at which point my eyes were wide with amazement; but, unfortunately, the milk missed the bucket completely and landed straight onto my trouser. Laughter ensued. I tried a couple more times and some milk came out, but not being allowed to move the bucket to a better angle, it landed on the ground. In the end, we were dismissed in fear of the cows getting stressed. So, I walked back to my friend’s host house with my wet patch; feeling successful at having actually squeezed some milk out but disappointed that it landed everywhere else apart from in the bucket.
Although the rural landscape, the livestock, the cow milking disaster had all been entertaining; whilst spending the rest of the evening sitting with the family, watching Brazilian soaps and eating dinner, I realised that I was too used to Telavi and would find it difficult (but not impossible) to adjust to village life.
When I left for Telavi the next morning, I was looking forward to heading back home; but I was also looking forward to the city buzz, the shops, the crowds of people, the busy streets and city noise.
And this made me wonder about all the volunteers who are placed in villages without any other volunteers nearby to interact with. In Telavi, I am lucky to have friends living nearby and friends visiting from outside Telavi on weekends; and so I can imagine how at times volunteers in villages may feel lonely.
Before I knew people in Telavi, I felt really isolated too and would visit Tbilisi regularly, which in addition to offering a change of scene, is a great place to meet other volunteers. As the weeks went by I realised that things get easier the more involved you are with school, your host family and the people nearby.
A friend of mine told her Regional Representative to email her contact information to all volunteers in her region, which was an excellent way for her to connect with people nearby.
In Telavi, I have TLG friends but also Peace Corps friends. Oftentimes it will happen that instead of TLG volunteers nearby, you might have a Peace Corp volunteer to forge a friendship with. One friend helps out the Peace Corp volunteer in his village with an English club.
There are several English speakers in Telavi and so far I have been able to get by with the little Georgian that I know. But in villages, English speakers will be few and far between. My friend in Giorgeti has taken the time and made the effort to learn Georgian which has helped her to become an active member of her community. Her interactions about daily life and other things with her host family, neighbours, teachers and students has saved her from feeling so isolated.
But apart from connecting with other volunteers, it also helps to be comfortable with the fact that you have a lot of alone time; and figuring out what you as an individual want to do in this time. In Telavi, I have used my time to create wall displays and flashcards for my school, read, watch films, catch up with Formula 1 racing and discover more walking routes that lead to my home. I have also found that creating a routine based around regular jogging has helped to keep my body and mind in focus. My friends in villages do pretty much the same, except that they have the advantage of being surrounded by the beautiful Georgian landscape; whereas I just jog in my yard.
It is not always easy, but it is possible to get through the quiet and slow days. And at the end of everything, we have our phone chargers and free TLG phone calls.