Walking down Telavi’s high street to the main bazaar with my friend, just so that we can get a particular brand of ice-cream, knowing what type of ice-creams are sold in many of Telavi’s shops, and then bumping into people that I know, makes me feel as if Telavi has become like another home.
I remember when I first arrived here. Less than an hour into my journey to Telavi from Tbilisi with my host family all that registered in my tired brain was that everything was white. Thick, pure white snow covered the landscape. And the only thing that stirred me from my shock was that on the slippery and difficult, snow-laden roads, our taxi driver still felt the need to overtake every single car in its way; and a couple of times, when an overtake was complete, he continued to drive in the wrong lane and upon noticing an oncoming vehicle, dandily slipped back into the right side of the road by forcing cars to part. At one particular point I noticed a car, driving so fast as it approached a small mound of snow in the middle of the road, that upon hitting the mound, it literally flew into the air, and then continued along as if nothing had happened. I sat sans seatbelt, feeling as if this would be my last journey in Georgia and as our taxi was speeding past a church, the driver controlled the car single-handedly, using his second hand to cross himself. This was my introduction to Georgian road etiquette.
The winter was really tough. In Telavi, it would snow for a few days, stop and start to melt a little, then snow again, so that the old snow was continuously turning into ice. I was walking like a toddler just learning how to walk because I have a fear of falling down. But then I did fall down and because I skidded and fell onto my back without anyone to witness the fall of the foreigner, I was alright. But then I fell a second time and things were a little more public and awkward. Wearing my big hiking boots, winter fleece and jacket, and carrying my heavy rucksack, my foot and upper body mobility was a little reduced; so when I fell on my back again whilst walking on the busy high street, I was a little like a beached whale on ice because my rucksack just pulled me down, my boots could not find a solid grip and my arms were somewhat useless; and nobody helped.
At one point, I did not open the curtains in my room for a few days because I felt like crying looking at the snow. I am just not used to it and I was not expecting it.
During the difficult winter, I stayed in Telavi most of the time and my school work kept me occupied and happy. As any new work, it took some time to settle in.
In the beginning, I was mostly standing by and watching my co-teachers at work; which was productive because I could observe their teaching style and methods and learn about the English ability of my students. Looking back, I have come a long way because now I know my students and my co-teachers and we are comfortable with each other; I feel like a part of the school family; and I am in a position where I actively contribute to the teaching of English.
Most mornings I am greeted by my students saying hello and hugging me as I make my way through the school grounds to the staff room; and when I feel that I am going through a less than great morning, suddenly everything seems better when I see my students. I go through good days and bad days like anyone else but, seeing these small, smiley faces welcoming you to their world with the same amount of enthusiasm as yesterday, makes me realise that I am primarily here for them and doing the best that I can do as their English teacher is all that really matters.
And looking back, I notice that having human support makes the whole experience easier and less challenging. I have a great host family; I do not live in their house, but together we live in our home, eat our meals together, comfort each other, play with each other, help each other out and learn from each others’ cultures and traditions. But that is not where my family here ends. I have made some special friends here who are my family too. In the beginning, I felt a little isolated because everything was new and I had not connected with people in the region; now, it is exciting to look forward to evening teas and weekend plans.
Georgia has tested me but not in any explicit or physical way. It has mostly been a psychological challenge. But I feel that I have met the challenges successfully so far; I made it through winter and am now looking forward to the next one as I am here till December, because I know what to expect and having expectations that match to reality make the reality seem acceptable; I dealt with being lonely by reaching out and making friends with other volunteers, Peace Corps, foreigners and Georgians; and I have learned to just let things be not through ignorance but through acceptance.
As I wrote above, I was suffering shock and mild panic during the winter driving. Just this week, after returning from a TLG excursion, I and two friends took a late night taxi from Tbilisi to Telavi.
The driver was just a little crazy. We had a car right behind us on the windy, mountain road. The car overtook us and then our driver went loco and put his foot down so that he could overtake this car that had passed him. Then in the middle of the car race (Georgia F1 on the Gombori Pass), he lit his cigarette to indicate that he meant business and in the end, he won. Instead of panic or discomfort, I just sat back and watched the race end with my friends.
It has happened that at times some aspect of the culture has grated on me or something that someone has said has shocked me because I cannot rationalise it; and I have realised that instead of getting all worked up over it, the best I can do is present my point of view and expose the person to another way of thinking. We are here as English volunteers and changing a country is more than a one-man or one-year job. I have heard several volunteers remark, ‘I wish they could just…’ where they idealise a perfect Georgia and state a list of imperfections and improvements. Let us not forget that Georgia is a developing country, a recently independent state and it is continuously undergoing change and making progress, albeit progress that may seem insufficient when measured in the ‘perfect’ framework of westernised prescriptions.
I think Georgia is a beautiful country with welcoming people and yummy food; and I am looking forward to the rest of my stay here in Telavi because I know there are some more thrilling taxi rides to experience, new friends to meet and school work for me to get busy with.