In any backpacker’s hostel, there is a short but inviolate lexicon of questions and answers that open up an initial conversation whenever two travelers are meeting for the first time. “Where are you going? Where have you been? When did you start? And how long until the backpack goes back into the closet and you go back to whatever passes for your real life?”
Like agents under cover, this call-and-response code identifies us to each other, and serves to establish a sort to hierarchy, our place in Backpacker World. Are you traveling for a month? A year? A weekend? Have you or do you plan to hit all seven continents including Antarctica?
Sometimes, things peter out after that. Not every chance meeting between new bunkmates is going to result in a spontaneous explosion of mutual esteem and rapport, even of the single-service-friend variety. But sometimes (hopefully more often than not), you hit it off at least well enough to maybe eventually deviate a little from the prescribed script.
One question, I quickly learned, is anathema. You never, ever ask a person how it is they are managing to fund their adventure. A year around the world or a quick weekend jaunt from London to Venice, it doesn’t matter. In backpacker etiquette, the only polite thing to do is to just sort of assume that plane tickets, hostel bookings, meals etc., just sort of… appear whenever the traveler in question clonks their hiking boots together three times.
Then, it is only after the preliminary circling and sizing-up has been completed successfully that this next question may be asked, and that is: “So, what do you do when you’re not traveling?” Backpacking is, or swiftly becomes, a sort of all-encompassing microcosm, and even bringing up the possibility that this smelly, sink-laundry paradise is not going to last forever is not always a topic that is welcomed by everyone in the dorm.
As you may have surmised by now, I have just come off of a three-month backpacking adventure around Europe. It was my first time with a backpack, a bright blue 15 kilo lump of suffering that I affectionately named Sisyphus. It was, of course, a tremendous experience. I saw so many incredible things, so many breathtaking sunsets and stunning coastal landscapes and epic plates of pasta that I’m going to be catching up on my travel blog well into the New Year. I would call it life-changing, but when one has spent 13 months in Georgia, that tends to fine-tune your classification process as to what “life-changing” really entails.
In a way, I kind of owe my entire trip to Georgia, because I’ve wanted to backpack for the whole of my adult life but had always assumed it would be too hard. The pack would be too heavy. I wouldn’t be able to bring everything I needed. I would get lost. I would get bedbugs. I wouldn’t know how to budget appropriately. But for serious, after 13 life-changing months in Georgia, dealing with challenges I never even imagined, a three-month trip around Western Europe sounded like a walk in the park. So I did it. And in the spirit of complete honesty, there is only one decision in my life up to this point that I consider more important or to have yielded a more positive result, and that was the decision to go to Georgia in the first place.
And now we’re back to that one essential question.
When it came time for me to answer that question about what it is I do in my “real life”, it always made me smile, even feel just a little bit proud, to be able to answer: “I volunteer teaching English in the country of Georgia.” (And I always did have to specify that last – the country of Georgia – because otherwise there would inevitably be no end of confusion as they assumed I was teaching English somewhere in the American deep south. One time in Barcelona this caused an almost embolism-inducing level of confusion for a young girl from South Africa.)
For one thing, the conversation was almost guaranteed to pick up at that point, saving both me and my companions from yet another stretch of getting-to-know-you awkward pauses. There would be the polite exclamation of surprise, as if I had said “Cirque de Soleil Acrobat” or “Shark Cage Repairer”. Then would come the new, fresh, topic-specific questions about my assignment, about the country, the kids, the educational system, the culture.
Throughout my time in Georgia, I have been grateful to the country for a myriad of things. While on my trip, I became grateful to Georgia because it proved an excellent ice-breaker.
These conversations also helped to keep Georgia in the forefront of my thoughts throughout my travels. One night when someone brought up George Orwell’s Animal Farm, I mentioned that I had seen my 5th grade students perform a play of Animal Farm in Georgian as part of their end of the year festivities. When touring the Greek National Historical Museum, I pointed out that traditional Greek dress had many elements in common with Georgian dress. When my new friends and I raised our glasses and said “Cheers!” I taught everyone how to say “Gaumarjos!” And then, if the mood was right, I would describe what happened at a typical Georgian supra.
On my flight home several days ago, I had a layover in Istanbul Airport, which is where I stopped both going to and coming from Georgia. That airport is really starting to feel like home, and as I walked through the terminal I couldn’t help but wonder if I’d been seeing that place yet again in a month’s time.
I may have been away from Georgia for a little while, but she was never very far away from me. And as another year draws to a close and a new one begins, it makes me very happy to think that I will soon be making a whole new set of memories and stories in Sakartvelo.
And this time, I’ll be bringing Sisyphus. He’s earned it.