The Unforgettable Walk
Nearly every day of living and teaching English here in the Republic of Georgia brings a story worth telling. Today was no exception.
I had set out on the 40 minute walk east to Hichaori to get some exercise, enjoy the recent snowfall, and visit the internet cafe (don’t think coffee shop… think computer lab). The route is growing familiar, as is my particular method of traveling it. There are a few key places worth pausing for both short or long periods of time that break-up the monotony and further develop my awareness of the area. One is the picturesque Dandalo Bridge, both a historical site and functional foot method across the Adjariscali River.
Today’s plan was the usual: make a few stops along the peaceful and quiet journey to the neighboring and closest town of Hichaori. The motivations: sanity, reflection, and regained composure from full school days and host family life.
Such was the hope.
Within the first five minutes of walking I hear my name in the distance, yelled in a unison of two young voices with thick Georgian accents: “isaak… isaak! Hello! Hello!” Who could it be? That’s right… students! Despite our distance I could easily make out their wide smiles and joyfully waving hands. They looked a bit perplexed to see me outside of the classroom, much less the village, but their slight confusion didn’t hold back their enthusiasm. I smiled, waved, and shouted back the expected greetings, happy to see them.
Having never really stopped my trodding to yell back and wave to the two students it’s pointless to say I continued on my walk, though that’s precisely what I did. The sun was shinning, air crisp, and I was genuinely glad to be in Georgia. Then, not five five minutes after seeing the first two students, I rounded a curve and quickly noticed two other students. This time I stopped walking.
The two boys were wading and playing in the snow’s melt water as they slowly meandered down the road. After the expected greetings they quickly inquired about my path’s destination and motivation. With such a limited Georgian vocabulary there’s only so much I could understand, but as the three of us continued down the road together I realized they were joining my walk. A good and somewhat linguistically tiring five minutes later I learned they were coming from school and going home – home being about three-quarters way to Hichaori, my destination.
Now joined by two others, my quiet and contemplative walk had become a cultural, teaching, and learning experience… that’s right, an extension of the classroom :) They questioned for English, I for Qartuli (Georgian). We passed many folks along the road, a previously un-experienced phenomenon.
Whether fate, luck, or just simple timing, one group of passerbyes happened to consist of two whole families of children, also students of mine and also walking home in our same direction. This time the greetings were longer and more elaborate, as some older students there knew a bit more English.
Eventually re-commencing the walk, we were now a party of nearly ten people. Within thirty or forty minutes we eventually reached the Appalachian-like shabby dirt road leading to their homes. Our pace had slowed and stopped numerous times as short passerby conversations and a small hazel nut feast enriched the afternoon. There were numerously repeated invites to come and spend time in their homes but due to previous experiences of short-visits become long mini-parties, I sadly declined for the time being. “Farewell!” and I continued along the way.
Finally alone once again, I reflected on the interactions. The kids couldn’t have been more generous and I’m beyond grateful for the protective and almost mothering role they think nothing of serving towards their older, funny looking, foreign English teacher. Certainly, sharing the walk with them greatly increased my sense of integration into the culture and community here in Dandalo.
Alone and walking once again, I was nearing Hichaori. As numerous college-age folks increasingly passed by I realized that the local university in Hichaori must have recently ended. Though the towns a good 1 to 1.5 hours from the Black Sea city of Batumi, numerous students make from the city attend university here. Why? It’s free. And there are no free universities in Batumi.
Georgian’s typically don’t make eye contact with strangers on the street. Unless they know or recognize you (such as in the village) they typically don’t say hello or make other such exchanges when passing strangers, as somewhat common in Western culture. This includes smiling. For these reasons I was taken by surprise.
Small groups of two to six or seven students are passing by intermittently, I being the one lonely fish going into the tiny town of Hichaori. After passing one bunch of all males I think I hear some broken English being amidst laughs and sneers. Feeling a bit confused and uncomfortable I simply keep walking, head bowed and pace quickened. Then I glance up and am quickly pointedly asked by another passerby “foreigner?” He stops. I stop. Smiles. “Yes,” I reply.
A good one hour later I parted ways with this blessed soul. He was accompanied by a friend and they each spoke some English. Their curiosity was beyond belief, as was their desire to practice English. During the course of our conversing a good twenty people must have joined-in. Pictures were taken, many smiles and laughs exchanged, and by the end I was called “friend.” The one initial soul that began the conversing invited me over to his home for some cha-cha (Georgian moonshine), my declining on the basis of needing to make it to the internet cafe before their closing. Had I gone an impromptu supra (Georgian party with lots of food, toasts, and alcohol) would likely have ensued and my host family wouldn’t have been happy with my returned state.
Such is life here in the rural mountain region of south west Georgia. People make plans but give the spontaneous higher priority. They are warm and friendly despite otherwise suggestions from necessary cultural norms. They welcome you in as family and expect nothing in return, placing world-renowned hospitality at the forefront.
I did finally make it to the internet cafe. I checked email, uploaded some photos here on the blog, did some site tweaking, and generally remembered the blessing and curses of technology. Some time into the session one of the employees brings me a big glass of freshly poured Georgian brewed beer – I couldn’t believe me eyes. It was completely on the house, a generous offer of that remarkable Georgian hospitality.
I don’t know what to make of all the attention I receive for simply being a foreigner and speaking English. Is the same attention given to other foreigners from outside Georgia? Is it mainly the English? What degree does me coming from the United States play?, especially given their current president’s Georgetown degree and close ties with Washington. Perhaps it’s just the nature of seeing someone who looks and sounds a bit different. What’s certain is that I hadn’t expected it before coming and it will likely forever catch me off guard. Regardless, it’s a rare blessing to receive such unprecedented warmth and hospitality from a people who live, at least in many ways, quite challenging lifestyles.