Architecture in Tbilisi, Georgia

A Little Charm… 6 Things to Do That Will Make You Fall in Love with Tbilisi, Georgia

Maybe it was the wine. Or perhaps it was the latticed balconies? The unfettered hospitality played a part. And the idyllic scenery was persuasive. For the life of me, I can’t pin down precisely what made Tbilisi, Georgia so charming.

Since I left the country in late October, I took on the mantle of fangirl for the Republic of Georgia after uncovering a bevy of memorable things to do, experiences to embrace, and sceneries to spark wonder. I gush about it to any willing ear. I returned home late last year to holiday dinners and nights spent playing cards with friends. Between these engagements, I edited photos from my fall travels. Each night, with a swipe of the keyboard, a new image flashed on the screen. Like a slide projector warming up, memories flickered into my consciousness. Each cropped and straightened photo rekindled my crush on this beautiful little city in the far east of Europe.

[caption id="attachment_11985" align="alignright" width="500"]Map of Georgia and Caucasus Region Most international governments recognize that Georgia includes the two areas in blue and purple, South Ossetia and Abkhazia. These are Russian occupied areas of the country and travelers should research current political issues if traveling around those areas.[/caption]

Like any good crushee, I immediately wanted to know my crush’s backstory and history. Before I left for Georgia and Turkey, I showed my dad my route. His eyebrows shot to the sky and he released a single, skeptical “hmm.” Now into my eighth year of travel, my parents have long accepted my decision. They don’t always love the places I visit solo, but they trust my judgement. From his face, however, I could tell my dad was wavering. In the absence of context, it’s hard to imagine what Georgia’s like, what sort of things could possibly entertain a traveler. On the edge of the Caucasus Mountains, the country is neighbored by cultures as varied as its topography. Once a stop on the Silk Road, the city became a confluence of the civilizations over the millennia. This peculiar positioning means Georgia is considered a part of Europe or Asia, depending on who you ask. And you would be forgiven for wondering if it’s a part of the Middle East. But the actual vibe: It’s European.

Today’s Georgia is Eastern Orthodox—to the tune of 84%. Monasteries and churches stand proud on mountain peaks around the country. This religious history is important to modern Georgia. That said, despite the overwhelming presence of Christianity, other cultures and religions also found perch in Georgia over the centuries. My wanders through Tbilisi uncovered mosques, synagogues, and even a Zoroastrian temple.

And while a country’s ancient history plays a part in any trip, so too does recent history. Georgia was a part of the former Soviet Union. The country also dealt with political and social unrest throughout the 90s and early aughts. I’ll confess to forgetting the bulk of my World History course in 9th grade. Before I landed, I took to the internets and online readings to flesh out my understanding. I read up on not only the Soviet Union, but the also country’s complex present-day relationship with Russia. Important to understand is the history of the two Russian occupied areas of Georgia that are depicted on the map—South Ossetia and Abkhazia.

For countries with recently attained peace, understanding a foundational history is paramount. It shapes the experience with compassion and empathy. It invites the visitor deeper into the psyche of the culture and people. Only by understanding the past could I so enjoy what makes traveling the Republic of Georgia unique. It’s the resilience of the Georgian that spirit shapes my favorite aspects of traveling there, that shaped the best things to do and see. My memories float to the surface, begging to be shared. Like the delicate smile of a new courtship, the city flirts with visitors. Tbilisi won me over with subtle charms and gentle nudges. Let’s look at the aspects of Tbilisi, Georgia that stand out most prominently in my memories.

The Gorgeous Patchwork Architecture

Beautiful doors and balconies The patchwork architecture in Old Tbilisi is reason enough to visit this pretty capital city. Intricate balconies sigh from tired buildings. Cobbled streets ramble through historic neighborhoods. Sweet, shady trees along Rustaveli Avenue belong as much in Paris as in this tiny Eastern European city. Each day I leapt from bed, energized by the idea of wandering adrift on the streets of Tbilisi, camera in hand.

Quiet courtyards and ephemeral smiles form the bedrock of my memories. Centuries of Persian, German, and Russian architectural influence is visible. But it’s not just the historic aspects that fascinates. Tbilisi’s more recent stability has it screaming into a disorienting modernity. Controversial space-age architecture takes up residence alongside the historic buildings. A gamut of architectural possibilities sit in the shadow of the 4th century Narikala Fortress. Time passes, that’s what the fortress seems to say. Tbilisi has a complicated history that has continued into the present. The aesthetic of the city bears testament.

And yet, the gorgeous laced balconies point to a concerning lack of infrastructure. It’s a similar problem facing places like Havana, Cuba. Decades of little money spent on redevelopment left gorgeous historic buildings in disrepair. There’s conflict in recognizing it needs to change while still loving the beauty it creates. But perhaps there’s a middle ground. Something between shimmering glass bridges and the city’s enchanting old-world charm. Either way, the city has an eclectic mix of styles that keeps things interesting.

 

Mowing Down on Delicious Food & Wine

Real talk: The food culture is wonderful. There’s a reason I started with an overview of Georgian history. History plays a pivotal role in Georgia’s current designation as an upcoming food destination. Cultures brushing against each other over the centuries resulted in a range of delicious dishes. In addition to meat in large supply, the country offers Mediterranean fares like salads, bean soups, cheese, and Georgian pizza. Let’s just say that as a vegetarian, I didn’t starve.

Then there’s the wine. It’s divine. Georgia’s clay vessel wine-making process, Qvevri, made UNESCO’s list for the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. During my stay in Tbilisi, I took part in the city’s beautiful café culture, which is reminiscent of so much of Europe. Sprinkled throughout the boutiques and sidewalk cafés are dozens of wine shops and tasting rooms. Wine is the icebreaker with new Georgian friends. Each time I befriended a local, they shared their favorite variety. Even more often, they boasted of their tasty homemade wines. The country has hundreds of indigenous varieties of grapes. Locals maintained their winemaking traditions throughout disparate governments and in the face of deep economic hardships. Georgians love nothing more than to spend a night (or many) sipping wine with friends. Evening shadows grow deep as friends toast to all manner of health, life, happiness, and family.

The Country’s Deeply Entrenched Culture of Hospitality

Kartlis Deda watches over Tbilisi from Sololaki Hill. Her looming aluminum figure is a touch point visible from nearly anywhere in the city. Better known as Mother Georgia, her figure so perfectly typifies the spirit and welcome I encountered in the country. For Georgians, this statue represents the dual priorities of hospitality and freedom. Erected in the 50s, Mother Georgia carries a bowl of wine in one hand and a sword in the other. The wine is for friends, the sword for enemies.

In practice, hospitality infuses every aspect of traveling Georgia. As I left, it was the feeling of complete welcome that stuck with me. Conversations with new friends swim to the forefront of my memories. Welcoming visitors is entrenched in the culture. After I posted a photo of Tbilisi on my Instagram, a local woman found the photo and welcomed me to her city. Teo and I clicked immediately. She’s a Georgian woman with a serious case of wanderlust. Now that’s something that I understand. When I admitted to her that I hadn’t yet sampled Georgian wine (I prefer drinking with friends), in quick order we arranged to meet. Across many hours—and many glasses of wine—we swapped travel stories. She shared what it’s like to live, work, and travel as a Georgian. Though I often meet kind travel friends in each new city, there is a palpable quality of joy to Georgian hospitality. If you visit Georgia as a friend, like their statue bids, you leave warm with wine and hospitality.

 

The Landscape is Beautiful & Endlessly Explorable

Tbilisi is a pocket-sized city. Even more, Georgia is small too. Combined, it’s all endlessly explorable. Situated smack between the Greater and Lesser Caucasus Mountains, there’s a varied landscape packed into this small country. Lowland lakeside towns on the Black Sea vie for attention alongside snow-capped ski slopes. I didn’t bring clothes suitable for visiting the mountains in near-winter. Instead, I spent my trip based from the capital, exploring on day-trips from Tbilisi.

History and nature collide outside the city. I hired my Airbnb host, Bacho, to show me around. He took to the task with ease and helped me pick which sites I’d like best. One day, we hiked around the David Gareja monastery to the painted caves. The monastery is a few hours outside of the city and our car hummed along lonely, winding roads, through a muted, lunar-like landscape. The monastery is beautiful. One of my favorite moments occurred as we crested the mountain behind David Gareja. Bristling in the cold air, I jerked to a stop as we faced Azerbaijan—a huge flatland plain spanned below, awash in dull greens and browns far into the horizon. As I took in the look of this new land, two eagles soared into the sky, emerging from the mountainside, their massive wingspan casting shadows on the land below. They glided on the breeze, free of the borders holding me to my perch. It was a beautiful moment. Over the following hour, we climbed among the caves carved into the rock mountain.

Other days we visited 4th-century churches—many still in use. These ancient buildings watch in silence as this beautiful nation shifts and changes. The country is making quick strides toward peace and development. In tandem, it also grips the pieces of its unique history and preserves them for future generations.

David Gareja Monastery

David Gareja Monastery

Absorbing Centuries of Music & Dance

Never before have I experienced a culture so taken with song. Rich harmonies drifted from family compounds. Sometimes for mere moments I caught a deep melody floating on the breeze. And they sing not for a coin, but instead for a love of the music. Polyphonic singing is another UNESCO recognized piece of intangible heritage, and is stunning to hear.

I visited Georgia during Tbilisoba, their annual cultural festival. I was taken with the country’s incredible history of song and dance. The festival allowed me to watch, mesmerized, a sampling of regional dances. The men leapt impossibly high, the women twirled and swayed. Each dance told stories of courtship, stories from history, and stories of joy. I was lucky to watch one long performance next to a local woman. She passed me chunks of churchkhela—a local sweet—and translated the introduction for each dance. Her kindness afforded me my sole opportunity for questions during Tbilisoba. With her explanations, I better understood how each region used the arts to preserve its history and maintain a legacy for future generations.

 

***

There’s no way to encapsulate why I am so taken with the Republic of Georgia. The sum total of Georgia won me over. Georgians have formed a deep resilience over the years. Even more, their complex history hasn’t curdled their love of life.

In addition to the many things I loved about the aesthetics, food, and culture, it goes beyond that. The same government and police presence that brought stability to Georgia in the wake of the Rose Revolution has kept the city safe today. The president overhauled the police force in 2005. This ushered in an era of safety for Georgians, according to my Airbnb host. As a new arrival, poor street lighting and rundown sidewalks gave the city an eerie feel. At first, I was uncertain about the assertions of safety. Familiarity with the pace of the city, however, assuaged my concerns. Women teetered home at all hours of the night on skyscraper heels. New friends echoed my host’s sentiments about safety. While caution goes far in any place, the city is at peace. As a solo traveler, I felt comfortable in my skin as I wandered. The relative safety of the city added a welcomed layer to the travel experience since I was weary from recent travels through Turkey.

And my gushing aside, there are a couple of downsides. Every place has them. I’d be remiss to overlook it. The Georgians have a high rate of smoking. As a non-smoker, the clouds wafting into my face during dinner was tough. I picked restaurants based on the availability of a corner where I could wedge myself away from the currents of smoke. I found the smoking even worse, however, in Istanbul. As with all things, it’s relative. The city’s air quality is declining, but again, didn’t even come close to huffing through the streets of Kathmandu.

When you aggregate the kindness, food, and history from my weeks in Georgia, it won me over. I am a lifelong fan. And it’s this same feeling that friends and A Little Adrift readers expressed when I announced my travel plans. Everyone gushed about the Georgian-ness of it all. Never able to quite pin down what they love about it, readers and friends echoed one sentiment: Just go.

I’d have to agree. Sometimes a city just sticks with you. It wins you over with a spirit and subtlety unmatched by previous experiences. For Tbilisi, I found the city as charming as the people who live there. Two weeks is too little time to claim I understand the culture, city, or people, but it’s long enough to admit I’ll be back to try.

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Heading to The Republic of Georgia? Check out my Georgia Travel Guide: I aggregated my experiences in Georgia, plus all the tips from A Little Adrift readers. This is a free, comprehensive guide of history, sights, things to do, responsible tourism, and recommended readings.  [/box]

Hpa-an, Burma

A Little Anecdote … Oh, For the Love of Roosters

My fan whirred across the room, a low noise blocking the erratic hum of passing cars—my neighbors on their way to work. I shed the last moments of sleep and I could have been in any room, anywhere in the world.

And yet, I was home.

My bed here in Florida is more comfortable than many I have slept in over the past nearly five years on the road, but as I woke, the quietude overtook my thoughts.

[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="700"]sunrise Sunrise on a farm in rural Thailand; Ana and I woke up early to for a 5K run and watched the landscape tinge pink in the morning light.[/caption]

The sounds at home differ from the frenzy of life in other cities I have laid my head. Though I rise early and with great enthusiasm—I am one of those warily regarded by many as a “morning person”—yesterday morning I laid in bed and allowed my mind to transport me to the moments I have woken elsewhere in the world.

The image of a rooster flashed into my mind. Oh, the roosters. Five years on the road, five years I have shared spaces with these creatures and I haven’t yet come to terms with why no one ever told me roosters don’t crow at dawn. Or rather, they don’t only crow at dawn. They crow when it’s high noon on the other side of the world. Or at sunset. Or precisely when you decide to roll over and try to get a bit more sleep. If I had grown up on a farm I would have known this tidbit, but it wasn’t until I slept in the guesthouses of Southeast Asia that I first learned that much of the world lives alongside this noise.

[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="700"]Lots of kid and pet action I happened upon this family (and their animals) on a day I got lost walking through the towns and rice paddies near Ubud, Bali.[/caption]

I have been back in the states for the last three months and the longer I am home, the more my brain romanticizes this aspect of life on the road. You see, when there are roosters I know I am waking to a day that brings a culture apart from that of my youth, a language to challenge my mind, and the fun of the unknown. When I live in a new place, the mundane becomes the challenge for the day even in tasks as ordinary as hunting down a post office.

I am often asked what day-to-day life is like in developing countries. There are the fun things, like food and culture, that are easy to peg down, but travel goes deeper and the oddest memories surface at times, transporting me into past moments. Yesterday morning my mind wandered; in waking to near silence I realized how different minor moments in life are when you live somewhere else.

Traveling and the sound of roosters are forever linked in my head.

And this association stands even though the rooster is my nemesis. I’m a light sleeper and the moment the first rooster crows, my busy brain urges me to start my day. But a day rising to the sounds of roosters often means more. It means stepping outside the familiar at every step; even when I’ve been living somewhere for months (as I did in Thailand and Mexico), I wake with possibilities.

Baby chicks and their mom scattered around the village at Silico Creek, Panama.

One of my favorite memories of Thailand is the national anthem. Each day the Thai National Anthem is played at 8:00 a.m. and 6:00 p.m. on the radio, television, and on loudspeakers in many public spaces (you can listen to it here). When I lived in Thailand, the National Anthem became a quiet anthem of my mornings. I would wake at 6:30 a.m. to write, my hot coffee and breakfast cooling as I lost myself in the solitude of rooster crows and the waking noises of my Thai neighbors. Then at the very moment the clock struck 8.00, the first chords of the morning national anthem jolted my subconscious to the present. An elementary school behind my apartment blared the anthem through their speakers and the tinny music floated into my apartment.

Hearing it made me happy. I felt a part of the community each morning and I counted on the ritual as a part of my day.

Finding a ritual is a core reason I travel slowly, the reason I love renting an apartment for weeks or months. Though I have not become that true “expat” in the sense that I live permanently in a new place, the slow travel gives me a chance to allow daily rituals to seep into my routines.

[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="700"]hpa-an The sun had just risen and yet the vendors were nearly done with their daily ritual of buying/selling vegetables from the countryside at the market in Hpa-An, Burma.[/caption]

In my Mexican apartment, instead of a national anthem I woke to the garbled voice of passing pickup trucks hawking their wares. Loudspeakers affixed to the roof of these trucks blared out their cyclical mantras:

“Gasolina,” sung the gas truck

Camarones frios,” promised another, offering me good deals on cold shrimp, shrimp without their heads, jumbo shrimp … each time the truck passed I imagined the voice as a Spanish-speaking Bubba from Forest Gump.

The trucks circled town every hour, and the army of roosters prancing around the family compound I called home raised their voices in agreement throughout the day. It was a constant noise and the background to my day.

Yesterday though, I woke in my room and rose from my bed—and my memories— just as the street calmed from the workday evacuation from the neighborhood. I brewed my coffee, turned on my laptop, and prepared to write.

In silence.

And I thought to my self: today, today I miss the roosters.

Later this week I’ll share a post with upcoming speaking dates, travel plans and general announcements as I am getting antsy over here to hit the road once again. 

indian man drinks chai

A Little Musing… On the Art of Cultural Immersion

Moments and anecdotes from my travels flutter into my memory at the most random of moments. I’ve talked about this feeling in the past on A Little Adrift, in my post on “How Four Years Traveling the World Changed Me,” the most seemingly odd smell or sound triggers the memory of a conversation had over dish of Thai curry, or a bag of pumpkin seeds shared in the bed a bumpy pickup truck, some without a common language, but with shared smiles. Memories bubble to the surface every day, and I think now, looking back,  it’s the small moments that I recall most often that would have surprised the Shannon of four years ago.

[caption id="" align="alignright" width="300"]indian chai tea An Indian man enjoys a chai tea on the street-side in Udaipur, India[/caption]

Before I left to travel, I had grand plans for the major wonders of the world I would see, and the adventurous activities I would do. I would dive the Great Barrier Reef, see the Himalayas, teach English in a monastery, stand in awe of the Taj Mahal … I filled the list with things to do, things I am so grateful to have now already done and seen some of the awe-inspiring things in this world, but I had little concept at the time that the sites and activities were the backdrop to my travels. Living on the road for four and a half years meant four years of eating three meals a day, talking, reading, doing laundry, travel days, and thousands of hours of shared conversations.

If you had asked me in 2008 what the term “cultural immersion” meant, I would have likely honed in on the fact that I planned to travel through countries and would thus meet locals, ask questions, and learn more about each culture’s nuances and peculiarities. The reality of traveling comes down to much more than that, in many ways, my emphasis on doing things has now changed a bit. If you are open to learning you can’t escape cultural immersion, it’s in every facet of the culture and the way people interact with me, even in the most touristy of places.

Now, I travel to learn more, to observe, and experience the story of a new place, and many times this is easiest when I slip off the tourist trail, grab the local bus in the wrong direction and simply allow the travel experience to take over. But that’s only one aspect of it. It’s a bit of a romantic notion for me to say that my most enriching experiences happen in rural areas on buses in the middle of nowhere, because although I learn a lot during those parts of my travels, it’s often the times in cities that add context.

Antigua, Guatemala is one of my favorite little cities, and I wrote a post about why I love that little town, and as I thought about immersing, it called to mind my conversations over chai and the hilarity that ensued in the most touristy, backpackery part of Kathmandu.

Though I would deeply love to know every language on earth, I barely know three. English is not always widely spoken in the rural areas of the world—in fact not a single restaurant owner or shop in my tiny volunteer town in Nepal spoke English. Fantastic for immersion, not so fantastic for answering questions about what I was seeing around me each day. And so, it’s both the immersive and the “touristy” experiences—the interplay of the two—that form my most memorable moments in travel.

[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="654"]san pancho mexico Snapshots from my last two weeks living in my tiny Mexican town.[/caption]

I thought a lot about cultural immersion and traveling recently because I settled into a tiny expat town in Mexico this past week. And I surprised myself with the decision to stay here. I came to Mexico partly to polish off my Spanish—it’s been years in the making and I am ready to just dedicate the time and effort to feeling more fluent.

Not that I need too much Spanish here. The town is tiny—one main road that leads straight to the beach. And as I said, it’s full of expats. It’s so small in fact, that there is only one coffee shop in town. Yes, one. That was very nearly a deal-breaker, but it makes a kick-ass Americano and I was appeased on that front.

But for some reason I felt guilty when I first chose to stay here, I felt that I should “go more local” and set up shop in a more “Mexican” town. As if that would make me more of a traveler maybe? I am here though, and I want to stay. I have friends in this town, fellow travel bloggers Steve and Victoria from Bridges and Balloons, and an instant community of locals and expats alike because in a town this small the divide between the two is almost negligible. There is also a wonderful community center here, EntreAmigos, which runs classes for all the nearby children, creates art from the town’s recyclables, and is just outside my doorstep—I started volunteering there yesterday and will continue tutoring and doing after-school English lessons over the next several months.

[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="654"]palm trees and sky Palm trees and blue skies on the quiet streets[/caption]

Cultural immersion can mean so many things, and there are those who think you have to abandon the mainstream tourism path to experience travel, but there are moments and opportunities everywhere to dive into the culture. I’m still learning this. And some places, albeit, are easier than others, but I am happy here … and after just two weeks the shop owners give me a wider smile when I walk in the door—the hello of recognition, that beginning sign of belonging somewhere, even if it’s just for a few months.

More reports will be coming in the months to follow on food (expect many taco photos in your future … and mine), volunteering, life here, and—as always—I will continue to play catch-up with all the stories and memories over the past four years that haven’t yet made it onto this site. A friend from Florida asked me last month why I have never shared on my blog some of the anecdotes I tell over the dinner table when I am back home with friends, and his question struck me as true. Sometimes in search of a good travel story, I forget to share some of the random moments on the road, some of my personal journey. Working on that, and other things, and simply enjoying my new little Mexican town I am calling home for the next few months!

sunset angkor wat

A Little Perspective … How Four Years of Traveling the World Has Changed Me

When I talk about the direction my life has taken over the years, and what I think about for my future, I find myself circling around the fact that the act of near constant travel these past four years has shifted my perspective on life in tangible and identifiable ways. It shifted who I am, who I want to be, and how I perceive myself. And ultimately, it changed how I see and interact with the nearly every aspect of the world around me: family, jobs and career goals, political views, consumerism and consumption, friendships and my relationships. A time or two, I’ve alluded to these changes on A Little Adrift, but never have I elaborated—neither in person, nor on this site, nor even to myself.

But, it seemed appropriate to celebrate my four-year anniversary of travel this month (I left on election day 2008) with a look back on how I feel now—four years later, dozens of countries, hundreds of experiences, thousands of memories, stories, ideas, and challenges. The years have been filled with so much; I feel blessed by the opportunities I have had, and it’s surreal for me when I think of my first year on the road. I have a terrible memory, which means I can’t recall specific events off the top of my head. Ask me for a highlight from my travels and my brain blanks, little slices of panic creep in for a moment … surely I have something intelligent to say about four years of near constant travel. But I often don’t, and I falter and smile and come up with something that suffices but that rarely encapsulates the highs and the lows, the new perspectives and ideas.

[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="654"]Graffiti in Shanghai, China These buildings in Shanghai are marked for demolition with graffiti; we saw this symbol all over the country as China destroys pieces of the past to make cities appear newer/fresher for events like the Olympics and World Expo.[/caption]

Instead, a certain smell triggers my memories. Or perhaps the quality of setting sunshine casting shadows over a landscape pulls in delicate threads of all the past experiences that echo how I felt at that moment, what happened before and after that moment, and the shifts that were happening inside of me.

Because travel is personal.

For me, the memories, reflections, and changes are intertwined with far more than simply being there. It’s more than the fact that I watched sunrise very nearly on a mountaintop in the Himalayas, and instead that experience is indelibly linked to the fact that I cried for nearly an entire hour because we left at 4am, we hadn’t had breakfast, my blood sugar was tanking, and I surrendered instead of continuing. I camped out on a rock while the rest of my group continued to the summit and watched the hazy and cloudy sunrise alone. Sure, I can tell the story of a sunrise in the Himalayas if it occurs to me (which rarely happens) … but that memory only crops up when it’s linked to a me reflecting on failure in a quiet place. Like I did on that mountainside three and a half years ago.

[caption id="" align="aligncenter" width="413"]hiking annapurna nepal Two men quietly talk in the early evening high in a town we paused in for mere minutes while I hiked along the Annapurna circuit in Nepal.[/caption]

I try to record key moments on my blog, experiences that resonated and changed me in some way, and the journey these past four years, but I invariably miss a lot. And I often leave out the major arch and themes—the reflections on what has shifted when looked at from a macro perspective of four years, not just perspective shifts in a single moment.

Last month, a reader emailed me with a simple request: “You asserted on your site that travel has shifted your perspective—How? Why? What is your perspective now?” Throughout the week I received that email, I pondered a response and dug deep to come up with something that would encapsulate what I feel and express something I had never yet put down on paper. Two days later, yet another question—quite similar in nature—popped up in my email. He wrote: “How has your perspective on your own country changed now that you see it through a more globalized lens.”

[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="654"]Nepali Nuns from Arya Tara Two young female monks (nuns) at the Arya Tara school just outside of Pharping, Nepal.[/caption]

While I’m not superstitious, I do mostly field travel-specific reader queries via email (questions about the how-tos and the technical aspects of it all), so two questions in the same week told me this warranted a closer look more deeply into the effect my travels have had on me.

It was hard to formulate a response that did the question justice in a single email. And the response is dynamic, which is likely why I never quite tackled answering this question. Ask me in another year, five years, even ten, and my answer will morph to include elements of every new realization and experience. My response changes with every new development in my life, and every trip I take. In conversation, my statements about travel changing me are assumed true by those who have never traveled, and echoed by those who have traveled, but rarely articulated by anyone involved. The assertion is my truth and accepted as such. But there is more to it, there are personal thoughts I have penned over the years that stand out as moments that changed the direction and my path in life. So, with that in mind, I will attempt to break down some of what has gone on inside myself over the years.

On my background …

At the most basic level, travel has humbled me and expanded my perception of my place in the world. I grew up in the United States and the circumstances of life insulated me from a visceral experience within any other culture. I did not grow up wealthy, not by any stretch of the imagination, but I grew up in suburbia in a split household (my father raised me, my mother raised my brothers) and exotic for us was the luxury of eating at a delicious Thai restaurant my dad favored as I was growing up—no international travel for me, but I knew other places existed and in my teens my parents traveled to Ireland together. I had food on my plate every day, clothes from the second-hand store, and new toys and books under the Christmas tree each year. That was my normal and the foundational basis for my America, my version of what many outsiders see as the American dream—not perfect, not wealthy, but enough.

[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="654"]lake districts england A solo one-handed self-portrait in the sheep-filled pastures in the Lakes District, England in my first year of solo travel.[/caption]

Once I left my bubble in the U.S., I was thrust into new situations outside my realms of previous experience. I saw extreme wealth living aside startling poverty; I met people with radically divergent religious views. People who hated my country but not me. People who loved my country and assumed my America was a land of great wealth, equality, and outrageous opportunities. Opinions, stories, and new baseline realities were shoving into me at startling speeds.

The pace of life quickens when you’re outside of your home base.

The comfort of familiarity was gone and I was a stranger in each new place, the new experiences stacked up faster than I could write them down. That first, mostly solo year on the road was, in a way, my boot camp on life and perhaps the quickest period throughout which I assimilated new lessons. But it was the ensuing years that allowed me to process what I was experiencing; and it is over the years that I formed opinions, ideas, and patterns based on my shifting perspective and the lessons I’ve learned.

And there have been many lessons. Personal lessons and personal growths that were hard-learned and boy were some of them earned. And wider lessons, on truths and patterns that exist outside the knowledge bubble I operated from for the majority of my life.

On the lessons and changes along the way …

Over the years, the nuggets of similar truths found in every city, town, and village I passed through often surprised me. Amidst poverty and hunger, I felt a commonality of shared experiences—a desire within a person to better themselves, or perhaps a parent working diligently day and night on the hope of a better life for their child. The circumstances of the people I have met while traveling were often so seemingly disparate from the suburbia of my youth, but yet underneath, deep within the travel experience were common themes. I found common hopes and common fears within each person’s story. Witnessing this, hearing the stories and feeling the inherent kindness of communities all over the world, has broadened my sense of self, and my understanding of the threads of connection binding us all.

[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="654"]A Bedouin and camel at dawn, Wadi Rum, Jordan A Bedouin and camel at dawn, Wadi Rum, Jordan[/caption]

I have learned that relative wealth—the wealth we have in the West in the form of opportunities and a government that generally provides basic services and support—does not isolate us from similar common human experiences. Though I have never gone hungry or wondered about my next meal, I do understand loss. I watched loss echo off the dense trees of a remote mountainside in Nepal as a keening wife followed a funeral procession down mountain behind her husband, gone to soon. And the deep pain in that woman’s voice jarred me back  several years, to sitting on a couch as my mother processed my brother’s sudden death. Both were deep losses, both illustrate shared commonality that crosses cultures—a shared humanity connecting without regard for culture or wealth, class or color.

[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="654"]bus in india Roof-top seats on a very, very full bus in India was the norm, rather than the exception.[/caption]

And then there are the things I see and have yet to assimilate, yet to turn into “lessons” … the things I don’t yet know how to process and accept as reality. The haunting eyes of a child with a distended belly, dirty hands, and probing eyes gave me a regular glimpse at the devastating effects of wealth disparity … children are starving to death every single day, and yet children in my life throw temper tantrums because they don’t “like” the taste of some food provided for them in great quantity and on a daily basis. And I know there is a flaw in direct comparisons. I see this though, and there is a pain as I attempt to reconcile the two realities … but then the travel moment changes, the pickup truck engine starts again and the faces fade into a cloud of rough red dust. Or maybe something happens at the dinner table to channel focus elsewhere, off of the children, and the moment is over, blending into the next experience with the only commonality between these moments me, as the witness.

On who I am today …

I am a traveler and a sometimes outsider to life. In both places, home and on the road I witness both experiences, I assimilate what I have seen without judgment on a good day, joy on a great day, and sadness on a bad day. I observe and try to understand it all. Try to focus my lens into crystal clear clarity, though I know there are some things for which there is no easy answer. I am often at a loss about what I can say in the tough moments both here and on the road, so I mostly stay silent. And I post pretty photos and tell the happy stories.

And what does all of this mean for me, each day after four years of travel?

[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="654"]Sunset at Angkor Wat, Cambodia. Sunset at Angkor Wat, Cambodia.[/caption]

At the core of it all, travel has recalibrated the point of view through which I approach problems and situations in my life, it has given me a sense of gratitude for what I have in my life through nothing more than circumstance of birth, and even more grateful for my ability to share that message with others. I know more, and though I have learned much, I understand less than I once thought. My view of the world has taken flight like a bird—outside of the microcosm of my country there is a pulsating planet of other people, like me and yet so very different; so different from what I am, have ever been, and will ever be. I appreciate travel if for no other reason than for the fact that I now feel more able to take the proverbial step into another person’s shoes and imagine their struggles, feel their hopes, and respect their successes and failures.

Travel has made me feel more deeply for other people and has put into perspective the highs and lows in this world. I hurt more and I love more deeply, I see more joy and much more sorrow, I’m more introspective and less impatient. I argue just as passionately but with a lot more experiences to call upon, and a place deep in my soul now understands the meaning of the word solitude, which has taught me to seek the friendships, conversations, and slices of happiness I can find.

In short, travel changed my life.

key-west-florida

A Little Nostalgia… A Portrait of Key West Culture, Then & Now

I spent a decade of summers in my childhood camping in the Florida Keys with my family; the Keys were a mere eight hour drive from our home and our nine days of vacation were gloriously free as my parents kitted and fitted us five kids with fishing poles and snorkeling gear and reveled in the hours of kid-free time while we entertained ourselves. My memories of grilled dinners, sandy swimsuits, and campfire chess games are tinged with the honeyed orange rays of long summer days and faded at the edges like an old photo.

[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="711"]Key West from childhood Enjoying yummy grilled camping food with three of my brothers many, many years ago. I’m the one in pigtails. :)[/caption] [divider] [caption id="" align="alignnone" width="712"]Sand Key Lighthouse, Key West The Sand Key Lighthouse snorkeling spot is just off the coast of Key West, Florida and popular for pretty coral and brightly colored marine life close to the surface and easy to see![/caption]

[divider_flat]As we grew up though, other summer plans, namely hanging out with friends, took precedence over family vacations and before I knew it more than 15 years had passed since my last visit to the Keys. And yet, my enthusiasm hasn’t changed; if you ask me about the Keys I wax poetic about the impossibly variegated turquoise expanse caused by shallow waters and miles of coral reefs.

The memories were sweet with the innocence of childhood and I yearned to go back for a visit, to beat back the uncertainty of nostalgia and instead confront the Keys as an adult. When James, a fellow travel friend from Chiang Mai, passed through the region I leapt at excuse to drive south and show off my home state.

The drive was altogether different, instead of five kids jumbling around the backseat (“mo-om, make him stop touching me!”) we had air-conditioned comfort as we left mainland Florida and started the several hour trek on the Overseas Highway to the southernmost city in the continental United States.

[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="710"]Bike Ride and Mural, Key West, Florida A woman enjoys an afternoon bike ride near a beautiful mural in Old Town, Key West[/caption] [divider]

The Strand, Key West, Florida Conch Restaurant, Old Town Key West

[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="710"]Conch Republic license plate They have a sense of humor down south and that cliche, relaxed island flavor[/caption]

[divider_flat]Within a few hours I was weaving the car through Old Town Key West, nervously navigating the non-car culture as bicyclists breezed by me traveling faster than traffic and pedestrians stepped off the curb with nary a care in the world as the sticky breeze blew in from the nearby Gulf waters.

Because we camped in the state parks throughout childhood, I remembered Key West only for the fire-breathing, sword swallowing antics during the Sunset Celebration on Mallory Pier, the drag queens standing in doorways as we slugged back to the car at night, and the overall amusement park aspect to our day-trips to the tiny island at the end of the chain of Keys.

Coming back as an adult was different altogether, I found Old Town Key West a vibrant city pulsing with tourism and though the locals were still quirky, everyone swirled together into a happy little medley so much more normal than my childhood memory.

You see, though Key West teems with tourism, the island is tiny and as often as I encountered other tourists on the streets, it was just as easy to chat up the sales clerks and cafe owners. Well beyond the ploy of appeasing the tourists, I found the locals incredibly willing to share stories and humor from the Conch Republic, the unofficial tongue-in-cheek name given to Key West when the “micronation” seceded from the US back in the 80s.

[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="710"]Conch Republic, Florida, and US Flags The Conch Republic flag wave proudly in Mallory Square next to the Florida State flag and the US flag[/caption]

[divider_flat]Cafe owners shared coffee at the counters with regulars and the curious tourist (me) could sidle up nearby and casually drop into the open conversation with questions and observations about the town. In the evenings, the locals are just as likely to hit the pubs on Duval Street as the tourists and I found it pretty easy to prod a local into regaling me with uncensored stories as the night progressed.

The locals love their culture and Conchs (Key West born locals) are just a different breed altogether. I’m a native Floridian, rare enough in and of itself, but the local Conchs I met on the islands are a quirky bunch who stand apart. Many were local artists, eccentric by nature most anywhere in the world, but welcomed and indulged in Key West as just another piece of flavor and culture. Those non-artists seem to have at least an indirect connection with the island’s tourism industry, the driving economic force in Key West.

All of these nuances were missed as a child; quite frankly I simply didn’t care about the locals, not when there was promise of tightrope walkers and trained cats….

[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="710"]Images of Sunset at Mallory Square, Key West Sunset street performers and artists take over Mallory Square each evening in Key West, Florida[/caption]

[divider_flat]As the sun set on my first night in Key West, I watched the performers at Mallory Square milk the crowds for laughs and tips; I soaked in the atmosphere as the cool breeze lifted strands of my hair, tickling a smile from my face at the gaped jaws of children watching the street performances with rapt attention.

Nostalgia is a fickle beast and my memory flitted back to the summers all those years ago, my undiluted joy and wonder on this very same boardwalk, and I notice that the moments etching into my memory now are the conversations with locals, the mouth-puckering tartness of a sweet key lime pie, and the mild confusion of navigating the quaint city streets. It’s not that Key West has changed, though it has, because there is still so much of the same. I can’t go back in time and instead embraced the new version of Key West, one filled with lively pubs, snorkeling excursions and friendly faces at every step of the way.

Gelato in Italy

A Little Mash Up … It’s Always Gelato-O’Clock in Italy

Italy ranks as one of my favorite developed-world countries and it really comes down to the eating experiences. In fact, if you ask me, each person reading this should do their stomach a favor and put Italy on the bucket list because the country was made for foodies of all sorts (not just ice-cream-loving-fiends).

See, the meal is just the beginning though, it gets you to the dessert! Because once you’ve eaten your fill of bread and wine you have full permission to indulge in gelato, which is Italian-style ice cream.

Edinburgh Fringe Festival in Scotland

A Little Memory … I Planned Travels to Attend the Fringe Festival

On my bucket list when I planned my route for my round the world trip in position numero uno was the annual Edinburgh Fringe Festival in Scotland, the largest arts festival in the world. The Fringe was one of the few non-negotiables because if I was going to traverse the planet, by god I was going to see some good theatre in the process!

And so that’s how I set my route around the world; it’s that simple really. Pick something you’re most passionate about and just do it!

A Little Vignette…Smiles, and the Nature of Memory

I find it hard to describe the way my memories often work — I remember experiences as if a single Polaroid photo was taken of each event. Sometimes, mini vignettes play out and conversations echo around the central snapshot memory; rarely the whole event, instead brief and often times quite inconsequential moments.

My earliest childhood memories standout in this fashion and already snapshots of memories from my trip to Jordan this past May are bubbling to the surface as snippets. These people may never remember my name and face in ten years, but these are pieces of the memories I take with me. Not all of my memories. No,  certainly not all. But instead a few moments that made a brief impression, they created enough of an impact to come back and make me smile all over again.

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[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="720"]Coffee in Amman, Jordan A young man shows me how he makes his street-side coffee in Amman, Jordan[/caption]

[divider_flat]Amman, Jordan, a capital city churning with activity, hemorrhaging with people, and pulsating with an open curiosity throughout the nearly uniform off-white and cream sandstone brick buildings. The Western woman is still a bit of a novelty on the streets of Amman and stopping to catch a photo of a busy street-side coffee spot yielded hilarity. Far from the innocuous “take a surreptitious photo and move on” mentality I had planned, rapid and friendly Arabic exploded onto the street as I slowed with my camera pointed toward something intriguing.

This oh-so-young coffee barista was prodded into action with a playful admonition from a Jordanian man perched against a car nearby; Ali, my guide translated the interchange between the two men: “quick, make a cup of coffee so she can take a photo!”

Although no one was buying a drink at that moment, our diffident and goofy barista worked in slow-motion to make a cup of coffee so I could document the entire process (unprompted by me, mind you!). Everyone in the nearby vicinity was entertained and my only regret is that I don’t speak a lick of Arabic and thus lost out on the comments and observations from anyone nearby; our scene induced giggling and smiling from on-lookers and I hammed it up for them, documenting the tiny coffee nuances, as well as the big grins.

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[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="720"]Rasun tent camp, Jordan A friendly man in the mountains near Rasun invite us to tour his property and share some tea in Jordan.[/caption]

[divider_flat]The restless and rapid friendliness of Amman (it is a capital city after all) transitioned into a slower pace outside of Ajloun, a wooded and forested region in the north. The green and verdancy came as an abrupt jolt as I passively watched the endless miles of stretching desert give way to a rolling hills and crisper, cooler air.

Smiles waited for me high on a hilltop in Rasoun at the Tourist Tent Camp; the setting is remote and quiet, with views of nearby Syrian mountains and Palestine, alongside a new cultural lesson to take away for the day. I shared a tea with Zuher, the owner of the mountainside tent camp before some sweet moments with his lovely daughters; they were completely intrigued by us as foreigners. The eldest daughter, shy but beseeching, she so desperately wanted her father to continue prodding her to practice her English with us and the cute dimple when she fully faced us, no longer pushing herself into her father’s leg for security, and shared her age and name was so very, very sweet.

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[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="720"]Dinner in Rasun, Jordan A family dinner in Rasun, Jordan.[/caption]

[divider_flat]Cooking dinner with a family in nearby Rasun just hours later yielded more giggling, smiling girls, eager to handhold and be held. I miss my niece and nephews something fierce when I’m on the road, changing destinations and they’re back home, losing teeth and growing up. So the time with these children, a brief window into their lives and interactions intrigues me—I compare experiences, attitudes, and that ever-so-present smile. Even the shyest children around the world will reward the patient and attentive with a smile.

I bounced between playing with the children running through the house and kitchen-time with the women of the house as we cooked dinner. Just us women cooked and shared, we were  sequestered away from the men who sat outside swapping stories around the garden fountain. These moments stand out as some of the quieter moments of gentle cultural exchange. A cutting board, knife and some quick gestures communicated enough to prepare the dinner with the mother and daughter duo. I’m not an adept cook in any country, so Jordan was no exception and my blunders in cutting (I mean really, is anyone fantastic at mincing?!) created the universally understood chuckle as I grinned and did my best.

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[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="720"]Bedouin in Feyan, Jordan Abu Abdullah was quite the character as he taught us how to make traditional cardamom coffee in his tent near the Feynan Ecolodge in Wadi Feynan, Jordan.[/caption]

[divider_flat]I gripped the small glass cup delicately on the rim to avoid a burn and one sip of tea was enough to shoot my eyebrows to my forehead as my eyes widened in surprise. I contemplated the cultural differences indicated by our palates as I comfortably settled further into a brightly colored woven blanket, feet crossed Indian-style and a cup of steaming hot, super-sweet Bedouin tea in my hand. The Bedouin are such an intriguing culture; so different from my own. Without packaged sweets accessible in their diet, traditional Bedouin tea is served piping hot right from the fire and with a boat-load of sugar.

As the sugar seeped down my throat, I glanced up and noticed Abu Abdullah studying our group with what can only be called a mischievous grin. I cautiously continued sipping my tea and watched as he prepared the beans for our lesson on how to make traditional Bedouin coffee. The women nearby, watched avidly at my every gesture, but not in an “holy cow I’m under the microscope” way, but rather a with a curiosity and keen interest I reciprocated mere minutes later when I learned to make jameed, a thick goat’s milk yogurt.

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smiling camel in Wadi Feynan camp in Jordan

Even the camels smile in Jordan! The camels at the eco-camp in Wadi Feynan are treated by the bedouin like cherished members of the community. The owner of these happy camels had a deep bond with the animals and he took delight in introducing us to his animals, and then carefully selecting which camels we would ride for our sunrise camel ride.

The sunrise was magnificent, and it remains one of my most lasting memories of traveling Jordan. But coupled with that are memories of hugging baby camels and learning about how the bedouin integrate the camels into so many parts of their daily lives.

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[caption id="" align="alignnone" width="720"]Jordan driver and guide Ali and Rami waiting patiently at sunset as Jodi and I snap millions of photos of the sun on the desert mountains![/caption]

[divider_flat]There’s no single moment to pin down for Ali and Rami, my guide and driver for the ten days I spent in Jordan as the guest of the Jordan Tourism Board. The entire ten days  are soaked with laughter in my memories; my laughter, their laughter, all of us in fits and stitches as we drove the stretches of desert highway.

My friend and I are full of shenanigans when we travel together and Jordan was no exception. I didn’t expect, however, that Ali and Rami would embrace our senses of humor and take us through not only the historic sites and serious discussions about Jordan, but the lighter side of friendly banter as we toured and explored.

In short, we met as strangers and parted as friends.


These are snippets of other people’s lives that stuck with me; I enjoyed their company for mere minutes in some cases, and yet the imprint of the interactions sit on my memory.  I always wish that I could travel back to a moment in time; I don’t want to just revisit Jordan…but instead I have an emotional attachment to the experience I had.

And if I go back it will be different. Good different, bad different…that’s all here nor there. It’s just always different. This is the case with nearly every country, every time I make new friends and spend time exploring and enjoying I know that if and when I return the world will have shifted.  I feel this way about Jordan, Nepal, and Thailand. And Laos, where I had a wacky happenstance run-in with Laura, a college-years friend, just one day into my six weeks backpacking around Southeast Asia; though unplanned, we spent six weeks exploring Laos and Cambodia together and I loved both countries so much, but with her anecdotes and presence also in those snapshot memories.

I love these random moments that pop into my head months and years after I leave a country—these are the ones most prevalent right now and I’ve been collecting the snapshot images from my brain for weeks. I’m intrigued to ponder what may stir to the surface a year from now, and even ten years.

Tell me, have you had any moments and snapshots of memories percolate to the surface months and years later? Would love to hear your thoughts below! :)

(Please refresh the page if you can’t see the slideshow below!)

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