At least I have craft beer in the fridge

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Various juice concoctions at a restaurant in Muscat, Oman.

More often than I’d like to admit, the stress from teaching nudged me to drink. Not get drunk, but at least capture a mild buzz. To get home, take care of a few things, maybe workout, then enjoy a few beers on my front porch. To think–while driving home after a particularly stressful 5th period classes full of squirrely and disinterested students, in which maybe a quarter of my students demonstrated an inkling of learning–damn, that sucked but at least I have some craft beer in my fridge.

On top of job stress that might spur opening a cold one, Rebecca and I are definitely social drinkers. If friends want to meet up at a favorite watering hole, we usually give the idea a green light. If a family member wants to try a new bourbon, of course! If a new brewpub opens up and hosts a quiz night, count me in! And to think that my more recent behaviors are nothing compared to those during college: Freshman fall, we immediately began smuggling cases of Busch Light into our dorm rooms; rounds of flip cup, quarters, beer pong, and other drinking games rapidly diminished our supplies. We quickly restocked.

The past two months, however, I’ve consumed alcoholic drinks as infrequently as I did before I went to college.

We’ve spent almost two months in the United Arab Emirates and Oman, two Muslim countries where alcohol is heavily regulated. You can buy alcohol in bars or restaurants, but they have to be attached to hotels. And it’s really expensive–10-12 bucks for a Heineken draft. There are special liquor stores that sell to residents who have licenses, but as a visitor here, you can’t just pop down to the corner store and buy a six-pack. This inconvenience has been a good thing, making me reflect on about my relationship to booze, stress/mental health, and to habit.

We started our journey in Georgia, where wine and chacha (which can be higher than 150 proof!) flow abundantly and cheaply. There’s an ancient culture of toasting and hospitality in Georgia,  and they also apparently invented wine 8,000 years ago–this is something the neighboring Armenians like to contest. Given this tradition, how could I not imbibe at a precocious pace when in Georgia? We were invited to a few supras (traditional feasts) and I kept pace with the tabatas, or toastmasters. This seemed like the best choice at the time as to not offend my hosts. My body paid the price, but it was joyful and raucous cultural immersion.  Over seven weeks, we tasted dozens of delicious traditional wines, which ferment underground in large clay pots called kveris.

Upon first arriving in the UAE, I was thinking I’d miss the easy access to a cold beer or glass of wine. But I’m finding that I generally don’t. Instead of a beer and wine list, menus here usually have a fresh juice list, and it’s not that pricey compared to hip brunch spots in the US where a modest glass of freshly squeezed OJ will set you back eight dollars. Both Rebecca and I have really enjoyed this shift from alcohol to juice–you keep the tab down when a few glasses of Chardonnay or draft beers are replaced by a single lemon mint or pomegranate juice.

I’m also wondering whether we are feeling pretty good due to drinking less or due to our greatly diminished stress levels. Probably both. We currently have no obligations and only one regular bill–our mortgage, which is covered by renters back in Louisville–and very part time work. We are blessed in this regard. And I’m so relaxed not having to worry about students’ emotional outbursts, lesson plans, data collection, staff meetings, and the countless other duties teaching requires.

Forty-six percent of teachers say they feel high daily stress. That’s on par with nurses and physicians. And roughly half of teachers agree with this statement: “The stress and disappointments involved in teaching at this school aren’t really worth it,”’ NPR reports. I’m not surprised. For thirteen years in a row, it was all I knew, and that idea of feeling like it wasn’t worth it recently began to creep into my mind.

The last three years in the classroom–during which I only taught a half day–had plenty of wins and positive relationships with the vast majority of students and colleagues. But there were also far too many times when I thought this isn’t fucking worth it. One time, a mother berated me over the phone, accused me of racism, and I did all I could not to return the favor by screaming right back at her. I had to hang up on her.

Teaching can drive you bonkers if you take things personally; fortunately, I developed the ability to separate external chaos from my position intentions and actions, at least for the most part. But I’m still human and things got to me, and most teachers will tell you it’s incredibly hard to sleep well after especially trying classroom and hallway episodes.

Writing this also made me think about a poignant narrative essay by Kristi Coulter. It’s a rumination about being a modern woman with wine as an ever-present vehicle for escape, a constant crutch to dull the trappings of domestic duties and career demands. Coulter notices how ubiquitous wine is at women-centric events, like baby showers and vinyasa and vino (wine and yoga sessions combined), in addition to comments about wine (or the absence of) on social media:

“Toward the end of summer I take a trip to Sedona and post a photo to Facebook that captures the red rocks, a stack of books, a giant cocoa smoothie, and my glossy azure toenails in one frame. It is scientifically the most vacation-y photo ever taken.

“Uh, where’s the wine?” someone wants to know.

“Yeah, this vacation seems to be missing wine,” someone else chimes in.

While I obviously have never been a “do it all” mother who may crave the escape wine represents, modern living–managing multiple social media accounts, full-time work, children, chores, consuming and dealing with material things–is a lot. There no doubt millions of Americans seek a reprieve from harried modern living through various levels of substance (ab)use.

When I’ve coped with bouts of depression over the years, when my head was foggy and the smallest of tasks seemed to be far more difficult than they should–think grocery shopping, writing lesson plans (which I can usually do in my sleep) or simply trying to focus on reading a novel–it was far too easy to reach for a bottle. I’m not ashamed of this, it just was. Between folks dealing with short mental health bouts or extended struggles, I suspect a majority succumb to seeking a little jolt or buzz that gives clarity or energy or a boost to feel better, at least temporarily.

It has been reassuring to realize that I don’t need to drink–that it was mostly due to habit, choices, and stress. Although I generally don’t really care about New Year’s Resolutions, but I do believe in the power of continual reflection, and these current adventures has allowed for plenty of that. So I’m moving into 2018 especially cognizant of the conditions we’ll eventually inhabit and create with our lives–having some drinks with friends for companionship, joy, and laughter is great. But when day-to-day demands or other stressors become an accomplice in ramping up consumption, it’s time to evaluate the reasons we seek a drink and perhaps make some changes.

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Working To Live Is Worth A Try

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We try to work enough to pay the travel bills and little more. Here’s one remote “office” we utilized in Oman.

We wake up, and I make some coffee in a French press. We skim the news online, which is sometimes curtailed if the daily barrage of American political madness is too much. We play with Mrs. Norris the cat. I usually drink two cups of coffee and enjoy a light breakfast. I step outside on the balcony to check the forecast, then we settle into our respective workplaces on the large brown sectional couch in my aunt Jane’s Dubai apartment. Depending on what remote work assignments we have, we take care of a few hours of focused work–at least we try. And after a late morning workout, we do whatever we want.

We are working to live rather than living to work. I don’t know how long this can feasibly last, but for now it’s sparking plenty of reflection, possibility, and gratitude.

I know this isn’t commonplace and our current situation comes from a serious place of privilege, as our employment status isn’t a matter of survival and realizing our basic needs. But it also emerged after dealing with fertility challenges in our quest to start a family and also some bold moves–jettisoning half of our belongings, renting our home out, quitting our full time jobs, and embarking on a journey with no itinerary. We had very comfortable lives in Louisville, a small, vibrant, and affordable city. Great friends, good jobs, and benefits.

After all, once you get into the American work grind as an educated professional, everything feels like default. There’s no obvious “opt” out clause: You’re going to work at least forty hours a week, likely having a mortgage or rent payment that requires both you and your partner work full time. Hopefully squirreling money into retirement accounts. The relentless march towards upgrading homes, cars, and toasters.

It has always felt like bullshit to me, at least to an extent.

I don’t like the idea of a constant striving and material accumulation, with the possibility of free time, adventure, or even following a passion being reserved for some distant future, during which old age and other inevitabilities make it less likely to realize these dreams. As Rolf Potts encourages in Vagabonding, you can “take control of your circumstances instead of passively waiting for them to decide your fate.”

Accordingly, I’ve always admired those bold enough to live off the grid, embrace minimalism, or leave desk jobs to become organic farmers, among other lifestyle choices. Even the tiny house movement has some appeal to me, though this escapist fantasy comes with plenty of challenges.

I certainly don’t begrudge anyone on a default “American Dream” path–had we gotten pregnant and had a two-year old child right now, I’d probably put health insurance, future college and retirement accounts on a higher pedestal. Due to our love for travel, I suspect we’d be considering what it might look like to live abroad, even with a growing family, but who knows? There are long term world travelers with kids out there, and that’s awesome.

While it’s highly possible that we’ll reinsert ourselves back into a version of the “grind” sooner rather than later, traveling has opened up new thinking about what it could look like when we settle again more permanently. Will we both try to have full time jobs? Since we own barely any furniture, would we really want a large apartment or home and the cost/stress of filling it up? Do we desire the flexibility that being self-employed allows?

And I’m not sure that my reentry to the workforce be as a classroom teacher. It’s tough to avoid feeling overworked, overburdened, and overcommitted as a public school educator, and I was always cognizant of a work-life balance–whatever that means. A few years ago, I blogged about the idea that being busy is a badge of honor for so many Americans, often manifesting itself, perhaps, as a form of humble bragging, a way of showing off of how many plans, family obligations, work e-mails, and dinner parties one manages to cram into a hectic schedule.

Yet ironically, many professional Americans actually have more leisure time than they think. “Busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness; obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day,” Tim Krieder writes.

I’ll pass, thank you.

Can you imagine what your life would be like if you weren’t so busy? What would it look like if you cut your work hours in half? Where would you have to live in order for this to be feasible? How would you spend your time? What choices would you now be able to make and what would you sacrifice? If you jettisoned more than half of your belongings, what would you dispose of and what would you keep?

Almost four months into our travels, we are nearly even, finance-wise, chipping away on various remote projects in order to sustain our temporarily nomadic lifestyle. For the first time in my adult life, I’m not worried about stacks of bills. Or sifting through mail. We’re never busy in the way modern life often saturates us with “to-do” lists. I’m not trying to save money for my retirement fund or for the down payment on a bigger house that I’ll have to put more stuff in to make it look presentable. We are, however, making some kickass deposits into our experience account.

I find great joy in recollecting and retelling poignant experiences stumbled upon or planned while on the road. Meeting the local vintner and sharing many glasses of wine in a Slovenian village, as he smiled and scrolled on my Google maps app trying to locate his home. Playing Bananagrams with the proprietor at a bed and breakfast in a holler at the edge of the Daniel Boone National Forest in Kentucky. Zooming on a motorbike up a hill on Thailand’s Koh Mook island, with the final treat a delightful family-run restaurant and the best green curry I’ve ever had. And the list goes on…

On the Road in Oman: Insights and Tips

You can pack in many unique experiences in Oman within a week or two, and we tried our best to do just that. It wasn’t a perfect trip–it’s silly to have that expectation, but I hope to visit Oman again someday or at least host some of our new Omani acquaintances if they ever visit the States.

Here’s a gallery of more images if you care to check them out! 

You can navigate without a GPS:  Despite a few detours, a nonworking Google Map–the blue dot flickering and slowly following our Toyota Fortuner’s progress–was enough for us. This wasn’t by design. That’s another story. But we were on a well-traveled loop, from Muscat down the coast to Ras Al Jinz, back up through the Wahiba Sands, up to Jebel Shams, then back to Muscat. The roads are mostly new, but signage doesn’t always match up with expectations. Luckily, the Omanis were always willing to help, either in English or enthusiastic Arabic, even though we only knew a few words. 

Definitely rent a 4WD:

If you have an inkling of adventure in you, you’ve got to rent a 4WD in Oman. For us, it was especially handy over several days. We needed it for our drive out to a fancy desert camp in Wahiba Sands, 11 km on mostly level ground between the dunes. And once you get into the mountainous region, even the paved roads have some serious grades. Driving up to the village of Al Khitaym for the “Grand Canyon” walk is dirt road part of the time and steep. But the highlight of our 4WD adventures had to be the drive from Al Hamra to Bald Sayt–a truly spectacular and adrenaline-pumping journey. After enjoying a walk around Bald Sayt, we ended up giving a lift to a hitchhiking Egyptian family who were leaving the valley enclave, heading to the nearest city of Rustaq for their monthly trip.

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Our passengers from Bald Sayt to Rustaq.

The Jebel Shams area is sweet:

While Oman’s coastal area is picturesque in places, and the wadis a highlight for most visitors, we were most impressed by the mountain region. Misfah Al Abriyeen village is one of the most unique places I’ve ever visited–the walk along the Falaj (irrigation canal) is really beautiful. Just be respectful of the local farmers tending their terraced plots with date palms and other crops.

There is also a sweet little museum in Al Hamra called Bait Al Safah, which is enclosed in one of the oldest homes in the village. It provides a glimpse into traditional Omani culture–there are live demonstrations of cooking, medicine-making, and other crafts. Very cool.

Then there’s the “Grand Canyon” of the Middle East. You can park at Al Khitaym, where goats acclimated to getting treats from visitors might even try to get in your car. The trail from this village gradually descends to some ruins tucked along the cliff. And there’s reportedly a nice swimming hole at the end of this walk. We couldn’t find it, which was the only disappointment during this fairly strenuous 3-4 hour round trip. (Someone had told us it wasn’t much of a hike…not true, you need to be in decent shape for this).

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Not shy.

Omanis are off-the-charts hospitable:

I don’t say this lightly. After our honeymoon in Thailand, during which a man zoomed our lost selves around on his motorbike for an hour, trying to deliver us back to a guest house, and another family hosted us in their traditional countryside home, treating us to grandma’s homemade chili paste with fish, boiled duck eggs, noodles, and other delights, I figured the Thai people were the friendliest on the planet. Now I’m not so sure.

Our first airbnb host Mohammad is one of the kindest people I’ve ever met, full of wisdom and open to cultural exchange–he even went snorkeling with us.

We then met Abdul, an Omani Special Forces paratrooper, while wandering around in Al Hamra. We were looking for the old section of the town, photographing goats in the alleyways. He asked if we needed help; we said we didn’t, thank you. But he then ended up inviting us for dates and coffee on the ground with his mom and sister. This led to two trips to his home, where we enjoyed conversation and received some generous gifts of traditional Omani clothing and aromatics. Like I said in the intro, I hope we can reciprocate someday. Inshallah, as Abdul told us.

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With Abdul.

It’s such a chill place compared to Dubai:

Oman’s Sultan Qaboos, ruler for the past 47 years, determined that he wanted to keep Oman’s traditional culture intact, developing slowly and sustainable. As a result of this leadership, you won’t see gleaming skyscrapers in Muscat, or over-the-top theme parks. There is a coherence to the place that you won’t find in Dubai, where anything goes architecture and rampant development can make you feel like you’re in the midst of a kid going crazy playing SimCity.

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Muttrah (old port area), Muscat

Avoid visiting the wadis on holidays and weekends:

We unknowingly booked our rental car during Oman’s long holiday weekend in early December. This caused the wadis to be overflowing with people. If you are looking to experience the wadis during a less hectic time, try to visit them on the weekdays and get out early.  Nonetheless, we loved swimming at Wadi Bani Khalid, where there are plenty of pools to explore (keep walking up the valley to avoid crowds and explore more pools).  If you are a woman, plan to swim in your clothing or shorts and a one-piece bathing suit; as it is considered disrespectful to strip down to a bikini. You will likely receive some stares no matter what; Omani Muslim women do not swim in public places.

Visit the Ras Al Jinz turtle reserve in the early morning:

A few other travelers that we met during our trip also encountered a chaotic crowd at the turtle reserve for the nighttime viewing. We were advised by an expat who has lived in Oman for 20 years to opt for the reserve’s early morning tour, which begins at 4:45 am. According to him, you have a better chance of seeing the turtles with a much smaller group.

Don’t Miss the Souk in Muttrah

The enclosed souk in Muttrah, the old port in Muscat, should not be missed. It is an endless maze of vendors selling a combination of inexpensive tourist knick-knacks and more authentic items. Don’t be afraid to negotiate.

 

 

What The Sultans Have Taught Us About the UAE (So Far)

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Rebecca and I with the three Sultans.

As the tan Honda Civic cruises down coastal highway E11 in the Emirate of Umm al Quawain, past mangrove marshes and ubiquitous cranes signaling yet more commercial development, Rebecca and I pepper Sultan III with questions: about the Quran, about family and marriage customs, about national dress. He gladly fills us in. Like us, he is eager to participate in some cultural exchange.

We learn that he has 18 siblings. Large families are encouraged as national policy in the UAE, and the government provides generous incentives for support, such as free public university and marriage costs between Emirati nationals. We tell him about our own family members and the exorbitant cost of many American universities. We learn Sultan III is a marketing student who enjoys listening to an eclectic mix of traditional Arabic and American pop music. We tell him about our own musical tastes, but we learn that during the call to prayer (Adhan), which we can faintly hear through closed car windows, I must not play bluegrass music–or any music, for that matter.

And we talk about travel. He hopes to visit the US someday. He’d follow in one of his brother’s footsteps, who spent a month-long honeymoon in the States. “In America, my brother tells me most people were funny and friendly,” he tells us. “I’m glad,” I reply with a sense of relief, thinking how the Trump-spiced soup of xenophobia and ignorance has reared its ugly head in so many ways.  

In a nation with the vast majority of residents being expatriates–estimates range between 80 or 90%–it’s common to work and live in the UAE without having much understanding of Emirati culture. You’ll certainly visit Dubai and come away with a strong impression. You’ll be amazed at the Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest building (at least until a project in Saudi Arabia eclipses it). You might suffer from sore feet after strolling the white marble floors at the world’s largest mall, and you might experience the desert through a “safari” tour. You’ll probably also realize that you’re visiting a place governed through absolute monarchy, and you’d be foolish not to respect local laws and customs.

But if you’re like us, you’ll be intrigued to learn more about the Emiratis, who stand out amongst the crowd, wearing their official national dress–bright white kanduras for men and black abayas for women–in the midst of what is truly a remarkable melting pot. There are reportedly 200 nationalities represented in Dubai. 

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Abayas for sale in a market in Oman (like it the UAE, women in Oman typically wear a black abaya).

We’ve certainly had good fortune in connecting with several Emirati students at a local men’s university in Sharjah, where there are plenty of western staff and faculty members, but visitors from the US are fairly rare. By hanging out in the campus library where my aunt works, we met three different students named Sultan–we affectionately refer to them as Sultan I, II, and III as a way of differentiating during our conversations :). And two of the Sultans generously offered to bring us on local tours, which is how we found ourselves on the coastal road in Umm Al Quawain.

One week before our tour with Sultan III, Sultan I had given us a tour of his home Emirate Sharjah, where we sampled breakfast sweets and wandered through a local souq (market), where he helped me purchase a jalabiya. Like Sultan III, Sultan I has a desire to learn about the greater world while also sharing insights into Emirati life. Recently, Sultan I also generously loaned me one of his kanduras to wear during the university’s national day celebration–the UAE just turned 46 years old on December 2nd.

The students seemed to appreciate my attempt at wearing their national dress–I certainly wasn’t receiving many puzzled looks, but it was a little tight!

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While it was a little tight and a tad short, the Emirati students seemed to enjoy my attempt at donning their national dress.

Back in the car, near the end of the tour with Sultan III, I mentioned that I had yet to try camel milk. His eyes lit up, and he immediately pulled off the highway at the nearest rest area, returning to the car with my cold refreshment. “Very nutritious and natural,” he told me. I liked it–really not too different a taste from cow’s milk. For desert-dwelling Bedouins, camel’s milk, along with dates, are still important sources of nourishment.

As our afternoon outing ended, he told us, “It would be best if all visitors to the UAE were friends with a local Emirati.” We certainly concur.

Five Early Insights From Novice Vagabonders

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In addition to deeper reflections on lifestyle and place, the logistics of traveling–booking accommodations, arranging transport, navigating day-to-day errands–present opportunities to consider how you travel. This is subjective based on your goals, of course. We are certainly “green” travelers compared to other adventurous folks, but after about nine weeks on the road, we’ve got a few insights we’d like to share.

Pack less than you think you need. In late August, we created a staging area on a bed at my mom’s house in Concord, NH, laying out some mono toned quick dry clothing, multiple adapters and cell phones chargers, and everything else we thought we’d need for our journey. My romantic vision of carrying one small duffel bag around the globe soon seemed to vanish by the minute. Even though we seemed to have done alright packing, it could have been a little better.

Among several other items, my nifty orange and gray nylon hammock and our microfiber travel towels can be crushed up into small sacks, but they’ve languished in the bottom of my bag for over two months now. If we end up camping in a remote area on an island, I’m sure they will come in handy.  Probably not going to happen.

“I can’t emphasize enough how important it is to travel light. Dragging an enormous pack full of junk is the surest way to hamstring your flexibility and turn your travels into a ridiculous, grunting charade,” Rolf Potts writes in Vagabonding.

But do pack a tennis ball, eye masks, and earplugs.  These are lightweight and critical items. The tennis ball: Thanks for the tip, mom! After seemingly setting pedometer records during a typical day walking in Tbilisi, rolling my feet on a tennis ball provided serious relief. I tend to have foot, leg, and hip ailments perpetually hound me, so I appreciate this ubiquitous sporting object that doubles as a massage tool.  

Eye mask and earplugs? Nothing revolutionary here, but when traveling, you’ll obviously become exhausted and also find yourself in less-than-ideal situations when you’re seating in the same row as a wailing infant or are your brain is so addled by changing time zones that you need to create darkness and try to summon a nap.

Osprey bags are awesome. I’m not getting paid for this endorsement:). I stumbled across this company  but during a search for new luggage, and it has been well worth the cost for these bags. We carry a 70 and an 80 liter bag; If we venture on a little expedition to a vineyard for a night or two, for instance, then we have more than enough room in either bag to just take one.  The backpack straps can be exposed for use or neatly zipped away, which rocks.

Embrace negotiation. Many Americans, like myself, aren’t often in a position to haggle in our day-to-day lives. But out in the world, it seems like everything can be negotiable. In Tbilisi, there were no taxi meters, so before we hopped in the back of cigarette-saturated cab, I used a combination of gestures and grunts–many drivers spoke little English–to agree on a price. These were low stakes as most rides were $2 to $3 dollars.  When we visited a souk (market) in Sharjah the other week, our new friend Sultan helped wheeled and dealed to help get us a discount on a few items, including a traditional Emirati male robe called a jalabiya.

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Trying on what soon became my jalabiya. Thanks to Sultan for helping negotiate a fair price!

You will be ignorant at times. When you’re traveling, you’re obviously going to make mistakes and not know what the heck is going on. We’ve avoided significant gaffes so far, but we’re ready to laugh at ourselves or just learn and move on. Yesterday, I was attempting to share some bluegrass music with our new acquaintance Sultan–who was giving us a tour of his home Emirate, Ajman. I started playing the music during the call to prayer, which we could faintly hear through the windows as we cruised along a coastal road. Big no-no. I’ve found that people are generally forgiving if you show a willingness to learn and express interest in local culture–this has certainly been true in Georgia and UAE so far.

What have you learned while on the road? In hindsight, what would you do differently relating to travel planning or execution?

If you didn’t see Rebecca’s last post, please check it out–it’s an incredibly powerful reflection on circumstances influencing our current journey.

Snapshots From Georgia: A Glimpse Into Our Two Months

We’ve said to several of our family members and also our new Georgian acquaintances: We’ll have to be careful to not compare the next places we go to Georgia because it has been such a wonderful country to begin our travels in. Can anything top it?

Vacations and travel are never perfect of course. As travelers, Rebecca and I aren’t immune to the shitty and/or tedious things we all encounter in day-to-day living. We’ve already had plenty of afternoons lounging around with a little bit of cabin fever. We’ve dealt with colds. Taxi drivers occasionally try to rip us off. And so on. But there were so many positives during our time in this small country–we’ll let the image gallery do the talking. Here is a link to the above images plus about 70 more.

Please let us know if you have any questions about any of the images!

What does it mean to truly know a place?

When I was 17, I made my first trip to Kentucky as part of a church youth group service trip. We stayed in the Martin County seat of Inez. Towns named Lovely and Beauty are also in the county, which is in the heart of Appalachia across the Tug Fork River from West Virginia. I remember winding roads, hollers, and burning debris we removed from an old woman’s house that was accessed by a rickety foot bridge over a gurgling creek.

It didn’t take long for Martin County to make a strong impression on me. Holy shit, this is what poverty looks like, I remember thinking, passing dilapidated trailers and vacant store fronts in seemingly abandoned towns. My experience growing up in the prosperous state of New Hampshire with parents holding advanced degrees from Ivy League schools might as well have made me from another planet.

And I had this strong reaction despite not meeting too many locals. Or having the opportunity to dig deeper into the essence of the place. I was a teenager along for the ride, hoping that our volunteer work would be valued. But physically being there for five or so days, seeing just a fraction of the county, made an impact. I didn’t know the place, but I sensed enough that it began changing the way I thought about the American Experience.

At the time, I had no idea that I’d make Kentucky my home for thirteen-plus years.

Kentucky is the 15th smallest state, and while living here, I made a decent effort to cover some ground exploring my new home of Louisville and beyond. Locally, there was the “Quest for Q,” an early attempt to discover the most mouth-watering BBQ in the city:

Standing in the parking lot of a Pic-Pac supermarket on the corner of Market Street and 25th, we glanced around but didn’t see The King.  We were the only white folks around in the highly segregated west end of Louisville, but when you’re on a Quest for Q you have to leave your comfort zone.  Angus, Austin and I continued to scan the parking lot and surrounding neighborhood but still no luck.  “Should we go inside and ask someone in Pic-Pac?” Austin said.  No response was necessary—all of a sudden, a burgundy-colored pickup truck rolled slowly down 26th street and we started jogging over to let The King know our intentions.

There were also Sunday morning bike rides, roads quiet, deliberately getting lost in parts of town I hadn’t been to. Invitations to posh horse farms on bluffs overlooking the Ohio River for receptions and fundraisers. University of Louisville sporting events, hikes in Jefferson Memorial Forest, the Kentucky Derby (twice). Volunteering at citizenship classes for refugees. Neighborhood porch sitting and bourbon sipping.  High school football games–Friday night lights all over town. I definitely think I got to know Louisville well, but Louisville different from Kentucky-at-large in the same way that, say, Austin is different from Texas.

Out in the state, I have fond memories of exploring the Owensboro region with two friends hailing from the area. Bow-hunting for white-tailed deer, perched up in trees, seeing my breath in front of me as night fell in the forest. Visiting Mammoth Caves, staying at B&Bs. Camping at Red River Gorge and attending music festivals where bluegrass music and marijuana-smoke commingled during jam sessions. And more, of course.

So all in all, I’d say my life was rich in various experiences in Kentucky, but I only spent two more nights back in isolated Appalachia, where deep-rooted poverty, local tradition, declining coal mining, and natural beauty collide to form a much-judged but rarely-visited place. I never made it much farther west than Owensboro, and the Bluegrass State stretches several hours further towards the Mississippi River.

So how long does it take to truly know a place? What does that even mean? Is there more value in becoming intimate with a small slice of a locale, neighborhood, or city, or learning and experiencing as much as you can about a more diverse set of places?

I’m not regretful in any way about what I didn’t get to experience in Kentucky–being on the road is a powerful reminder about how vast our world is. Georgia is roughly the size of South Carolina, which is smaller than Kentucky. Over almost two months here, Rebecca and I have captured strong impressions and snippets of what we think life is like in the country.  But is possible to truly know a place if you aren’t from it?

Writer Tara Isabella Burton wonders if she is caught in a charade while living in Tbilisi, the place we have made our short term home. “If there is a game…I haven’t learned its rules. I confuse effusiveness for sincerity; I can’t work out the bus timetables. I do not know when to let strange women buy me tea in the marketplace and when to refuse. To be Georgian seems to me to be engaged in a collective national performance — one in which I cannot participate,” she writes.  

At times, I’ve felt like I’ve figured things out in Georgia; at other times, I have no idea what the hell is going on. I know, for instance, what the expected rates for taxi rides are–there are no meters, so you’ve got to haggle before jumping in the back seat of a cab, which is often an old Mercedes Benz with a cigarette-smoke saturated interior. I also know that, in general, traditions relating to food are essential here.  But I don’t know much about the ubiquitous Eastern Orthodox religion, the language–despite being here almost two months–or the politics. And those seem to be pretty darn important elements for me to truly understand Georgia, that’s for sure.

As we move on to Dubai next week, we’ll be bombarded with all that entails being in a completely new place. While it’s a lot to expect to gain a deep understanding of the expat and superlative-laden Emirate in a short time, I won’t be surprised if something happens like it did back in 1998 in Martin County, when finding yourself in a foreign place triggers a new revelation about yourself, a place, or the world-at-large.

I made sure it wasn’t loaded: Reflections on Gun Violence and Traveling Abroad

My friend Jeff and I sat on the thick green carpet in Tim’s bedroom, distractedly considering a baseball card trade. I was trying to stockpile the Oakland A’s base-stealer extraordinaire Rickey Henderson cards; Geoff favored Dwight Evans of the Red Sox.

Downstairs, several of our classmates smoked cigarettes while sitting on the floor of the screened-in porch–if nearby, neighbors might have noticed mysterious plumes of smoke rising above the half wall. Others commandeered shots of vodka from the liquor cabinet; moans emanated from the living room where others watched VHS porn. Things were happening quickly.

Suddenly Tim burst into the room, waving a revolver around and laughing maniacally–all the more terrifying due to his cracking, pubescent voice. He spun the chamber of the revolver, probably like he’d seen on TV. He pointed it at my head and pulled the trigger. Same thing with Jeff.  I was only kidding, he told us, as our eyes filled with tears. I made sure it wasn’t loaded.

That was 1994; I was thirteen years old.

Fast forward to now. With the crazy news cycle and our limited attention spans, our home country may still be collectively grieving/praying/protesting/amassing bump stocks in the aftermath of Las Vegas, and all the while hundreds more Americans have been gunned down. Somehow, it almost feels outdated to be talking about a mass shooting from several weeks back–this is how numb we Americans have become to these massacres.

Nonetheless, after Vegas, I started thinking about all of the exhortations from friends and family for us to stay safe on our journey. The irony is not lost on me.

We’ve been comfortable walking narrow cobblestone streets at night through eclectic Old Town Tbilisi, with its crumbling facades, wrought-iron balconies, and arbors with thick grape vines looking like gnarled limbs. We’re boarding packed public transit–busses, yellow minibuses, the subway–and while we feel claustrophobic, we’re not fearful of mass carnage.  

And this doesn’t mean I’m naive; I know being a traveler can make you a target in many places and shit happens. But in general–and by adhering to a reasonable level of vigilance–we’ve felt just as safe–or safer–in places as far flung as Nicaragua, Thailand, Portugal, and now Georgia.

A little over 10 years later after the incident at Tim’s house, two of my teacher friends and I were walking home from a neighborhood pizza place on a balmy, early autumn evening in Louisville. A man yelled from a bus stop across the road. Hey! Let me borrow a cell phone! We shook our heads and kept walking as the sun sank towards the horizon. Within minutes, we found ourselves under a corner streetlight with a gun pointed at our full bellies, just one block from the refuge of my newly purchased home. We dropped the little cash we had on the pavement–only 14 dollars–and walked away hoping hot metal wouldn’t rip through our spines. He never did need to use our cell phones.

In 2011, I opened the newspaper and learned about one former student’s fate. He was shot to death by Kentucky state police officers after allegedly attacking them after breaking into his own grandmother’s home.

In 2013, I was helping out at a friend’s family farm in central Michigan over Labor Day weekend, picking sweet corn and anticipating some local beers, a cookout, and rocking chairs on the porch later in the evening. Several huge reports thundered; we’re pretty sure we heard–or sensed–the bullets tear through the rustling stalks. Within 50 yards, it seemed. We learned later that the neighbor was shooting at targets with a high-powered rifle, whose bullets certainly were not stopped by whatever his backdrop was.

In 2014, a student at Fern Creek High School in Louisville, where I taught English for seven years, shot a revolver into a crowd near a third floor stairwell, allegedly aiming at a classmate who had duped him on a transaction with counterfeit money. An innocent bystander named Javaughtay ended up with a bullet in the abdomen, but fortunately he survived.

In 2015, another former student at Fern Creek killed his best friend while playing with a handgun. He’s in the midst of serving five years for reckless homicide.

I can’t imagine what this catalog of events might look like if I wasn’t a white male from a privileged background, given the countless trauma-filled stories I’ve heard from my less-advantaged students over the years.

We aren’t about to put our guards down while on the road…But from afar, thinking about my own confrontations with violent crime–and the unwavering repetition of mass shootings–reinforces my belief that it is an absurd position to accept our incredibly lax gun laws and discount how freakin’ violent American society is.  According to the World Economic Forum, here are the safest countries in the world. The US is ranked 84th, far behind places like Rwanda, Saudi Arabia, and just about every country in Europe.

A few questions: What is it about travel that triggers calls to stay safe, versus facing the fate/luck/chance/danger of day-to-day living? Do you have any reflections on well-being and travel, either positive or negative?  In what places (domestically or internationally) have you felt most secure or vulnerable? Why?  

The Grape Harvest and the Waterfall

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Bakvha welcoming a neighbor, a bull, and more grapes.

Strung between two pear trees, the shaded rope hammock beckoned me. My legs were cramping–the feeling brought me back almost 20 years to high school football two-a-day practices, when seemingly endless bear crawls, up downs, and sprints dehydrated the heck out of us aspiring gridiron heroes. I’d been hauling forty to sixty pound containers of grapes for a few hours, and the only route from field to press was a single-track path alongside vineyards sagging under the weight of Tsitska and Tsolikouri grapes, two of over 500 hundred varieties grown in Georgia.

There would be no tractor, no wheelbarrow, no cart. Just two legs, a sore back, and determination. The grapes had to be picked and pressed soon: rainy days followed by sunny weather primed the fruit. The bunches were bursting with juice.

I drew some cool water from the well, watching the metal bucket descend almost 70 feet down, clanging the concrete walls as it dropped. I quenched my thirst and settled into the hammock, but I had a hunch that the break would be curtailed. If Bakhva, the vineyard’s patriarch, spotted me lounging, he’d surely grin and point back to the fields, where hundreds of kilograms of harvested grapes awaited transfer. He didn’t seem to tire, plus he was making the roughly quarter-mile round trip in blue rubber sandals. Time and time again.

Sure enough, Bakhva spotted me after about five minutes, gestured for me to follow him, and I gladly pulled myself up. I had to step up my harvest game and push through.

Being in this Georgian village at Baia’s Wine on a brilliant autumn day and being welcomed–for a second time –by this incredibly kind and hardworking family make all the tedious aspects of travel worth it. The waiting around, stumbling through transactions due to language barriers, occasionally being ripped off by cab drivers, wearing the same outfit over and over again (I’m looking good in shades of blue and gray, let me tell you): it’s part of the tradeoff for seeking cultural exchange and insights into places far from our own comfort zones.

Rebecca and I are in transition and feel privileged to be on this open-ended journey, of course. But it came about after a series of unanticipated scenarios. We’d always thought that by now, we’d be moving back to New England with a child in tow. But some significant fertility challenges interrupted our plans. We also thought we might end up in New Zealand for six months next year, but my Fulbright proposal wasn’t accepted. So that’s the hand we were dealt.

Soon after hearing about my Fulbright disappointment, a friend recommended the book Vagabonding by Rolf Potts. This text was a game-changer and seemed to reaffirm some of the impulses we felt to hit the road. Even though New Zealand was no longer in the cards, we still felt a strong pull to uproot ourselves, and Potts encourages everyone to eschew the traditional mindset of waiting until retirement or the perfect situation when making the choice to travel.

“We’d love to drop all and explore the world outside, but the time never seems right. Thus, given an unlimited amount of choices, we make none. Settling into our lives, we get so obsessed with our domestic certainties that we forget why we desired them in the first place,” Potts writes. This really resonated with me–it’s so easy to put off travel, adventure, and choices that will significantly alter your trajectory. Straying from the steady march of moving to a bigger home, climbing the career ladder, accumulating things, and being too busy to enjoy the only currency that doesn’t discriminate based on demographics–the amount of time we have each day–can feel so freakin’ hard to do. But it can be done, and I also realize that it’s easier for me to say this without having to provide stability for a child.

Potts also extols the virtues of earning your freedom. Rebecca and I saved money for this journey, but we are both working remotely with hopes of paying our way as we go. So far, so good. Almost five weeks into our travels, we haven’t spent one cent beyond what we’ve earned, perhaps helping to dispel the notion that you must be independently wealthy to travel the world. Granted, Georgia has a very low cost-of-living, but we also want to test out the theory that it’s possible to commit to remote work and live well.

So here’s Roads and Revisions. Roads, of course, representing movement, the literal and figurative journey. With Revisions, there are usually positive connotations involved with actively making changes, whether they be to an essay, a lifestyle choice, a goal or plan. Several years ago, we thought we’d be at a certain point in our lives. We aren’t. That’s ok. We’re certainly embracing big changes for now.

Back at Baia’s Wine, the work ended when the sun set. Feasting commenced shortly after. Huddled around several low tables, we volunteers and guests feasted on khachapuri, eggplant with walnut puree, lobio (beans in a clay dish), fried chicken, and other Georgian staples. Lots of wine, of course.

After numerous toasts to peace, to family, to Georgia, and to Georgian/US relations, among other missives, I asked Bakhva’s daughter Gvanca to ask her father something for me. Over the course of two visits, we had developed a series of grunts, grins, and gestures to communicate, as I can’t speak Georgian or Russian and his English is lacking. I wanted to tell him how impressed I was that he never seemed to get tired during the physical labor of harvest and that I appreciated the opportunity to help out.

The table fell silent as he delivered a lengthy reply, as it is Georgian tradition for the Tamada, or toastmaster, to be shown deference at the dining table. According to Gvancha, he said “If you think about water, a lake or pond doesn’t move. It gets dirty over time. But a waterfall is clean, strong, always in motion. I prefer to be a waterfall.” What a response!

Rebecca and I may pine for a more stable life with full benefits and a permanent dwelling sooner than we think. I really have no idea. But for now, we’re embracing the Road, Revisions, and the continuous action of a waterfall.