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 Somehow, it almost feels outdated to be talking about a mass shooting from several weeks back–this is how numb we Americans have become to these massacres.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?  

Squeaky Clean at the Sulfur Baths

Tbilisi, Georgia immediately seduced us with its sunny skies and warm weather when we arrived in mid-September. After a dizzying week or so of nonstop exploring the city by foot, meeting unbelievably hospitable people, and being invited to a Georgian wedding, Paul and I became entranced with the country and decided to book six more weeks in the capital city.

We had settled into a satisfying daily routine of working, exploring, eating, and drinking, when the early October rains descended. For three days we remained holed up in our (thankfully) cozy apartment as torrential downpours overtook the city. Needless to say, we had cabin fever. As I mulled the mysteries of life (translation – binge-watched RuPaul’s Drag Race) while Paul threw me irritated side-eyes as I incessantly hummed the show’s opening chorus, we both decided we needed to face the rain and reignite our city explorations.

Museums were out of the picture, as Paul can’t stand going to them with me. I’ll just say that our museum-visiting styles are different. Paul’s more of a skimmer while I really like to immerse myself in each exhibit and then immediately forget everything when I leave the building. After subjecting him to a four-hour museum marathon during our 2015 European travels, Paul put the kibosh on them as a future fun couple activity.

The sulfur baths it is.

Relentless rain and a strict museum ban is how we decided on an outing to the sulfur baths. Tbilisi’s bath district, Abanotubani in Georgian, is located in the heart of Old Town, the most touristic part of the city. Legend has it that these naturally occurring hot springs are the reason that the King of Iberia established the capital in the surrounding area. Visiting the baths is a normal part of life for many locals – they tout the health and skincare benefits of the water.

For foreigners, the opinion of the baths is a little more mixed. Anticipating that Paul would not want to miss this cultural experience, I had been mentally preparing myself for it by surreptitiously conducting extensive online research since our arrival in Georgia. This was partly because I was not really sure what the whole bathing process entailed and partly because I have a strong aversion to anything that involves public water pools invaded by half-clothed or naked strangers. In the United States, water parks are my worst nightmare. Call me a crank, but I don’t want to navigate crowds of wet, screaming kids and their parents, particularly while wearing a bathing suit. I’ve recently become more comfortable with pools, but not without making concerted efforts beforehand to banish the thought of how many people are peeing in the water.

Needless to say, I had some concerns about the experience and a boatload of neuroses to overcome.

Taking the plunge.

Since one goal of open-ended travel is to abandon one’s comfort zone, I willfully ignored the negative reviews that I had found on the baths which involved people complaining about the smell (they’re SULFUR baths, people!) and posting pictures showing pools with dubious-looking hygiene standards. Digging deep to conjure up some enthusiasm, I reserved us a private room for 70 (about $25) lari at Gulo’s Thermal Spa, a local favorite.

The bath district is compact and beautiful, overlooked by Narikala Fortress on one side and bordered by the Mtkvari River on the other. The tops of the bath buildings – protruding, red domes – are very distinctive. A pungent sulfuric odor wafts up from the ground – not exactly an aromatic delight but not terrible, either. Here you will find many tourists embarking upon their bath maiden voyage, but also locals dutifully ignoring the visitors while going about their daily routines.

Our private reservation at Gulo’s consisted of a long corridor of three connected, tiled rooms that ended in two cerulean pools, one containing a blistering hot sulfuric spring and the other filled with frigid water. My neuroses surfacing, I did a slow inspection of the area and determined that there were no unsavory remnants left by prior bathers. With no shortage of dramatics, Paul and I gingerly submerged our bodies into the steaming cauldron that they call a sulfur pool and waited until we could not take it anymore…a valiant 5 minutes. With an hour-long reservation, we were not sure how we were going to make it.

Sulfur bath conversion.

That’s when the other pool, which at first had seemed like an icy hell, caught our attention and was now beckoning us toward it as sweat began to roll down our brows. Succumbing to a combination of overwhelming heat and sudden lightheadedness, we both dunked into the freezing water, which despite our desire to cool down, was still freaking cold. Five minutes of that shock to the system and we were ready to re-enter the sulfur, causing our limbs to burn and tingle, but…. in a strangely…. good way. And that’s how the first thirty minutes of our sulfur bath transpired – switching back between the pools every few minutes in an awkward, disorganized dance. Not talking too much, but rather gasping at the bite of the opposing extreme temperatures.

I am not sure if it was some fugue state we had entered into, but twenty minutes in, we both began to feel FABULOUS. Somehow, the rapid exposure to the water, one that heightened and exhilarated the senses, was creating an antithetical effect on our limbs, making them flimsy and completely relaxed. My initial misgivings about the entire experience were being washed away, along with my dead skin cells. “Huh, I thought, maybe there IS something to this procedure that has survived for THOUSANDS of years!”

Our reverie was suddenly interrupted by a loud slam of a door and a brusque hello in a deep man’s voice. For a moment I thought our bathing experience was taking an unexpected, unwelcome turn, but then I remembered that Paul had ordered a massage, and that indeed, as my research had foretold, it would be performed by a man. Judging by the sound of his voice,  it did not seem like this guy was going to turn on the Enya and light some candles. Giving himself a deep breath of encouragement, Paul lifted his naked buns out of the water with a halfhearted, “Here goes!” I remained in the bath area, not ready to flaunt myself in front of our masseuse-friend. This was my first go-round and I had my limits. Continuing my dips into the adjoining pools, I fell back into relaxation, with one ear cocked.

After a few minutes of hearing loud splashes and stalled communications due to the language barrier, Paul yelled out to me, “Sweetie, you gotta see this!” I was not quite sure I really needed to see anything, but I complied. I peeked shyly around the corner of the bath, overcome with crippling modesty, to see how the massage was progressing. It was a sight to behold. 

massagetable

Marble slab that was the site of Paul’s massage manhandling, literally.

There appeared to be nothing soothing or relaxing about the massage treatment. My buttnaked husband was seated on a cold slab of marble, his arms being furiously scrubbed down by his masseuse, a short, muscular, tattooed Georgian man donning swim trunks and wielding an exfoliation sponge. With quick, military-like movements the masseuse hauled up a big bucket of suds and hot water and threw it on Paul’s head, dousing him with it. Before my very eyes my husband was enveloped in lather, disappearing into a white, frothy puff, not unlike a cumulonimbus cloud. Chilled by the air and feeling slightly awkward, I skittered back over to the protection of the sulfuric pool, practically swan-diving into it. What had only an hour ago been the victim of my skepticism was now pretty much my favorite thing ever. I had been converted.

I heard another aggressive splash of water and the masseuse exclaim in enthusiastic, heavily accented English, “Squeeeeeeaaaaaaaky clean!” This was met by a few grunts from Paul, which I took as meaning he agreed. In a matter of ten minutes,  the treatment was over. Paul returned to the pool fully exfoliated and stripped of all modesty to soak in the last few minutes of our reservation. Our first, and certainly not last, trip to the sulfur baths, had come to an end.

Blissed

Blurry and blissed out after our bath.

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.