The Barber Shop Cost of Living Index

During our first week in Tbilisi back in September, I got a haircut for four lari–or about $1.60. This was a win. The small hair salon, tucked in a cavernous space below street level in the Vera neighborhood (go to this area if you visit Tbilisi), proved quite the steal, despite the fact no employees spoke English. And my Georgian was limited to thank you, you’re welcome, and no (ara). Before the trim, I pulled out my phone and showed the barber a picture of myself with shorter hair. Thank you, iPhone. I figured ara might come in handy if the buzzcut to my receding hairline was somehow butchered. No problems emerged.

In Sharjah, UAE, I experienced my first local haircut for 10 dirhams, or $2.80. This was a steep increase from my Tbilisi trim, but still cheap enough to excite the pennypincher in me. But no beard trim yet.

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In the midst of a perfectly fine cut in Sharjah, UAE.

That would be my next step in local barber exploration, when a shop in Oman groomed me better than I’ve ever been groomed. Rebecca quickly approved of my newfound appreciation for beard and general personal upkeep, as it but part of my enthusiasm was due to an unexpected head massage and about three layers of creams, salves, and cleansing solutions applied to my face.

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Feeling pretty good about myself after this grooming in Muscat, Oman. A 45 minute beard trim, massage, clean…the works, for about seven bucks.

Then a few weeks ago, back in Dubai, I took the elevator down from the 45th floor Sheraton Grand Hotel apartment so generously loaned to us on a quest for a fresh cut. I walked through the lobby of the adjacent building, knowing a barber shop was on the first floor. I was not impressed.

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A peek through the window at the “hip” barbershop in downtown Dubai. Not for me!

For 155 dirham (about $40) I could get a haircut and beard tune up in this “artisanal” shearing shop. Heck no. I’d like this journey to extend as long as possible; finding cheap haircuts is one simple way to extend our funds. Another alternative is to return to my “Grizzly Adams” look, which I’d gladly do. I know someone, however, who will nix this idea.

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Borderline too-bushy-of-a-beard for Rebecca. But I see her smiling…

After bypassing the overpriced joint, I left the building and walked northwest towards the Persian Gulf, where you soon enter a more modest and older neighborhood. The towers lining Sheikh Zayed Road loomed behind me. And a pronounced shift was occurring, leaving the insulated opulence of glass towers for the bustle of more modest commerce. Small businesses wedged side by side, the smell of chicken shawarma, perfumes, and exhaust mixing in the air. No 40 dollar haircuts to be found, that’s for sure.

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Within this block, I had my choice of three barbers. The skyscraper back left in the background is the Sheraton Grand Hotel, where I started my walking barbershop journey.

I knew I’d have my pick of barber shops as they seem to be everywhere in the Muslim world. If you’re wandering in a local or older neighborhood, you will have options. I settled for a branch of the Al Sayan Gents Saloon and got a perfectly suitable haircut and beard trip for 20 dirham (5-6 bucks).  

This lighthearted tale about haircuts and beard trims relates to greater questions many of us face: What is the cost of living in various locales? Can we live the lives we’d like to given varying expenditures? What do we sacrifice and gain when choosing between places?

For us, choosing to live in a place that will demand two full time jobs just to simply cover rent or mortgage is beginning to feel especially absurd. Being exposed to a range of possibility of where and how you can live is certainly part of it. And it’s already tempting to dream about choosing a place from our journey (maybe we haven’t been there yet) that will allow us a lifestyle with less stress and more adventure, in addition to time to pursue hobbies, volunteer work, long visits with family, whatever….

Expatistan is an interesting site–folks living in cities around the world submit prices for commodities, housing, transportation, and other costs. Below, you can see the information you’ll receive if you compare places. Dubai, our last home base, is twice as expensive as our current base, but that was seriously offset by free housing.

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Expatistan will also give you more specific breakdowns and examples of costs within each category.

In the meanwhile, I’ve yet to find a barber in Tanzania, but the time will come:).

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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…

Oman Road Trip Blunders: An Imperfect Travel Tale

Before Paul and I started our adventure, friends and family implored us to keep them updated in one way or another. The easiest, and perhaps laziest, way to do this is via social media. And admittedly, I’ve wholeheartedly said “yes” to this type of sharing. Each time I post a pic of where we have been, which is quite regularly now, I am cognizant of how difficult it is to avoid extreme ends of the perception pendulum, either trying to present a flawless portrait of our experiences or doing the opposite, cramming people’s feeds with complaints and irritations.

And so, in the spirit of being “real” and presenting a more balanced view of things, I am choosing to share the first day of me and Paul’s self-drive road trip in Oman, which was full of blunders and tested our resolve to embrace the unknown.

To preface the story, I will admit that Paul and I travel well together. It’s a good thing, because if not, this little global jaunt that shirks concepts such as long-term planning and certainty would have stalled out pretty quickly. That being said, spending most of your time with someone in spaces much smaller than your prior residence certainly magnifies specific behaviors and conflicting preferences. For example, Paul has this otherworldly ability to torpedo out of bed in the morning, energy radiating off of him in waves. I really prefer to ease into my enthusiasm for the day, meaning that I don’t really want to vocalize anything but grunts and yawns for at least a half hour after I wake. Paul and I also have very different work styles. He can concentrate in the midst of any distraction. Other people talking loudly. NBD. Playing music with words in it. A cakewalk. A 50-pound jackhammer motoring away next door. Child’s play. To put it simply, I prefer silence. Prolonged, uninterrupted, pure silence. This can make me a barrel of laughs to be around when I am working, as you can imagine. So, you can see how things can get a little dicey.  

Paul and I had high expectations for our self-drive Oman tour. Preliminary internet research talked about the country’s diverse terrain of mountains, desert, and coastline, as well as its warm, welcoming citizens. Bloggers specifically raved about the picturesque wadis (valleys) dotted with deserted turquoise swimming pools. All one had to do was rent a 4 x 4 and venture onto the road. This immediately conjured up images of us being amatuer explorers, stumbling upon previously undiscovered areas of inimitable beauty. We would arrive and bask in the utopia we found, gazing over the pools, untouched and stippled in just the right amount of sunlight.

Airport Delays

We got a late start the day we planned to pick up our 4 x 4. We had been spending the last three days in Muscat with potentially the nicest airbnb host ever, Mohammed, an incredibly wise, 45 year-old Omani man who speaks quietly and listens intently. Mohammed truly delights in deliberate and enthusiastic cultural exchange. He went snorkeling with us, he brought us dolphin watching, he introduced us to his acupuncture tools, and finished off our stay with one of his favorite hobbies, massage. On the day of our departure, we of course wanted to share one last homemade breakfast with him, even though it changed our schedule.

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Early morning breakfast with airbnb host, Mohammed. Feeling good about the day.

By the time we arrived at the airport to pick up our car, we were met by the grim faces of the people waiting in line in front of us at the rental kiosk. One individual exuded the stereotype of a tightly wound, reserved, middle-aged white guy who is used to optimal efficiency and logic at all times. He paced back and forth, sitting down with an audible sigh and then standing up to hover over the rental car counter where a delayed transaction was taking place. The other man was grumbling about how they were renting out cars with over 120,000 miles on them. Figuring we were in for a wait, I asked both of them how long they had been standing in line. Uptight guy was apparently too worked up to respond (Yes, he did speak English). The other guy shrugged his shoulders in exasperation and said, “I don’t know! Too long!.” So that was that. “Well,” I thought, “Paul and I are in no hurry. We aren’t tethered to silly conventions such as time!”

Thirty minutes later we made it to the counter, only to find out that there were no GPS gadgets remaining. Undeterred, we figured it would not be a problem; we could buy a map since our international data plan was mysteriously not working in Oman. Besides, this was a freewheeling ADVENTURE. If we had too many directions we may never happen upon previously undiscovered locations!  The rental car attendant, clearly not privy to our visions, looked a little concerned and suggested that we buy a SIM card.

Heeding his advice, we picked up a map and went over to the appropriate counter to buy one. Seventeen dollars and an introductory lesson on SIM cards later, it was becoming apparent that it may not work for us. Everytime we inserted the delicate piece of plastic in one of our phones, an error message popped up on our screens, taunting us with its power. The employee who sold us the SIM card brushed these error messages aside, all we had to do was go somewhere with free wifi in order to activate the SIM card and it would work.

Problem was, the free wifi in the airport emitted a very weak signal, and was not registering on our phones. We were directed to the airport information booth, only to meet with a befuddled employee who recommended we revisit the SIM card booth. At this point, we were making slow, stumbling laps around the arrivals section of Muscat’s Airport. Attempts to get password and login information from any of the independent businesses in the airport failed. After a friendly Omani/American citizen (a totally different story that deserves another blog post) and his brother took up our cause with marginal success, our hopes for the SIM card solution dwindled and we committed to the paper map.

On the Road

Finally on the road, our next step was to get ourselves out of Muscat. With Paul manning the wheel, I was in charge of the navigation piece of our journey. Maybe not the best arrangement. Can I please point out that paper maps can be quite unwieldy? Unfolding and refolding our primary navigational tool, cursing it as it crinkled itself into different, awkward shapes, I anxiously scanned the area of Muscat as Paul whizzed on down the highway, guided by my instructions, which included precise phrases such as, “Ummmm…there may be a roundabout coming up, er, OK, not for awhile, wait, Oh, here it is!  GO RIGHT!” Needless to say, if we were contestants on the Amazing Race (which I sometimes like to pretend we are in) we’d be packing our bags. After a tense 45 minutes accompanied by a bundle of expletives, we spit out victorious onto the coastal road. Our road warrior journey was beginning! On to the wadis!

Our general plan was to meander down the main northern coastal road, traveling east, until we reached two destinations, the Bimmah Sinkhole and Wadi Shab. Type these names into Google and you will find an endless screen of idyllic images, an explosion of sparkling pools, brilliant sunlight, and palm trees, all ensconced by rugged mountains. Things were going well, we had found “The Nation’s Station,” the English-speaking radio station in Oman where no musical genre is neglected. Bopping along to tunes that ranged from Celine Dion to early Dr. Dre to Christmas carols, we felt redeemed after our morning delays.This was until we noticed two things: 1) That the names on our handy-dandy paper map were not exactly matching up with the road signs that we were passing and, 2) That the coastal road was the opposite of isolated.

Road Trip Reality

Bloggers had mentioned how you can camp anywhere in Oman, finding yourself the only one on a long strip of beach. As we drove, we were realizing that EVERYONE must have received this memo. Tents and families lined the coastline. It’s funny how you can hear things and completely dismiss them until their sudden importance smacks you in the face. Airbnb Mohammed HAD mentioned to us that it was a long national holiday weekend. The reality of this fact became apparent as we passed teeming crowds of holiday revelers.

Our radio station sing-a-long quieted by the scene outside of our car, we managed to find the Bimmah Sinkhole, whose signs spelled it differently and did not refer to it as a sinkhole. Due to this, the crowds of people were a boon, as all we had to do was follow the line of cars streaming into what looked like a park of sand and shrub. Despite the fact that the Bimmah Sinkhole was clearly a favorite holiday destination, we decided to take a look. The area around the site has been built up for tourism, and loads of large families were sharing meals under the shade of small trees.

In retrospect, it was nice to see people spending quality time together with their loved ones, but at that moment, we were inwardly cursing these family gatherings. This was not the type of destination for daring adventurers such as us! The Bimmah Sinkhole is stunning, even though we were seeing it flanked by teenage girls posing for 10 minute selfie sessions. Men jumped into the naturally occuring ocean pool from daring heights, prompting yells of encouragement and clapping from the crowd. Paul took a dip in the delightfully warm water. I snapped a few pics. And then we left. Don’t get me wrong, the Bimmah Sinkhole is an unforgettable sight even when it is swamped with people; however, we were a little deflated that we did not have the more isolated experience that we had constructed in our minds.

Onward to Wadi Shab, a valley where people had told us you can swim through a cave and be gifted with pretty much a modern-day version of Eden. Ever the optimists, we actually believed that Wadi Shab would possibly not be enveloped by holiday throngs. Once again, the enormous amount of cars, not the road signs, guided us to our destination, only to be presented with lines of people waiting eagerly to aboard small boats that would drop them off at the entry of Wadi Shab. Allowing our frustration to get the best of us, we decided not to venture into the chaos. I briefly got out of the car to take a few snaps of roadside goats, only to be met by impatient honks from the traffic jam of cars behind us, and then we hightailed it on out of there.

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Goats. The only thing we snapped a picture of at Wadi Shab. Insert car honking in the background.

Turtle Reserve Redemption?

It was now almost 4:00 pm, and so we decided to drive to our hotel for the night, sulking in a soup of disappointment, and nervously wondering if this was an omen for the next nine days of our trip. Although we had 99% surrendered to the limited success of the day, we knew there was still time to turn it around. For tonight, we had plans to visit the Ras al Jinz Turtle Reserve, and if mama turtles laying eggs on the beach can’t turn a frown upside down, I don’t know what can.

Prior to embarking upon our Oman adventure, I had scoured the internet for details about the turtle reserve and found that it is somewhat controversial, at least for the Trip Advisor set. Although there were positive experiences, many reviewers complained about the beach’s upkeep (where the turtle’s nest) as well as the potential stress felt by the turtles from being gawked at by enormous amounts of visitors. These concerns resurfaced in my mind as we drove to the reserve. Paul and I were planning to eat at its restaurant (it also has a hotel), as in another falter for the day, we had run out of cash and discovered that the limited meal options in the area typically did not take credit cards. An ATM was nowhere to be found.

Arriving around 6:30 pm at the reserve we were told by the front desk employee that we had been assigned to Group Two for turtle viewing and that, “At some point around 8:30 pm,  maybe 9:00 pm, maybe 9:30 pm, all individuals who were assigned to our group would be called to then come back to the counter to purchase tickets.” I found it a little odd that we could not just buy them at that moment, but was distracted by the fact that I was hungry and wanted to eat my increasingly gloomy feelings. We sat down to the buffet provided by the restaurant, which was good, but certainly not worth the 50 dollars it ended up costing.

By the time we re-emerged from the restaurant, we were greeted by pandamonium. The reception was crammed with people all clamoring for a chance to maybe see some turtles. Children ran around, people cut in front of me as I tried to wait in line for the internet passcode,and cars continued to flood the already full parking lot. As Paul and I read the rules for turtle viewing, which stressed how imperative it is for viewers to be quiet as to not stress out the turtles, a crescendo of kiddie cries filled the air around us. There was no way viewing was going to be quiet. We also predicted that when a group was called to purchase tickets at the counter, any attempt at orderliness such as lines would be pushed to the wayside. Giving each other looks of surrender, Paul and I promptly turned around and left. We had been hemorrhaging money all day and figured that we would just need to let go of the fact that we visited the turtle reserve just to eat a mediocre fifty dollar buffet.

On the way out, the road in to the turtle reserve was illuminated by the headlights of a long line of cars. Feeling tired, annoyed, and clearly INCREDIBLY melodramatic, Paul said something like, “Well, at least we still have our health.”  I slouched in my seat, thinking mean, undeserved thoughts about holiday goers who just wanted to create memories with their families. It was not our best travel day and we were not at our best. Luckily, by the time we settled in back at the hotel, we could laugh about it, promising ourselves that we would make the next day, no matter what, better. Because if this was a bad day for us, we are doing pretty all right.

It turns out that our first day on the road in Oman was anything but indicative of the rest of our trip. We more than redeemed ourselves over the next week, and plan to share more about how amazing the country is in a future blog post, accompanied by some road trip tips that we learned along the way.

The reality is that the sticky, uncomfortable parts of travel, the ones that include getting sick, getting lost, or just plain getting tired, are the ones not frequently displayed via social media, where photos undergo a digital form of plastic surgery before being posted, accompanied by a series of comical, inspirational, or philosophical remarks. People embarking upon their own travel adventures, including myself, fall into the trap of romanticizing the entire experience, and turn optimistic hopes about travel into rigid expectations. I’ve fallen victim to curating that one, envy-inducing travel shot, maniacally scrolling through the Insta filters and brainstorming various witty one-liners before sending it off into the digital stratosphere. Just as there exists a cult of satiny suburban mom accounts (How is she perfectly toned, impeccably dressed, and bright-eyed and bushy-tailed when she has three kids!?), Instagram and Facebook are also filled with flawless photographs documenting the wanderings of seemingly unburdened travelers.

Travel IS awesome, and I am so grateful for the opportunity that Paul and I have. But it’s not just awesome because it has the ability to introduce you to new and wonderful people, experiences, environments, and ideas. It’s also awesome because it can be hard, unexpected, and is always imperfect. I’ve found that it’s these aspects of travel which have left some of the most indelible marks on my perspective and overall mindset, and have benefited me in enormously positive ways.

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.

Hello Carbs, Goodbye Control!

“A breakfast bowl with chia, organic pumpkin seeds, AND sheep’s milk delivered here in high-tech containers that enhance its nutrients ALL the way from New Zealand?! I’ll take that one!,” I exclaimed, wide-eyed and completely in awe of the menu choices spread before me. Paul and I were in a San Francisco cafe, enjoying one last visit with family before we hopped on a plane to Tbilisi, Georgia.

Ever since leaving Kentucky, we had been bouncing around for a few weeks visiting friends and family, making it difficult to maintain a consistent, healthy diet. I figured that this one breakfast bowl would surely make up for the late-night hamburger and chili cheese fries run I had made in my hometown of Portsmouth, NH, along with the uptick in alcohol consumption that accompanies reuniting with old friends. With every spoonful of the chilled, creamy concoction, I imagined the cells in my body were exploding with pink unicorns representing health and goodness.

Welcome to Georgia – Land of the Carbohydrate

Fast forward one month. Paul and I tuck into a homemade breakfast at a local Georgian winery. The matriarch of the family has proven herself to be a culinary force – we had been gorging ourselves on her traditional Georgian dishes for a few days now. I wait in anticipation for what I know will be arriving at the table in no time – Imeretian Khachapuri – a delectable Promised Land of cheese and bread. The steaming hot pie comes in different regional varieties, and is a staple dish in Georgia.

After an unofficial taste-test that I had been conducting with disturbing vigor, this woman’s Khachapuri won first prize. I wondered what made hers SO delicious, such a perfect combination of fluffiness and gooeyness. I can’t say with absolute certainty, but I am guessing butter has something to do with it. During our stay I caught a glimpse of freshly made Khachapuri emerging from the oven, when I witnessed AN ENTIRE STICK OF BUTTER being slathered lovingly atop the pie, causing it to glisten enticingly in the sunlight. My health radars instantly sounded – I was not sure if I should be eating what felt like a pound of bread, cheese, and butter every day. Fortunately, and probably far too easily, I managed to quiet these concerns. When was the next time I would be in Georgia on a family vineyard indulging in some of the country’s best food? I figured I might as well suck it down and worry about it later.

Both in 2015, when Paul and I traveled in central and eastern Europe for six weeks, and now in Georgia, we have noticed behavioral similarities regarding food and health, mainly that in comparison to the United States, the average citizen seems considerably less obsessive about them.

There are likely many social, cultural, and economic reasons for this. Much of America’s health and wellness industry is dominated by choices that can only be easily accessed by the privileged. In comparison to the United States, Georgia is not a wealthy country. Far less people have the disposable income to spend on products such as gluten-free flour and almond milk, if they even have access to these items in the first place. Other factors could include a population’s perspectives on what it means to be healthy, what food is considered to be healthy, as well as differing beauty ideals.

In the United States, one is bombarded with an onslaught of neverending health and wellness remedies. Fats were bad in the nineties, then it was about calorie counting, followed up by eliminating carbs and increasing protein intake, and today whole foods are in and sugar is out. All of this and our obesity rates still soar, along with the high prevalence of eating disorders. In Georgia, Paul and I have noticed less extremes when it comes to people’s bodies. It’s far less common to see a severely obese person or someone who is rocking emaciated-chic. I have no doubt that both ends of the spectrum exist here, but they don’t seem pervasive.

Embracing the Bread

What I love about traveling is that you have to relinquish control of many ingrained beliefs, including those about food, or you are going to drive yourself crazy. This is particularly true in Georgia, where carbohydrates, salt, and meat are culinary heavyweights. You can manage to avoid them, but it takes some effort and you may end up offending a gracious Georgian host who has spent the last two hours toiling over her signature meat Khinkali (pork dumplings with soup broth). Also, it would be a grave mistake, because the food here is immensely satisfying and delicious.

For an American woman who is a self-professed exercise junkie and most certainly not immune to societal pressures, this situation could be anxiety-inducing, but I’ve actually found it to be refreshing. It’s hard to ignore the constant barrage of in-your-face nutrition and exercise trends in America, so-much-so that the process of choosing food and trying to enjoy it can seem like a chore. In Georgia, where NOT eating carbohydrates daily would be abnormal, I feel a little more liberated.

In addition, with the alteration in our dietary habits, Paul and I have also observed a change in our bodies. Shockingly, we both seem to have lost body fat. We are perplexed by this phenomenon, but our fairly uneducated guess is it likely can be attributed to a combination of a less sedentary lifestyle, our gym membership, minimal stress, and less preservatives. Then again, this could all be a grand delusion that we are feeding ourselves. I’m not asking too many questions; I’m going with it.

A Smorgasbord of Satisfaction

To be honest, I think I have reached a peak of carb-consumption while in Georgia that I may never again attain. The other day I picked up two loaves of piping hot bread baked in a tone (a tandoor-style oven) and realized I had absentmindedly eaten half a loaf while walking back to our apartment. My vitamin levels may not be optimal right now, but my happiness sure is!

Paul and I have nine days remaining in Georgia and then we are off to Dubai. In all likelihood, I will probably try to reduce my carb consumption and up my vegetable intake once we leave. I am almost positive that when we finally get back to the States, I will revert back to smoothies, salads, and whole foods, I am a middle class American white woman, after all. For now, I am going to savor our last days eating authentic Georgian food, including these ubiquitous and cheap bread-oriented snacks.

Lobiani

Lobiani

This is my absolute favorite breaded delight – smashed kidney bean filling wrapped in a buttery bread pocket. I refer to it as a Georgian burrito, and it fulfills my occasional craving for Mexican food, which is nonexistent in this country.

Adjarian Khachapuri

Exhibit A: Enough said. 

Khachapuri

Buttery bread with mashed potatoes and a hot dog (aka, the Double Carb Whammy)

Sausage_bread

The title says it all. Genius!

 

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.