Note: some photo credits to me, some to Kelsey, some to Tiana. Sorry guys, I have a hard time remembering which to whom.
I recently got back from a week and a half of work travel and much-needed vacation to Georgia with some friends; I’d been planning to take a leisurely trip down south the first week of October, but instead found myself changing sites, a naturally stressful experience in spite of the awesomeness of my new site, counterpart, host family, etc. Before heading north to Georgia, Kelsey and I ventured down to Yeghegnadzor (which volunteers understandably abbreviate to “Yeg”), to meet with Syunik NGO, our partner organization for the Border to Border project, for which Kelsey and I were recently named this year’s program managers (more on Border to Border in a subsequent post!). We then spent a day in Yerevan getting massages and meeting with Peace Corps staff about the project, specifically how we can integrate it with Peace Corps Armenia’s 25th (!) anniversary in the country next year.
The trip to and from Tbilisi is very manageable, and I’ll recommend everyone who visits add it to their itinerary. The five-hour shared taxi ride will set you back less than $20, though you’ll have to be fairly insistent with the driver to take the slightly longer central route via Vanadzor to avoid the eastern route through Noyemberyan, which occasionally takes some small-arms fire from across the nearby border with Azerbaijan. We didn’t investigate hostel or hotel options in the city, but opted for an Air B+B that worked out to $10-$15 per person per night.
Tiana, Steven, and Mary were only able to stay a few days in Tbilisi before heading back home, and we spent those days taking long walks through the city, eating surprisingly cheap and delicious food, and making daily pilgrimages to Dunkin’ Donuts. We explored the beautiful botanical gardens, took the cable car down from the old fortress overlooking the city, and ate way too many khingali, the classic Georgian dumpling (and which in Tbilisi you can easily make a meal of for only $2). Evenings were generally low-key, with movies and American junk food back at the Air B+B. My and Kelsey’s subsequent days followed a pretty similar trajectory, though we generally spent our mornings at a heavenly coffee shop with Border to Border work (best coffee I’ve had since leaving the States, and we took its name Double B as fortuitous for Border to Border productivity). We also took the funicular up to the sprawling and slightly bizarre amusement park overlooking the city, where we rode the biggest, slowest ferris wheel I’d ever seen.
Tbilisi is a gorgeous city; Yerevan’s buildings tend to blend together to me (in large part because such a huge percentage of them are made of tufa stone), but Tbilisi has a more varied look. Tbilisi is also definitely more demographically diverse and globally connected than Yerevan, which I saw in the greater presence of American fast food (all chains instead of just KFC and Pizza Hut in Yerevan), impressive supermarkets (rivaling those in the US), cars (far fewer Ladas, way more Subarus, a number of Priuses, which I’ve never seen here), lower food prices than Yerevan, and general feel – there’s not a whole lot of new construction happening in Armenia, while around practically every corner in Tbilisi a new hotel or apartment complex was popping up. The flipside of this is that traffic and exploding car ownership is clearly a huge problem in the city. Traipsing around the city we constantly wondered why Peace Corps is still in Georgia, but we all reckon that the reality of daily life in rural Georgian villages is fairly similar to that in Armenia, with a lot of the same problems and needs.
Perhaps surprisingly, perhaps not, the transition back into life in Margahovit was emotionally rocky at first. Honestly, the first two hours transitioning from vacation with a bunch of Americans back to being the only American in small-town Armenia was one of the most jarring experiences I’ve had yet in country, even more so than getting off the plane in Yerevan back in March. Within a day of course I’d settled back in nicely, but this transition made me reflect more on the ways in which volunteer life, even in a lovely and very supportive environment, can be so difficult, and what I need to do to properly take care of myself.