Georgia was an adventure in itself in so many ways; for 6 months, I would struggle through a series of immense character transformations, get a dream job, almost die, fall in love properly for the first time and explore a country that does not technically exist.
I would meet some of the most influential people of my life, some of whom I do not talk to anymore and whose names I have changed here for reasons that will become apparent.
But before any of this could happen, I had to find a job!
If you would have told the anxious version of me a few years before getting here that I would be walking into a country I knew nothing about (except that I could get a visa for China), knowing no one and with no leads for finding a job, you can guess how I would have reacted. Even the idea of doing this in a different city in the UK would have scared me. But now, it was exciting.
I had asked everyone I met in the approaching weeks to crossing the border for help, but nothing came through. So, after checking into a hostel in the capital city of Tbilisi, I went to a Couchsurfing meet-up and found one Camilla Wilson, also from the UK and editor of one of Georgia’s newspapers for English speakers.
“So, why are you in Georgia?” she asked.
“I need to find a job. Can you help?”
“Can you write?” she replied, after a brief smiling pause.
“Well, I am an aspiring Travel Writer…”
It seemed too good to be true when she asked me to send her a piece of my work, but having a native speaker on her team would save her an awful lot of editing. She later told me that it took 5 minutes to correct my work, whereas a Georgian’s could take 45. It took me five days and a lot of help from my mum and her boyfriend to put something together. I got called for an interview.
The boss met me alone and began by asking what my professional background was. I realized how far out of my depth I was here. I was not a writer and I didn’t know how to be. I turned the questions onto him, asking what he would expect of me, and tore apart some of the paper’s articles. He gave me the job.
We agreed on 1-2 articles per day, which I thought would be impossible, but it turns out that this is a very small contribution which, towards the end of my time in Georgia, I managed to bang out in about 15-30 minutes. The great thing was I could work from anywhere, as long as I had an internet connection.
I literally googled ‘how to be a journalist’ and followed the advice I found. It turned out that a lot of what journalists do is re-write what is already online from other sites. I could do that!
I was sent to some interviews, which I hated, and eventually refused to go to. I never said ‘I don’t want to go’, I just made up excuses or pretended to be offline. Why spend 3 hours decoding 1 hour of speech when I can spend 30 minutes mindlessly rewriting something else?
Through working at the paper, I met Máté (ma-tey). A few years younger than me, he seemed fairly ordinary on first sight; average height, tamed brown hair, grey-blue eyes and a slightly hipster dress sense. He became my best friend in Georgia after we realised we shared the same lazy approach to journalism. Despite this, he is a very talented writer and I expect he will do very well in the future.
In these early days, I also met Charlie who was also from the UK but with roots from the Caribbean. He was full of energy and could make a depressive person laugh back into normal health. He puts his wise words into books and, as a published author, he gave me some valuable advice for achieving my own dream.
Towards the end of my time there, he took me with him to explore some of the final parts of the country, such as Mtskheta, the country’s old capital, and the Katskhi Pillar, a monastery on top of a pillar of limestone with one lone monk living inside it. He was just starting a tour company – Hikechum – which I highly recommend you use if you want to see the ‘real’ Georgia. He works for the experience, not the payment.
Writing had now become a profession for me, and it felt amazing. There was only one problem – I was earning equivalent to 100EUR per month (a standard, minimum wage in Georgia). But it only just covered my rent.
I asked around some more and, as a native English speaker (I swear, being one is the same as having a Master’s degree in some countries) and with my experience as Head Walks Officer for the Expedition Society, I found a job as a guide for a free walking tour company.
The payment was purely through tips, but I was now managing to earn enough to live on and to save a bit.
After only two weeks there, I had to walk around as if I knew the place. I told people I had been living in Georgia for over a year and to divert questions I knew nothing about, I either made something up or turned the question onto something else. Luckily, I was given a script of about 20 pages, all full of interesting information which was easy to learn.
Unfortunately, the boss of the company really did not know how to treat her team. Before too long, I would get told off after most tours for making small mistakes in the script, or forgetting to add the location to photos on social media. She did not just point my shortcomings out, she really laid into me. She asked “how could you be so stupid as to forget such a basic thing?” and “you need to watch other guides to see how it is done properly.” I do not care how good a job is, or how easy the work is, nobody speaks to me like that anymore.
I went through most of the time in Georgia without enough money coming in. The 100EUR per month meant I made a smaller dent in my shriveling expedition budget. I did myself no favours; I ate out a lot and consumed countless liters of Georgian wine.
Georgia is the oldest known maker of wine (I even wrote the paper article when 8000 year-old evidence was found just 30km south of me!) and almost every family has their own kit. It is what they pride themselves on and I never had a bad glass of it. It was costing as little as 1EUR per liter and the best part was it didn’t give me a hangover.
I’d been living in Tbilisi for almost two months, working two jobs for most of it and never leaving the area around my hostel. Going from hitchhiking to new places every day to this had hit me hard, and I needed a taste of adventure.
I was so deprived of the drug-like effects it provides that I decided to go extreme and leave with nothing but some food, water and a small survival kit.
Armenia, Georgia’s neighbour to the South, was just a 3-hour drive away, according to Google Maps. I had never been, and what better way to spend a few days off than to go to a new country?
So, with a small backpack and my chosen items, I went to the city limits in the south of Tbilisi, stuck out my thumb and within 5 minutes I was on the way.
There were two parents in the front and a 16-year-old daughter in the back who spoke English. They took me about halfway, from where I caught a truck that took me to the border. He was a very religious man, as many are in this country, and he kissed his bible and crossed himself every time we passed a church.
Hitchhiking in Georgia was very easy and I never waited for more that 20 minutes for a ride.
A man picked me up from the other side and took me to eat at his house with his family. I started to relax, thinking I had a place to sleep for the night. But at midnight, he drove me to the road and left me to fend for myself.
I walked down the road, which was too narrow to hitchhike on, and realized I had to camp. Now in late November, I could feel the chill on my cheeks. I passed a farm and took as much straw as I could stuff into my clothing – I’d seen Bear Grylls do it once.
Still enthusiastic, I walked off into the woods, stuffed myself like a scarecrow and fell asleep curled up like a ball, sitting against a tree.
At 2am, I woke up with my teeth chattering. I slipped back into a light sleep and woke shortly after having gone beyond shivering. I needed to make a fire fast.
With the sky as black as the ink of an octopus and the moonlight persevering through the wintery tree branches, I scouted for wood. I scraped some twigs together and got out my survival kit. Luckily, I found some larger sticks and spent 30 minutes making a number of piles to put on when the blaze began to die down.
Every 30-45 minutes, I would wake because this happened, but as soon as I put the new sticks on, I slipped back to sleep.
The next day was spent in a dreamlike ] state. I had no time to go any further, so I wandered around the small villages and admired the post-Soviet remains, such as a rusty stationary cable car and concrete buildings which were beyond repair.
Getting back to Georgia was not a problem and I found someone to take me all the way from where I stood. It was another short wait on the other side of the border, finding someone to take me all the way back to the city.
As I reentered the Tbilisi, greeted by the sign indicating as much, I felt a sense of coming home – something I never thought I would feel in a foreign land.
December crept in and I was getting bored of the routine of working and living in one place again. That was until a lovely Columbian girl checked in to the hostel. Jessica was about my age with dirty-blonde hair, sharp, blue eyes and a lovely soft voice. She was also a nymphomaniac.
Before Jessica came along, I had been living my time in Georgia in a great hostel with a lovely owner, a comfy, clean bed and room and a low per-night price of $3. I had planned to stay there for the whole winter, but that changed on her first night when we started to drink together.
Perhaps it was something in her culture, but doing it in a 6-bed dormitory room seemed no different from in a private room; in fact, it felt better to her. But this is not why we got kicked out; we actually broke one of the beds.
With the disapproving, disappointed look from the owner that I used to see in my parents’ eyes, I said goodbye and took to the road with my new friend.
We hitchhiked around Georgia together for three weeks. We even spent Christmas day together, making an excellent Christmas dinner with one frying pan. Being away for so long from home means sacrifices, like missing Christmas with the family, but the one with Jessica was a lovely substitution.
Most nights, we would drink liters of cheap but good quality Georgian wine, blacking out sometimes and getting kicked out of other hostels because of what we apparently got up to. On three occasions, we were kicked out because she got so drunk that she emptied her bladder over the mattress.
We even decided to get married – not out of love, but because we both wanted each-others citizenships. She had an American passport, and I a British one and an Irish one. Unfortunately, it would have been far too difficult and costly. It was a shame it didn’t work out.
Meeting Jessica was a key moment in my development into the person I am now. Part of the anxiety I used to suffer from included being very afraid of approaching women. Even if I knew they were attracted to me, I could not do it.
She left on the afternoon of New Year’s Eve and over the coming months, with my new-found confidence, I had a lot more success with women, dating someone new every few days. I began to dress in black, I adopted an over-confident look and carried myself like I was better than everyone else.
During this time, I visited a mysterious place called ‘Abkhazia’ with Máté and his female friend from Lithuania, Jelena.
On a map of Georgia, Abkhazia is the top-left slither about 200km in length. It claims to be an independent country, but this is recognised by only 4 UN member states. It is almost entirely dependent on Russia, and Russia believes (secretly) that it is part of their territory; it certainly felt that way.
The real lure for me, especially at this unstable time in my life, was the way it was described by my country’s travel advisory service. “[We] advise against all travel to the breakaway region of Abkhazia.” This level of warning is given to places such as Syria and parts of Afghanistan.
The process of getting in to Abkhazia was fairly straight-forward, albeit quite strange. And it seemed to be, in my eyes, a bit pretentious. First of all, we had to send a request, no less than 5 days before proposed entry, to the Abkhaz Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Sokhumi (or ‘Sokhum’, as they call it there). Once the letter had been issued, we brought it, along with our passports, to the occupation line.
We were brought into a small interview room and asked a series of seemingly irrelevant questions; it was as if they were just doing it for show. We thought the same for the ‘bag search’ that happened afterwards, because all that we were asked to do was open our backpacks and show what was on the top. I felt like how I imagine my parents did when I was a child playing games in imaginary worlds. They used to go along with such fantasies to keep me happy, they were good like that. And we were doing very much the same today for these men today, who were pretending that we were entering a “country.”
Very few times in life do places turn out to be how you imagined, but the border crossing to war-ruined Abkhazia was an eerie exception. It was a truly depressing scene; the sodden sky was like a grey sponge looming over us with irregular, light downpours. Before it could meet the horizon, it blended into a surrounding ring of heavy ominous clouds which snaked around the mountains, suffocating the beauty of the landscape.
As we crossed the bridge from the Georgian checkpoint to the Abkhaz, a number of roadblocks had been placed to slow vehicles down, and behind them were road spikes ready to pull out at a moment’s notice. The air felt heavy with the evident tension from the unsettled disagreement.
If you have ever owned an orchid flower then you will know how difficult it is to care for, and how, when not properly treated, it slowly recedes into itself, gradually dropping leaves and losing roots. Sokhumi (our first stop and base) was like the last sign of life from the orchid which is Abkhazia, and on the drive in we saw the result of mal-treatment. The 60-minute journey was even more depressing than the border crossing; littered with derelict concrete constructions, the consequence of an uncomfortably recent war; it was like being taken through the set of a post-apocalyptic film.
Sokhumi was, and still is, a holiday destination for Russian tourists. It was comparable to other seaside spots in the region; but, if you walk for 5 minutes in any direction (apart from into the sea), even this part of the territory is haunted by the concrete skeletons of times when the population was much bigger.
What we saw on the surface of this first day was a translucent sheet over what really goes on, and with the rest of our first evening we made plans for our remaining days. We would find people to interview, ideally locals, and explore the area in greater depth.
We really got the feeling we were being watched during our time there; people seemed to be ever so slightly afraid, and it was as if they had been told not to talk to tourists about anything to do with the Georgian conflict. The convenient gap in memory was apparent in everyone we talked to.
One man, a Government Official, took a liking to our Lithuanian friend. He took us out a few times and kept trying to get me and Mate friend away so he could have her to himself. We felt like bodyguards. She tried to squeeze something out of him (not in that way), but even her powers of female persuasion couldn’t break the secrecy.
But I think that it was he who was trying to get information out of us. We must’ve aroused suspicion when we spoke English in front of him, naively assuming he couldn’t understand us. We used such words as ‘journalist’ and ‘article,’ with ‘Abkhazia’ and ‘Georgia’ in the same sentences. The next day he took us to visit a church, where we met a ‘Priest’. He spoke English surprisingly well, and with his friendly charm, lured us into a sense of relaxation. Out of nowhere, he looked invasively into my eyes, freezing me in place as if he were physically holding me there, and asked “are you a journalist?”
I have only ever experienced this look in someone’s eyes once before in my life, when I crossed the border into Russia. I was overwhelming and the shock of being asked such a question, which I could tell he had been previously informed about, caught me off-guard, and I think I gave away that he was right. I don’t know if we succeeded in convincing him otherwise, or whether he just didn’t see us as a threat, but we managed to avoid further questioning during our time in Abkhazia.
It’s no wonder we attracted attention, because we weren’t behaving like ordinary tourists. Stepping inside the burnt-out government building on ‘Freedom Square’, we felt like we were entering the set of a zombie film; we half-anxiously entered each room, worrying about what could jump out from the corner. Ivy and other plant life had claimed the structure, just as the Abkhaz and Russian forces had done to the region.
Underground, we found what we believed to be a Soviet interrogation room. It was ever-so-slightly too small and contained a basic table and a chair with two back legs missing. If you believe in ghosts, then there were definitely some in there with us; the temperature dropped, and the air got heavy as we explored the lower floors. The eerie silence seemed to allow cries of the past to be heard.
One final thing we had to do before leaving was get the ‘visa’. To do this, we had to go to the ‘Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ in Sokhumi with our invitation letter, wait 15 minutes while they pretended to do something in the office, and pay the equivalent to $5 each. We were handed a piece of paper which was so cheaply-produced that some of the words were slightly slanted. It looked like someone had gone to the effort of forging an official document but had done so poorly. We laughed about it and slipped them into our passports to keep as a souvenir, but they wouldn’t let us cross the border back with them, making it feel like more of a ticket to an amusement park than permission to visit a country.
Máté and I became good friends after this adventure and on returning from Abkhazia, he let me live in his flat rent-free for a couple of weeks. And whenever he was out in my remaining months, he would let me occupy it, saving me a lot of money on hostels. I am very grateful for that.
During the final months, in recognising how I used to be and how confident I had become now, I went a bit out of control I was starting to become a bad person. But being in Georgia provided me with an opportunity most people never get – to fully explore myself. It sounds bad, but I knew that once I left, I never had to see these people again. My behaviour bordered on that of a sociopath and I was lucky to have been saved.
Camilla, my boss at the paper, invited me out to drink one night. Her being from the UK and my deprivation of British company meant that I mistook things for having feelings for her. This led to me moving in with her, rent-free and with her paying for a lot of the food and wine.
A big part of why I moved in with her, apart from saving a lot of money, is because it became apparent that she was a truly evil person. Manipulative and narcissistic, I wanted to be around her because at this point, I thought I was the same. But after just two weeks together, I realised I was just lost.
Through her, I met Nino, who would have the biggest influence on me out of everyone in this country. I had never really been in love before, but with her I felt it for the first time. Because of her, I stopped moving between women every week and settled into a re-adjusted, re-built and stable version of myself.
The connection we formed was one that neither of us thought we would ever experience, so we agreed to continue our relationship after I left. I promised her that I would be back in no more than a year, which we both thought feasible. At the time of writing, it is still going strong!
She had had a very tough life, even more than mine, and because of it we had very similar personalities – cold on the outside and strong and able to deal with anything.
It was through her that I saw Georgia for what it really was. It was not the happy, friendly, sunny place that travellers believed it to be. Behind closed doors, it was disgusting. Women in this country are not treated as people, but as objects for men to do as they wish; it is the most Christian country in the world.
For 8 dark years, she endured a marriage she had been forced in to, while making a plan to escape. Towards the end, when her husband learned of this, he gave her a concussion. She ran out to seek help from the neighbours, but they simply told her to go back and obey her husband.
I did not tell my boss about Nino, she found out herself; Nino actually worked for her too, hence why I didn’t want to say anything. Before this, I had agreed with her to continue to contribute to the paper after I had left on a per-article basis. That wasn’t going to happen any more. And bringing Nino into her bed when she was away in Baku did not help things.
I checked into one last hostel, where I would stay for the remaining time in Georgia. There I met Rica, the cynical, sarcastic German girl with whom I could say anything and be completely honest, and Mike, the Columbian man motorbiking around the world. They stayed there for most of my final weeks and with them, I processed the huge character exploration I had just experienced. I realised that I can be a bad person, I think we all can, but I prefer to be a good one; I enjoy making people smile, because it makes me do the same.
I had gotten comfortable in Georgia. Soon I’d be back to eating cheap food, being tired all the time, waiting on roadsides and getting into danger. It was now Early March and winter was starting to pass.
Ahead of me was an ferocious challenge, and I am not talking about the route home. The Chinese visa process was something I didn’t want to get started with.
First, I would need the Georgian residence permit, because the consulate required me to apply from a country of residence. It was supposed to be the easy part, but it ended up being more challenging than the visa.
I had been hopelessly pursuing this small piece of paper for over 9 months now; I could have had a child in that time. So, when I submitted the required documents and they told me it was not enough, I put things off for another two weeks because I was so scared of getting bad news, like ignoring a suspicious lump on your body. The entire trip weighed on me getting this visa and once again, I felt things come into question.
Those two weeks were spent in a hostel doing nothing but updating my blog and getting to know Rica and Mike. I finally got myself together and sent the documents properly. 30 days was the provisional waiting time, and 30 days it took.
With the letter of approval finally in my hands, I rushed to the Chinese consulate on a Monday morning to find that it would be closed for the next four days.
It was now April and I had wanted to leave a month ago. I became even more restless, but once the application form was submitted on Friday, there were no more problems and I picked my passport up with permission to enter the country twice for 30 days. An enormous smile grew in my cheeks as I put the biggest challenge of this expedition in the past.