When I was 5 years old, my parents made the decision to go overseas to become missionaries in the Republic of Georgia. The 4 years that followed were the most real, vivid, and incredible moments of my life. Though I haven’t been back there in about 14 years now, I still remember it so clearly, and miss it so much.
The scenery, the rich, unique culture, and the hospitable, loving people. I have been to many countries and places, none of which could ever compare to the special, unique feel and vibe of this place. This land has taken so many beatings over the years. Ravaged by multiple wars, yet somehow holding onto unrivaled beauty.
The primary form of travel there, for us, was by foot, though there were paved roads in many places, and plenty of alternate forms of travel such as buses, electric trolleys, taxi vans, and private taxis. The streets were always flooded with pedestrians, vendors, beggars, and market stalls.
Everywhere you looked, you would find salesmen of all kinds on the street corners, calling out to you for your business. There were sellers of magazines, candy, sunflower seeds, pastries, even stickers, in every direction.
Aside from all that, there was the main Tbilisi Market, where you could find stalls set up, lining the streets, selling every imaginable thing. Knives, guns, food, spices, shoes, clothes, books...it was ALL there in this HUGE marketplace.
It wasn't uncommon to see young children walking around playing with butterfly knives, doing tricks and showing off. There were no age requirements for smoking or drinking there, so the youth was always up to "no good".
As Americans in a third world country, we were treated like royalty by the general population. All we had to do was say "I'm American", to be welcomed with open arms, and a kiss on each cheek ( the custom Georgian greeting ).
My family was invited to endless feasts, to be guests of honor. The Georgian men would always insist that me and my brother have a glass of vodka, as alcohol was the absolute centerpiece of any Georgian dinner table. My parents tried to deny us the drinks, but there was simply no getting around it. When they would look away, the Georgians would pour more vodka, koniak, or champagne into my glass, with a mischievous smile.
I remember a time when I was about 8, when my parents decided to go on a little vacation to other side of the country, a region called Svaneti. The trip there was taken by bus, through beaten mountain paths, barely wider than a car. The trip, alone, was by far the most hazardous and life-threatening 8 hours of any of our lives.
At one point, the path between the mountain and a straight drop off cliff became so thin and sloped, that our bus began to fall over the edge, forcing every passenger to rush to the opposite side of the bus to tilt it back on all wheels.
Even more horrifying still, near the end of our long, rigorous journey, machine gun fire was opened on our bus from atop a nearby hill. It may have been muggers trying to take out the wheels, or perhaps they simply wanted to kill us. Bullets impacted many sections of the bus, as the Georgians on board threw me and my family to the floor, leaping on top us as human shields. Our lives, to them, were more important than their own.
I know, this is beginning to sound more like fiction, isn't it? I would like to say that this was the end of our turmoils, but the greatest challenge was yet to come, within the ravishing beauty of Svaneti, Georgia.
A few days after we finally arrived there in one piece, my brother became very sick. The medical facilities in this isolated region were greatly lacking in technology, sanitation, and staff. My brother, Justin, was diagnosed with appendicitis, and was told it had to be removed immediately to avoid probable death. The operation was to begin immediately, in the one and only hospital within hundreds of miles.
I wasn't in the room, but I was able to hear his agonizing screams from down the hall, as the anesthetic given to him had worn off, mid-operation. He had awoke to find himself laying there, cut open, as the surgeon frantically tried to find the anesthesiologist to give him another dose. Though he survived and recovered, I can only imagine the fear and pain he must have endured.
After all the hardships and crazy experiences we had in that place, I can still say it is the only place I ever felt real. I can still focus on thoughts of it, and begin to smell it, feel it, taste it.
I find myself feeling like a zombie now, compared to the life and passion of Georgia. Here in the States, we follow patterns, rituals, routines, rarely looking death in the face, and rarely witnessing true kindness and sacrifice. The Georgian people had such a powerful, genuine culture, that stands out from anywhere else in the world.
Here are 2 short videos about the 2008 Russian attacks on Tbilisi.