Tbilisi. The sound of this word is a beacon for me. It’s an audio lighthouse blinking me to a safe haven where I can rest and recover, where I can feel normal for a little while.
Tbilisi. It’s big city on a walking map we invented, and, before January 2016, it was another Asian city we knew so little about. Bishkek, Osh, Khorog, Dushanbe, Bukhara, Tehran ….all places that marked our route with a promise of something we can’t name, an intangible desire waiting to be satisfied. These cities are where the weary come to gear up for whatever the next phase of the adventure brings. These are the places I long to be in when walking weakens me.
For months, the idea of reaching Tbilisi — Georgia’s quaint capital with medieval touches that is still discovering its post-Soviet niche in a world filled with travel-hungry wanderlusters — gave me hope. As with the other cities we passed through and developed affection for, I craved the simplicity that comes with modern-day urban conveniences. A good cup of coffee in a trendy cafe, supermarkets filled with too many options, shops selling high-quality walking shoes, a deep tissue massage to fix my muscles and calm my mind. Tbilisi, I knew from cyclists and walkers we met along the way and a handful of internet tourism pages I read, had all of these things.
But, more than the other cities, Tbilisi took on greater significance.
During the recent summer months when my motivation wilted, reaching Tbilisi in September meant a change of seasons, something I desperately needed after more than seven months of heat that started in India and followed us to Azerbaijan. Being in Georgia also meant three other important things: 1. We would be closer to Turkey, another country I’m looking forward to being in; 2. We would be closer to Europe (EU flags waving on Georgia’s public buildings—signs of the country’s willingness to align with Western big brothers instead of staying linked to its colonial ruler, Russia,—remind me how far we have already walked and how near we are to home), and 3. Every step in Georgia puts us closer to a much-needed winter break where walking will be an optional exercise and not a obligatory daily means of transportation.
“Get to Tbilisi. Things will be better after that.” This was my walking mantra for all of August. And, in September, that turned out to be true.
We walked into Tbilisi on a hot Saturday afternoon the last week in August, and I immediately felt some of my burdens melt. I was suddenly surrounded by eye candy everywhere – wine shops, cafes, sidewalk stands selling freshly squeezed orange and pomegranate juice, bookstores, tourist restaurants and bars I would never enter but wondered what beers they were serving, places where you could get a manicure, a burger joint, bakeries, and, oh, a real supermarket with oh-so-many aisles of stuff I hadn’t seen in weeks.
But, surprisingly, it wasn’t tourist-filled Tbilisi where I started to shake off my summer slump. It was on the other side of the mountain, away from Old Tbilisi. Where I began to feel like myself again was in the small village of Okrokana, in the company of a wonderful woman named Maka.
Maka is the auntie-cousin of a friend of ours back home. Our friend, Maixa, graciously put us in touch with Maka and Maka’s son, Joseph. Joseph graciously invited us to the family’s summer home, and Maka graciously told us we could stay as long as we liked.
So we stayed for a about week, and it was one of my best weeks in this whole journey.
We relaxed under pines trees, helped Maka in her garden (Lluís more than me…he’s the one with the green thumb), talked for hours about everything that came to mind, and cooked together, something I have been missing since Bishkek and Iran. The joy of home-cooked meals cannot be underestimated, and, in every way, beats eating cold oatmeal out of tin cup, which is one of our common walking-day meals.
It seems like such a small thing—disconnecting from the walk for a few days and enjoying the art of doing nothing (or, more accurately, doing very little)—but it is a luxury for me, and I savor it with all my beingness.
These off days give me strength to face the on days when we move fully loaded in slow motion. The non-walking days give me the strength I need to face the walk ahead…again and again.
With Maka’s welcoming and comforting embrace still warming my heart, I step back on to the road. I hope the slump is behind me. I hope for good days ahead. I hope I have the willpower to continue. I hope I have slayed the demons that eat away at my thoughts. I hope joy guides me forward.
I hope I make it to the next big city where the weary come to replenish their souls and gear up for whatever comes next.