The Little Country That Could [Overwhelm Me] | Travel/Volunteer Guest Post Series: by Jen Johnson

Today’s guest post comes from another awesome BiSCuit, Jen Johnson.  She blogs over at Connecting the Black Dots, so be sure to check her out! She likes languages, poker, dirty martinis, colorful pens, waterfalls and postcards. She shares with us a very unique and fascinating first-hand experience of volunteering in Russia. 


When I was volunteering in the Republic of Georgia in 2011, I stayed with a host family in a tiny village three hours away from the big city. In fact, the closest next “town” was over an hour away and lays right smack on the Azerbaijan/Georgian border.

“This street Georgia, next street Azerbaijan!” my co-teacher proudly told me.

As my village used to be an Ossetian village, half of the houses were burnt down. You may remember in 2008 Russia invaded a little-known country called Georgia. I think my first reaction upon hearing that was “why are the Russians attacking the United States? And Georgia of all places?”

Well, turns out they were attacking Georgia – the Republic of – to gain control of a region called South Ossetia (and another region called Abkhazia). My village was just outside of this (still occupied) zone. The Georgians in the village were afraid that the Russians would invade their area too, if there were Ossetians living there so they literally burnt their Ossetian neighbors houses to the ground.  
What a great, welcoming story to hear upon arrival!
Never mind the fact that no one in my village spoke English, even my co-teachers could hardly understand me. And they were the ones supposedly teaching the kids English! I knew it was going to be a difficult semester.
Have you ever tried to learn a new language? I speak French fluently, and Spanish fairly well but Georgian was nowhere even close to either of those languages. In fact, the root of Georgian is…Georgian (Kartvelian). The only known similar languages are the ones spoken in the Caucasus Mountains. If you spoke Russian, you could at least communicate with most people – after all, Russia has been a huge influence on this area of the world. As for me, my French and Spanish got me nowhere. Georgian lessons it was.
Don’t get me wrong, I loved learning Georgian – the letters fascinate me and my attempts at the guttural noises were a source of laughter for many a Georgian. But I would be lying if I said it was easy. Now I know how those poor kids I taught felt.
It also made for some sticky situations. For example, I didn’t realize the extent of limited hot water at my host-house. So of course, one morning I wanted to shower before school. I came downstairs with all my washing needs, flicked the electric heater on and hopped in the (freezing cold) shower. After about 10 minutes of waiting, teeth chattering, I got dressed and went to ask my host father what was up with the water situation.
His English was limited to three things: “baby”, “sit down”, and “hello”.
Super helpful.
I managed to get it across to him that the shower was freezing (repeating “me gaq’inva c’q’ali” while using spider fingers above my head to indicate shower – this roughly translates to “I freeze water” What? That’s the limited vocabulary I had to work with!) He finally managed to explain that it takes two hours to heat the water. TWO HOURS!
Needless to say, I did not get my shower that day. In fact, I wore more head scarves, headbands and ponytails in those few months than I have in my entire life. Showering was not a priority in the small villages. In fact, my house was one of the only ones that actually even had hot water.
There was also the problem of traffic jams. No, not of the vehicular kind. I’m talking cows, ox, goats, pigs, chickens – even a horse or two. Most of the animals just ran around doing as they pleased. It was not unusual, on my way to school, for me to pass a few pigs grazing in the street, while a horse trotted by, narrowly missing the flock of chickens stationed by a spewing water spout, while a man on a goat-driven cart shouted Georgian obscenities at the herd of cows blocking his route. And the problems that arose when more than one cart was on the dirt roads – vy may!  

I learned a lot in those months; about Eastern Europe, about the Caucasus region, about culture shock, about learning, about friendship, about gutting rabbits and eating them for dinner (seriously), about traveling, about adapting, and most importantly, about myself.

 I mean, I was a vegetarian for like 10 years and I managed to eat an animal that I had seen alive earlier that day. If that’s not learning, I don’t know what is. 
BIO: Jen grew up in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, among polar bears and dog sleds (although she has yet to see either in the wild). In late 2009 she quit her job in the petroleum industry to pursue her dreams of travel and adventure. Obtaining the CELTA (Certificate in English Language Teaching to Adults) came in handy as she travelled through Central America – volunteering at several small elementary schools along the way, before settling in Costa Rica. After that stint was up, she travelled across the globe to teach in  Georgia – yes, it was random. Jen has an unnatural affinity for semi-colons, postcards, waterfalls and colourful pens. She is fluent in English and French, speaks Spanish, some American Sign Language and dubious amount of Georgian. Returning to school in the fall scares her more than a walk in Tegucigalpa at night. Okay, maybe not that much, but close. She blogs at Connecting the Black Dots.

A travel lesson in flexibility

On Thursday morning 9/20 was awoken by a phone call from the airline saying my flight on Friday had been cancelled. That got me up fast. The new flight they put me on had a 6 hour layover in Newark. Not a chance. No thank you. Not happening.  So I offered to take the last flight out that thursday night. Good thing I was mostly ready but still had a few things left to do. It was definitely a lesson in being prepared and willing to roll with the punches. Things happen and you have to be flexible.  It all happened so fast, it was so surreal.  My parents came down for lunch, we ran (literally) last min errands, went to dinner and headed to the airport.  The funny thing about this flight was that after I booked the friday flight, i had looked into changing it to leave Thursday so I could join nic for tea at kensington palace but it was $400+ to change it. So it was wild that the airline wound up saving me $400 and I got on the flight i wanted. I felt that this was really meant to be. I was meant to be on that flight. I said goodbye and I honestly got a little emotional. I couldn’t believe that after years of dreaming and months of planning, here I was, at the airport about to depart and make all of it a reality. Just writing that made me tear up a bit. It is all so surreal and exciting.

Once in London, I quickly realized my phone didn’t work. I had talked to verizon before I left and they gave me the wrong information.  So I attempted to meet up with Nic but sadly it didn’t work out.  I took a tour of Kensington Palace and explored London on my own a bit.  Getting yourself around via bus and train (tube) and walking in a foreign country is a very satisfying and proud moment.

Things in London I noticed.
The tube voice says: “mind the gap ” instead of “watch your step”. This is so much more polite and classy sounding. 

Lift is an elevator

People are friendly as hell. I haven’t met one person who wasn’t personable and helpful. Even at the airport!

Security at Heathrow- they didn’t even look at my passport and I didn’t have to take off my shoes.

It is expensive here.

People drive on the left and steering wheels are on the right. This makes wide turns seem uncomfortably strange.

My plane is boarding for Nairobi now. I am so excited! I’m still amazed this is all happening!

Help Japan Now!

I just wrote an entire post and lost it! I’ll try again.

It is hard to enjoy this beautiful day in Chicago when so many people have been struck with tragedy. My heart, thoughts and prayers go out to everyone affected by the earthquake and tsunami. The greatest concern now is that the nuclear reactor in Fukushima will explode- I PRAY this does not happen. That would be detrimental and beyond dangerous for all. The effects of this is global and Mother Nature is not finished yet.  There are always aftershocks after earthquakes like this. I hope you are all safe.

This video of the Tsunami gave me chills. Fox News- Tsunami Video and click here for UNREAL VIDEOS of footage.

Are you worried about a friend or loved one? Google launched this fantastic site to help:

If you can donate, here are some great options. If not, please spread the word so we can all do our part to help in this disaster.

Text REDCROSS to 90999 to make a $10 donation

GlobalGiving.orgPraying is good, donating is better.

It is in time like this that we must be thankful for those in our life and those that we love.