I woke up early, ready to seize the day and do a 12-mile trek to a glacier in rural Georgia. Since most of my trip is in warm climates, I was terribly ill-prepared for the 40 degree rainy weather (plus windchill) in a thin windbreaker and sweater. Nevertheless, I jumped out of bed to meet a group of fellow travelers I found through Couch Surfing. They had proper gear and hiking boots and a solid sense of adventure; I had thin layers and no water (we were meant to stop for snacks and buy water before we left, but ran out of time). We decided to share a taxi to the famous, ancient Gergeti Trinity Church and start our trek to the glacier from there. On the ride up the windy mountain road, I tried to quiet my doubts with every motivational quote I could muster. For every, “what are you doing, you can’t even see any views today,” I cheered myself on with “seize the day! You made it all the way here, push through!” I convinced myself with the “power of YES” and taking advantage of opportunities, and basically was singing “I Hope You Dance” by the time the taxi lurched to a stop in the middle of a cloud atop the mountain. I was feeling dehydrated already, and knew a 12-mile hike with a 3,200 meter gain was not “seizing the day,” but just dumb. I rummaged through the recycling bin at the church for a plastic bottle, rinsed it off, and filled it at the fresh water fountain. My enthusiasm was slightly tempered by the windchill, but I felt ready to grab life by the horns and shake its sweet juices. Instead I was beaten to a pulp, and this is how the world laughs at you, counsels you, molds you. After twenty minutes of shivering, scrambling, and slipping in the mud, I promptly told my fellow adventurers today would not be seized by me, but best of luck! Fog looks the same everywhere, and I didn’t want to risk getting sick.
I was now about a 1.5 hour hike above town with no taxi in sight. I trekked down to the famous church to find refuge from the rain and wind only to find the doors locked. There was an old woman begging below the stone awning to the church, and I motioned to ask if she was hungry. She nodded, and I handed over my beloved “khachapuri” (a delicious traditional cheese and bread staple) leftover from breakfast. She snatched it from me and looked at me dead in the eye with an outstretched hand. “MONEY,” she demanded. I was shaken by her intense glare, and am ashamed to admit my first thought was, “dang, no thank you?” I mumbled an apology in a language not her own, but her glare communicated she was not pleased.
I turned to try the church doors again, but the heavy metal chain remained locked. A tour bus arrived and deposited 50 Korean tourists at the church steps, as cold and wet as I was, and their excitement dissapaited into disappointment when they found the famous church was locked. Their Georgian tour guide spoke briefly with the old woman. “I think that woman is off in the head, she says the church is open,” the tour guide shrugged. I asked if I could ride back to town with them, but alas, their bus was full. Eventually they retreated back to their bus and left. I stayed stranded under the church awning, frantically checking my Weather app and reassuring myself the sun will break soon so I could start my trek down to the village below.
Twenty minutes passed with no sign of the sun saving me. My thin, expensive “moisture-wicking” workout pants were now a sheath of ice cutting off the feeling in my legs. I gazed longingly at the pile of thick blankets the old woman had stacked next to her (she had motioned to me she sleeps here), but didn’t dare ask to borrow one as her glare only became more resentful the more I stood there. Slowly, she got up with the help of her cane, something small hidden in her palms. She hobbled over to the church doors and produced a key, freeing the lock to the warm, dark, ancient church. Who knew the woman that was “off in the head” was actually the gatekeeper to the church all along! I nodded at her in thanks and stood in the church for what seemed like hours, but was too anxious to pray. I felt out of place among the devout monks praying, so I retreated back to the awning where the old woman sat. I jumped from side to side to stay warm, and she started yelling at me in Georgian and motioning to the church. I tried to communicate that I don’t understand, but that only maddened her more. She grabbed her cane and started screaming, and at this point, I was a terrified frozen rat that decided “flight” instead of “fight.” I quickly turned on my heels and jumped down the steps. Unfortunately, my baseball cap obstructed the low stone awning from my view, and – WHACK! My forehead had a fateful meeting with the stone. Immediate tears of shock sprouted from my eyes, and I’m usually not a crier (really, I can’t remember the last time I cried)! The old woman stopped shouting to let out a short, sympathetic “aw,” before I ran out to the road. I composed myself in the bathroom before finally locating a taxi back to the safety of my guest house bed, where I stayed de-thawing under thick blankets for the next 4 hours.
Today was not seized, but perhaps it was what I needed – a humbling. I’m used to being praised for being a “helper,” for acts of kindness to be met with smiles and appreciation. This should never be motivation for helping; no one is indebted to my “help” – in fact, helping only in anticipation of praise in return is a self-serving, futile act. This isn’t a healthy giving, though it is by far the most common type. Although the old woman didn’t give me unnecessary praise, she did teach me something, even with no shared language between us.
The persistent glare of the old woman reminded me to shake my expectations, value people’s autonomy, and remain humble in my positionality in this messy, unfair world. The deep wrinkles of her face infer she likely lived through the Soviet era here, through years of food rationing, occupation, and hardship. I watched her eye my gold-painted fingernails, my non-calloused hands, my expensive, moisture-wicking workout pants. While her hands expose years of hard physical labor, mine reveal years of typing essays and applications on keyboards, unlocking opportunities to higher education, career opportunities in a field I chose, and even a travel fellowship that is propelling me around the world. I am plopped at her feet with all my privilege, all my hopeful expectations, all my blindspots and assumptions and biases. Her glare was warranted.
For so long, I’ve found my value in being a “helper,” but perhaps it’s time to expand on that identity. I won’t always be a helper, or an adventurer, or an Instagram photographer. Sometimes, life will shake you, and there won’t be a beautiful photo at the end of it. There will be tears some days, and failures, and lessons, and all this necessary mess. So what is the takeway – embrace the mess? Let life teach you? Let go of expectations? Look up while walking through stone awnings? Maybe it’s just look up – absorb and observe, live and let life spin you.