My story starts like every other traveler who makes their way to Georgia. It’s one I’ve heard others repeat, just as I have myself. “The people are amazing. The scenery unlike anywhere else I’ve ever seen. And they have this dish – it’s a bread boat filled with cheese, butter, and egg – and it’s absolutely to die for. And, the wine. Oh my gosh, the wine.” That’s pretty much how it always goes for everyone who travels here. Not just me.
When I first came to Tbilisi back in 2018, I was here to find a story. And I did. Quickly praising Tbilisi as the new Berlin. A story that made its way through the city, and around the world, faster than I could have ever imagined. A story that still reaches a few thousand readers a month, a year and a half later.
Since then, I’ve found myself returning to Tbilisi every few months. Not to party, drink wine and catch up with new friends (which does inevitably happen), but to reenergize, take a break from a hectic life on the road and feel something familiar. To let Tbilisi recharge me, mentally and physically.
I have a favorite breakfast spot. A go-to workplace. A preferred vegetable stall guy and bread maker. I take the underground. I have friends that I can call for dinner. Or an afternoon coffee. I come here because I don’t have to think – I can just be. Life buzzes around me and I don’t need to do anything more than just sit and take it in.
But this is where my story recently took a turn. Where the plot thickens, as some might say. Today, I find myself in Georgia not exactly by choice, but by necessity. My story (and the city’s) going from a fairy tale to something straight out of a sci-fi novel.
I was in Istanbul, trying to make new plans after a work trip to Iraqi Kurdistan became impossible, borders starting to close around me and flights starting to be canceled as news of the coronavirus started to spread to more and more countries around the world. Returning to Mongolia, the place I call home for six months a year, was no longer an option. Their borders closed to foreigners. I was not welcome back.
I had to start making some decisions. And I had to make them fast.
I decided the best move would be to return to the place that felt most comfortable in a time when I needed it. I knew that as a foreigner, this was a dangerous move, but it was a decision I had to make quickly, and one I’d have to live with. I booked a flight to Georgia.
I knew that travel was a risk. I could pick up germs along the way. And even though I might be able to survive COVID-19, someone else might not. And that if I ended up in a hospital, I would be taking away valuable resources from a local who needed them just as badly. I knew I was heading into a place without family to consul me. A place where my friends would be distracted with their own fears and uncertainties, their own families to keep safe. Their own problems. This wasn’t the first time I was experiencing this. I had spent February in Mongolia watching as the fear of the virus reached the country’s borders, paralyzing and shutting down the entire country.
I was used to this unwelcome feeling towards outsiders. I was used to being stared at for not wearing a mask, following my own country’s CDC (Center for Disease Control) advice. Used to side-eye looks from having a tickle in my throat (it was -20 C in Ulaanbaatar when I left, of course, I was coughing). I was all too familiar with seeing and hearing people say they were scared. I myself absolutely scared to be the first person to bring the virus into the country, first in Mongolia and now in Georgia. And that did happen in Mongolia. Just as I happened to be leaving, a French national arrived in the country, bringing in the virus and being the first to test positive for COVID-19 within the country. I remember hearing the news and thinking, that could have been me. That could still be me.
Landing in Tbilisi, my body temperature was scanned, my passport looked through to see where I had been. Others were being pulled to the side, questioned about where they were coming from, where they had been. Making it through passport control I felt a sigh of relief. Initially, I thought I could come here and escape to the mountains. It felt like a great plan at the time. Self-isolate from the comforts of a van without human contact in the remote regions of the country I’ve always been keen to discover. Now that my work assignments were all at a startling halt, I had the time.
So that’s what happened. I had a van and a plan.
And then I stopped for gas. Ate dinner at a restaurant. Went to the grocery store. It was quickly becoming clear that I was doing anything but self-isolating, now potentially just making the problem worse by exposing small villages to the germs they’ve been so fortunate to escape from so far. I should have known better, but I was desperate for life to seem normal. But it wasn’t. And the news of the virus spreading around the world kept getting worse.
So, I stopped. Immediately. I came back to the city and checked into Rooms Hotel, thinking to myself, at least if I’m going to self-isolate, I can do it at one of my favorite hotels in the world.
Then the restaurants and public areas inside both Rooms and Stamba closed. And then Rooms closed. I was moving over to Stamba to continue my self-isolation. Even better. Or so I thought.
Because that was when the quiet sunk in. The lack of lights emanating from rooms across the courtyard, the absence of voice and music humming through the halls. Life outside of my room didn’t seem to exist. I imagined the buildings holding their breath. Just waiting to exhale. And that’s how I felt too.
I found myself deep-diving into the news. Sinking deeper and deeper into despair about the state that the world now found itself in. Coming to the realization that as a travel writer I currently had nothing to write about. And I wouldn’t for a while.
It became clearer and clearer that heading back to the United States, where I’m a citizen, was no longer an option. My own country drastically failing on every front to contain and stop the spread of the coronavirus within its own borders on a catastrophic level. News reports of there not being enough masks and ventilators making headlines. People still flocking to beaches for spring break, not even trying to comprehend what the rest of world was going through as the case count inside their own country continued to increase.
During this time, I also started following the news more closely here in Georgia. Joining local Facebook groups where ex-pats would break down the latest press briefings in English, which were happening daily in an attempt to spread public awareness and quell fears about the spread of the virus within the country.
Watching all of this unfold, I once again felt grateful to be in a place that hasn’t been afraid to react quickly, putting measures in place to lock down cities where outbreaks had been detected, open field hospitals and use rapid testing kits to provide results in less than two hours. In these unprecedented times, I wasn’t the only one to recognize that Georgia has been fast to react.
Eventually, a State of Emergency was announced. Borders and airport closed. The reality sunk in – I’m here for good.
And there’s a feeling that comes with that. A feeling knowing that you can’t leave. A feeling that’s hard for a person who lives on the road to understand. A feeling that forces you to slow down and process what’s going on and feel things. And feel them all at once.
As corny and bullshit as this sounds, I might travel alone, but I’m never lonely. At least that’s the way it’s always felt. Until these last few weeks.
I’m isolated and alone. We all are. I have only distant friends in different time zones to keep me company. No bars to silently sit in and have a drink while conversations and energy breath life all around me. No coffee shop to sit and people watch and feel love and faith in humanity from afar.
No human interaction of any sort. It’s funny how you start to realize the importance of human touch, even just a handshake or a tap on the shoulder after you’ve gone without it for so long.
My loneliness even more exacerbated by seeing how locals look at me in the streets, questioning my presence. Wondering when I arrived in their country and what I brought with me. Not out of hatred or malice, but out of fear. Reminding me of that terrible feeling I felt back in Mongolia.
I still manage to make it out, walking the streets for at least some sort of break from the onslaught of news that just seems to keep getting worse. A break from my computer screen, where I’ve created projects to keep myself busy.
It’s during these walks, watching as queues of locals patiently wait outside their grocery store’s doors, social distancing on their own accord, before being allowed into the shop one at a time, that I’ve begun to feel connected to this country, and people, again. There’s no chaos. No hoarding. No bulk buying – people only buying what they need for that day and potentially the next.
There’s no complaining. No fistfights over the last loaf of bread. No name-calling. No aggression. You continue to live life as normally as possible, but not at all normally, at the same time.
You’ve adapted, come together and accepted a new normal for the sake of others. Something that many countries around the world, including my own, are desperately failing to understand.
And because of this, I can see the future. I can see life after coronavirus. I can see buildings and people exhaling that long breath that they’re holding onto, releasing life and energy back into the city.
I can feel hope again. I can see the city’s magic returning, concealed in a different form until the time is right.