Oh, so that’s what it was all about!

Things have changed a bit since my last blog, and thankfully all is on its way to being well again now.  It was a horrible week, with me getting worse, vomiting every time I ate or drank something, and I was feeling even worse because my family were with me all the time and crying because they just didn’t know what to do to help.  We had a power-cut for three days due to the electrical wires in the town being replaced, we ran out of toilet paper and water, and at the point that my family suggested calling an ambulance (totally unnecessary in my view) I decided that enough was enough.

Everytime someone phoned me, I couldn’t talk because I was either choked up, or my family were with me the whole time.  I had minimal charge left on my mobile phone, and having gone to the toilet and spent ten minutes vomiting in pitch darkness, I decided to send a text message to my boss, hoping that at some point she would be able to get hold of me, as she is a great problem solver and person of action, and I knew she would understand even if I couldn’t speak to her properly.

The next morning, she phoned me, thank god that my phone lasted as long as it did! She picked up that I couldn’t speak properly because my family were with me, and then she spoke to my host mum, and arranged for me to get to Tbilisi.  My host mum agreed, but was unhappy about me travelling on the bus because I was so sick, and as a compromise was able to arrange for a lift with some relatives from Tbilisi who happened to be attending a ceremony in town to take down the plackard from a person who had died a year previously.

It was a really long journey to the Capital, almost four hours of desperately trying not to be sick or to need the toilet.  I’d dosed myself up on the last of my medical rations, and was fine in those departments, though I don’t know if it was pure will power, medicines, or both! The driver happened to be in the Special Forces, and was driving his parents, who turned out to be the worst passengers ever, constantly inhaling sharply, and yelling “nela, nela” in other words “drive slowly”! On the one hand, I was happy to drive as fast as possible, but on the other, the bends in the road, and the several near misses with oncoming traffic whilst overtaking, didn’t do much to help my stomach. But I was extremely grateful, as I would have really struggled on the marshrutka, and was feeling pretty weak and vulnerable.  There was a strong smell of vodka on the breaths of my fellow travellers, and some rather nasty smells on the journey, but I was determined not to be ill, and I really couldn’t have cared even if we crashed, as I was in so much pain with my stomach, and just relieved to be heading to the City where I knew I would find native English speakers and decent food.

It was great to see my friend Jane, and better still to be able to have a shower (in fact I had two within 24hrs!). Her apartment was so clean and warm, with running water, electricity, and soap.  Her host mum Annie was lovely, and the apartment had a real sense of calm about it.  Jane was the first person I spoke to before arriving in Georgia, and it so happened that we were the first to arrive in Tbilisi, just a couple of hours apart, and we had almost 24hours before the rest of the group arrived in Georgia, so it seemed fitting that my last days in Georgia would also be spent with her.  Jane and her mum were amazing, and it was great to feel so at ease and not have to be hosted or forced to eat.   Thankfully, Jane’s host mum had experienced a similar thing whilst she was in Egypt, so she totally understood how I was feeling.

We went to the shop on the corner and I was like a kid in a candy shop, with big eyes, because there were bright lights, cleanliness, and so many things to choose from! On the bad side, the Capital is much more expensive, but I didn’t care.  And I had my first meal without throwing up…..toast and a slice of cheese, and a lovely cup of Egyptian tea that Annie had brought back with her!

I was so excited by Annie’s flat.  It had a beautiful kitchen, shiny, new, and clean, and also a toaster, and a beautiful fridge, with doors that closed, and which looked so clean.  Jane even had her own toilet, and the bathroom and bedroom were so amazing compared to what I had been living in.  It made me realise how different my world has been in Vale, and that its important not to judge Georgia based purely on one experience.  And then I realised why people in Tbilisi had not really fully understood my situation in Vale, as its hard to realise what it is like, when you are not living in those situations, even if you are a seasoned traveller.  Its something that I need to not forget, as whilst I am now back in the UK, my friends are still living with lack of electricity, warmth, or water, and a restricted diet.  Don’t get me wrong, my circumstances in Vale were nowhere near as bad as other places I have been to in my life, and I love my family there to bits, but being in the Capital made me realise how much I missed my home comforts.  I think that home comforts are even more important when you are feeling so ill, as I felt disgusting in my unwashed clothes and knowing that I had been unable to wash my hands properly for weeks, or taken a shower.

And so, I ate for the first time, had a hot shower, and slept in an amazing and clean bed.  My first proper night’s sleep in 5 weeks, and I felt so much better the next day.

The following day, I phoned my boss so we could meet up, but was devastated to hear that they were almost finished for the day and that I might not be able to meet with her. My fault, as I had assumed they would be available all day, so had not realised there was a time frame in which to visit.  One of the little frustrations about the language barrier, and being ill meant I was not good at coping with this kind of thing.  She gave me directions to meet with her, which I had no idea about being new to the city, but agreed because I knew I would burst into tears any second and just wanted to get off the phone and on my way before she left for her holiday.  Luckily Jane was able to phone her for me, whilst I dashed off to the toilet, still resolved that I would do my damndest to try and meet with my boss and sort things out.  At this point, I was feeling like I could not return to Georgia if I went home to the UK, but I also did not want to leave the country, so I had to try and sort things out before I left two days later.  Even the tiniest things felt like a massive emotional roller coaster, and like every little knock back or move was another chunk of my low remaining energy gone. Sounds crazy now, but awful at the time.

Jane put me in a taxi, and I was met by a security guard at the other end.  Walking up two flights of stairs almost killed me as I had not eaten properly in 5 weeks, and the journey to the capital the previous day had taken a lot out of me, and my stomach was killing me.  I was still really emotional and my coping ability was pretty rubbish as I was just so low on resources, just getting directions from the security guard was hard work! Lots of other volunteers were picking up tickets to fly home, and it was incredibly difficult to be around them, and the staff were really busy.  I’m bad enough at being upset when I am on my own, but to be upset in front of others is extremely hard for me, and I knew I would lose it.  But everyone was great, and I was glad that I had made the effort to visit.  It was also one of the worst experiences of my life, as I really had no idea what to do with myself, and the thought of being so upset, trying not to faint because of lack of nutrition, and having to put myself in a taxi and try and explain in Georgian how to get to a house that I only knew the basic address of, was a really daunting prospect.

Fortunately, I bumped into one of my colleagues on the way out, and she knew that I had been sick as we had arranged to go to the doctors together the following day.  So I was immensely relieved when she said that if I could wait for 5minutes then she could come in the taxi with me.  I could have cried there and then!! I was so relieved!  It was strange to wait outside her office listening to all the excited volunteers picking up tickets for flights home. Some were going just for Christmas, whilst others were at the end of their contracts.  It upset me to think that I would be one of those people in June, preparing to leave Georgia forever, and then I was even more sad at the prospect of having to leave Georgia now because of being sick all the time, let alone the prospect of leaving my family in Vale.

Travelling in the taxi with my colleague made a massive difference, as we had a little bit of time to talk and catch up as I hadn’t seen her for over 5 weeks, and I knew I could be myself and not have to put on a front.  It was just as well that she came with me, because the taxi driver was incredibly lost, and a lot of translation was needed! And when we got back, there was Jane and later her host mum Annie, and again, I was able to eat a little bit, and have a good night’s sleep.

I was gradually starting to feel a bit more human, and was happy at the prospect of being able to return to Georgia in the New Year, although it was now decided that I should move from Vale to a City as then I would be able to buy different foods to eat.  I knew this was logically a great decision, but was still anxious at the prospect of leaving my host family, school, moving to another city that may not be Tbilisi, where I would not know anyone, and where I would have to go through the bonding process with a whole new host family, and school.  I was so anxious about meeting with my host mum the following day for the medical appointment, and also had to tell her that there I would most likely not be returning to Vale and to live with them.  Somehow everything was still feeling all too much, but I was certainly a lot more at ease having spoken about things with the company.

The following day, I was incredibly nervous about meeting with my host mum and going to the doctors and I was also sick again and  had violent diarrhoea, which I was hoping was just nerves and stress.  I went to school with Jane, and was instantly amazed at how different her school was to mine.  Much bigger, more students, but they had electricity and lights switched on. Jane told me that her school was so cold, but in comparison to mine, it was like a sauna! In my school, the children use wood to make the fires, but here they actually had radiators and proper windows!  My school has a couple of windows missing, so its drafty, and the students and teachers sit in their coats, scarves, and gloves, but here they were in normal clothes. Jane’s school also had police to patrol the corridors and make sure that students were not being unruly. Something that I believe all schools are supposed to have under the new policy, but which mine does not.

Jane took me up several flights of stairs and into a staff room where I met a group of teachers. I was so surprised when she told me they were English teachers, as I could not tell at all! But I think the standard of English was the same as the teachers in my school, and this was confirmed when I sat in on a lesson with her.  The students were also the same, although I think the students in my school were a little more enthusiastic than the ones I observed at Jane’s school. It was also strange that not every student said hello to her in the corridor, but I think that is because the school is much bigger, whereas in Vale everyone knows everyone.  I tried to get my head around the prospect of starting at a new school like this one, but it was a massive effort and too much to think about, so I tried to think of something else. The Principal met us and showed us two classes of little children.  They sang Christmas Carols to us, and I was amazed at how brightly coloured and nicely decorated their rooms were, again, it was a million miles away from my school, but for Jane it was also a million miles away from her ideas of schools in Canada, and I really wished that she could come to Vale to see just how great her school actually was in comparison.

I met Jane’s Principal, and this really was a difference as she was so lovely, and completely opposite to my Principal.  I would say Jane’s Principal is far more busy than mine, but had so much more time than my Principal, and a totally different relationship with Jane than I have with mine.  This was the same in another school I visited.  I wasn’t really in the mood to visit another school as I was still low of energy and feeling really sick, but it was good to have the opportunity to visit another school.

Unfortunately, my feelings that things were improving was dashed when I received a text from my colleague who was coming to the doctors with me. It was actually a misunderstanding as I thought that she was no longer coming with me, and was totally gutted, but that wasn’t what she meant at all.  But, I was so gutted at that point, that I could have got on a plane there and then and never returned to Georgia as I could not take any more at all.  Again, Jane was with me, and used her calmness to reassure me. She also offered to come with me for moral support, and I was so happy about that, and to have someone to lighten the mood.

I have always been so touched at the warmth and kindness of Georgian people, especially my colleagues, and so I was also touched at my host mum’s willingness to spend four hours on a marshrutka from Vale so that she could come to the doctors with me in Tbilisi.  It was a really awkward day, as I really love my host mum and family, and I couldn’t look at her as I knew I would get upset, and I wanted to be strong.  Jane was great as she managed to do most of the talking so that I could keep my distance a bit, and I was massively relieved that my colleague was there too, and that she could talk to my host mum in Georgian.  I never could have got through the day without my colleague, as there was a lot of to-ing and fro-ing between different hospitals and doctors, and a lot of paper work to get through.  It was incredibly frustrating not to be able to speak English and not to understand what was being said or what was going on, but my colleague tried her best to keep me informed.  As a previous medic, I get even more anxious about such things now as I have some idea what to expect in terms of examinations and tests, and it was still difficult to talk about my diarrhoea in front of people I know, and to be examined.  Usually it wouldn’t be such a big deal, but I was just emotional anyway, and to make it worse, I still had no clean clothes and still felt really disgusting having not had a proper wash or clean clothes in ages, so I was more embarrassed about that as I knew that I was still pretty smelly!

Everything was different, and done differently to what I am used to in the UK.  Having had Guillain-Barre whilst I was in India, I am also more nervous now about being ill, and I no longer cope well with being ill, especially when abroad.  I get anxious about having bloods taken because it reminds me of how sick I have been in the past, and so I was nervous when the doctor wanted bloods. When I arrived in Georgia 6 weeks ago, I had blood taken as part of my screening for the job, and was left with a massive bruise, so i wasn’t looking forward to that. Luckily the doctor knew this as so I was able to have blood taken from a prick on my finger, and a lab person sucked up my blood using a glass pipette, then blew it onto a smear glass and also into a little tube.  Far more effective and more pain free than having normal bloods taken.  Then I had an ultrasound scan, saw an infection doctor, and was told to come back the following day with a stool sample.

I was exhausted by the end of the day, and rather ratty as I just didn’t see the point of having so many things done when it was just the food making me sick, and I was also devastated to leave my host mum outside the hospital in tears and to drive off and leave her there, to get the marshrutka back home.  My colleague tried her best to reassure me, but I was just so frustrated and feeling unsupported and confused about everything, and worried that when I came back after Christmas I would just get shoved in the middle of nowhere and left to fend for myself. I also knew that I would have problems when I got back to the UK as I would have no money and my grandmother would try and talk me out of returning to Georgia.  I felt exhausted and like a total failure. I loved Georgia so much, yet I could not stay if I was going to be sick all the time, and I had no reserves to even think about moving in with a new family, and starting at a new school. I was sure that I would never get such a nice family again, and I was worried that I would go from one bad situation to another…..so many ifs and buts!!!

So, I went back home with Jane, and was thinking that I would not be coming back to Georgia, and I also spoke with my host family on the phone, but was constantly in tears, as were they. It was an awful experience, and I felt that my colleagues had no idea how difficult it was to make an investment in a family, and I really felt that I had stabbed my family in the back. I decided there was no point in taking a specimen in to the doctor the following day, and I did not want to see my colleagues ever again, as I was just so drained and tired, but again, Jane worked her magic, and a good nights sleep and some thai food left me feeling much better.

The following day, I met up with my friend Helen and we went to Old Tbilisi, and I must have complained at her the entire day! The previous night I had managed o arrange another meeting with my bosses and I was anxious about meeting up with them later that day, so had made some notes for myself. I’d also decided that if I could come back to Georgia then I could still see my host family at weekends, and that made me feel better about moving to a new place.  Later Helen and I met with our colleague and delivered my stool sample to the hospital. It was also a good chance to talk openly with my colleague and to explain how I was feeling, and it was great to see Data again as he had initially picked me up from the airport when I had arrived in Georgia six weeks ago at 04.30am!!

Its been a strange week in many ways, and I have had much time to reflect on everything that has happened since I have arrived.  I have realised that I have made so many really close friends since arriving in Georgia, and the thought of leaving them hurts me, if not more than leaving my family in the UK and Latvia, who I have barely missed whilst I have been away, which is surprising!  I love Georgia so much, and I don’t want to leave at all, but at the same time, I am sick of being so sick all the time.

When I first arrived in Georgia at 04.30am, there was no one to meet me, and I walked around the airport at least three times trying to find someone who might be there to meet me. I thought it had all been a con, and here I was in a new country, unable to speak the language, with not a penny, and having left civilisation behind.  I decided to try one last attempt, and noticed that there was only one person now left at the arrivals, and holding a sign, so I asked them if they were with TLG.  They were, thank goodness!! But they were not waiting for me, they were waiting for a guy called Jason Rice.  Except that this was not entirely translated to me as the guy had no English and I had no Georgian, so instead I was given an ID badge which said Jason Rice.  I thought that maybe this guy’s name was Jason Rice, even though it didn’t sound Georgian! That guy turned out to be a lovely man called Data.  He insisted on taking my luggage, helped me change some money, and we got in a taxi.  I had no idea that he worked for TLG, and thought maybe he was just a taxi driver who was asked to collect me and drop me off at the hotel.  On the journey home, in the dark, he gave me several sweets and made sure that I was happy with the music on the radio. He was extremely lovely, but I was cautious and refused to eat the sweets.  I could imagine the tabloid headings: “stupid Brit takes drugged sweets off total stranger in a new country and gets murdered”. OK, I was over dramatic, but you hear of this stuff happening a lot, and you think to your self, what an idiot to do that! Its the first thing you learn as a child, never accept sweets off a stranger!

Now, I was so pleased to see Data, and I asked my colleague to tell him how I had felt on that first meeting, as I felt pretty stupid about it now! I remember myself and Jane were talking about this on our first meeting as Data had also collected her, and we had giggled about it. Now I consider Data to be a great friend, even though I have only seen him about three times, but he always recognises me and says hello, even if he does still joke about me being Jason!! Somehow those 6 weeks since I arrived feel like a lifetime ago, and on the flight to the UK I was surprised to realise just how Georgian I now know.

I am so glad to have had so much support from TLG and am amazed at how lovely my colleagues have been, and that struck me even more when I arrived back in the UK.  The upshot of my investigations is that I have acquired Giardia Lambia from drinking contaminated water and because of this have not been able to absorb any nutrients, which is why I have been feeling so low in energy, and thus so emotional.  I’m still not well and am still struggling to eat, but I have medication and should be back to my old self in no time at all.

I am massively relieved to know why I was feeling so bad, and am now excited and even counting down the days until I can return to Georgia.  I’ve been told that I will definitely be based in Tbilisi, and am now so excited about the prospect of returning, although still nervous about meeting my new family and starting at a new school. But I can’t wait to see all my new friends again, and am massively thankful to TLG for being so supportive of me.  Even though I was miserable and hard work, they stood by me, and made every effort to support me, once I spoke to them about just how bad I was feeling. The water situation is just one of those things, it happens everywhere, even in the UK. But the medical attention I received and the support I received from my friends made me realise just how incredibly lucky I am!




About Sarah Rows Solo

British YouTuber and Founder of Environmental and STEM education charity Oceans Project, preparing for a solo row around the coast of Great Britain.
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