Trains, Terrorism, and Tots

    Another Bloody Brilliant Week So far!

This week has just been incredible so far. As I write, I am enjoying a delicious caesar salad and coke in my favourite cafe, the weather is a balmy 21degrees c and it totally smells like summer. I am in a particularly reflective mood today, because I have spent a lot of time with friends of old and new this past week, and also because it is that time of year when change occurs. Next month, my contract will finish, school will end, and many of my friends will leave Georgia forever, and I can’t help but wonder how I got here, to this point in my life, and what will come next. Its the end of some things, but also the start of so many new adventures and friendships, so I am definitely a little philosophical and reflective today. But I want to document this, because it will be really interesting to look back on this at a later point in my life and to see how things have turned out. I know I have changed so much, even in this short time I have been in Georgia, so who knows what the future will bring……watch this space!

    TLG Excursions

The week began for me, on Saturday with a Ministry of Education ( excursion to my old region of Samtskrikh Javakheti to pick up the other volunteers. I received the invitation to join the trip just before midnight on Friday, and was picked up just after 4am, so I wasn’t very with it for the first few hours, and probably slept most of the way!! But, we spent the day enjoying the sites of Stalin’s home town Gori in Eastern Georgia, (,_Georgia), went to the Stalin Museum in Gori,(,_Gori), and then to the 7th Century church of Ateni Sioni ( Afterwards we headed to an amazing 4th century BC cave monastery called Uplisikhe and had a picnic under a thunder storm. It was the first time that I had seen some of my group since our training week back in October last year, so it was also a great opportunity to catch up and to reflect on what experiences we have all had since we left the comfort of the Sheraton Hotel in Tbilisi. On the way back, we stopped for a supra, and special thanks here goes to Giorgi our driver, because it was his treat and his idea, and another great chance to relax and kick back with friends. It was a late night home, but a brilliant day, and the perfect way to spend the weekend.

On Monday, I went on a second Ministry excursion, this time to Kvari Lake in the wine growing region of Khakheti. I actually really missed school, but it was also nice to have a day off and to relax and hang out with friends again, especially as I don’t see them so often now that we are in different regions of Georgia. It was another late night, but also great fun, and I was super pleased to spend time on my two favourite hobbies in life: photography, and outdoor swimming! And the weather all week has been fantastic. So much so, that I am starting to wonder just how warm it will be in summer in the city!

    Georgians and their Tango Manoeuvres on the Metro

Yesterday, I began my week at school. I decided to catch the metro rather than wait for the driver to take me to school, and I was really surprised when the metro doors closed before I got to them, but then the driver saw me coming and waited and opened the doors for me so I wouldn’t have to take the next metro. This is something that rarely happens in the UK, but is something I have witnessed on a few occasions in Georgia, and can mean the difference between a shitty day where you are late, and the most fun day full of kindness and consideration.

    Metro and Cha Cha

On the whole, I don’t really like the metro so much on a Monday morning. Its the one time in the week when all the men seem to have a lingering aroma of stale cha cha or vodka, about them. Its a smell I am not keen on, especially after cleaning up so many drunk people whilst working in accident and emergency in UK hospitals. In general, I find Georgian men to be incredibly annoying on the metro, not because of behaviour or malice or anything like that. But, because they remind me of over grown toddlers who need parenting the entire time. They seem incapable of walking in a straight line, or of deciding which direction they wish to walk, as opposed to the women who are able to multi task and manage to negotiate a path with not just themself, but often with a small child, and a mobile phone too. Whereas the men, with their supra bellies, simply stop walking with no warning at all, and they always stop right in the way, in the middle of the path, and then slowly turn and become indecisive about which direction they are travelling. Its like, they have limited abilities, and if they have a mobile in their hand, then you will really have to battle to walk around them to get to your destination. To make matters worse, Georgians sometimes have a tendency to talk with their hands, and its easy to get caught in all this movement and gesturing, and to lose an eye whilst dodging them. I have tried so many times to study and undertstand this whole ‘stop dead, and be ‘a pain in the arse’ culture, but its no use, its just the way life is in Georgia….free, and going with the flow (even if this flow is in the total opposite direction of everything coming at you!). On the one hand I love Georgian spontaneity, but sometimes it just drives me crazy especially when my feet are tired and hurt, or I am carrying a big backpack full of stuff for school.

    The Tube in London

In the UK, on the metro, people walk in a straight line. They stand on the right hand side on the metro in order for others to pass if they are in a hurry, and there is a social etiquette given specifically for situations that involve walking and passing the passers by. This code is so non existant in Georgia, and when you are in a rush to get to school or wherever, it really can be infuriating and unregimented. Sometimes, I have a little ‘road rage’, but on the whole I feel as if I have now adapted to Georgian culture and spontaneity:) I had a little search on good old you tube, and this Ozzie explains the London Metro etiquette pretty well I think:

and there is a reason for this etiquete!!

a litte different to Tbilisi metro!!

    The Importance of Trains in My Life So Far!

I am not a train freak or train spotter, or anything like that. But I am starting to realise that trains have played a major part in my life, and they are somehow akin to the paths that life takes us on, and if you miss your train because you are late or whatever, it seems to be that somewhere in the scheme of things there is a reason for it. My earliest memory of a train, is being taken by my child minder to watch the very first high speed train, or something like that. It was really exciting, and I remember the day so clearly, even though I was only about 3 years old. In my teens, I took my first trains on my own, and found them great for thinking space and quiet time, and for people watching. In Ecuador, I took one really amazing steam train journey along the Devil’s Nose/Riobamba. We had to climb up onto the roof of the train, and sat there for several hours, with the wind and cold air blowing on us, and stopping every so often for the driver to hop out and clear rocks from the steep tracks. I found a great little video of this journey, but I took this trip much earlier, in 2000 I think it was.

    On Trains in Tamil Nadu, India

In 2001, I took a train across India from Chennai (Madras) as part of my work in maternal and child health. This clip is not mine, but is exactly the same as my memories of the journey

India was one of those life changing moments for me, from helping to deliver babies in the middle of nowhere, to learning about infanticide, from working with women and untouchables in the urban and rural slums, to working with film stars to promote positive public health messages to the people we met. But, more so, because I developed a fairly rare condition called Guillain-Barre following a rabies vaccination, and ended up paralysed and in hospital in Chennai, with a recovery time of around 18 months afterwards ( It was a really tough but also a positive period for me, especially having gone from being able to run 10km a day, to suddenly learning to walk again, and not even being able to walk to my front door. It was a stark reality that had I been in my flat in London, then I would most certainly be dead now, because I would not have been able to get to the telephone or to call anyone and no one would have found me. Had we still been in the village, I would not have received such good hospital care, and it was lucky that I only got really sick shortly after we arrived back in the capital. I am always thankful that I was in hospital in India and not in the UK, because I know I received the best possible care and the nurses and doctors had much more time for me than in the over stretched NHS.

    The National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery, London

Ironically, I was at the height of my profession in Neuropsychology when I developed this condition. I was living in a posh flat in a good address, was wearing designer clothes, working in the best neurological hospital in the world, and worked with people whose theories and research I had studied in my previous degrees. It was a massive honour, but in hindsight I wasn’t as happy as I am now. Materially I had everything, but I lived on my own, had never even seen my neighbours, and spent most of my life studying and working, and worrying about how to make it in a competitive and constantly changing field of work. It was also a fantastic time in my life, and very exciting, especially to be a part of so many life changing events and miracles every day. And it was lucky that I developed a neurological condition in India and not some other condition, because it meant that I got very good care from my colleagues when I returned to the UK.

But, it was because of my experiences in India and of being sick, that I decided to pursue a career in medicine, and if I hadn’t changed paths, then maybe I would no longer be here. Because on 7th July 2005, the bus that I used to take to work at the hospital was bombed and also the tube station next to the hospital which I also used daily. As it turned out, I was still in London on that day. But, for some reason my train from Henley On Thames to London Paddington arrived early, something that has not happened to me before this time, or since. This meant that I caught the tube from Paddington much earlier, and I also decided to run up the escalator that day. Had I been just one minute later, then I would have been on the tube that got bombed. I heard the explosion and I felt the ground shake. I saw pigeons suddenly take off, and I remember standing under the clock waiting for my train to Cambridge. But, since no one else really reacted, and nothing happened afterwards, I continued on and didn’t think any more of it. London is a noisy place, and there were hundreds of potential explanations for the noise and small shake. Everyone looked at each other, no one responded, so we all carried on as normal. It was the same after the New York bombings, and isn’t such a new thing when you live in London, its just a factor of life. So, I got on the train, and about ten minutes later, heard from the train manager that there had been a power outage and that was why there had been an explosion under the ground. No one knew any more about it at that point.

    Bombings and Security

When I got to Cambridge I met my friend Sonia, and we headed to Cambridge University Medical School, and to Lucy Cavendish College. Our mobile phones were not working, and it wasn’t until we went for coffee at a little cafe, that we saw the news and found out what had happened. Until that point we had been oblivious really and thought nothing of it. Unbeknown to us, our friends and families were freaking out because the mobile networks were dead and people knew that we should have been travelling the same place that the bombs had gone off in. Many people thought we were dead, and it was a shock to speak them later on and to hear them crying on the phone. We were stranded in Cambridge, and all transport to and from London had been suspended, so our main priority was to get accommodation or to find a way to travel back to Henley On Thames for me and to Luton for Sonia. It was a very surreal day for both of us, especially when we started to see images from the bomb sites, and to know that we had both been incredibly lucky.

On September 11th 2001, I lost my friend Adrianna, a Deutsche Bank employee who had just started working in New York. We had met the previous year when I was in the Amazon Jungle researching medicinal plants, and I was excited to hear about her new job and all the things she was looking forward to. At this time in London, the aeroplanes were redirected, and now flew right over my house, which at the time was in Canning Town/Silver Town in London, next to London City Airport. We had several bomb scares on my metro journeys home, and people were often pissy because their day had been interrupted. They were angry with metro staff for disrupting their journey, but gave no thought to the reasons for staff closing the stations, which is pretty ridiculous really. In 2002, myself and my friend Tish went to Canada, my first trip and a very difficult one physically for me, as I was still recovering from Guillain Barre and was sleeping almost 12 hours a day and fatigued really easily. As a physiotherapist and fantastic friend she was the perfect travel companion and she pretty much drove us the entire way from Vancouver to the arctic, whilst I just slept and looked out of the window! But, on our journey from London we flew to New York and then Seattle, and then travelled to Vancouver, so we went to ground zero and paid our respects to our friend. It was a really strange experience, and very humbling. But, had I not gone to India, I would not have gotten sick, nor changed career, and somehow in the scheme of things, I would not have ended up where I am now in Georgia. Feeling happier and more fulfilled than ever in my whole life. I would not have the most amazing friends that I have now, and would not be working with such cool kids. I am living my life at last!!

So, it was very strange for me to hear whilst on our trip to Kvari Lake, that Osama Bin Laden has been killed, and to hear my American friends being sent text message warnings about being more vigilant because now they are more at risk of problems. And it reminded me of all the times that friends and family have contacted me in Georgia, to ask if I am ok, because there are problems in Egypt, or because I am in the Middle East and it is dangerous and Georgia is a country full of war. That they seem to think my life is in danger on a daily basis, that Georgia is the same country as Russia, and it kind of annoys me, because the only impressions people have of Georgia is of items they saw on the news previously.

    Police in Georgia

Yet, I feel far safer here than in any other country I have visited in my life. When I arrived in Vale, the police came to my host family’s house and to school to ask if I needed anything (I missed them, but they still came to ask), and likewise in my new family, although I was at school when they came. In school we have ‘mandatores’ who look after safety and police the school (which the children are very aggrieved at!), and even the Minister of Education, at breakfast a few weeks ago, asked me whether I have any issues for my safety or security in Georgia. I have noticed that when my kids at school, or when drunken men in the street are aggrieved, they simply make exclamations of ‘ooowwweee’ and waves their arms a lot or push each other a bit. But in Britain, even the slightest upset can lead to a full on brawl and a bottle over the head, and my school had serious issues with bullying and physical violence. In fact, the only time I have ever felt concerned for safety or for fights or whatever, has been when I am on Ministry trips with lots of drunken volunteers. For example, on Monday, it was a fantastic day, but was ruined for me by the ‘dickhead’ behaviour (excuse my French!) of the volunteers from Canada, America, England, Australia, and Ireland, who clearly drank to much cha cha and made me really embarrassed to be a foreigner. They were boasting about how they haven’t been to school, or done any work since they have been here, and were just behaving in a really awful way, and in a way which gives every foreigner a bad reputation. It was awful to watch the Georgians watching in horror at how they were behaving having been given free supplies of wine and cha cha, and really made me angry. And I wasn’t the only one who felt that way. It reminded me of why I tend to avoid meeting with other volunteers socially, especially in large groups, or where it is not possible to leave early.

But, I remember my first journey from the airport to the Sheraton Metechi Hotel back in October, and how I had expected Tbilisi and Georgia to be much more like Lebanon or Jordan which feel much more Middle Eastern, and being surprised that it looks more European really. But I still expected to see more signs of guns and bombs somehow, even though that was not the image I had of Georgia prior to arriving. My preconceived view, was far more romantic, based on the film ‘While Otar is Gone’!! I have never been one for media interpretations or portrayal of events, so I was not really aware of Georgia’s war torn or Soviet past, and I still have little idea of who Stalin was. Nor did I know he was from Georgia.

My experiences with the police and security have so far been more entertaining and positive than anything else, and I have always felt a respect for them, more so than for the same roles in Britain. I have had two experiences with the police, which I have spoken about on here before. In my host family, and like many Georgians, their driving is pretty crazy, and there is still a general disregard for any rules. On the first occasion, we were stopped by a very jolly and friendly policeman, because my host mum who was driving rather fast, was not wearing her seatbelt. Her argument was that we were in Tbilisi which was where she lived and therefore a seatbelt wasn’t necessary. Then we were stopped twice on route to Batumi, again for the seatbelt, and the second time for speeding, for which she received fines for both, but still refused to pay attention. What was funny, was her arguing and protesting to the police, because it was mother’s day and that they should respect all mothers on that day, and that it was totally immoral to give her a fine for this. She seemed to miss the point really, that they wanted her to wear her belt because if she crashed it might just save her life, and that it was in her interest!! She made her daughter wear her seatbelt, but totally missed the fact that if she was killed in a crash, her daughter would have to live with that for the rest of her life, and would also be parentless! In Britain, we would probably get arrested for arguing in this way with a policeman, especially with such a poor argument. She still refused to wear her belt, or to drive to a sensible speed. The reason…because she didn’t want to!! Simple really! And at school, I really like the mandatores, I have been teaching them English, and they are really kind people from what I have seen so far, so I don’t really understand why my kids hate them so much. I had a discussion with my 11th grade about this, and they told me that its because the mandatores have no respect for them and that they just interfere or stick their noses into the kid’s business all the time. But I guess that kids are in trouble a lot more than me, and their interactions are likely to be completely different to mine!

    Kids and School and the Little Tots

My kids at school are coming on a treat right now, and I am finding them to be more and more fun everyday. Because of the excursion on Monday, my first day at school was on Tuesday this week. I entered the front door of school, took just a few steps, and was suddenly bowled over by lots of little people, who were so far below my eye line, that it was a shock to suddenly be attacked from all angles. I had missed their class on Monday, so they were really excited to see me apparently. I had the biggest cuddles around my knees, and then they ran off to class. It put a massive smile on my face, and makes me love being at school, and especially to have been missed for being absent for just one day.

My first class was with the third grade, also ankle biter height, but it was great timing, as I arrived in class before my co-teacher. The previous lesson, we had been learning words and expressions such as ‘behind the door’, ‘by the window’, ‘under the desk’. The perfect opportunity to play a joke on my Co-teacher!!! The kids were totally up for it, and so myself and the whole class hid at the back of the classroom, and jumped out on the teacher when she arrived. This was a good tactic as it happened, because it meant that the kids had to hide in silence, which seemed to calm them down a little ready for the lesson, as well as testing their English skills, and strengthening the bond between them, myself, and my co teacher. For some reason, its like the kids have been in hibernation, but this week the sun has emerged and now the whole school are crazy and full of noise and energy, so teaching has new and different challenges right now! BUt hide and seek, was a fantastic way to get them to stand in silence and to focus, and it meant that they were behaved throughout the class because they were wondering what one earth we would do next. Hide and seek was definitely the best way to start the week!

All of my lessons have been amazing this week, and the kids are really starting to flourish. I have a relatively new class in the 6th grade (I have two in total). Their teacher died, and then the next one left, and then they had no teacher for two months, so they are a little free range to say the least. They are a group of smart kids, but they think they know it all, and won’t face the fact that their English is nothing special really, especially compared to the giant leaps my other classes have made. Basic discipline is still the main focus of the lesson, and English teaching is still a little lost on them. But, I have high hopes for them, and with a lot of hard work in terms of discipline they could end up as a really nice class. They are the biggest group, in a class room with the worst acoustics, and they have the widest mix of abilities of all my classes, with some excellent and keen students and some students with special educational needs who don’t even speak in Georgian let alone in English. Last week, I gave them a very firm talking to and raised some home truths. This week, they were 70% better than before, but still needing work, so they had a second pep talk, and I have threatened to leave the class if they don’t improve. In reality, I have no plans of leaving them, but I want them to see that actions have consequences, as its an important life skill. I hate to see them destroying property and not caring what damage they do. But, they are basically where my other classes were in the beginning of term, so I hope that they will soon catch up. Its going to be an interesting challenge for me anyway! But it was very interesting to talk with them about first impressions, and how I view them when they are drawing on their desk or destroying furniture. I genuinely think they were oblivious to what they were doing wrong or how I might view them, so I think it was good for them to hear, and to hear my white lie that the Ministry will not refurbish their school if they continue to damage it, because it would just be a waste of time and money, and another school would benefit more because they could look after it!! It seemed to work anyway, because we were then able to have a lesson without so many distractions, and many of the kids came and apologised afterwards. They think I am really angry with them, but I am actually ok with them, I just want to raise the bar a bit, because I know they can do so much better than they are, and I really want to start doing more interesting and fun activities with them, but its good that they were telling each other off for talking, and that they think I won’t teach their class next semester.

    More on Friendship

I was far from angry or pissed off though. In fact, I had a lovely start to the day. I received a really kind message from my friend, and we have been firm friends since we met during orientation, and have seen each other through several hard struggles of school or family life, or general frustrations of life in Georgia. I am going to share the message with you, because I know it will make me smile when I read this blog in the future: “Good morning beautiful! Here to wish you a wonderful day, full of love, laughter and smiles. :* Take care”. Now that is the way to start the day! And my day only got better, as I got a lot of cards and letters and pictures from the kids (as I seem to get everyday!), and a couple of them had made a model of me out of plasticine, which I really hope I can keep safe as its fantastic and the coolest piece of art I have seen. I will take a photo later, and post it here, if I can keep the model in one piece on the metro journey home.

Yes, my kids at school might talk to each other throughout every lesson, they may play with lighters, eat or use mobiles during lessons, and might be generally cheeky naughty, but they are still a far cry from the kids in the UK. Here is a typical video of a UK school trip. I think it really puts my kids into context, in terms of their underlying love for each other and their teachers.

Wow, I still have so much I want to write about today, but its muggy and I am sleepy now, and its getting difficult to write. So I will continue some more later. In the meantime…enjoy:)


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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