JOHN: And here we are, on the last day of a 3-month, winter-defying work-travel experiment in nomadic remote work. The last 2 weeks of the trip were done solo, after Tease and I split so she could visit her sister in Brisbane. And now we’re about to be reunited in a place we both call home.
First: the events of the past 24 hours. Then, a little farewell speech.
With an 8pm flight, I had the whole day to kill. The last time I was in Istanbul, I missed the cruise up and down the Bosphorus River (actually a strait) when I bought a ferry ticket and then got on the wrong boat. Got it right today, and spent the morning on the ocean with Europe ahead of me and Asia behind.
What a time it’s been, this long and short time away from old South Africa. It’s inexpressible. So many moments that catch you off guard and demand your full, conscious attention. Against your will, you’re swept from one street corner to the next, hunting something you’ll never find, demanding back your youth with every footstep, being infinitely interruptible and wide-eyed at the sheer otherness of this new, finely woven tapestry unfolding before you.
At the airport in Doha, the South African women’s soccer team (Banyana Banyana) was celebrating a win. People were lining up for trophy shots. To me, it felt like something cute and also foreign. I looked at the scene and – honestly now – I just wondered quietly if I’d ever feel that type of patriotism again.
The blog is filled with insights and moments, and I don’t feel the need to offer up some contrived season finale-style wrap post.
I do just want to end it by sharing the feeling of power and faith in oneself that inevitably accompanies this type of self-guided, curiosity-led travel.
Of course it was tough. I’ve barely had a day free of difficulty in 3 months. Simple difficulties, but elemental challenges nonetheless. Willingly facing down new and alien ways of doing things; being the foreign face in a crowd of locals, dealing with language, food and direction troubles.
But the endless lack of comfort and familiarity is how you grow as a person. It teaches you gratitude for the smallest things (a work desk at the right height, a quiet moment in the traffic or a kitchen sink plug, for example!). Relying on the goodwill of strangers keeps you eternally humble.
And what a wife I’ve had to share it with me! Yvandi, you brave and beautiful lady.
YVANDI: Having pretty much been a nomad growing up and attending 13 different schools, only one house stands out from my childhood as a home. 5 Sarel Cilliers Street, Strand. We spent the longest time at this house than any other house, totaling almost three years.
John on the other hand went to one primary school, one high school and had one family home growing up. 3 Berkley Place, Claremont.
The combination of both of our lived experiences makes us want something unique for our children. Stability during school going years, but also adventure and the excitement of new places. That feeling you get when walking down a new street in a new town for the very first time.
Who knows what our next home will look like, the first as a family of three. Regardless, I am definitely taking some design cues from the lovely forest mansion. My sister has put so much love and effort into making this house a home. Every nook and cranny oozes with memories and pretty things. Words not required.
JOHN: This is it! Today began the 2-day journey from Tblisi, Georgia back to Cape Town, South Africa. It would be dishonest for me to say I was looking forward to it. The return journey will be trying, and the next chapter is still looking ominously shaky. The flood of real-life concerns is about to resettle on my shoulders.
These past 3 months have been dreamy. The time has felt twice as long. The absence of routine and comforting rituals have put us both into a type of survival mode. It’s invigorating, but also unsustainable. A person eventually needs a place to lay their head.
But there’s plenty of time on the plane trip home to wax philosophical. There was still half a morning to kill, and I spent it visiting the Museum of Folk Instruments. An excellent choice, sir! Put me right back in the mood to imagine the music sessions that I’ve been missing, which will soon be available to me.
Some shots from the final morning in Tbilisi:
The trip back to Istanbul was free of event. I was grateful to catch a direct flight, and not have to do the overland trip through Trabzon that I’d already done 3 times! Pro tip: treat yourself towards the end of a trip.
A few shots of the return leg, including the terrifying ‘confiscated items’ display cabinet at Tbilisi airport. It was so cool cruising into Istanbul and knowing exactly where I was going for a change! Dinner was an incredible Nepalese curry at a small restaurant near my place run by a happy family with a screaming toddler. The room I was in was a stinking dungeon, but whatever, only there for 12 hours. Tomorrow it’s time to go home.
JOHN: Leaving for Istanbul tomorrow. One night, then a long-ass plane ride back home on Monday. Then the new chapter.
Today I spent experiencing something that’s been sorely missed these past 3 months: the outdoors. I took the advice of my buddy Stephen (a Georgia veteran) and headed for the Tbilisi Sea.
It’s a giant lake, really, located about 7kms from the nearest metro stop. The whole morning was spent getting there. Bought a subway card and headed for the underground. The train was terrifyingly fast and loud. Inspired way less faith than the subways I’ve ridden in New York, London, Seoul and elsewhere.
Disembarked and began walking. Took about an hour of gradual uphill before – suddenly, and out of nowhere – the mild azure of the Tbilisi Sea rose over the hilltop and spread out before me. The wind was howling. I made my way to the water, having an inexplicable flashback of walking over a Johannesburg minedump.
The spiritual power of immersing oneself in water. I squeezed the water out of my hair and spent an hour sitting in the nook of a rock, both resisting and enjoying the horrendous wind. We really didn’t have much wind, rain or weather during the whole 3-month trip.
Caught Bus 377 back to the metro and rode the subway home. Changed, relaxed, and then headed out for a Thai meal and afterwards, walked around and took some final shots of the city’s uncapturable minutiae.
Finally found my way to a fantastic jazz band at a local bar. It was a good farewell to Tbilisi. I do hope we will one day return.
YVANDI: Coming home. It sounds somehow magical. I can just picture the scene. Applause as the plane touches down, the lady at passport control saying ‘welcome home’, teary family reunions at the airport, and the excitement of sleeping in your own bed again, all to some patriotic Mango Groove tune.
This is not that. This is reality. I started my 26 hour journey at Brisbane airport. Despite my every effort I did not get bumped up to business class by sticking out my bump. I did however get told that the two seats next to me on my first flight to Singapore were still free, and I hoped and prayed it stayed that way. Major relief when the captain announced ‘cabin crew, arm doors and cross-check’ and I had a whole row all to myself.
This time I was also armed with rescue remedy, which psychologically made me feel slightly more equipped to deal with this marathon. A fair bit of turbulence and eight hours later, we landed in Singapore at 7pm. Outside temperature 29 degrees celsius.
My original ticket included a ten hour layover so that I could incorporate a visit with my friend Lisa in Singapore. Unfortunately with the change in flights, I only had four hours, so I had to entertain myself in the confines of the airport. I always love my layovers there. From Koi ponds, to butterfly gardens to a full movie theatre, it really is my favourite airport. While not quite as exciting as Tom’s activities in The Terminal, it comes close.
At some point I realized it’s almost time for me to board, and made my way to the gate, baffled by how quickly time had passed. Only then did I figure out the clock I was following on my phone was still on Australian time and I indeed had another two hours to kill. Thank the pope it wasn’t the other way around.
I found a semi comfortable chair, had the remnants of a slice of gluten-free banana bread and set my alarm for 1am. My flight was scheduled to leave at 01:30. In no time I heard the buzz, packed up and checked the departure board, only to see the words ‘last call’ flashing in red next to my flight number. I ran like Forrest and got to the gate just in time to board the last aircraft I would be on before becoming a mom. I would also spend 13 hours on it, which did not spark much joy. We made one of those random stops in JHB for a crew change and to let some passengers off. And finally, just like that, I was home.
I wondered how I would feel in this moment, and as I spotted Table Mountain just before landing, what came up was ambivalence. Not elation, and not despair, but a kind of nothing, if nothing can feel like something.
I’ve had a lot of time to ponder over and prepare for the emotional processing that will accompany the end of this trip. Because it’s not just the end of a trip. It’s the end of life as we know it. It’s the end of being free of responsibility (at least for another human being). It’s the end of being able to stay in bed when you need a lie in. It’s the end of spontaneous three month adventures abroad (these can still happen but the words ‘baby’ and ‘spontaneous’ usually don’t vibe). It’s the end of the up to now childless life of ours which gave us so many freedoms. But most of all it’s the end of it just being the two of us. That in itself is worthy of grief. When I support couples who are preparing to become first time parents, I gently bring up this topic. It’s not talked about enough or given the significance it deserves.
Now some of you reading this might have already formed ‘societally acceptable’ responses to the above like ‘you’ve wanted this your whole life’, ‘just focus on this exciting new chapter ahead’, ‘so many people who desperately want babies can’t have them’, ‘becoming a parent is the greatest gift’ etc. All true! But I wish people would stop doing that. Stop discounting the feelings. All the feelings. Toxic positivity is a thing, and it’s, well, toxic!*
I still experience it to this day around the topic of losing my parents. People say things like ‘focus on making new memories’, ‘be grateful for the time you did have with them’, ‘at least their suffering is over’, or my worst: ‘it’s been so many years’. Why do people do that? Is it because they feel uncomfortable discussing difficult topics, or maybe they’re just lucky enough to still have two parents around and therefore can’t fathom. I don’t know, and I digress. My point is, even the best things in life are often accompanied by painful emotions. Feel the feels. Surround yourself by people who can look you in the eye and have those conversations without replying with a motivational poster quote.
We are growing a baby and we love him so much already. We are also humans. We are in for one wild ride, and I have the best person by my side.
* Sidenote: This reminds me about the long discussion about toxic positivity John and I had in the Batumi Botanical Gardens one day. So many ordinary life moments forever etched in our memories because of this trip.
JOHN: It’s a truly strange feeling this. I spend days sitting up in bed working on front-end web development while around me is an exotic city waiting to be explored. I’m sure 22-year me would have been out the front door by now.
But I feel my priorities are so different now. Not only am I limited by my restrictive choice of diet (and marital status har-har), it just feels more right to be developing the career than to be running around yet another new place taking selfies of my lunch, alone.
Regardless of the circumstances, top priority now is the ability to provide for a family, regardless of the promise of exciting discoveries which lurks just outside the front door. Gonna be a dad in about 14 weeks. So it’s a weird kind of limbo, like being dropped into a movie theater and being told to ignore the film and rather count the number of movie seats or something.
View from the bed:
But sitting the room all day is certainly not an option, so I find these excuses to get out and explore. Going up streets without knowing where I’m going.
Some shots from today’s excursion:
Everything here is spray-painted over. The buildings, the street signs, the lampposts. Everyone must fancy themselves a bored, naughty teenager after dark. There seems to be no effort to control it. This devil-may-care Georgian culture comes through in all sorts of ways, from cigarettes around babies to exposed midriff fashion. These people have clearly had to deal with some shit and don’t seem to enforce anything that would be considered serious only by the Orthodox among them.
Speaking of Orthodox, I found my way into this church today. It was magnificent. The ancient details have been preserved for hundreds of years. I’ve been to temples all over Asia, but the experience of an Orthodox temple has somehow felt more exotic than all of them.
Here’s a video of the interior, with a priest reciting to a few women in the background:
YVANDI: The last 24 hours have been emotional torture. My sister and both of my nephews got sick, which meant once again me distancing myself and trying to isolate in my room so as to avoid getting whatever they had.
We had a lot planned for our last three days together, including another escape room, going to Ikea (a must do for me every time I visit) and other fun stuff. But with them all sick and with the multidemic raging on, it became clear that it was not going to play out how we planned.
I suddenly got worried that I was going to get stuck in Australia somehow, either by getting covid and then not being allowed to travel for two weeks, or by some sudden border restriction being imposed.
After many tears shed by myself and my sister and an awful last night spent in my room I made the tough decision to end my trip three days early and fly out the this morning.
I convinced my sister to stay home and for her husband to take me to the airport, to avoid 40 minutes of misery in the car and a dramatic goodbye at the international departures drop-off point.
Our only consolation is that our brother is getting married in Cape Town in May, and that the whole Aussie crew will be attending. This time it means only 10 months apart. One of the shortest separation gaps we have had to endure.
It was certainly the first big eye opening taste of being a parent, where you also have someone else’s health and wellbeing to consider. Gone are the days where your only concerns are your own.
JOHN: Today was the first full day in Tbilisi. Arrived last night after 11pm and settled in to a suitable basement apartment in another area that looks as through it might have been bombed in the recent past.
The city is far more active and less family-oriented than Batumi. I read that a third of the Georgian population lives here. Way more English and American accents in the streets. Far more choice for bars and restaurants, more modern architecture and a metro system. No ocean, but the olive-colored Kura River cleaving all the action in half.
There are hills and temples and cable cars and funiculars, which is good news for a mountain man looking to escape the tourist treatment. After months of withdrawal, I’m longing to get high. By hiking up a mountain, of course.
I’m only here for 5 days, and won’t have time to see everything, but here are some of the photos from the day. Also one or two of the journey leaving Batumi and getting here.
This is the endgame. In a few days, I’ll be home. I plan to spend at least half my time here working, but will make a bit more effort with the sights, too. The churches look magnificent, steeped in historical value and promising yet another angle on the interpretations of Christ’s teachings.
Man, pat on the back for keeping this blog going daily for 3 months straight!
JOHN: Made it to Tbilisi today on an awesome, painless train journey. Packed leftovers and had time, so I wrote this below piece while travelling. All true. Enjoy!
Eating noodles on a train
I am on a train from Batumi to Tbilisi. It will take 5 hours and I will arrive at 11pm. There is no dinner car, just a vending machine full of chocolates. In my bag is dinner, a gift given to my now hungry self through an earlier stroke of foresight. It’s a small Tupperware with leftover stir fry, proudly displaying the word Labne. It used to contain cream cheese. Now it contains my oily, spicy dinner.
I have stupidly forgotten to pack a plastic fork. There is no fork anywhere on this moving train.
Sometimes, while watching scenery pass by under an overcast sky, you’re forced to stop and ponder certain questions. Questions like, which card is most appropriate to take out of your wallet put in your mouth? Your ID card? Your city bus card? Does the hungry person who is about to eat a cold leftovers with an item designed to manage fungible assets gain more status for using a credit card over a debit card?
I consider the library card. But it’s cheaply laminated, and I worry that as I eat, I will permanently lodge organic matter into its sleeve as the plastic unpeels and separates. The medical aid card is appealing. But in a stupefying stroke of reasoning, the association with disease-ridden hospitals feels too strong to abuse the trust demanded by all bodily orifices in the process of accepting foreign objects. I settle on my Checkers card.
Now I’m eating. The mouth needs to open a little wider than usual, making it appear with every bite as though I’m smiling into the experience, far happier than I actually am to be eating noodles at the back of a train carriage with a 3×2 inch piece of plastic like some blue-eyed hobo. Suddenly, my fashionably ripped jeans feel like they could go either way.
Otherwise, it’s not going too badly.
Then, more questions. Are my fillings going to interfere with the magnetic strip on the card that stores my supermarket purchase credits? Am I at some point going to have to explain to the manager at the service kiosk that its a long story, but I am in fact entitled to the 2-for-1 special on instant noodles today?
Now I’m approaching the end of the tupperware. Two more cardfuls and we’ll be home free. The oyster sauce has all collected at the bottom. As I scoop up the final mouthful, I say a little prayer that I have so magnificently pulled this off. Delicately, I decide that the backward crook of a bent knee is an appropriate place to sandwich the card free of its oil.
Yes. A hidden triumph has occurred. Nobody saw anything. The food was nourishing. Today, a human overcame a challenge towards satisfying its appetite in a semi-civil fashion. All is well.
So why is it that I feel this whole story might have been something I took to my grave instead?
JOHN: Last day in Batumi, again. Here’s the sentimental panorama of the apartment I’ve stayed in both times:
Thank you, my spacious ‘New York apartment’ for a million little moments that don’t fit on the page. People watching on the balcony. The calming sound of the rain hitting the cobbled streets outside while I study some tricky web development. The anxious hooting of the traffic at 3pm school rush hour, drivers leaning on their horns behaving as terrified as if they’re going to be stuck on that street forever. The creaking of the floorboards. The sounds of the young, visiting group of neighbors. The daily short walk to the corner shop to grab a Snickers for the after-dinner TV that night, round the red Liberty ATM and over the construction mess, hi to the shopkeeper in words not even I understand.
I would run to the waters of the Black Sea in 6 minutes, walk to the ‘David Bowie’ Old Town district in 4. I seemed to have been dropped like a Maps pin into the ideal location and left to myself for 2 weeks to figure it out. And I started, but the new discoveries which rolled out behind me every day were cut too short. I must leave now, because I already miss my wife and home. And we’re only 8 days away now.
Thank you Batumi for your Europe-on-foot style of hospitality, your nourishing green hills and your endless grey ocean horizon.