You might remember our post that talked a bit about the fact that most Georgians aren’t shy about staring. We experienced this to the max in Kutaisi (say koo-TIE-see).
While there, we planned to meet up with another Peace Corps volunteer, LaToya. She graciously invited us to dinner with a group of PCVs and TLGs (Teach and Learn Georgia – English teachers hired by the Georgian government). We had a great evening at the Mirzaani Brewery, meeting more volunteers and students who were practicing their English conversation skills.
We made plans with LaToya and another volunteer, Freddy, to split a taxi the following day and check out Sataplia Natural Reserve. Sataplia has nature walks through a Colchian forest, a glass-floored lookout over the Rioni river valley, fossilized dinosaur footprints, a large cave illuminated by color changing LED lights, and an animatronic t-rex. It’s a pretty nice park and definitely up to par with what you’d expect from an important state or national park in the US. Even the dinobots, which we expected to be something similar to what you’d find at Chuck E. Cheese, impressed the horde of schoolchildren that descended upon the park just after our arrival.
Imagine for a minute, if you will, the sight of Tony, a blonde and bearded guy whose limbs and chest are colorfully illustrated; LaToya, an African-American woman with dreadlocks pulled into a thick ponytail; and Freddy, a Ugandan guy wearing a fedora, all wading through a sea of kids and chaperones whose experiences with people who look differently than them have been mostly limited to movies and TV.
Stares, whispers, and giggles spread through the group as kids nudged their friends and pointed in our direction. We were more popular and exotic than the rubbery stegosaurus, whose recorded moans went nearly unnoticed. Every ten minutes, a child or an adult would approach us and ask to take our picture. LaToya and Freddy were worn down by months of public scrutiny and politely declined. Tony would say yes. Then the hopeful photographer would hesitate, as if they suddenly realized that what they really wanted was a little inappropriate, but would again ask for a group photo, and walk back crestfallen when the other two again said no. They didn’t want a picture of just Tony.
We talked about it as we walked through the forest and along the limestone cliffs. We knew that for all their stares and whispers, the kids and all the locals that LaToya and Freddy encountered during their months in Kutaisi meant nothing unkind, and any actions that seemed racist were just rooted in innocent unfamiliarity. Because of this, you could easily say, “what’s the big deal? They mean no harm, just pause for a second and let them have their photo. At least they asked politely, instead of just taking the picture.” But they turned down the photos both because they wanted the kids to understand how to treat people with differences that they encounter in the future, and because everyone deserves the right to go about their daily business as part of the community, rather than as an object of curiosity.
Tony doesn’t mind the occasional polite photo request, but maybe it’s different for someone whose “otherness” was intentional. Or maybe it’s less about types of “otherness” and more about the individual and what they bring to and take from the situation. Or maybe (probably) comparing and contrasting tattoos and skin color is just clouds the issue. These things aren’t always fun or comfortable to talk about, and neither of us feel very qualified to do so, but talking about it is a good thing; it increases understanding and empathy.
Towards the end of our hike, we found the path to the lookout, and shuffled onto the glass floor. The park ranger provided big over-the-shoe slippers to prevent damage to the (already thoroughly marred) glass. The kids found a better use — running around to build up some static then zapping each other. Dangerous on a glass skywalk? Not if they’re wearing the slippers. As they were leaving, one brave kid reached over and zinged Tony before he could turn around and see which one it was. They all laughed (including Tony) and scampered off.
The four of us never did get a group photo. Sataplia was cool, but we’re really glad to have a day of meaningful conversations with two great people. Thanks, friends!