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The inevitable side tilt of the head that comes with it, as they look at me completely bewildered is just about par for the course these days. And that’s exactly how my last solo adventure – a horse trek through the remotest parts of the Greater Caucasus Mountains with just me, three days of supplies packed in my Fairview 55, six horses, and my local guide, Gio – started.
I was to set to take off from Tbilisi, making the two-hour drive to Lower Alvani by shared taxi, where a local driver who was a friend of a friend (that’s how most things are arranged in Georgia), would pick me up for the four hour drive to Shatili, a tiny highland village very near the border of Chechnya.
A place completely unfamiliar, but familiar all at the same time. An area where shepherds still live in the mountains in the summer months moving their herds, where entire villages are only accessible by foot or horseback, and where tradition (and religion) are still an integral part of everyday life.
I’ve been in villages like this hundreds of times and the questions I get when I arrive solo, are always the same.
These questions come from men and women alike. Women who I’m similar in age to, yet who have kids, a husband, and their entire extended family usually all sitting before me, asking me these questions innocently enough from a genuine place of curiosity; the underlying tone of these conversations always implying that this will be a temporary thing. Because no woman could ever truly have a complete life without children and a man standing beside her.Which, I assure you, is not true.
I used to let these conversations bother me, especially as a female, often times thinking back and reflecting on these moments, wondering – am I really as happy as I think I am? Is this life sustainable? The answer is yes and no. If I continue to live this life, am I going to miss my opportunity for a family? Do I even want a family? This answer is a hard no. What will I do when I get older or sick of this constant life of being in motion? Is this really where I thought I’d be at this stage in my life, or am I kidding myself?
It’s become far too common that people have thought of settling down and having kids as the ultimate successes in life, and the only possible ways that I (or any woman) could ever truly be happy. I might not have a house, a car, a family, or someone waiting at home for me at night, but I get to see the world and experience other cultures first-hand, which is a privilege that I don’t take lightly. I live a life that can be lonely, but travel has made me confident and comfortable enough in my own skin to be okay with that. To me, that’s the ultimate happiness and my definition of success.
If I change my mind one day and I meet someone and want to settle down and start a family, or raise pigs, or move to a farm here in Georgia and make wine and chacha (Georgian brandy) all by myself without any contact with humans, or never step foot in another new country ever again, that’s okay too.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
The solo adventure at hand meant that I was about to be spending three days on horseback, crossing over the extremely dangerous Atsunta Pass before moving from village to village until reaching our final destination of Omalo. There would be no cellular data or Wi-Fi on this journey, making Gio my only chance of navigating my way through these mountains. And with Russia just on the other side of the ridge, barely any shelter or things to live off the land if things went wrong, and six horses that needed to get home to Omalo under our care, there was no room for error.
It was on this particular adventure, one that was about to combine many new skills I’d picked up over the last year – horseback riding, wilderness navigation and survival, and just becoming an all-around camping pro – that I really started to see how confident I’ve become in my skills, and my sense of self. This trip was a challenge, both physically and mentally. Gio asked me these same questions. Gave the same side tilt of the head and then asked/mimed a version of them again almost every day, when it was just him and I and barely another soul in sight, out on the trek.
The trek itself took us high up and over (and up and over, again and again) into the remotest parts of the Greater Caucasus Mountains, across some of the most incredible landscapes this region (Tusheti) has to offer, with the most challenging obstacle being Atsunta Pass. This 3,400-meter pass is only accessible three months of the year, from mid-June to mid-September, making us one of the last travelers of the year to make it over. It was no easy feat leading a pack of horses through rain, hail, and snow up and over the mountainside of loose shale and rocks with a sheer drop off edging the trail but it made for a good adventure.
It was these uncomfortable moments that I now find myself thriving in, and even craving: pushing my limits physically, communicating in every instance possible, from small talk to making sure the other was okay on the way up the pass to conveying danger in Gio’s basic English and my less-than-great Georgian.
I’ve learned that I’m able to communicate with people when I don’t speak their language. I’m able to navigate my way around any country, living out of a 55-liter backpack for days and weeks at a time. I’m comfortable in overly religious societies. I’m comfortable in male-dominated situations. I’ve learned to undoubtedly trust my gut when a situation doesn’t seem right. I’ve experienced some of the coolest things in the world by myself, and that would bother some – okay, probably most people – but I’m content because these experiences fulfill something in me.
After crossing over the pass with Gio, ending our 3-day journey without any mishaps, and having a great understanding with one another, I’ve realized with confidence that this is actually what I live for. Not marriage. Not kids. Not a house. Not a car. And that I no longer need to apologize or question myself because of what someone else might see as a successful or fulfilling life. And that sense of confidence in who I am as a woman on this planet? That’s powerful.