I realized how fearful I have become when traveling recently to a place sometimes labeled as one of the most dangerous places in the world, the former Soviet republic of Georgia. Because I was a woman traveling alone, my well-meaning friends offered me bucket loads of caution before I left: Don't walk alone at night. Don't take a taxi unless you're with someone else. Hold your purse tight to your side.
In Tbilisi, the beautiful Georgian capital city that has seen complete economic collapse, war, appalling government corruption and a major earthquake since 1990, I stayed in an apartment just a few miles from the city's central Freedom Square and got around on rattly little minivans that comprise the haphazard but remarkably effective public transportation system. I watched in terror as mothers holding their young children's hands bravely stepped out into four lanes of speeding traffic and weaved their way across the street without the aid of a traffic light.
I wandered the streets silent and anonymous, unable even to read the signs as they were written in the curly Georgian alphabet. I arrived home at night and nervously shone my flashlight across the bumpy, litter strewn, unlighted walkway that led to the dark stairwell of my apartment building, my purse held tight, my white knuckled fist clutching my keys as I walked the stairs to the fourth floor and let myself in with a rush of relief. I had made it through a day safely.
Within a few days of my arrival, something shifted. I slept better at night than I have in years. I walked for miles each day with unbounded energy, limited only by my aching feet. And much to my surprise, I was not afraid. I realized what a fearful person I had become, only when I stopped being afraid.
I looked around and saw the joyful bustle of humanity, not the potential threat of other humans.
When I looked around, here is what I saw: young girls holding hands, their heads touching as they strolled; young boys, their arms looped across each other's shoulders; old men in woolen pants and suspenders, walking and talking with their hands propped at the smalls of their backs, looking wise and serene; black-scarved widows polishing framed images of the Virgin Mary, quietly begging for change; housewives heatedly bargaining with street merchants over the price of a pound of tomatoes.
One night, following dinner in a cinema-themed restaurant just across from Tbilisi's palatial McDonald's, on the main drag of Rustaveli Street, I crossed the wide avenue to wait for the bus. Suddenly the street was filled with the frenetic honking of horns, cars zooming and swaying with men hanging from the windows waving the Georgian flag. A flatbed truck flew past with men standing in the back, yelling, smiling, pumping their fists in the air.
The Georgian national soccer team had beat the Albanians and this was the crowd exiting the stadium, headed downtown to party.
Behind the parade of cars and trucks, an army of young men marched down the middle of Rustaveli Street, arm in arm, hugging, kissing, yelling, laughing. I climbed aboard a yellow minivan and was almost immediately surrounded by at least 20, probably more, sweaty men, loudly celebrating the victory, crammed against the bus's ceiling and windows. I was buried in a back-slapping, writhing bundle of bodies, my purse clutched tightly at my side.
When the bus pulled up in front of my apartment building, I yelled for the driver to stop and inched toward the door. Shiny eyes smiled back at me as I repeated, "Excuse me. Excuse me. Excuse me." A boy with black hair and a red bandana held the door and politely commented, "Oh, American."
In the dark courtyard behind the building, a cluster of men and boys with a loud radio hung out at a metal picnic table, celebrating the game with vodka toasts. I walked past and nodded, heading for the night blackened stairwell, reaching for my flashlight.
As I entered pitch darkness, my flashlight failed and I clumsily, slowly climbed the stairs. From outside, roars of laughter filled the night air and the radio sang an American pop song:
Just the two of us
We can make it if we try
Just the two of us
You and I
Blindly, I unlocked the door and tumbled in. I missed my sons and wished across continents that they could have seen the soccer game celebration. For a split second I missed America, but I did not miss being afraid.