Imagine this: You are eighteen years old, just out of high school, and a former teacher calls you up and asks if you’re interested in being a local walking guide and translator for someone named Paul Salopek – a journalist from National Geographic who is taking a seven-year walk across the world, following the path of human migration. This is exactly what happened to Vitali ‘Vito’ Uplisashvili, a young man from the country of Georgia.
In November of 2014, Vito joined Paul and his two walking companions, Murat from Turkey and Matthieu from France, at the town of Vale, near the border of Turkey and Georgia. He walked with them toward Tbilisi, the capital city of Georgia, where Paul planned to spend the winter. The group walked for eight days, until the snow in the mountains became too deep for them to continue on foot.
In February, 2015, the Out of Eden Learn team had a chance to meet Vito in Tbilisi and interview him about his experience. Here are some of the things he told us.
How did you get connected with Paul?
Mattheiu is a friend of my teacher, and he asked for a person who is in good condition and knows English. She texted me and explained the situation. Firstly, I was really scared about the responsibility, but I accepted this suggestion. My teacher sent him my phone number. After a day or two Paul called me from Turkey and asked me to send my CV. I sent it to him to look at, and he accepted me.
What was your first impression of Paul when you met him?
He was very friendly. It was very easy for me to make connections with him and his group. The only challenge was language, because I am not a professional translator.
Once you started walking with Paul, did anything happen that was unexpected?
Yes, it was on the way to Poka. I had never been in a difficult situation like that. We walked in almost 70 cm of snow, and underneath the snow there were a lot of big stones and holes. One time, when Paul fell into one, the snow was up to his chest. He said, “Help me, I need your shoulder.” So I went back and helped him come out of the hole. He injured his knee, and I thought, what if we could not keep on going, what would we do? Because nobody is here, we are in the middle of the mountains.
What went through your mind then?
I’m glad you got out safely. Were there other times you were worried about something happening?
No, not really.
Oh yes. When we arrived Akhalksikhe we needed a restaurant. They had never tried Georgian meals, and we had khinkali, a traditional Georgia meal. They tried to eat it with a knife and fork. I said not to do that. You have to pick it up with your hands, because there is a soup inside that you drink. But they tried to cut it, which would make the soup spill out. So I explained that when you eat khinkali, you must forget the knife and fork!
What else did you teach them about Georgian customs and culture?
Georgia is a land of wine and khachapuri [a traditional Georgian cheese-filled bread]. We have a big tradition of meals, and dancing and singing. And I think Paul saw this as we traveled.
When you walk by foot — no car, no hitchhiking, no bicycle–it is very exciting because you feel every touch of the ground. You depend on just yourself. And I discovered this: That you should be strong, and try to connect with nature. That is the main thing when walking. It is amazing.