Walker Stephens sometimes felt sad that he'd lost two-thirds of his money in a Georgian casino.
But, he still made jokes - mostly about donkeys. He excitedly supported travelers who weren't stuck in Georgia. He learned how to wiggle his shoulders, when some Zulu girls and I taught him to dance to South African house music.
Above all, he was excited to visit the "camel guy". This guy could hold the answers to the keys to the locks to the secrets to the mysteries, that could enable young Walker to travel around the world without flying with a donkey.
Camel Guy was residing in Tbilisi's hippodrome - an open area with a grassy track for horses to run around, hills, and pine forest.
We'd heard that Camel Guy traveled with a camel. We'd even seen Camel Guy. Standing in the busy town of Tbilisi, without his camel, he'd invited us to visit him. He wore: a white goatee, long and twisted like a tornado; a cloth wrapped around his head; and a navy suit-coat with black dagger decorations, which looked like it might've come from Uzbekistan.
But, nothing prepared Walker and me for when we stepped through some trees at the hippodrome, and into Camel Guy's world ...
First, I saw a goat.
Then, three or five of Camel Guy's dogs greeted us with fiercely territorial barks. Later, two of them would bite Walker's shins.
Camel Guy sat on a fallen tree. Resting beside him was an old gypsy wagon, so heavy it looked like it'd be difficult for even a camel to pull it.
The fallen tree and its branches enclosed a kind of "living room" for Camel Guy. The contents of his wagon lay around him. A rusty, portable stove. Unwashed pots and tea-kettles, which the animals drank from and knocked over. Clothes and blankets, hung to dry.
Eight adorable puppies ran around Camel Guy's feet. Another shaggy white goat, and some sheep, hid in the shade of a forest.
Walker's eyes widened, as he looked at me with the smirk of a kid who'd found treasure.
And then, we saw the camel.
Laying on her stomach, the camel and her Mt. Ararat-shaped hump were still taller than me. Her stubby, brown fur looked like chocolate shavings. She stood up when Walker and I came to meet her, and her hump was now twelve feet in the air. Wow!
Camel Guy instructed us to make slow movements around her. She tried to determine what Walker and I were. She did this by nibbling on our hands with her giant walnut of a snout. She slobbered something white - a medicine she was drinking - on our clothes. Gross! The camel, and everything she touched, smelled like thick drool and milk-soaked fur.
She wasn't too interested in Walker and me. She left us in search of tree branches to eat. We watched as a wandering puppy nearly got stepped on by the camel.
We finally sat down, to hear Camel Guy's wisdom. He said:
"Answers you seek, huh? Donkey traveling to do you'd like? An easy path you have chosen it is not."
Just kidding. He didn't talk like Yoda. And Walker's name wasn't "Skywalker", it was Walker.
Camel Guy spoke English with some difficulty and a French accent. Nevertheless, he was able to speak for long periods of time without listening. Maybe he did this because he was lonely? Or maybe he was lonely because he did this? Or maybe he did this because he knew Walker and I were just going to ask him something stupid, like, "Does our donkey need a passport?"
So, we learned a lot about Camel Guy. That was good.
His name was Goran. He was a white-skinned gypsy from Switzerland.
He'd set out on his first trip when he was seven. He brought a small bag with him, in which he'd packed dozens of pairs of socks. The police would find him wandering around on his own, and they looked through his bag. They asked: "Why all the socks?" He said, "I'm going on a long trip. My road is very long. And that's why I need so many socks."
During his young adulthood, Goran came across a middle-aged American man. This man was a street performer who could play any popular music on his guitar. Not only that, but he had five canaries who could sing to any popular music. They were beautiful little birds. He would pick five people in the crowd - an old woman, a small child, etc. - and each bird would land on one person's shoulder.
He began playing guitar. "One," he'd say, pointing to a canary. The bird would sing. "Two," he'd say. The second bird began singing. "Three!" he said. And so on. His street performances were so good, audience members would cry.
Nowadays, Goran earned his living by making performances with his animals. Canary Guy had been an inspiration for him. He thought the way many young Westerners traveled was unhealthy; they saved money in their home countries, then went to cheap countries for six months and did no work.
He advised Walker and me to get a dog first, then maybe a donkey, and also a bird. This was golden business advice. We could easily teach the dog to jump on the donkey's back, and the bird could do something, and then we'd have a show! Walker and I were unable to interrupt Goran to let him know we didn't plan on becoming street performers.
He advised us, if we were thinking about buying donkeys, we should be committed to keeping them their whole lives. Walker agreed.
Goran said, he lived his life trying to serve his camels. He'd been traveling with camels for two decades.
Two years ago, his male camel died. His remaining female, "Chichy", was suffering from a biological need to reproduce. Goran would do everything he could to go to Chechnya, just north of Georgia in Russia, and get her a mate. He'd already gotten the necessary visas, and gone to the border. Russia wouldn't let him and Chichy in, though; due to political reasons, they considered Georgia a "quarantine" country. He'd waited six months at the border - in the Caucasus Mountains' Daryal Gorge where the sun never shined - before realizing he'd have to travel to Kazakhstan and enter Russia from there.
Speaking to us, Camel Guy neither smiled nor laughed. He was exhausted. WIthout a large male camel, he had no one to pull his wagon. Chichy had tried, but she and the wagon had nearly fallen down a hill and onto a busy road. Goran told us that, sometimes, he rented semi-trucks to drive his camel and wagon around in.
He left us to tie up a goat that had gotten into his food.
Walker said to me, "Well, that was kind of anti-climatic. We spend five hours talking to him about walking with animals, and then he says, 'Yeah, sometimes I take a truck."
When Goran came back, I asked him if he'd ever heard of another guy who traveled with camels.
His tone changed from a lecturing tone to a meditative one. "No, I haven't," he said. "If there is one, I'd like to meet him."
On our way back to town, Walker told me maybe he could watch Chichy for the camel guy, while Camel Guy went to Russia to get a male camel. And then, maybe he could take Walker to Kazakhstan?
It seemed like a good idea.
The way Walker and I lived isolated us a bit from society. Walker - the hippy child - hadn't even spoken on a phone in years! But, at least we weren't as isolated as Camel Guy.
The following night, a half dozen people gathered in Walker's hostel. Walker, who wrote online at www.circumnavigationscramble.wordpress.com, wanted this to be a night in which hostel guests did public readings. He read a story he'd written from the point-of-view of a crack-smoking American who'd picked him up hitchhiking. He acted out the paranoia of the man, who blasted "Slayer" music, and we hostel guests loved it.
Among us was Ramos, a pony-tailed computer programmer who'd recently gotten divorced. I next read my 2013 story, " A Connection?", about a girl I liked. Ramos applauded it for its honesty. He, himself, had a sincere voice straight from the heart. He asked me, "Don't you love it when you're dancing with a girl, and you can smell her freshly shampooed hair?"
Walker read a story about his difficult bike trip over the Balkan Mountains; it was packed full of images and feelings, and I really enjoyed it.
Ramos loved cooking. So, for my last story, I read, "Buy Now! World's Best Arepas", a 2003 comedy about learning to cook in Venezuela.
"Wow," said Ramos. "I got to hear a story about Slayer, and a story about cooking. This is a great night!"
And it was.
Much thanks to Niklas, Tsvati, Anais, & Lara for the place to stay in Tbilisi!