I spend a good deal of time each week moving between places. My walk to school is short, but my weekend excursions require hours in transit. Tbilisi is the closest real city, and even the closer towns are at least 30 kilometers away. Thankfully, it’s easy to get from place to place without a car.
Trains exist, as do busses and taxis, but might not match your expectations of areas such as comfort and safety. In terms of economy and convenience, I prefer shared taxis and marshrutkas.
Shared taxis are essentially private cars that drive along a somewhat specific route, unless the driver or other passenger has errands to run. By the bazaar here, drivers stand near the road, asking anyone who looks like they might need a ride if they are going, in this case, to Tbilisi. They can be a bit agressive (by Pacific Northwest standards), especially if you look foreign, confused, or both. With some haggling, it’s usually somewhat inexpensive. To get from Telavi to Tbilisi in a car full of strangers, most of whom usually smoke, costs about 7 dollars, negotiated in advance to avoid confusion (read: getting ripped off). If you’re lucky and a woman, the other passengers might stop to smoke outside the car, sparing you the discomfort of a car full of smoke. But don’t count on it. Maybe you can use these few minutes to buy some persimmons from the old women at the side of the road.
The music selection is usually the choicest selection of oldies you’ve never heard, top-40 remixes, and songs full of english rhymes a native speaker might not recognize.
As long as you don’t need a seat-belt, the backseat is a safe bet. But there are several hazards to look forward to even if you’re comfortable with the idea of flying through the windshield. First among these concerns is the fact that the preferred passing zones are on blind corners, and that the road is missing in several places. It’s not without reason that it’s hard to find a driver at night; when dark, this road is not for the anxiety-prone. Even in daylight, you’ll need to forget everything you might have learned about driving, along with the fact that marshrutka drivers generally won’t drive this particularly rough stretch.
Marshrutkas are the other option. Apparently they’re called mini-busses in english, but the awkwardness of the word marshrutka is too fitting to avoid.
These big vans transport people from villages to towns and cities throughout the country, without definite stops. Like many things in Georgia, you need to know what you’re looking for if you hope not to get lost. It’s presumed that you know where you need to go better than the driver. In places where tourists are a rarity and everyone speaks the same language, it actually makes sense.
You climb into the marshrutka, usually through some sort of sliding door. More often than not, in my experience, the door is barely held in place, so I usually try to find a seat far from any moving parts. This is often challenging, as others seem to have the same stategy. If it’s a busy day you might have to crouch, as the ceiling is too low stand, the floor covered with whatever the passengers carry with them. Children and chickens sit on laps, fruit in buckets, and bundles of everything else pile chaotically anywhere they fit. The folks you meet are surprised if you speak a few words of Georgian, and are thrilled when foreigners love Georgia as much as they do.
Even though marshrutka drivers are notoriously terrifying drivers, the drive seems painfully slow. If it rains, the roof leaks, if it’s hot you’re better off at home, and when the electricity or water has been unreliable you should brace yourself for an assault on the senses. But prepare yourself for a warm welcome as well, because simply being here is more than enough to have in common with your fellow marshrutka riders..
I’ve not been in cars very often here, but the view from my last marshrutka made it clear that driving is fundamentally different from the quintessentially american rush hour commute. As the crowded minibus approached Tbilisi, we drove into a traffic jam. The driver, rather than idling on the highway, tried a variety of other ways, including driving backward on the freeway, using police turn-outs, and talking with friends on the side of the road (news travels fast here). Eventually, he joined the rest of the cars, crawling slowly toward the city. One of my favorite parts of Georgian culture is the creative problem solving that becomes important in situations like these. Why listen to lines on asphalt when you can come to a more convenient arrangement with your neighbors? The paint might say there are two lanes, but there is more than enough space for four. In a way it reminds me of a German obsession with efficiency, colored by a uniquely Georgian attitude toward rules and authority.
The difference between Georgian and American drivers, I often joke, is that Georgians are fantastic drivers with terrible attention toward rules, while Americans are terrible drivers with fantastic attention to rules.
Perhaps more importantly, it is rare to see a solitary driver. I often look for them, and usually fail to find any. Extended families crowd into fully-packed battered vehicles, friends provide company on a trip to the city. I find it tragic to sit in a traffic jam, each person in their own lonely car, waiting to arrive somewhere alone. Here, where life is based on relationships between people, driving alone would seem a strange choice. Like many things, I’m unsure whether this arises from primarily social or economic considerations, but I’m not sure it really matters.
Another look into life here, and I’m again without pictures. I’m conspicuously foreign, so I may as well tote my camera around, but it feels strange to photograph people in their everyday activities without some kind of explanation or excuse. I’ll get my act together eventually. In the meantime you can join me and Batumi on my facebook page…