Public Transportation: A Slice of Georgian Life

Some of my more vivid Georgia memories are related to transportation. We took few pictures NO pictures (sad face) of the gorgeous fields and mountains and rivers that flashed past the windows or of our fellow passengers, but the mental images remain clear.

After a laid-back time in Akhaltsikhe, it was time to hit the road again. Sean and McKinze were busy wrapping up their last weeks of Peace Corps service and we had probably already stayed longer in Akhaltsikhe than any other tourist, ever. So, yet another trusty marshrutka hauled us through the mountains to Kutaisi, Georgia’s second largest city and new home to its parliament. We had the phone number of LaToya, another PCV, and were going to meet up with her at some point during our time there.

On the way to the station, we said goodbye to Dato, our faithful friend who sold 35 tetri soft-serve cones at the door to Hotel Meskheti, gave us alucha fruits, and marveled at Tony’s tattoos whenever Alicia wasn’t around.

The seating situation separated me from Tony, and I settled into the back row next to an older man who was cradling a sleeping toddler. After half an hour of silence, the man turned and began speaking to me. I replied with her best version of “I don’t speak Georgian” (in Georgian… so contradictory and confusing to the hearer, when you think about it) but then I realized he was rattling off country names and was trying to guess if I was Russian or German. He seemed very surprised at the answer, since Georgia sees very few visitors from the U.S. He asked another question, but I had no idea what he was saying, so I threw out a bit more information, that we were turistuli, shtatia Iowa. I didn’t have the words to inquire about his own health or current events in his life, so I smiled dotingly at the child and said bichi? He confirmed that yes, it was indeed a boy. Ok, then. Having exhausted our respective foreign vocabularies, we sat in contented silence for another long stretch of road, until the man pointed out the window.

There, along the banks of the turbulent, muddy river that the road had been following through the mountains, was a tow truck and a dozen men. They looked only mildly concerned about the task before them: hauling out a jackknifed semi truck and trailer that was half submerged in the swift current. The heavy thunderstorm that had blown through last night might have put it there. By the looks of the cab, the driver had likely escaped serious injury, but by such a narrow margin that a change of trousers was certain.

It was only then that I realized our driver’s rate of speed had been bordering on reckless the entire time. And of course, the sleepy-eyed bichi was not in a car seat. Cue recollection of travel mortality statistics. How had we become so accustomed to this new state of normal in less than two weeks?

At long last, the driver rolled to a stop in the center of Kutaisi. Then another strange and disorienting thing happened. After years of avoiding it at home, we were mysteriously unable to resist the glow of the golden arches that promised shiny clean restrooms and free wi-fi. And cheeseburgers.

After a few days in Kutaisi, we decided to visit Gelati Monastery which is a few kilometers up a steep hill from the city center. We headed to where the marshrutkas park, a block from the brand new fountain, behind the renovated theater building.

The new fountain in Kutaisi

After looking at all the destination signs in the windshields, we located the one that said გელათი. My alphabet studies were really starting to be useful now that we were responsible for our own navigation. The driver pointed to his watch to indicate he’d be leaving in about 30 minutes, so we climbed in, only to find all the seats taken. The van was full of women who stopped their conversations and eyed us as they clutched their bags of produce from the bazaar. A middle-aged woman screwed the cap back onto her Coke and tucked it into her purse, which also contained a buff colored chicken.

We hopped back out and looked at the driver, not knowing how to ask… not sure exactly what was expected of us… should we wait for the next one? Did he know that all 14 seats of his marshrutka were full? He gestured and waved and smiled and we decided that meant we should get in anyway. We returned to the now totally silent vehicle, giving the ladies sheepish smiles. The pullet breathed out a low, uncertain warble that rose at the end to form a question. I don’t know what’s going on, either, little friend.

We stood and clung to a railing installed the length of the ceiling, and the space continued to fill as the departure time neared. By the time the diesel engine rattled to life, I counted 29 souls. I tried as best as I could to angle my hips away from a sweet grandmother’s face, and the only relief from the stifling heat was the spot was where a teenager’s cellopani bag of fresh fish was pressed into the crook of my knee.

As the giant clown car rumbled up the hill, the chicken resigned herself to reality, pulled her lids half up over her glazed eyes, and rested her head on the black patent leather purse handle. The woman absentmindedly stroked the tail feathers that were poking out the top of the bag and I allowed myself to imagine that she purchased it with the intention of making it a treasured family pet. The red Coca-Cola label contrasted with the soft feathers that were gilded by a midday sunbeam… but getting to the camera was neither practical nor appropriate.

We lost passengers along the way, but most departures required up to one-third of us to untangle enough to hop out the side door, then Tetris our way back in. By the time we got to Gelati, it was just us and a Japanese woman who was touring the Caucuses solo, with not much more than her own determination and the intermediate level Russian she had studied.

Frescoed walls of Church of the Virgin, Gelati Monastery

Fresco detail, Church of the Virgin, Gelati Monastery

Gelati itself was impressive, but I’ll probably forget the faces in the 900-year-old frescoes and the lay of the green valley below. What I’ll always remember is the smell of tomatoes and overripe strawberries mingled with stale sweat and slimy fish scales. And that chicken. I’m sure it’s happily clucking in a yard behind a large metal gate in the outskirts of Kutaisi, catching grasshoppers and napping in an afternoon sunbeam.


A young chicken in Leliani

Two videos of marshrutka rides!