Last night at eleven pm I found myself standing by the side of the road in Samtreydia, Georgia in the rain, chatting with my new friend “the commander”–a 26 year-old officer in the Georgian Army. How did I get here? What went wrong?
This weekend I am heading off to Svaneti, via Zugdidi. From Tbilisi it takes about 5-6 hours to get to Zugdidi and about the same from Zugdidi to Svaneti. After a long, exhausting day at school yesterday (eight classes?? The schedule only has seven! This is what hosting after-school programs gets you, I suppose) I headed downtown to catch a marshrutka.
At Didube I found a luxurious marshrutka unlike any I had seen before! It had reading lights and air vents at each newly-upholstered seat! The man in charge told me something to the tune of “Straight to Zugdidi! Very fast!” in Russian and it only cost twelve lari. What a steal! I hopped on and waited for the marshrutka to leave the station.
When I woke up, we were pulling over to a road-side restaurant/shop that, if I recall correctly, is about halfway between Tbilisi and Zugdidi. It had only been two hours! We were making record time! I was in the cheapest, nicest marshrutka and it was blazing across the country! “Very fast!” was right! As we started up again, my dad called from America! I told him about life in Georgia and how much I was loving it here. I also boasted about how I “must’ve gotten a better price of twelve lari because I transacted in Georgian!” Oh, how cocky I was.
We hit some traffic outside of Kutaisi, slowing our journey considerably. It was pouring rain the entire length of the country and the mountain roads must’ve dropped some poor bastard over the edge. I’ve no idea what really happened, other than our record time would have to wait for another journey.
Marissa called as I was just leaving Kutaisi to ask, “Where the Hell are you?” “Almost to Samtreydia. From there it’s only about sixty kilometers!” Little did I know it would be the most arduous sixty kilometers of the entire trip.
So we’re driving along, listening to bad music and watching the signs go by, when we finally entered Samtreydia. I was pretty glad to be on the home stretch of my journey. Some guy gets off the marshrutka and then the driver’s assistant/doorman comes back and sits in front of me, “Tsota kartuli itsit?” “Yes, I know a little Georgian.” [His name is Luka and he’s only four feet tall!!! Ba-dum Psh!] “Okay, so we’re not gonna go to Zugdidi, but to somewhere else. We’re going to let you off here in Samtreydia and you can catch another marshrutka. Okay? This guy [pointing to a soldier] is also going to Zugdidi and we’re letting him off here. He’s a commander!”
The soldier and I got off the Marshrutka and walked across the train tracks to wait for another marshrutka. As all Georgians do, he offered me a smoke, which I politely declined. As the rain pattered onto my adventure hat/umbrella, a drunk guy staggered down the road to stand by the fence behind us. He shouted for his friend to come outside. No one came out.
We tried to start up a conversation–I told the soldier that I was an English teacher in Tbilisi and he told me that he was a soldier from Vani and that he had gone to Kutaisi to catch a marshrutka. Bad timing, I suppose. After a solid thirty minutes of waiting, the soldier turned to me and said, “Look, I have a friend here in Samtreydia. We can just stay with him and then catch some marshrutka in the morning. Maybe around six.”
I’m not one to turn down a random unexpected adventure, but I really wanted to be in Zugdidi that night. Waking up at six am to stand by the road with a soldier wasn’t exactly my idea of fun, either. I called Marissa, with whom I intended on staying that night, and gave her the skinny on what was going down. (PS- I will totally write someone a jive-talking screenplay based on the previous sentence alone.) “Where are you? No, no. Not cool. Catch a cab or something! My host mom and I baked a cobbler with the jam* and it’s getting cold!”
I haven’t really met Marissa’s family before, but I have spoken to them. Her host father only speaks Georgian and Russian so I talked to him in Russian on the phone the previous night to obtain permission to stay in their apartment. “No Problem! No Problem!” Shortly thereafter Marissa texted me to say that they had seen my TV commercial (More on that later, when I have a link to the commercial to share with y’all [that “y’all” is for you, Marissa!]) and Marissa had pointed at me and said, “Chemi megobari! Is modis aq!” (My Friend! He is coming here!). Her host mom began boasting to the other houst guests about how “the boy from TV is coming to my apartment!” (Note: I may have some facts wrong on this section. It’s all anecdotal anyway!)
So, using jam cobbler as an excuse I told my soldier friend that “I’m sorry but I have to be in Zugdidi tonight. How much is a cab?” “Oh, expensive, it’s expensive.” replied the soldier with a derisive wave of the hand. “Well, I have to get there tonight.” “Okay, let’s go ask.
There were two cabs parked by the side of the train tracks. We approached the first and knocked on the window. We knocked again. The driver woke up and rolled down his window to demand fifty-five lari. We balked and he said, “Fine. Go ask the other taxi, then.” The other driver turned down his music to haggle with us and explain that “35 is impossible! I have to drive an hour there and another back. I need to buy petrol. We’re talking at least fifteen liters! I cannot accept less than forty. Minimum.” Fine, you highway robber! We’ll pay you forty.
I turned to the soldier and he gave me a sheepish smile and said, “I am on my way to the base and they haven’t paid me, yet. I don’t have any money!” He patted his pockets for emphasis. Sneaky bastard! I’d rather have him along with me than not, however, so I invited him to share in my expensive cab ride–free of charge!
We got in the cab and the driver wanted to chat. I indulged him and we had a brief conversation wherein I mentioned being an English teacher and the driver excitedly exclaimed, “Ohh! I know you! The government invited you all over to teach in the schools!” “That’s right!” “And so you teach in Zugdidi?” “No, I teach in Tbilisi. My friend teaches in Zugdidi. I am staying with her tonight.” “Oh, your friend is a girl, eh?” “Mhmm.” “Girlfriend or wife?”
The question took me aback, so I said “girlfriend.”** It seemed less commital than “wife.” Sorry Marissa, I’m not ready to be married! When I answered, “Girlfriend” the driver translated all I had said to my soldier buddy, with special emphasis on the last bit of conversation. The soldier gave me a big grin and elbowed me in the ribs, as if to say, “Now I understand why you have to be there tonight *wink, wink*!” Then he showed me a picture of his girlfriend or wife on his phone. Poor guy. Off to be a soldier on the Abkhaz border. Not so cool.
The soldier fell asleep until the driver [incidentally, both are named Giorgi] started cursing at the road. I caught the words “ts’qkhali,” and “qucha” which mean water and road and then saw him make a swerving motion with his hand. Hydroplaning in Georgia? I was a bit frightened. Drivers in Georgia may seem reckless and wild, but they are always in control of their vehicles. If they weren’t they’d ALL be dead by now. So when a Georgian driver starts cursing that the road is dangerous–man oh man do you pay attention.
After a forty minute drive to Zugdidi (“75 kilometers in forty minutes! Am I good or what?”), I said farewell to the Giorgis and met up with Marissa in the rain outside her apartment. Boy was it good to be off the road. We went inside, I met the parents, and we ate cobbler. It was damn good.
*Note: The Jam is a wonderful and delicious jam that Marissa’s host family makes in the village. I’ve had The Jam. It is amazing.
**Note Two: Those of you who regularly follow this blog will recall the results of searching for “Raughleys girlfrend” on google.