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Tuesday, December 7, 2010

Getting Around in Georgia, and Why I Loathe Taxi Drivers...

Everyone is always asking me what I find interesting about Georgia; it’s on our monthly reports, our colleagues want to know, our families want to know, and even the occasional stranger will ask. There are many things I find interesting about Georgia, yet I usually don’t answer this question honestly because I have a sneaking suspicion that the people eliciting a response aren’t looking for a genuine answer, so I respond, “Qvelaperi. Dzalian momts’ons Sakartvelo” [Everything is interesting. I just love Georgia!] instead of truthfully listing the aspects I find especially peculiar about life in Georgia.

After quite an adventure with my friend Stephanie this past weekend, I’ve decided that traveling by taxi is a particular blog-worthy Georgian peculiarity. For tourists meandering the rather small city of Tbilisi, traveling by taxi is quite popular. It’s also assumed to be the ‘easy’ alternative for getting from point A to point B if you happen to be a tourist who does not speak Georgian—don’t get me wrong, I’m not implying that taxi drivers speak English (because they most certainly don’t), but as a rule, one can usually travel anywhere in the city for no more than 5 lari (unless you are a tourist who has not gotten the memo to limit the amount of spoken English in the backseat, in which case the driver will most likely rip you off and charge you some ridiculous fare, well, because all English-speaking foreigners are rich—didn’t you know?!)

There are 5 popular ways to commute in the city:

1) Avtobusit [by bus]: Personally, I would consider this the ‘safest’ means of travel. You can pay 40 tetri (about 25 cents) to travel virtually anywhere in the city, and there are blue signs with a picture of a bus scattered along the main streets all over the city to indicate where to stand in order to catch one. Unless you are skilled in reading Georgian rather quickly, a newcomer might have to ask a local which bus to take in order to get to a specific street/location. Once you are familiar with which bus numbers go down which streets, it’s a simple means of travel. The schedule is also pretty reliable (except for #6, which is the bus I take to get to my friend Stephanie’s, and sometimes keeps me waiting anywhere between five minutes and one hour). It’s also important to know that the words ‘maximum capacity’ carry no weight in Georgia, and, depending on the time of day, traveling by bus might find you forced into the lap of some disgruntled stranger or pinned up against a pole while 15 hands compete for a place to hold in order to keep balance.

2) Marshrutkit [by marshrutka]: Definitely the fastest means of transport, and possibly the most dangerous as well, but nonetheless my favorite option. Marshrutkas are EVERYWHERE (except in Vake because it’s much too ‘posh’ for marshrutkas and except on Rustaveli Street, because apparently they were banned two years ago because the street was much too congested). I was informed that there are over 200 marshrutka routes in the city. There are no schedules for marshrutkas, and there is absolutely no way of knowing where they are headed unless you again, can read Georgian quickly, or have been told by some local Georgian which one to get on. There is a trick for beating the system, but it requires a day of doing nothing but standing on popular streets and writing down the numbers of marshrutkas that fly by (this is how I’ve figured it out, and I can proudly travel almost anywhere in the city by marshrutka these days). For those of you who I’ve lost completely, marshrutkas are small vans: usually rusty and rattling at every turn, equipped with about 15 seats (but usually packed with 25 people), and travel wicked fast. It’s an adventure you have to experience for yourself to believe!

3) Manqanit [by car]: Many Georgians have cars. After all, I’m sure that you can speed through any traffic signal, reverse for over 50 meters on a HIGHWAY if you realize you’re going in the wrong direction, and even hit a pedestrian, and STILL get your driver’s license here. I don’t travel often by car, unless someone from my village offers to give me a lift while I’m waiting for a bus, in which case I gladly brave the offer.

4) Metro [self explanatory…yes, the same as those in America]: Super easy! There are only two metro lines, so it won’t get you everywhere in the city, but it will get surely get you within walking distance from wherever you might need to go. None of the metro stops have maps of the routes written in English, but some of the nicer stations have the Georgian names written in roman letters, which makes it a lot easier for beginner travelers to get around. If you travel by metro, you’ll have the pleasure of taking quite possibly the longest and fastest moving escalators in the world. Special perk: On the way down, they also show music videos on flat screen TVs for the ride underground. On a lucky day, they play clips from Disney’s Oceans or Planet Earth ☺

5) And finally, taksit [by taxi/cab]: There are two types of cabs: cab companies, which will have a phone number written on the sides of the car, or what I like to call regular-drivers-who-will-stick-a-‘taxi’-sign-on-the-roof-and-call-themselves-taxi-drivers. We were advised during our initial orientation to take only taxis that are clearly employed by a company and to avoid these ‘self-employed’ taxis. Realistically though, there are much more of the latter and it’s sometimes just easier to flag down any taxi rather than calling and waiting for a ‘real’ taxi driver to find where you are in order to pick you up. It’s easy. It’s fast. It’s immediate.

And here’s what I find peculiar: No matter what kind of taxi you take, there’s a 90% chance that the driver will have absolutely no clue in the world where you want to go. So how might you fix this problem? Provide an exact address? You’d think yes…but no. If you think a street name and number will help a taxi driver take you to the exact place you’d like to be, you’re wrong. The incident that prompted me to write about the trouble of traveling by taxi was this: My friend Stephanie and I decide to meet our friends out at a bar/pub on Saturday night. It’s late, the buses have stopped running, and it’s too cold (re: we’re too lazy) to walk to the metro. We call our favorite taxi company (it’s our favorite because they are the only taxi company in Georgia operating with a meter—which means we never get ripped off no matter how much English we’re uttering in the backseat). We do a simple Google search to figure out the exact address of the Irish pub we’re headed to and tell Stephanie’s host family the name and address. Immediately, they bombard us with panicked curiosity, “Why do you want to go here? We don’t know this street. It must not be popular.” Something to keep in mind: If the family has not heard of the street, the taxi driver has also not heard of the street. The cab gets to her apartment and her host mother comes downstairs with us to apparently tell the taxi driver how to get to where we want to go. Having to give directions to a taxi driver…strange. Isn’t his only job to be able to take us to where we need to go? There’s some obvious confusion, but we drive off anyway. We’re headed in the right direction, so things are looking good—but I have my friend Stephanie ready to dial our friends (who are already at the bar) at the good chance that we might soon get lost. And of course, we do. The first sign that your cab driver has absolutely no idea where he is going is when he reduces his speed back down to the speed limit. The second is usually when he gets on his walkie-talkie to tell his taxi driver friends that he doesn’t know where to go. And the third (this is my personal favorite) is when he drives down an alley, lets out an angry sigh, puts the car in park, and lights a cigarette. Um…hello…why is the car stopped, why are we not at our destination, and why is the meter still running during your smoke break? But this is our cue: This is when we call our friends, have them put someone on the phone who works at the bar, and shove our phone in our taxi driver’s ear so that he can get more specific directions (since an address counts for nothing) of where this ‘strange’ bar that we want to go to is located (which turns out not to be strange and sketch at all, but quite the opposite and crowded with many paying patrons—I wonder how long it took everyone else to get there…) The whole time, I can’t help but to think: This is your JOB, man! You can travel from one end of the city to the other in 15 minutes! It can’t be that hard to learn all of the street names, since I’m sure you’ve been living here for oh…your entire life! If only I had a lari for every time I’ve had to put my phone up to my driver’s ear. So what do I find interesting about Georgia? Traveling by taxi. It’s definitely…interesting.

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