Sunday, October 31, 2010

The (Second to) Last Marshutka

Here’s one I didn’t want to share.

Marshutkas are “minibuses,” a name that draws to mind a miniature bus but in actuality means a van with extra seats. They are the primary Georgian people-movers and vary wildly in size, shape, and comfort. They’re typically built for someone who is 5’5” with the knees of some sort of Tolkien orc – that is to say small, knobby and out of the way. The ones used for in-city transport are particularly cramped and rundown, while intracity busses (especially non-stop) are a little nicer -- though the difference is marginal. I’ve become a pro at finding the right marshutka, getting to it on time, flagging it down when need be, and finding a decent seat. Rarely do I get squished between two burly Georgian men, and more than once have I been offered beer and snacks from other passengers (my fellow volunteer Bran would do well to remember our first trip to Batumi).

So they’ve got their ups and downs. This is a story about the latter, and it also involves a few spins.

I was leaving Tbilisi late one Sunday afternoon, heading back to Chiatura where I lived at the time. Okreeba, one of the largest stations, is crowded and noisy, but sends marshutkas just about everywhere at late hours (it’s also Metro adjacent). I was with a few other volunteers who were heading to Zugdidi, but I wanted to wait on two others who were going to Chiatura. I grew fatigued with the noises and, ahem, smells of the station and decided to catch an earlier marshutka (incidentally leaving about 30 minutes before the last one to Chiatura). I would soon regret my impatience.

About 20 minutes outside of Tbilisi, it started to rain. Not hard, mind you, just enough to get the roads wet. I was jammed in the back corner of the bus which was packed full, so I couldn’t see what was happening up front – all I knew was that the marshutka was speeding through a tunnel. For some reason, one that I would never be clear about, the driver slammed on the brakes when he reached the end of the tunnel. I felt the telltale lurch that meant the bus was in a skid, but I was not overly concerned for those first two seconds. It wasn’t the first marshutka I had been on that had to stop suddenly. Then the fun part started.

I’ve always heard that when you go into a skid and your car starts to spin, you should turn in the direction of the spin. In Georgia, I guess you should just jam your wheel recklessly to one side and pray for the best, since your tires are probably bald anyway. That’s what our driver did, at least. So, in the middle of the only interstate coming out of Tbilisi and the major road that crosses the country, our marshutka spun.

I think it spun two times, though it may have been three. I lost count as the blood rushed to my head and everyone on the bus leaned away from the centripetal force pulling us to the right. I kept waiting for the bus to tip over or for another car to smash into us. An overwhelming sense of peace came over me, and I just hoped that I wouldn’t feel the impact (how deliciously morbid).

Thankfully, I was waiting on an impact that would never come. The driver regained control and pulled off to the side of the road. The bus doors flew open and every man on the bus shoved his way out and clawed for a cigarette. In the rain, I called one of my friends who had been with me at Okreeba. She listened to me panic and recommended I call Nino, our former boss. Of COURSE! Nino, after all, can solve just about anything.

As I was dialing Nino’s number, I noticed that the men and women standing on the side of the road were beckoning me into the bus. I wished that they could speak English just so I could yell at them for being out of their minds. By the time Nino answered, I was back in my seat and the driver had pulled away.

“Hello Adam,” she answered, in her typical abrupt fashion. Nino is actually incredibly warm and friendly once you get to know her, but her demeanor is typically very businesslike.

I explained what had happened, not expecting much.

“Give the phone to the driver.”

Any volunteer who trained under Nino will know that when Nino wants to talk to a driver, she means business. I got the phone back one minute later.

“Adam, you need to stay on the bus. I would come get you myself if I had a car, but it is more dangerous for you to stay on the side of the road.”

“Nino, I’m a little concerned. It’s still raining, after all.”

“The driver will go slow,” she replied. “He is just as scared as you are.”

I couldn’t help but smile. I was pretty sure that the driver might be more terrified of the tiny Georgian woman on the other end of the line than dying on the side of the road in the rain.

Now, please bear in mind that marshutkas are generally pretty safe, particularly ones that go from city to city. I have continued to ride all over the country and have had no major problems aside from schedule conflicts. These busses are not the most effective mode of transportation on the planet, but they are cheap and usually very fast. Still, it was quite a harrowing experience.

By the way, I arrived in Chiatura about four and a half hours later (it’s a three hour drive). I called Nino to tell her I was safe.

“I’m so glad Adam. I guess that this is why you never take the last marshutka.”

“Nino, it wasn’t the last one! I seriously thought I was going to die.”

I could tell she was smiling. And then I got the best piece of advice I have received in Georgia.

“You did the right thing Adam. If this happens again, call me. Make your last confessions to Nino.”

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Three weeks of Internet silence can make you feel like a monk

“Hey Adam, what’s been going on?”

“Why don’t you blog more often?”


These are all valid questions, oh yearning public. Believe me, it has been my greatest inclination to blog. That is, until I actually sit at my computer, at which point my mind blanks and I shed a tear for writer’s block. So what has been going on?

Remember all that stuff about living in Zodi, a little village outside of Chiatura? Well, I’m not there any more. Due to some issues which we attempted to resolve, the Ministry has moved me out of Zodi. Since national Georgian attention is focused on the volunteers and our blogs have been posted on several sites, I will refrain from going into detail. Suffice to say that moving me was the correct decision.

So, I think we left off with “emotionally trumped,” right? I guess I finally got dealt a good hand. After a lengthy wait, I was placed in Anaklia, a large village about 30 minutes to the west of Zugdidi. Try to hold onto your jaws – I actually requested to be out in here in the Samegrelo region. If you’re Georgian (and if you’re reading this blog, statistically speaking you’re either Georgian or my parents), then you just did either a double or spit take. Everything I’ve heard suggests that this region is difficult to live in. I took a chance, however, because many of the male volunteers have been very happy here (granted, the women in our group have been having more issues). And I’ll just go ahead and say it – either I hit the jackpot for villages or this region gets a lot of grief for no reason. The people here are amazing, friendly, and inviting. Zugdidi is nice - though I've only spent a bit of time there.

Anaklia is right on the Abkhazian border – the disputed territory with Russia – and is also a seaside village. The former bit of information might frighten some, but I feel incredibly safe. Most of the people in the village were here when Russia invaded in 2008, and according to them, “we weren’t scared then and we aren’t scared now. You shouldn’t be either.” As for the latter, you can see the Black Sea from my school and my house is about a 40 minute walk from the beach. Furthermore, the Caucusus mountains (already snowcapped) loom in the distance to the northeast. While other parts of Georgia feel run down, Anaklia’s buildings feel either like bungalows or are being built up from scratch. Did I mention that the president is trying to turn Anaklia into a second Batumi? It’s a few years off but it’s got to be exciting for the people here. In short, Anaklia is quite different from anything I’ve seen in this country (and I’ve travelled plenty).

I probably wouldn’t be gushing about the move as much if it weren’t for my family. I live with my teacher, Lela, and her husband Ramazee. They have two daughters, Mariamee who is 15 and Ana who is 12. Lela’s mother also lives in the house. Now, the thing about Georgia is that to be an English teacher, one does not have to be fluent in English. In fact, some teachers have really limited English – and I guess this is the point of TLG. Lela is not this way – her English is fantastic, and already I am able to speak faster than I was when I first arrived on Sunday.

But her English isn’t even the best part – it’s her attitude and enthusiasm for teaching that set her apart. On Monday, my first day at the school, she had five classes. We were both tired after being at the school for something like six hours, so when we got home, I hid away in my room for a while. When I emerged that evening, I realized that Lela had been tutoring kids from the neighborhood all afternoon – and she didn’t seem to want to bother me. I was floored at her dedication and when we spent another hour that night planning the next day's lessons, I began to question if I could even keep up with her schedule. I’ve decided that for now, the best way I can help her is to talk to her in English and correct her mistakes. Sometimes, this isn’t even necessary as she really only needs to be told once or twice before she starts to realize what she’s doing and self-corrects. Her students love her, her lessons go smoothly, and she cares about the pupils the way a teacher must. In other words, my teacher is amazing.

The bell has rung and I must go to another class. I’ll post this later and will be blogging more frequently (though I have no internet access in Anaklia right now).