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.”


  1. Great story, glad I heard it long after the fact and already knowing how it came out. Good to note that we have prayed consistently for your safety and God has brought you through danger in one piece. Well-written vignette, really enjoyed it. Keep them coming when you have time! Love, Dad

  2. Adam,

    Once you are back from Georgia you can teach survival course and catch crocodiles with bare hands. ;-) I really wanna to know that Nino said to the driver.

    BTW, Nino should start writing a book...