11 Hours in a Marshutka
To get to Mestia from Tbilisi you have 3 options: fly, night train to a bus, or marshutka. Ina and Umar (a German couple staying at my hostel) were also headed that way, and we all decided on the marshutka - we thought, "won't it be nice to see the scenery all across the country?"
5:40am: depart hostel. they tell us as long as we're there by 6:30 or 7 we'll be fine, but we want to be safe
6:10am: marshutka leaves the bus station. We got the last 3 seats on the bus! 30 lari per person ($13)
There are 22 seats on this bus, and 26 people. There were 25, but we stuffed bags under seats to cram in one more. Luckily some of them are children. Ina, Umar and I are in the very last row.
A brief cast of characters:
- Elderly couple, all in black. Three other people on bus also all in black. Going home for a funeral?
- Mom with 5 year old on lap. Older daughter or sister in back row with us.
- Bebia (grandmother) 1: traveling with 3 boys under 7
- Bebia 2: traveling with one boy, maybe 5
- our driver and his family in the front seat
- and some random other people who were not so interesting
6:20am: Bebia 1 and Mom have control of the windows closest to us. As soon as the bus picks up speed, they close them completely. The sweating begins.
6:30am: Elderly lady tells driver to pull over so she can bargain for a hammock with a roadside vendor. She doesn't buy it.
9:15am: Bathroom break at a roadside restaurant. We are told 20 or 30 minutes (my numbers aren't so good yet).
10:00am: we leave the restaurant. An important lesson in Georgian Maybe Time.
10:05am: we drop a child off on the side of the road
10:15am: we pick another child up from the side of the road
10:30am: by this point, it is sweltering. The women controlling the windows open and close them as they please, but they are closed far more than they are open. I am a sweaty mess.
10:58am: Mom has the bus pull over on the side of the road - she hands over a package to someone who has come there to meet her.
11:04am: We slam on the brakes for a pig crossing the road. Later we will stop for a turkey, and for at least 30 cows.
12pm: arrive in Zugdidi. Already 5.75 hours in! It is very hot. We stop somewhere and the driver disappears. Eventually passengers start to get out to smoke and catch a breeze. Bebia is the last person back on, and she's carrying two bags full of bread.
12:20pm: We stop again. Still in Zugdidi. No restaurant, no bathroom, half the bus disappears. The rest of us have no idea what's going on. 30 minutes later, everyone else comes back with grocery bags... where are they going to fit? Shuffling ensues.
1pm: We are finally leaving Zugdidi. We get our first glimpse of the mountains just outside of town, and then we start to climb.
2:30pm: We stop in Barjashi. The driver buys coffee and bread to share. This is a pleasant stop with a waterfall behind the restaurant, and a nice cool breeze. We learn that girl in the back row with us speaks some English. She shares her snack (some kind of goldfish, but a different flavor). People are much friendlier now that we are getting close.
A big pig approaches our group, oinking. A little girl oinks back and runs towards it. Bebia freaks out.
3pm: Old couple is getting impatient. The man is yelling at the driver (this is how we learn the driver's name is Eric). He even switches to English at one point "Let's go let's go!"
3:10pm: We stop to buy drinks and pick up a lady who has to stand by the door to fit. The door takes 3 tries to close, every time. It reminds me of Little Miss Sunshine. I'm afraid she's going to fall out.
3:40pm: We drop off Bebia 2 on the side of the road. Turns out half the bags in the bus belonged to her.
3:50pm: Driver stops in the middle of the road and a man runs out - driver hands him some sort of electronics part. This will happen two more times. Eric is clearly the carrier for goods that can't be purchased in the villages.
4pm: And now we're off the paved road. Old man is yelling again. We go down a steep road into a tiny village and drop off the driver's family. The bus barely fits between the stone walls of the houses - maybe 2" clearance on both sides.
5pm: We are the last people on the bus as we come into Mestia. Everyone else has gotten dropped off along the way. It's pouring rain, but luckily the driver takes us to Ina and Umar's guesthouse. Driver Eric seems to think I speak more Georgian than I do and is trying to get us to plan a ride back with him. Because this was such an efficient way to travel.
5:15pm: We finally check into the guesthouse. 11 hours in transit!
All in all, other than the heat it actually wasn't the worst way to travel. Folks were nice enough and we made it here safely. However, I might take the train on the way back...