There’s something about being on the road, the transition between point A and point B, that enables me to have the strangest encounters. I meet total oddballs, things don’t go as planned, and sometimes the entire journey is a disaster. There’s the Bilbo Baggins line that is so fitting: Bilbo Baggins: It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.
About two weeks ago or so, I walked out my front door on an adventure. Departed the mountainous region I currently have residence in, and headed to another mountainous region on the other side of the Black Sea for my Easter holiday. And sure enough, I met some good characters along the way.
I had a flight from the Tbilisi airport at 7am, so I figured I’d head to Tbilisi in the afternoon and spend the evening in the airport. I had someone who could give me a ride to the airport, which was nice because I can’t afford a hostel and the taxi fare to the airport. Got there right around 9pm. Around 3am I started to get a little bit bored. I was too tired to read anymore, so I had taken up the process of wandering from metal bench to metal bench every fifteen minutes or so to pass the time. Different scenery to make for some excitement.
I found myself on a lucky bench at one point, as I noticed the family next to me had a little mini supra going on. The father had gone to the tourist shop and had bought a little drinking horn (Georgian tradition to drink out of horns), and had bought a bottle of cognac. The men filled the horn with the cognac, said a toast, downed the horn, and passed it along. I looked on and smiled. Of course this is happening next to me in the Tbilisi airport at 3am. Then they handed me the horn! I made a toast to peace and downed the horn. They were flying to Kiev, as was I, but they were on the 5am flight.
On the flight to Kiev, I had fallen asleep for a little bit. Sleepless nights in airports tend to make passing out on planes easier. I woke up right as the drink car was passing. T’skhali da khava, I said (water and coffee.) She stared at me blankly. Oh, I realized, she doesn’t speak Georgian. This is certainly strange. Someone who doesn’t speak Georgian?! She handed me a tray of food for breakfast. I was so happy I could have wept for joy. I had no idea I would be served food! It was so nice of them! I had eaten some khinkhali the night before for dinner, but had gotten hungry. Airplane bread to fuel me on for the next leg of my journey.
Another good incident in the Kiev airport, where I had a layover for a few hours. I met a Georgian guy who was flying to New York with a green card. He asked me the questions. When I said that I liked Georgia – that it’s sometimes difficult, but I like it here, he responded by saying that the people in Georgia are very good, but have management problems. I thought it was a very good way to put it. He told me the long sad history of the Georgians, focusing on the great tragedies in the last 200 years. One day in 1920, the Georgians lost 31,000 kilometers to Russia. Armenia, Azerbaijan and Turkey also all have stolen Georgian land, but it’s the Russians who have taken the most.
Then he began talking to me about the various evils of the Russians. For instance, they were the cause of the earthquake in Japan. It’s no coincidence that the earthquake followed just a few days after disputes of control of some islands. It’s not the first time the Russians have caused earthquakes, either. They also caused the big earthquake in Turkey a few years back, also shortly following tensions of one sort or another.
I’ve heard of Georgians making this claim before. Of course the Russians caused the earthquake in Japan! What other explanation could there be? But this was the first time I could actually have the conversation myself. Naturally, I was quite curious. The Russians can cause devastating earthquakes?! Why have I not heard about this? Is anyone concerned about an earthquake creating power gap? So I asked him to please explain how the Russians can cause earthquakes. Well, there’s a city in Eastern Russia that is cordoned off for about 100km around it. Underneath this forbidden city is a secret underground tectonic facility. How this secret tectonic facility causes earthquakes, I was not told. But I’m very concerned. I asked him if the Russians caused the earthquake in New Zealand. He didn’t know about that one, but he said it was possible.
I realized that he hadn’t asked me the religion question yet, so I struck preemptively and asked him myself. Yes, he is Orthodox, and since I have no religion, I need to talk to priests. There are probably some in Kutaisi who will help me. He showed me his crucifix and icon that he wears around his neck. There is no logical explanation, he said, about the powers of his icon. It is metal, but he doesn’t take it off when he goes through metal detectors. And it doesn’t set them off. This makes me wonder about the powers of the button fly of my Levis.
Such were my adventures on the trip out (Kutaisi to Belgrade, roughly 30 hours). The journey back (Sarajevo to Kutaisi, roughly 24 hours) had other oddities.
Departed Sarajevo on the night bus to Belgrade. Flight around 7am again. The night bus left at 10pm, and I figured I’d be in Belgrade at roughly 4am. Plenty of time to get to the airport. But there were many stops. I had eaten some cevapi before departing, but figured I should probably eat a little something on the road, as it was a long journey. Peanut butter pretzels and Jaffa cakes at the border to fuel me on. Around 4:30am, we still weren’t in Belgrade, and I started to get worried. I asked some guy sitting next to me if he spoke English, and the best way to get to the airport. Maybe there was a good bus? No, I will have to take a taxi. Fair enough, I thought, I’d probably spend a long time searching for the bus and not find it, and risk not getting to the airport in time. He talked to a cabbie outside the bus station for me, who agreed to take me to the airport for fifteen euros. Alright, I figure, it’s not cheap, but could be worse. Now to find an ATM. At the ATM, put the card in, pin number, then I foolishly tried to confirm how much the taxi would cost in Serbian Dinars. The cabbie gave me a confusing answer, and when I turned around, I had taken too much time and the ATM had taken my card.
No buttons worked, blank screen. No, no, no… I have no money! I started to panic. Tried to explain what was going on to the impatient cabbie, who didn’t get it, and tried to take me to another ATM. I tried to talk to a few people to see if they could help, and found some people who spoke English. Well, this is a problem, they said. My thoughts exactly. They told me that I needed to contact the bank, but since it was 5am on a Sunday, I’d have a hard time doing that for a little bit. But I need to get to the airport, I say, I have a flight in two hours! Well, this is a problem. This is my concern, dude. I pleaded and tried to explain that I only had four euros and various small amounts of Georgain, Bosnian, Croatian and Serbian currencies and needed to get to the airport. Is there anyone who can help? Taxi driver left, others apologized and went on their way. No good Samaritans out today. I trudged along a few rainy streets trying to flag down the one or two cars out driving around at 5am. Nothing. I didn’t know what I was going to do. I had no money, and limited time to get to the airport.
I ran across another ATM, and figured I might as well give my Georgian card a go. To my great embarrassment I had overdrafted it earlier in the week trying to pay for something, but maybe something will work. I didn’t think I’d have any luck hitching a ride to the airport at 5am on a rainy Sunday. It was a success (I must have gotten paid) and I got out roughly 20 euros. Flagged down a cab, asked how much to the airport. He pointed to the meter. Let’s go for a gamble and hope it’s a legitimate cab! A long cab ride, and it was expensive. More than it should have been and more than I had. I gave him all my dinars, and started to rummage around in my pockets for my euro coins. Thankfully, though, the cab driver didn’t charge me all of it and let me off without paying the fully overcharged price. Just moderately scammed.
Two flights later I found myself back in Tbilisi, in the rain, trying to find a marshrutka to Kutaisi. A few bumpy hours later, I was back on Nikeya street, dancing around the puddles on my way to the dorm. A 24 hour journey involving night buses, lost debit cards, surly scamming cab drivers, and rainy Georgia. As long as I could view my life as an outside observer and see the great comedy of it all, I was okay. What’s best on travel days, I find, is to maintain a healthy mental distance from reality, so as not to get too stressed out about it. The trick is being able to laugh about all the silly misadventures that happen to that poor, unprepared protagonist.