It was a Sunday. I was the passenger of a Tbilisi-bound marshrutka winding our way out of the mountains near Borjomi. I was shoulder-to-shoulder with a white-bearded priest and a dozing gentleman, jostling with the whims of the road. Bucolic scenery splashed across the windows. It was all quite normal. With nothing to do for the next hour and a half, I decided it was a propitious time to practice becoming more present in my own life.
In becoming more present, I was suddenly aware that the driver of my vehicle held a glowing cigarette in his left hand, was barking into the cell phone in his right hand (“Kho!”), and had somehow dropped the marshrutka down a gear to attempt a precarious passing maneuver on the wintry mountain road. I gasped, shut my eyes tightly, and braced myself for a seemingly-inevitable impact.
Out of my interrupted moment of presence, I arrived at two realizations: First, having experienced the Georgian trafficscape for 6+ months, I had heretofore become numb to situations that had me shrieking and white-knuckled upon arrival in September. What once seemed perilous has become the banal stuff of routine. Second, a moving marshrutka is no place to attempt a “Zen moment.”
For the reader who has never traveled on Georgia’s roads, I will take a moment to elucidate some basics (Let it be known that I have never undertaken any formal studies of Georgian road rules. Listed below are my mere observations as a passenger and pedestrian).
Traffic lanes are fluid. Sure, there are lines on the physical road delineating spaces that drivers should occupy, but they are severely open to interpretation.
Traffic circles in Georgia operate on telepathy. Cars approach from all directions; some approach timidly, some are awkwardly stopped in the line of fire, while still others barrel through the whole ordeal.
Speed limits depend on the weather and/or the constitution of a particular vehicle.
Pedestrians, ornery cattle, and wayward sheep constantly seep into the streets.
For me, the most fascinating feature of Georgian driving occurs during passing maneuvers on the highway. Most intercity highways are two-lane roads—that is, there is one lane for each direction of traffic. These stretches of road become the stage for wondrous feats of vehicular physics. Here, passing is not just a unilateral action taken by the passing vehicle. Rather, it is a multilateral operation during which the car being overtaken becomes an actor, as do the oncoming vehicles in the other lane. With a few mysterious flicks of the headlights, an opportune dropping of gears, and some superhuman intuition, the passing vehicle maneuvers through a divinely-sanctioned force field to arrive safely in front of the slower vehicle. The passing vehicle becomes a sort of steel- and rubber-clad Moses parting the seas. It is tense and magical. Is it clairvoyance? Is it divine intervention? (I could find no hard facts on the matter, but I have to imagine that most road accidents occurring on intercity highways are head-on collisions.)
Though many of us might be safe drivers in our home countries, we would likely become stressed-out shells of our former selves if we were to drive in Georgia. Luckily, the TLG contract specifically bars its volunteers from getting behind the wheel. After cruising through the 2009 World Health Organization’s European Status Report on Road Safety, I can understand why. Driving in Georgia is dangerous. The mortality rate on the road in Georgia is 16.8 people per 100,000. While Georgia certainly isn’t the most hazardous country in this part of the world (Russia rings in at 25.2 people per 100,000), it is likely more dangerous than the countries most TLG volunteers call home (most of Western Europe and the US weighs in around 10 deaths per 100,000).
Just because we can’t get behind the helm, dear volunteers, it doesn’t mean we are doomed to be hapless passengers. There are some things you—yes you!—can do to mitigate the hazards of overland travel in Georgia:
1) Select a safe driver. Do not embark on a marshrutka/taxi journey with a driver who seems unreasonably impatient or angry. Road rage is never safe.
2) Chose a seat wisely. If you sit in the front of a vehicle, be sure to buckle up (not only is it a good idea, but it’s also the law!). Select a seat on a marshrutka discriminately. If you’re hyper-skittish about highway accidents like me, try to envision how your fragile body will barrel forward in the event of a head-on collision. In essence, what I’m saying is don’t sit behind a pile of steel rebar or anywhere near a knife salesman.
3) Travel during the day, if possible. Many intercity roads are regretfully underlit at night. More than that, there might be Ladas bumbling around in the dark with neglected headlights and taillights!
4) Take the train. Though the train is slower and lends a traveler less flexibility in terms of scheduling, it does take away many risks associated with road travel. As a result, your slower rail journey will likely be more relaxing. And heck, it’s usually cheaper!
5) Stay on the sidewalk (or, in the absence of a proper sidewalk, stay as far out of the road as possible). Pedestrians comprise 28% of all traffic-related deaths in Georgia.
Take comfort in knowing that the longer you are here and the more you travel, the less you will notice your misgivings about road travel. So let not the nature of the Georgian road deter you from exploring this magnificent country! Instead, be mindful of your apprehensions and let them blend into the scenery. Not only will you be more “present,” but I do believe that’s how a proper memory is made.