Mastering Marshutkas: Or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Ride

Posted on November 25, 2012 by


As a foreigner in such a different country, I found my greatest challenge was making sure I wasn’t feeling too isolated. A great part of this was familiarizing and integrating myself into my host family and community. Daily calls to my English speaking colleagues also played an important role. But what I found most therapeutic was weekend excursions with friends to all the wonderful places Georgia has to offer. However, the challenge was getting to these places. Conquering public transportation in a place where the language is so different, and the driving culture, so unique, was massively intimidating, to say the least.

The easy way would be to simply drive myself, but when we signed our teaching contracts way back in September, the staff made a point of reminding us that driving ourselves was strictly prohibited. Of course, I thought “That’s not fair!” It felt limiting; public transportation doesn’t run late and many of our host families don’t have family cars. Besides, I’ve always found driving to be a bit of a meditative experience for me, music blasting, coasting down the I-15 at a reckless speed of 80 MPH. “Pfff,” that’s what I thought of that. “I do what I want!”

It took no more than one quick outing to the center of Tbilisi to understand this caveat of our contract, and suddenly I was thinking, “Touché, TLG. Tou-ché.” You know how you watch those TV shows of people driving in Italy? Or when you cross the border into Tijuana and suddenly you know that you’ve entered a life-or-death driving situation? Yea, Georgia felt a bit like that. Suddenly, it became paramount for my sanity and my ego to conquer Georgia’s seemingly complex system of transportation.

And so I set off to master the use of marshutkas. These novelty items are our main form of public transportation. Basically, they are large passenger vans, altered to transport infinity people! I have counted about 16 actual seats on most marshes, but I have counted MANY more people actually riding in one. Generally, there are no seat belts, and aisles are fair game for standing space; as long as the door shuts, we’re good. Needless to say, marshutka rides aren’t always the most pleasant. They’re hot, and often crowded, and you always pray you flagged down the right one. In my case, I often must stand on the side of the main international highway, alert for the required marshutka as the vehicles speed by, with the added excitement that the destination signs in their windows are written in a foreign alphabet.

Anyway, all marshutkas (generally) have a set route. This may be a short route within the given city or village, or it may be a longer route, from one city or village to another. I’ve taken both. The intracity ones range from 30 Tetri to 80 Tetri (which I think is about $0.20 to $0.50 US), while the city to city ones range depending on your distance. Some are very well outfitted; others look like they’re left over from Soviet times. They get the job done, though, and for that I am grateful. However, unlike buses that have set stops, a marsh works a bit like a taxi in the sense that it can be flagged down just about anywhere, and can be asked to drop off in the same manner, just yell “gaacharet!!” to the driver, and voilà! Like magic.

While I miss driving, and the meditation and independence it provides, I am happy to leave it to the pros here. So far, so good. And while my blood pumps a little faster each time I must brave a marshutka station, the whole ordeal really isn’t so bad, and luckily good-hearted Georgians willing to help the lost foreigner are a dime a dozen. The key is just to dive into it.