Public transportation is a must in Georgia. Many people cannot afford to buy a car -- or if they can buy a Soviet-era jalopy on its last leg (or, wheel....) that burns oil faster than gas, they can't afford to fix it or replace the liquids it uses up so quickly. Public transportation is very affordable and readily available to most parts of the country -- it only costs 15 lari (less than $8.50) for a bus or marshutka from Zugdidi to Tbilisi (a five- or six-hour drive). And for one lari -- that's 56 cents (that the drivers still won't take from me), anyone from Shamgona can ride the 30-45 minutes it takes to lurch and jostle into Zugdidi on our marshutka. I know that I have written a few times about riding on my village's marshutka, but while on my way into Zugdidi today, I realized that the marshutka is a micro-cosm of this country's communal culture.
The marshutka is whatever anyone needs it to be: public transport, school bus, delivery vehicle, or private shuttle. While on my way out of town today, several of my students were on board -- those who live a little too far away from school to walk. When we got to their houses, the "bus" stopped, and out they went -- school bus minus the flashing lights and little "stop" sign that pops out.
If someone wants to send something to someone up the road, they send it via marshutka. Today Lika needed to get a note to one of her neighbors. She called her neighbor and told her to come out to meet the 12:30 marshutka -- Lika caught it on our end of the village, gave the note to the driver, and asked him to deliver it to its recipient. Anything can be sent up the road -- note, box, bag, or chicken. On our way back into the village this afternoon, the driver must have run errands for people while in town -- he stopped at three houses on the way through Shamgona, honked the horn, and handed over a shopping bag with purchases that he had stashed on the dash to whomever came out to answer the honk. I've even seen these exchanges take place long-distance -- like a mechanized pony-express.
Marshutkas can stop anywhere the riders need them to. Unlike buses that have designated places to get on and off, in the village, we can flag them down from anywhere. Tea actually had to run out of the house today and yell for it to stop for me -- it came by the house early, and I was just finishing lunch. And stopping is just as easy. "Gamicheret aq!"-- that's all it takes to bring the vehicle to a stop in front of whatever destination.
Sitting in the marshutka is a coveted position (although it's still not that comfortable for anyone with long legs). And the seating seems to be prioritized -- the elderly and women with small children are always given seats. Even if it is a difficult switch because of marshutka's capacity, men or younger women always give up their seats for older people, women with kids, or the uncommon "guest." (Non-Georgians don't ride marshutkas very often -- except for a few of us!) The few times that I have stood for the ride, I have thanked God for quality welding and rivets that securely hold the bars running the length of the ceiling as twenty or so people hold on for dear life. There are also what I call "doorkeeper" seats -- a carpeted banquette beside the driver's seat that the driver's friends usually occupy -- to help with bags or the door when needed.
Bags go anywhere and everywhere -- on the dash along with umbrellas, under the seats, stacked along the wall by the door or under the dash. The large, 100# bags of flour or sugar go inside the back door along with boxes or crates of chickens. Other bags go on the laps of those sitting down, making more room in the aisle to pack in more passengers.
Music is almost always playing in the marshutka -- loudly -- whether from the vehicle's radio or from a rider's phone. I love it when someone plays music from their phone -- tinny, static-y speakers blaring anything from traditional Georgian music to Lady Gaga to Russian remixes of American-top-40 from the 80's.
It really is a micro-cosm of the Georgian culture -- everything is done for the good of the whole. Discomfort of being squished in like sardines is endured so that everyone can have a ride to where they need to go. The lack of personal space is evident. Generosity is apparent on every ride -- whether on the part of the driver not taking payment or a fellow-rider giving up his seat. If it is raining or snowing out, the marshutka picks up anyone walking along the road. As uncomfortable as it can be, this ever-present mode of transportation is a necessity and a blessing -- a physical representation of the Georgian culture.