Tuesday, March 8, 2011

On a bus to Zugdidi

Being on a bus is a funny thing. Sitting inside a rectangular aluminum body on wheels, careening down the road in the company of complete strangers, the riders become part of a collective whole acting together, while at the same time, remaining inwardly individual.

The feeling on a bus is different from a plane or a train. When I board a plane or train, I feel like I am on the brink of an epic journey that I am powerless to stop. There is a permanence to boarding either of those modes of transportation -- once I'm on, that's it -- there's no getting off until the end of the line. But a bus is more down-to-earth -- literally (in regards to the plane) and figuratively. It's cheap. It's relatively quick (key word: relatively). It's practical. It's easy. 

When I jump onto a bus I feel like a vagabond thumbing a ride someplace -- anyone can take the bus. In contrast, when I buy a ticket for a plane or train, the process is ceremoniously limited to those who can afford it. Tense anticipation pervades the moments spent checking in and loading onto those transports. Nothing about my psyche has to change to prepare for a bus ride. 

On a bus, I can ask the driver to let me off wherever I need to stop (at least, here in Georgia the stops are that flexible). There's no asking the pilot or conductor to let me off mid-trip. Oh, disastrous....

On the bus, most of the passengers travel with their coats on -- perhaps another way the ride feels less permanent…. more transitory. At any moment, the bus could stop, so everyone is ready to disembark. Or perhaps it's just drafty in these Georgian buses. The air-tight cabins of planes and modern, high-speed trains lend themselves to retaining heat, so coats are stowed for the duration of the trip in the overhead compartments....."and please use caution when opening the overhead compartments as contents may have shifted during the flight...."

Back to the bus --

While traveling back to Western Georgia today after spending a long weekend in the eastern end of the country, I watched my fellow-vagabonds sit and ride. I was sitting on the aisle, so I had a good view of everyone ahead of me. True to Georgian-style, most people were wearing black leather jackets (the men, especially), jeans, boots, and a scarf of some sort. So uniformed, the passengers looked like they all belonged to the same club …. or all shopped at the same store. I would say that they all looked a part of a Brit-rock band en route to their next gig, but there were too many old people in the group. The repetition of images up the aisle drew my pattern-seeking, artist's eye. A few of the men wore "qudi" (caps) on their heads (it was another cold, rainy day), but aside from those extra accessories, everyone looked the same. Everyone sat, facing the front of the bus, a few gazed out the windows partially covered by mustard-yellow curtains. The only thing facing the passengers was the clock, silently announcing the hour and minutes in bold, red readout.

There is one thing that I like most about watching bus-riders: the unison, bobble-head movement that affects everyone and everything on the bus. With every bump and turn, each rider's head and upper body sways, rocks, bobs, and nods in perfect time. Even the ratty curtains follow the flow of the movement. No one is exempt -- not me, not the driver, not the guy sitting ahead of me across the aisle who keeps turning around to look in my direction, not the girl sitting next to me sharing her tinny phone-music with the group. Everyone has to follow the rhythm dictated by the bus. If I let my eyes go out of focus, I can take in everything in front of me at once -- the unison movement becomes visually musical. 

Every now and then, someone stands up and tries to move of their own accord -- out of sync with the bus-flow, they stumble as if drunk, fighting to be the one in control of their motions. The bus always wins.

So here we all are, on the bus. Dressed alike. Moving in unison. Headed the same direction. Hemmed in by the same yellow-ness. Watching the same scenery go by. Yet, for all the similarity spread across the space in front of me, each person is a unique individual. Each one is thinking unique thoughts. Each one has unique dreams. Each one is going to a different place. Each person has his own story to tell. Each one wrestles with different, unseen stresses. Lost in thought, mindlessly bobbing to the rhythm of the bus, each person exists as a part of the whole, yet completely individual at the same time. 

I am stating the obvious. But I am reminding myself of this individuality more than drawing any earth-shattering conclusions. Being surrounded by a culture and language that are not mine can often cause me to generalize more than I should. I have to remember that although many Georgians look the same to me, they are not all the same person. They do have a strong, unifying tradition of being Georgian, yet each one is a whole individual with thoughts and feelings as unique and relevant as mine. 

Funny things, buses -- and philosophically compelling, too.


  1. They actually do shop at the same store ... well, kind of. It's all imported from Turkey, very cheap, somewhat durable during snow and rain. Coats are then sold at Bazrobas that are very similar to each other regardless of which city you go to. So, I'd like to blame it on lack of well diversified import sources :)

    What's funny is that I've lived in States for more that 12 years now and black is till my favorite choice of color during winter months.

    By the way, I really enjoyed reading your updates. I've never been in Mingrelia (Samegrelo).

  2. Giorgi,
    I know that you are Georgian with that name!! I love it!

    Thanks for shedding light on the jacket-sameness over the country! I figured that was the case. Like you, I also love wearing black -- especially in the winter! I blame it on being an artist -- I often paint my nails black in this season, too. But right now, I'm awfully ready for spring.

    I hope you make it to Mingrelia sometime -- the people are wonderful! ....and so is the food!

    Thanks for reading and for commenting!

  3. When I went to the middle school we actually had 5 Giorgis in a class of 30. To make things really confusing for the teacher (I wonder how you address your students), two of them have the same last name. As Georgians have no middle names, teacher had to use fathers' names to distinguish two Giorgis.

    I'm originally from Kutaisi. My grandfather from my mother's side was from a small village in Mingrelia and I've never been there. As far as I know, most of our relatives left the village for cities. My grandfather spoke Mingrealian but my neither my mom nor my aunts can speak Mingrelian.

    I was just in Georgia last late December-early January after 5 years of absence. Lots of things seemed very different but some things never changed. Fortunately weather was very kind as my bedroom, as in most of the Georgian homes, was not heated. Sorry for this long comment but I feel like I know what you must be going through in a land very different from States. I think I did more complaining when I was in Georgia compared to what I could get from reading your posts. I think many of the TLG volunteers are doing a very brave job.

    Thanks for your dedication and hard work.

  4. Giorgi,
    To solve the issue of many students having the same name, I make eye contact with the one I want to call on -- that usually works. (I have not tried learning everyone's last names -- the first names are tough enough for me without trying to add the long and difficult last names!) Or if I am talking about a student that is one of many with the same name, I add a descriptor -- "tall Giorgi," "dancer Giorgi," "artist Giorgi."

    Thank you for your comments!