The delicate balance of terror and fascination.
I'm usually a rather calm, relaxed person and since I've had so many bizarre experiences, it often takes a lot to get me startled or scared. That said, there is one thing that never fails to terrify me: Georgian drivers. Now let me set the record straight. I absolutely enjoy Georgia. I've already returned twice in two years (including this current six week trip) ever since my initial visit and I've made it my goal to see every corner of the country. I've adored every bit of it, except those moments where I come within inches of dying in a flaming wreckage on the side of the road. And unfortunately, this seemed to happen at least two or three times per road trip.
Let's take the one I did yesterday, for example. It was a three hour ride from a town called Zugdidi to Mestia. Conditions were... not good.
But with one hand firmly grasped on a cell phone, the other on a cigarette, our driver persisted at rapid pace, passing anyone and everyone along the way. Blind turns? No fear. Oncoming traffic? Time to win a game of chicken. There wasn't any daring move this guy wouldn't take. He said our trip was going to be three hours, and goddamn it, nothing was going to stop that from happening! Or so we thought.
Just as we were coming around another blind turn, about a dozen cars and trucks stood motionless in our path, blocking the way. With a rock wall to one side and a sharp drop off a cliff to the other, we had no choice but to come to a screeching halt. The driver then opened the doors, letting me and the other passengers out to see what was going on. Based on everything I'd already seen on Georgian roads, I had a pretty good idea of what this could be. Moments later, my suspicion was confirmed. At the center of the car congregation were two vehicles smashed to pieces and wedged into one another. Imagine if Optimus Prime had a child with terrible birth defects, and that pretty much summed up the scene on hand. Clearly, breaks were not used, but thankfully, no one seemed to be badly hurt. The problem was, for us, that the road (the only road going to Mestia) was now entirely blocked. It was time to play the waiting game...
Thankfully though, my travel buddies and I found a rickety old bridge suspended over a river, and since I am easily amused by bizarre things, this kept me occupied for the next 45 minutes. After that, we proceeded to wander around the scene until we came across an unusual red van. Out of its window, a friendly barking dog peeked its head out to shout at passers by. By this, I was now even more intrigued. I made my way over, maneuvering my way through (and occasionally bumping into) the various people standing about as if I were a snake that had one too many drinks.
In the car sat a tall man and a dog. Wanting to know more, I introduced myself and asked for their story, which turned out to be so interesting and awesome, I'll omit it from this post in order to save time (yes, I can be cruel like that). However, if you want to know, check out the post entitled Ben and Ella in the Awesome People section.
Finally, after an hour, the army arrived (the actual Georgian Army) in a large military truck. Soldiers hopped out in full gear and made their way to the accident. Shortly after, they yanked the cars apart and cleared the way, thus allowing us to finally pass through to our ultimate destination. But all of this got me thinking. Georgian driving is completely unlike anything I'd ever experienced in life. In just a short period of time, I've seen traffic jams caused be sheep and cows, police officers giving rides to hitchhikers, people driving off the road onto the grass (including on highways) just to pass other drivers, and one guy using his car's engine to dry marijuana leaves. Here is how I've tried to make sense of it.
Part II: My Understanding
Upon arrival, I was told that Georgians are incredibly and welcoming in all situations except one: when behind the wheel. That's when everything changes. The welcoming hosts turn into bloodthirsty warriors in hot pursuit of a desired destination. Here is the unspoken code to drive by.
- Speed limits do not apply
- You can pass anyone at any time (including police cars)
- A double yellow line in the middle of the road is the most common passing lane. The second is the grass and dirt on the side of the road.
- Before passing, slam on your horn as loud as you can to make your presence known.
- Occasionally herds of hundreds of sheep will be in the road
- Stoplights are virtually nonexistent
- It is quite common to see cars with missing pieces on the road
- Brakes are for cowards
- Police cars are to be treated no differently than other motorists
Ok, this may sound terrifying. And I do admit, I was incredibly terrified during my first ever Georgian taxi ride (see story Taxi of Terror). I thought at any moment I was going to die in a flaming wreckage on the side of the road. Somehow though, I didn't. As surprising as it sounds, I still haven't even died, despite my road trips in the country now totaling to around 50. It's quite shocking considering how there happens to be about 3-5 close calls per hour, per trip that I'm still alive, but I guess I have to give the drivers credit. If I had to drive in Georgia, I wouldn't last a week. I'd smash into someone head on or lose control and go sailing off into the abyss on some mountain pass. Yet these guys always make it through.