Taking a deep breath of the fresh morning air, I lifted my backpack onto my shoulders. It was just after 11:00am in the valley town of Borjomi, Georgia where I had just spent the past two days. It had been a pleasant weekend where I'd stayed at a friend's hostel and shared the common room with a monk that snored particularly loudly (this is true), but now I was about to leave. I looked over to Simona, who was making the trip too, and we exited the door. The two of us were heading to the capital, Tbilisi, and decided we'd rather hitchhike than get into an overcrowded, 80s era marshrutka (minibus). Together, we walked down the road out of the city with green forested hills on one side and the Mtkvari* River on the other.
*(I still haven't learned how to pronounce it right)
After about 10 minutes, we found a spot that seemed far enough outside the city center to find a car going in our direction. Simona held out her thumb, and almost instantly, the very first car turned on it's signal and pulled over. I felt a rush of excitement. This only took 15 seconds? Wow, I need to do this more often! No sooner had I thought that, however, I saw the words 'TAXI' written on the front window and my smile vanished. I've had a couple experiences with Georgian taxi drivers and nearly every one of them resulted in me fearing for my life.
The window lowered and an older man with short gray-white hair looked out. In a mix of Russian and Georgian, he asked where we were going. I told him in Russian that we were heading to Tbilisi but wanted to hitchhike since we didn't have money. Since Tbilisi was two hours away by car and he could easily make money by picking up other people, I expected him to simply drive off. But he didn't. Instead, he opened the door and told us to sit down. I was shocked. A kind taxi driver? What is this world coming to? Simona then took the initiative and got in, so I followed suit. We then sped off down the road, passing whoever dared get in our way.
The driver looked over to me and introduced himself as Multaz (although I'm probably spelling the name wrong), and asked where we were from. He took some interest in me being from the States, but when he heard Simona was from Italy, his ears perked up. "Georgia and Italy are similar. Great people and great wine," he insisted. He continued elaborating this in a mix of Georgian and Russian, so I had to ask him to repeat. Eagerly he did, and from what I was able to decipher, he said that he had a friend that lives and works in Rome. Then Multaz paused. A slight smile began to appear on his face, just like the sun peering over the horizon. Neglecting the road ahead, he turned and spoke.
"Do you like wine?
Naturally we said, 'Yes."
He pulled over to the side of the road, go out of the car and went to the trunk. The two of us curiously watched as he rummaged through everything, and eventually he pulled out a large plastic water bottle containing a dark red liquid that strongly resembled wine. "Maybe driving gets him thirsty," Simona joked. But then he grabbed two glasses and handed one to each of us. "Drink! I made it myself." I looked down at my watch and saw 12:10. At least it was in the PM hours, I thought, as I tossed my head back and began to drink. The wine was a bit sour, maybe because it had been sitting in a hat trunk for days (possibly weeks), but it was free and the gesture was amazing, so we nonetheless enjoyed it fully.
About half an hour later, as we were passing through a small town, Multaz pulled the car over at a convenient store. "Wait here", he said to us. Feeling a bit tired from the wine, I, like an obedient canine, gladly did as I was told. Moments later, he returned with some bread and more of his wine. "Eat" he told us as he handed us the bread and refilled our glasses. Is this guy really a taxi driver? I thought to myself. If they were all like Multaz, the world would be such a better, nicer, more inebriated place. If only...
As we drove off, he took out his phone and began to search for something. Slowly we began drifting into the other lane, only to have Multaz jerk back the wheel at the very last second and return immediately to his phone. Priorities. Suddenly, music began to pour out of it and a man's voice could be heard singing in Italian. He directed it towards Simona. She leaned over and whispered to me, "For some reason this guy was really popular in Soviet countries back in the 80s. I have no idea why." Regardless of the music quality though, it was a nice gesture. But then, something started happening that made me feel a bit uneasy...
Multaz's car began drifting in and out of the lane and he started rubbing his eyes repeatedly. First one, then two, then three cars narrowly missed colliding with us all within the span of a couple minutes. Not too keen on the prospect of dying, I asked him if everything was alright, to which he replied 'yes.' However, he continues and explained that he had been driving since 10pm last night and was finally now on the way back to his home just outside Tbilisi. He hadn't slept in two days, but he insisted that this was 'normal' for him. 'Music helps,' he replied, as he picked up his phone and began searching for a new song to play. Again, priorities.
Thankfully, we did not all become mangled on the side of the road, because about ten minutes later, we reached a fork in the highway and Multaz pulled over. He pointed down the main road and said (Tbilisi is that way). He explained that this was where he gets off to go home but we we're now just about 20 minutes away from the city by car. We both thanked him and Simona gave him the bottle of chacha (Georgian grape vodka), and he went on his way. This meant it was time for round 2 of hitchhiking.
With the bright afternoon sun shining down on us, we stood on the side of the road with our thumbs out as cars sped by. We weren't quite as lucky as the first round, as the first car by didn't stop, but within five minutes, a driver began to slow and pulled over right next to us. This time it was a younger man of about 30. He introduced himself (but I forgot his name) and asked where we were going. We replied, "Tbilisi," and he told us to get in. Noticeably more awake, this driver stayed well in the lane without swerving, but there was something different. There was a noise coming from the front passenger seat. Simona leaned forward to see what it was, and she beckoned me to do the same. Not knowing what to expect, I leaned forward... and then I saw it. A large, white rabbit sat in a box on the chair. As if a friendly taxi driver wasn't enough of a surprise, now we got to share a ride with a rabbit.
About 20 minutes later, we arrived into Tbilisi's main bus station, capping off a quite interesting journey across the country. We said goodbye to the driver and pet the rabbit before heading off to the metro into the city. I checked my watch, seeing it was just 2:30. I'd only been up for about 5 hours so far and already Simona and I met the world's only friendly taxi driver, hitchhiked in two cars, shared a ride with a fluffy animal, and finished two glasses of homemade wine each. Needless to say, I will absolutely be doing more hitchhiking after this.