Sunday, July 07, 2013

Georgian Chronicle (2)--Dodge or Die: A Reappraisal of the Georgian Driver

    I first experienced life on the Georgian road back in 2006, as I traveled from Tbilisi through Gori and Kutaisi and on to Zugdidi, then up into Svaneti--all in the back-seat of a beat-up Soviet-era Lada Niva.  An aggressive driver myself, I found the ride a bit hair-raising at first--the reckless and incessant passing, and the total disregard for staying within one's own lane, etc.--and concluded that Georgians had to be among the worst drivers in the world.

     I think differently now.  Georgian drivers do not ignore the white lines at all.  In fact, they use them for alignment:  two tires on the left side of the line and two tires on the right.  As oncoming traffic is doing much the same thing, driving can resemble a perpetual game of "Chicken."  If you need to pass, no problem.  By all means do so, whether on the right or the left.  If you are going around a curve, just go for it anyway.  Do not concern yourself with the oncoming traffic.  They will scoot over.  Or not. 

     This seems to be an unwritten rule of the Georgian road, something buried deep within the psyche of the Georgian male.  That the vehicle in front of you must be passed at all costs appears to be an unshakable conviction.  We arrived at Stepantsminda, deep in the high Caucasus, late in the day, and would not have time to hike up the mountain to Gergeti Sameba Church and Monastery and back before supper.  The site now receives more religious pilgrims than on my previous visit, as well as being a popular destination for the European backpacking and trekking set.  Enterprising Stepantsmindians have been quick to meet the needs of the touristas milling about the village square.  Mini-vans can tote seven passengers at a time, and little Nivas cart smaller parties.  And so, a steady stream of vehicles climb the rock-strewn goat-path of a road that switchbacks up the mountain.  We split up into three mini-vans and began the ascent-- still no easy task.  About half way up the mountain, I was surprised to hear a toot, and to see a little Lada Niva attempting to scramble past us on the left.  Apparently a fare awaited him at the summit, so our mini-van must be passed.

     Western visitors are also unaccustomed to another staple of Georgian driving, namely cows (and the occasional pigs) on the road.  Cattle roam free in Georgia and they particularly enjoy being on the roads.  Perhaps they are soothed by the wind generated from the wizzing cars and trucks.  The cows pay not the slightest attention to motorists.  A bus can miss a lazing bovine by inches and she will not bat an ear. 

     The best example we witnessed was the drive out of Kutaisi through the rich agricultural lands of Soso's native western Imereti.  The cows were out in force, and our driver, Archilko, maneuvered through them with seeming effortless ease.  One of our tour members voiced the simple question that we were all thinking, to-wit:  "What happens if you hit a cow?"

     John put the question to Archilko, and soon an animated conversation (in Georgian) ensued between him, John, Shergil and Soso.  The question was not as simple as we supposed, as their conversation went on for some length.  As last, John composed an answer for us.  Unless it occurs on a major highway (and really, there are really only one or two in the country,) then the driver is required to stop, locate the owner of the unfortunate cow and make restitution then and there before proceeding.  A good cow brings $750 to $1,000.  That is why the cattle were so nonchalant about traffic.  No Georgian driver ever wants to take the chance of clipping a cow, for the price is just too expensive.  The animated conversation between the Georgian-speakers continued on for some time, with Soso being simply convulsed with laughter.  We later learned that the conversation veered towards road-kill jokes, proving that gross-out humor knows no ethnic boundaries.

     And so now I realize that Georgian drivers are simply the best in the world, as they maneuver around cows, pigs, switchbacks, and potholes the size of small bedrooms, all with effortless aplomb.  Our driver, Archilko, proved to be the best of the best.  And finally, the best thing about the Georgian road is the fact that if you stay with it long enough, you are liable to end up at a place like this: 



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