Overall the Republic of Georgia is 26,911 square miles making it slightly smaller in size than the state of South Carolina. You would think, because of its size, that getting around would be fast and easy considering its small size; but alas, that is not the case. The country uses planes, trains and automobiles -- as well as buses and the Tbilisi metro; but, the main source of transportation is something called the Marshrutka, commonly known as "marsh".
The "marsh" is the backbone of what makes Georgia move. The "marsh" is really a van and can hold anywhere from ten to twenty people (and then some) depending on the van size. I have discovered Marshrutka is a Russian word meaning (loosely translated) shared taxi. The reason that using the "marsh" is not fast and easy is that the "marsh" operates on its own schedule. It only begins its journey when a certain number of people climb aboard. Most of the "marshes" are individually owned and there is really no set schedule for when they come and go. The "marsh" can be a Mercedes van or something that is falling apart (and everywhere in-between).You can pick the "marsh" up at a central location or you can flag it down anywhere on the road or highway. If there is room in the "marsh" - and even if there is no room -- it will stop whenever someone flags it down. It is incredible how many people squeeze into this vehicle and each person is a paying customer.
Riding the "marsh" was an unexpected experience in my new life. You pay the driver when you get off, as the fares are different depending on the length of time you are in transit. Before I could translate some of the Georgian language I had no idea where any of these vehicles were going; however, since I can read some Georgia now I can safely climb aboard a Tbilisi "marsh" (--'ილისი - Tbilisi) as there is a big sign on the inside of the windshield announcing where the "marsh" will end up. When the "marsh" is stopped I can read the sign; but, when it is zipping by on the highway not so much.
My first real experience on the "marsh" was in Osiauri, a village in the central part of Georgia. When the "marsh" stopped for me (I waved it down like a taxi) I stepped in feeling very proud of myself and then immediately tripped on the rug and almost ended up in the lap of the driver. I was embarrassed and tried to look cool like I knew what I was doing; but, most of the locals on the "marsh" knew me as The American and nobody really paid me attention. When I sat down I realized that at my feet were live chickens in a cage. There was also something moving in a large white bag; but, I didn't want to look too closely at that. It was hot and the "marsh" barely has seats (most were ripped and torn and you can see the springs) let alone air conditioning (a window that opens would be nice). There are no hand holds on the "marsh" and the road that we drove on was dirt and rock. We moved at the pace of a snail, bumping and weaving to avoid big pot holes that are often filled with water, and every few feet we stopped to let someone off or on. Now, the word "capacity" does not exist in Georgia where the "marsh" is concerned. No matter how filled the "marsh" is there is always room for more people or for live stock or anything else that needs to be transported.
I had a unique "marsh" experience coming back from the Western part of Georgia heading east towards my village. We were moving along at a nice pace and I was fairly sure that if nothing went wrong I would be able to make my connection to get to my village. Well, no sooner had the thought jumped into my head then someone on the "marsh" said something in Georgian to the driver and we stopped by this hut on the side of the road. In the hut was a woman who was selling bread and other food items. The person who asked to have the driver stop leaned out the window of the "marsh"and bought some bread. I was with a couple of friends and we all looked at each other with "you have got to be kidding" look on our faces. Well, no sooner did she finish with her purchases then other folks on the "marsh" decided that they wanted to do some shopping. People on the "marsh" were pushing each other out of the way (on the "marsh") to get to the window and buy food. Of course, this delay cost me and my friends our connection; but, that is life when you travel by "marsh" in Georgia.
The best experience I had, bar none, was when I had my first ride in a marsh while "standing". I am a seasoned bus rider. I don't have a car so either I walk or I take the bus. Standing on a bus in the United States is a little uncomfortable at times, but not that bad. I can "stand my ground on a bus, no problem." However, I cannot say the same for the "standing" experience in a "marsh". Up until this point when I've gotten on the "marsh" and there were no seats someone, either a nice gentleman or one of the children (usually from the school and they recognize me) they get up and give me their seat. Georgian's are wonderful like that. However, this marsh was filled with mostly women coming back from shopping at the bazaar. In addition to people, the marsh was filled with bags and bags of fruits, vegetables, clothes, and heaven knows what else. When I got on I barely had a place to stand let alone sit.
The "marsh" is really not made for standing as there is nothing to hold onto except the back of the seats. Also, you cannot stand up straight in the marsh (like you can on a bus). The ceiling is low because the marsh is really a van so you have to bend a little in order to get yourself in. I was trying to balance my bag of goodies and hold on at the same time. One woman took pity on me and grabbed my bag which left my hands free to push against the walls and/or ceiling to anchor myself. That was not working either.
There are many turns and twists on the ride home, so I was back and forth against other folks who were standing -- apologizing, but it was either that or I was going to fall on them (which would not have been pretty). The roads are also bumpy with deep pot holes, so the driver is always zigging and zagging to try and avoid them. It was a heck of a ride. If all that was not enough, the marsh has few open windows and of course no air conditioning, so it was boiling inside. I almost got out half way home to walk the remainder of the way. It's a 20-minute ride from start to finish and when I got out of the marsh I felt like I had been inside a washing machine. Just to think, I am going to have 2+ years of this joy! A former Peace Corps volunteer told me that on a "marsh" ride in the dead of summer she fainted from the heat and found herself waking up on the ground outside of the marsh with all the riders looking down on her. I can't wait!
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