I’ve been wanting to write a blog post on the crazy transportation system of marshutkas in Georgia since my first experience with one almost two years ago. But I’ve failed at making that happen. Happily, my friend Angela wrote one that is not only informative, but also entertaining! So, with her permission, I am just outright stealing her post. To read the original or to just check out her blog, click here. Note: Because I live in a city, and she in a village, and because we are two different people with varied experiences, our thoughts differ a bit on marshes in some ways. So, in some places, I have inserted my own thoughts in bold. How-To: Successfully Ride a Marshutka* in Georgia *there was some confusion during Pre-Service training on whether the appropriate way to say it is “marshutka” or “marshrutka.” Apparently the Russian term is marshrutka, but in Georgian it’s მარშუტკა (marshutka) There’s not much traditional public transportation in Georgia outside the main cities. There are two metro lines, public buses, and intra-city marshutkas in Tbilisi. Rustavi mainly operates on intra-city buses/marshutkas as well, and the same goes for Batumi and Kutaisi, although I don’t know those cities as well. There’s also a fantastic bus/marshutka system that runs between Tbilisi and Rustavi, those lucky ducks. Note: all of these are fairly well organized, with bus and marsh #s labeled on the vehicle. In Tbilisi, there are even bus stops that tell you when the next bus is scheduled to arrive! For the rest of us plebes out in the hinterlands, there are just normal marshutkas. So, what is a marshutka (or as we call it in the PC, marsh)?
See that sign on the bottom left corner of the windshield?
That indicates the marsh’s final destination, and sometimes major cities on its way. Note that the signs are all in Georgian, or in my town’s case, Russian… this makes it extremely difficult for a new PCV/foreigner without a good grasp of the Georgian alphabet to find the correct marsh. Without further ado, here are Angela’s steps to successfully riding a marsh**, carefully honed by months of embarrassing trial and error:
- Stand on the side of the nearest highway. There is only one major highway in Georgia, going East-West, so chances are you’ll be on there. If not, you may have to transfer from your village or town to somewhere on this highway or the nearest city.
Pro tip: The closer you are to the incoming traffic, the better–this indicates intent to hail down a marsh.
- Squint intensely into the distance. Remember, you’re on a highway, so these cars are going quickly, and often passing each other! They don’t wait for you… remember your Georgian ანბანი (alphabet) and look out for a marsh sign that might go to your destination.
Pro tip: If you can’t read Georgian quickly enough, if the first letter fits, just go for it. You’ll probably never see these strangers again even if you get it wrong! When you enter the marsh (Step 4), you can make sure by asking “[Intended Destination]-ში ხო მიდიხართ?”([Intended Destination]-shi xo midixar?–You’re going to [Intended Destination], right?)
- Go for it! Wave your hand at the marsh. Stick your arm into the highway. Try to make eye contact with the chain smoking driver. Look like a confident, well-practiced foreigner hailing a marsh instead of the ball of nerves that you are.
Pro tip: If the marsh just passes you, chances are that it’s full. Or maybe the driver doesn’t like the way you look. Don’t let it get you down.
- Enter the marsh. This is harder than it seems. Sometimes you have to pull the sliding door on the side to open. Sometimes that door is glued shut to make more room for seats, and you have to enter through the passenger side door. Sometimes it’s a fancy marsh with an automatic sliding door system that the driver has to activate.
Pro tip: If the door doesn’t open, don’t keep pulling at it. It will alert everyone that you are a total newbie to marsh riding. Probably someone on the inside will help you.
- Pick your seat. There’s an art to picking your marshutka seat that has to be developed on your own. Everyone has his or her own preferences. Here are mine:
If I am riding the marshutka to the end of the line (usually a metro station in Tbilisi), I choose one of the single-seaters near the back of the marsh. Fewer people*** will stare at me, or even notice me, and there’s less of a chance that the woman next to me will be carrying a live chicken. YES! If I am riding the marshutka to somewhere that isn’t a common stop–see Step 9– I choose a single-seater as close to the driver as possible. If none of those are available, I choose a double-seater as close to the driver as possible. If the back part of the marshutka seems to be crowded upon first glance, and there’s a seat or two open in the front next to the driver, I go through the passenger seat door. NEVER! If there is anyway I can avoid it, I never sit up front with the driver although as a foreign woman they will often offer it. My stance is avoid men, even the driver, at all costs. Plus, my strategy of putting the headphones in and not speaking the entire ride is potentially rude if you are sitting next to the driver. Of course, sometimes you catch an exceptionally busy marshutka–rush hour, or the last marsh to run for the evening–and there are no options. You’re lucky enough to have even snagged a seat in the first place. Marsh drivers aren’t supposed to take passengers when there’s only standing room, but trust me…they do.
- Sit in your seat, if you got one, and try to change it if necessary.
Pro tip: If you need to get off before the end of the line, but didn’t get a good seat near the driver, you need to be introduced to the art of changing seats. This is when you keep an eye on the seats near the driver, and when someone in those seats vacates, you abruptly stand up and claim it for your own. Georgians are well-versed in this art and nobody will bat an eye at you for doing this. Don’t be shy. If someone stands up before you, though, let it go–that seat is theirs. If you wait too long, it’ll get taken, either by another Georgian already in the marsh, or a newcomer who’s just gotten on.
- Enjoy the ride as you please. If you have a seat partner, they might be in your space. It’s okay. They are definitely more used to it than you are. If you want to listen to music, that’s cool too. Georgians might try to strike up a conversation with you if they see you’re a foreigner who knows Georgian. If you want to talk, stay polite but reserved (especially if you’re a female); if not, they’ll get the message.
Pro tip: Marshutkas are actually pretty safe–safer than I was led to believe–and you should feel comfortable. Don’t let your guard down too much, but don’t stress yourself out. Disagree – marshes are the most common place to be groped by a Georgian man. If stuck sitting next to a man, they will more than likely encroach on your personal space. If you don’t hold your ground and make it clear that it is in no way okay to touch you, soon a hand may “absentmindedly” land on your knee. I’ve learned (through experience) to be a bit more aggressive and I will actually take said hand and fling it off of me. Typically these men are drunk and they look a little befuddled for a moment, but then they get the point. Foreign women are often “tested” by men, particularly on marshes. So, I would never assume that a man encroaching on your personal space in a marsh is okay. It may be sending them a message that other kinds of touching are okay as well. Bebias (grandmothers), on the other hand, can encroach all they want. Also, my tried and true tactic for riding on marshes is to never talk to anyone. Typically it is only men who try to talk with me. And that never goes anywhere good. So, I’m extremely anti-social and “pretend” not to speak Georgian always. Head phones are essential to be successful in this strategy.
- Get your money ready. If you are getting off before the end of the line, it’s vital that you start preparing your coins early, otherwise the whole marsh will be upset at you for delaying the ride.
Pro tip: Some marshes indicate how much the ride will cost somewhere in the vicinity of the sun visors. Some actually charge you before you get on (if you get on in a large marsh station). Some don’t say anything, so in order to not get ripped off, ask a friend who’s done the ride before for how much it should be.
- Stop the driver! Skip this step if you are riding to the end of the line. You can do this by saying გააჩერეთ (gaacheret–stop) or გამიჩერეთ (gamicheret–stop for me). If your Georgian is good enough, you can use landmarks like კუთხეში (kutxeshi–at the corner) or გაჩერებაზე (gacherebaze–at the bus stop), and tell him ahead of time. if your Georgian isn’t good enough, you have to just try to time where you want to go with the speed that the driver’s going, as well how hard he’s going to slam on the brakes once you tell him to stop. If you don’t really care about specifics and just want to get off in the general vicinity, you can throw in a სადმე გამიჩერეთ (sadme gamicheret–stop for me somewhere/anywhere) and the driver will appreciate being given the freedom to stop somewhere convenient.
Pro tip: If you are sitting near the back of the marshutka, or somewhere away from the driver, don’t be afraid to yell. This is why I prefer to sit near the driver… Also, if your view of everything is blocked by standers or women holding vegetables, you can try to relinquish your seat and shove your way to the front for a better view ahead of time.
- Pay the driver. Try to have exact change, or if not, coins. Large bills will cause the driver to mumble under his breath and spend some time giving you change.
Pro tip: If you are sitting really close to the driver, you can even pay him way ahead of time–before you tell him to stop. Also, if there are tons of people in between you and the driver, you can try to give the money to someone who has better access to him.
- Dismount the vehicle. Wipe the sweat off your face. You’ve probably overshot your destination, but what’s a few hundred yards? Don’t forget to close the door behind you. Unless it’s an automatic door.
- Special note: if you have a large hiking backpack, or any other sort of large duffel or suitcase with you, you will likely need to put that in the back of the marshutka. If you get on at a station, no problem. If you get on by the side of the road, the driver will have to get out, unlock it, and help you put it in. You also have to remind him that it’s in there when you get off the marsh. I used to be really nervous about leaving bags worth anything back there, because you really can’t see what’s going on in the back with other people loading and unloading their stuff. I’ve never had a single thing taken (knock on wood) and now I am pretty relaxed about it. Word.
**Disclaimer: This how-to guide is not all-encompassing and has generally worked for me in traveling to and from large cities such as Tbilisi and Rustavi, or to villages off of the main highway.
The typical view from a passenger seat…in a very atypically empty marshutka ***Types of people you might encounter on a marshutka:
- Driver – always male, usually smoking, sometimes gives random people on the side of the street money for questionable reasons. Has been driving this route every day from 7am to 7pm for longer than you’ve been alive
- Driver’s BFF – always male, usually sitting in the seat next to the driver, smoking with the driver, probably rides this marsh on the daily, doesn’t have to pay but sometimes does anyway
- ბებიაs (grandmothers) – heading to the bazaar to sell their large bags of fruits and vegetables that are taking up all the legroom; sometimes the livestock comes onto the marsh too In the city and on city to city marshes, I thankfully don’t have a lot of experience with this.
- Travelers like yourself – look distinctly scared, constantly staring out the window in fear of missing their stops, shiftily clutching valuables on their laps, trying to get Western personal space (basically impossible)
- Georgian students going to tutoring after classes
- Georgians heading to work
- Georgians heading to town
- Georgians heading home after work/after a day in town
- Georgians taking their kids shopping
- Georgians going to the Public Service Hall to get their passports
- Georgians visiting family in the villages
- Georgians taking vacation by the sea
- Georgians taking vacation in the mountains
- Georgians trying to party in Tbilisi
- Seriously, Georgians doing normal human things like you and me. Don’t freak out. I mean, they’re the exact same people you see every day on the streets, just in a marshutka…They don’t bite. The dogs waiting for you on the side of the road might, though. The dogs are the ones to watch out for.