The Taxi of Terror


If you ask a random tourist in Georgia, what he or she doesn’t particularly like here, taxi drivers coming clear favorites might be a safe bet. Indeed, these devious individuals have mastered the craft of swindling to unsuspecting visitors, often charging them exorbitant amounts of cash for a short ride. Of all these, the ones nesting near the airport might just be the craftiest bunch. Oftentimes, the ire of the tourists doesn’t go further than occasional complaining with fellow expats or more well-mannered Georgians, but one particular visitor decided to take this one step further and actually speak out. Meet Billy Martinsky, a travel blogger & caricaturist extraordinaire, who depicted his experience with Georgian cab drivers in a blog aptly titled as “The Taxi of Terror”. Georgia Today and Panorama TV show decided to invite Billy over a glass of wine to talk about the particulars of Georgian driving, and his impressions of Georgia in general, a subject he was very keen to share his insights on.

Q: One of your blogs is called Taxi of Terror, ending with a punchline that you’ll never use a cab in Georgia again. Share with us your experience with Georgian drivers- just how bad are they?

A: That was my first ever experience in Georgia, landing in the country. As for why I said that I would never use cab drivers again -  because I had never experienced anything like that before, taxi drivers in the USA and other places I have been, well, they can be crazy too, but this was unlike anything I’ve ever been through before. I landed at 4 in the morning. I was exhausted, and I had no idea how to use the public transportation system here. I just had an address of the hostel I was staying at. So I kind of stumbled out of the airport and showed the taxi driver the address and got in the cab. I thought it would be a casual drive from the airport to the hostel, and then I’d get out and go to sleep. Nothing extraordinary. You see, I couldn’t have been more wrong! Immediately after getting in, he lights up a cigarette and takes a beer out of somewhere. So holding the beer in one hand and cigarette in the other. He starts driving with his wrists on the wheel, and he is driving like the world is about to end, like all the fiends of an apocalypse were after us and we had to escape. He was speeding down the road, passing everybody in the way.

Q: With his wrists, eh? That requires some mastering.

A: Yeah. It probably was not the first time he’d ever done that. But I never experienced anything like that before. And he was going about 140 or 150. And then, lo and behold, a police car right in front of us. I thought, wow, thank God, this guy’s going to slow down because there is, well, a police car and all that.

Q: No chance, I’d suppose?

A: None at all. He just went past him all chilled and casual-like, like it was the way things were supposed to be. I was still delirious because I hadn’t really slept, I was jetlagged, but I was thinking any second there could be a crash. That’s how it’ll all end. I was fearing for my life the whole ride. We finally came to the hostel, I was thinking lto myself wait, wait, I’m here, I am alive. Thank God I am alive. And I’m really not that religious, you know?

Q: Well, it was a quick drive, at least…

A: Yes, it was quick. We did arrive very quickly from the airport to the hostel. It saved a lot of time. Thing is, I just thought I was going to die.

Q: You know, we Georgians can be quite argumentative people, and I can assure you that there will be some people who will start arguing that you are just overreacting.

A: He did get there fast. But for me as a westerner I’d never experienced anything like that. I’d never seen someone driving with his wrists, all the while smoking cigarette, and passing a police officer. Now that I have been here for 6 weeks and I have been in lot of marshrutkas, I’ve got more used to it. But it was the very first time I’d ever seen anything like that. And to be frank, it was absolutely terrifying.

Q: There’s a very funny story on your blog about sheep blocking the road resulting in a crash. It even contains some sort of 10 commandments of Georgian driving…

A: Sure enough, sheep and cows can cause traffic jams. That happened when I was going to Kazbegi. On the way back there must have been 300-400 sheep, just standing in the road. They wouldn’t move. We were quite amused, taking pictures of the sheep, but the driver was really angry, honking and screaming at the sheep. It must have been about 20 minutes standing still in a traffic jam caused by 300 sheep. Oh and constant honking seems another Georgian thing - I’ve noticed that whenever drivers are about to pass another driver, they always honk and immediately speed around.

Q: Why do you think they do that?

A: To give a warning, probably? Thing is, in Georgia you can use anything possible to pass somebody in front of you. There was one trip I did. I think it was Borjomi. It was 2 hours long from there and the driver must have passed down between lanes, six or seven times. There was one car coming one way; we were going the other way. So it passes between two cars on the middle. When someone else was passing between lanes the other way, he was going around on the grass the other side. It’s kind of funny because people here are really welcoming, really kind, relaxed, except for whilst driving. There are two different types of Georgians: one is really nice, really friendly and one is angry and super-aggressive. It’s two completely different worlds.

-       And then there is a bit about police cars picking up hitchhikers and driving them to their destinations…

A: Yes, I’ve met two or three different people here who told me their experience with hitchhiking and that the police drove them…

Q: Well, Georgia is a small country. We need to attract tourists. The police try to be friendly and they don’t want any foreigners to get lost.

A: That’s a good part. I would feel safer hitchhiking with police officers than with drivers. Definitely safer than taking a taxi. And they probably wouldn’t try to overcharge me.

Q: Most likely they wouldn’t charge you at all. What about your impressions about this country? You have been here once, you came again and you plan to come in the future as well. So, what is it in Georgia that attracts you so much?

A: First of all, I always wanted to see things that are different from where I grew up. I grew up in a very small town in US, about 10,000 people, it was pleasant but nothing ever happened, nothing really exciting. I wanted to seek things that are different in a positive way. Except for driving, I really enjoyed everything here.

Q: How can you compare Americans with Georgians?

A: Americans follow rules more; it’s much more regulated. You know what to expect; in Georgia things are much more unexpected, chaotic, but also in a good way. It’s exciting sometimes. But it feels very genuine here; when someone needs help, a lot of people will help you. If I needed someone to help me in the US, I am not sure that they would; well, occasionally they might, but you can’t always count on that. You would at least need something to offer them in return. Here, someone will always come to help you. Someone will care about you. Someone will make sure that you have food, a safe place, even police officers picking up hitchhikers. I really felt very welcomed here. Americans will be very friendly, smiling in the streets, but it’s more formal, polite, it’s not that deep. Here even if someone drives crazy, he will invite you over and offer food and wine. That’s what I really liked. The fact that you can be welcomed, treated as honorable guest, that someone will look to help you out.

-       What would be your advise to fellow tourists thinking about visiting Georgia?

A: Well, If you come to Georgia expecting to find a place like Berlin or London, you’ll be disappointed because it’s very different. But if you go expecting to find something that is unique, something that has really good food and wine, and amazing nature, then you’ll have a positive experience. Georgia can be a little bit chaotic, and if you want to control everything exactly as you like it to be, you’ll probably be upset. But if you are keen to have an interesting experience, even if that experience has been in taxis and marshrutkas, you’re in for an exciting ride. You feel alive when it happens.

Q: And finally, can you name three things in Georgia that you like and dislike most.

A: I guess likes will be a little bit easier. The thing I like most is the nature. I’ve never seen nature like this, with enormous mountains, a tropical coast, desert, and green valleys. So nature is my clear favorite. And part of its charm is that it is not overcrowded. If you go to Europe or the US national parks, you’ll see so many more people, so much development, but here it feels more authentic, like you get to be all by yourself. This landscape, the scenery around you is incredible. Second would be the people I met. Even during six weeks, I made friends. The third, I hate to be stereotypical, has to be the food. It’s simply glorious. I lived in Russia a little while working as an English teacher. Whenever I went out to eat, I always counted on Georgian restaurants, because it’s so much better than Russian food. As for the dislikes, taxi drivers! Just because I’m feel I am going to die when I get in, and they often try to overcharge me. I know enough Russian to argue prices. I always try to agree price before I get in. if I don’t, they try to double or triple charge me. I haven’t taken any big taxi trips since the airport. Second will probably be the mosquitoes in Batumi. I just hate mosquitoes. Batumi was really nice, but I was there for three days and when I got back I had so many bites all over my arms. It’s not Georgia’s fault. It just reflects how much I don’t like mosquitoes. And the third one, I often try to buy home-made wine, and they always try to overcharge me. Well, not always but often. It’s not unique for Georgia, mind you, but when it comes to homemade wine, they try to swindle me, and then I see them try to sell it to someone else at a lower price. And I go – oh my god, they did it again!

And a couple more words for anyone who wants to visit Georgia - Tbilisi is an interesting city, but if you can get out of the city, go to some village. It’s a different experience. When I went to Mestia, I was thinking about doing the track to Ushghuli, but everyone I met there, every single foreigner I met there was doing that track, so I looked at the map and picked up different random villages. It was amazing. That said, Svaneti towers are pretty amazing. Shatili and Tusheti are two place I didn’t go to yet, but I plan to, as people say amazing things about those places. I just ran out of both money and time in this trip. But I hope to return next year in February or March, and then go and see more of Georgia.

Interview by Vazha Tavberidze

26 October 2017 16:02