I look a bus from Tbilisi airport to Station Square and congratulated myself that I would be able to book our beds on the sleeper train back to Yerevan before I even dropped my bag at the place we’ll stay for the next three nights in Georgia’s capital. At first I thought the bus was one of those free airport shuttles but as it began to fill with commuters all using electronic prepaid passes, I realized my mistake. I stayed sanguine until a ticket collector with an officious array of badges and an old fashioned leather money pouch boarded the bus. No need to worry– she checked a few tickets but completely ignored me. Phew, I thought. It was all going terribly well. Then we arrived Station Square and I completely failed to find the station.
At first I wasn’t at all alarmed. After all, I am the person who managed to miss the Grand Canyon, driving 90 miles past the massive hole in the ground before I thought to stop and seek help. If you often fail to see the obvious you get used to wandering around bewildered. Confused becomes your natural state. I walked past hawkers selling fake Nike sportswear. (Trust me, if you feel the need to burn something with a whoosh just do it with one of these rip offs. They look highly flammable.) I circled a large gold market. I stumbled into the metro. I fought off two fake taxi drivers offering to take me to Batumi. All the while I looked for clues: a sign saying this way to the ticket office? Some railroad tracks? People purposefully wheeling suitcases? I promise you there were none of these.
Eventually I gave in and asked a fake taxi driver to direct me. He said the station was several floors up above the gold market. I could use an escalator to glide through a low rent mall. Who ever heard of such a thing? A station where a cinema or a bar ought to be? I still have no ideas where the tracks are. As it turns out, I may never find out…
I had consulted the international train experts seat61.com about how and where to buy sleeper tickets. Window 2 the man in seat 61 said. I am here to tell you that the Caucasus pages on this esteemed site needs updating. You can’t go straight to window 2. You have to take one of those tickets like the ones you get to wait in line at supermarket deli counters. I was called to window number 1.
Tamar tried to be helpful, she really did. But no, I couldn’t buy two tickets for Monday night unless I could produce two passports. I explained my brother would arrive here nearly 24 hours later than me, and that we had a packed schedule. Could she sell me the tickets? She could not. Furthermore, she advised me that all the first class, two-bed carriages were sold out. The two of us would have to travel in a four bed carriage. Could I buy all four beds? I asked. Only if I had four passports, Tamar replied.
I asked Tamar how many beds were still free on Monday night’s train. 9 she said, but all in different carriages. No two beds in the same small, swaying room. I guess we’ll take the bus.
Tamar asked me why I didn’t book online. It seemed pointlessly confusing to explain that the man in seat 61 had said this was not a possibility. I settled for asking her the name of the website where tickets can be booked. She didn’t know.
I got some cash and decided to take a taxi to our lodging, leaving the means of our Monday travel undecided. Many hairpin U-turns and much gesticulating later (Georgians don’t speak Armenian which is a pity because this morning it seemed to be my default setting) we arrived at a building clearly marked with a number 5 on the appointed street. Good job I thought and sat down to wait for someone to let me in. It did seem a little odd there was no one about.
My phone does not work in Georgia. This is a shame as it was almost fully charged thanks to some thoughtfully provided USB ports on the 37 bus from the airport. Eventually though a small boy rode by on his bike. I apprehended him, borrowed his phone and called the reservation number.
“Ah, “”explained Victor, “not that number 5” but another one two blocks away, not marked with a number 5 and on on a completely different street.
I followed Victor’s directions to go to another hotel and ask them to walk me to his place. They weren’t expecting me, but a very gracious young man became my guide. Once we got there, there were people who seemed to have heard of me, but the room wasn’t ready. No matter. I could leave my bag and come back later. At about this time a very old man who had been hovering on the outskirts of the conversation suddenly asked me for 180 of whatever it is they spend here.
“Why?”I asked, incredulously.
“I am Victor’s father”he replied and held out his hand.
“He is. He is.” said everyone else.
I of course could not phone Victor but his alleged father cheerfully offered to do this. But I couldn’t see the number he dialed. I began to tut and harrumph in unintelligible Armenian. The phone was passed to me and I asked Victor to repeat to me the previous conversation we’d had on the long-gone boy cyclist’s phone. He was able to do this and so I handed over the bank notes, left my belongings and set off to explore old town Tbilisi. I’m sure it will all be fine…
There was a small church on the way down the cobbled street. I stopped to study the legend detailing the history of the place at the same time as a presentable looking man about my age.
“Do you speak English?” he asked.
I affirmed this and he asked me where I was from — Armenia I told him. He said he was visiting from America’s Mid West.
“Decadent city, Tbilisi”he said.
“Oh good” I said, thinking that perhaps the trip was about to take an interesting turn.
“You think decadent is a good thing?” he asked, lips pursed, and told me how his taxi driver from the airport has offered to fix him up with a hooker.
“Oh you mean seedy, not decadent” I said. “I am pro decadent and anti seedy.”
“Have you talked to Apostolic priests?” My new friend asked. ” I hav spoken to quite a few but you can’t get close to them. Terrible body odour”.
I reeled back as though he too smelt bad.
“.Are you a Christian woman?” my new friend asked as we stood in the church grounds.
“I was raised in that tradition”I said. “But I can’t say I practice.”‘
“You would do well to go back to it”said Mr Mid West. More lip pursing. I began to notice he was clad top to toe in beige.
I decided it was time to make my excuses and leave.
“What do you do in Armenia?” he wanted to know.
“I’m a Peace Corps Volunteer.”
“Imposing America’s world order…”
“That’s not how I see it”. By now I was itching to go.
“Where are you from in the States ?
“Washington DC”‘I called over my shoulder.
“Oh of course” he said. “Broken place. Broken government”
“It is at the moment” I said.
“Has been for a very long time” he replied
I waved and kept walking.
Later I took a taxi to a flea market.
“You married?”‘mimed the taxi driver sliding an imaginary ring up and down his wedding finger.
My facial expression said that I was not.
” You are finished with that” he said. “So am I. But we can make it work. I will stay with you always. I will come with you to America”.
I looked steadfastly straight ahead, my bag barricading my all vulnerable parts.
When he dropped me off he asked to be paid in dollars or Euros
“Don’t have them” I said, truthfully.
“20 lari” he said.
” No way. I came from the station for 10 and that was twice the distance. I’ll give you 10″.
He drove off without protest. The driver who brought me back charged me five. He saluted every time I pantomimed a direction. Now that’s my kind of man.