I sat calmly looking at a flight board listing dozens of cities that I recognized, but one stood out positioned in between Istanbul and Kuala Lumpur: Tbilisi. What I was about to do would change me forever in the spring of 2003.
I was eager to leave Western Europe and go back to a world full of randomness and spontaneity. Since I had left Albania in the fall, I had missed the feelings I got in places like it. The rigidity of living in Switzerland was starting to wear on me.
The flight was smooth and relaxing. White puffy clouds wrapped around the tops of the gigantic snow-capped Caucasus Mountains shooting up from the water to the sky without reservation. The Black Sea came to an end and we started our descent.
From 8,000 feet up, Tbilisi appeared chaotic. Things moved in random directions, crumbling grey communist-era apartment buildings stood tired on the outskirts of the city. I felt like I had stretched a fair amount before I was about to run in the world of travel but this was definitely the next degree of testing myself.
I had nothing in Georgia. No contacts, hotel reservations, language, or an inkling of what it would be like on the ground. I knew the challenge would force me to be uncomfortable and I knew I would get something from this but I didn’t know what. We dropped out of the clouds and I took in a deep breath.
The plane landed smoothly on a dilapidated runway surrounded by old inoperable Soviet choppers. I wanted to see a place that was raw and unpolished and devoid of tourists. Georgia in 2003 was that place.
The plane stopped in the runway—and as if on queue—black BMW’s and Mercedes with dark tinted windows quickly surrounded the aircraft. The mafia-looking types departed the plane (which was everybody), entered the vehicles on the tarmac and sped off.
I was alone. Just me, an empty tarmac, and an airport that looked like a condemned building. I stood frozen for a second like someone had pressed my pause button on life. I craned my neck slowly and looked around at the foreignness.
Pulling myself together I grabbed my bag and walked towards the airport.
Upon entering I was stopped by an ominous-looking official. He viewed my passport and then glanced at me with conviction.
“Twenty dollars,” he said.
“Twenty dollars for what?” I replied.
The man lowered his voice, pinched his eyebrows, and came close to me.
“Twenty dollars to get in country,” he said in a deeper and slower voice.
“But the visa fee is thirty-five dollars that I already paid. See it’s here in my passport,” I said as I motioned to it in my passport relieved that I had the evidence. “What’s the twenty dollars for?”
“Twenty dollars to get in airport. To get in country you need first get in airport,” he responded sternly as he positioned his body in front of me and the door.
There was a long pause between us. I didn’t completely comprehend what was happening; it was like a narrative out of a Western movie. But instead of trying to get by the local thugs and through the swinging doors of a dusty bar in the 1800s, I was trying to enter the doors of an international airport in the 2000s. I had endured corruption before in the world but this was on a whole new level.
I gave him the money.
“Thank you very much, sir,” he said with a mischievous smile. “Enjoy your time in
And what an introduction it was….
I entered a country that was—as I was soon to find out—held together by a fraying thread. I exited the airport where about thirty taxi drivers surrounded me. Before I could catch my breath, I was in the back of a decrepit Lada living off of CO2 like a tree.
My first observation of the outskirts of Tbilisi was the infrastructure. It was in horrific shape. The roads were cracked and worn just like the suspension of the car.
But a world of amazement lay just beyond my window. Nine-story concrete apartment blocks lined the roadway, clothes and blankets hung freely from small balconies. Children kicked soccer balls in the alleyways; there were sounds of laughter. It felt like there was more life in this one scene than all of Switzerland; it felt socially free.
As we got closer to Tbilisi, the streets became busier, and people drove like mad. We swerved past and around pedestrians in unpredictable ways. Once we got to the old city, the magic started to unravel. Looking over the Mtkvari River, I saw an array of architectural influences, different colors and smells.
The taxi driver asked for my hotel. I had no idea of one so I told him McDonald’s. I knew there had to be a McDonalds in Tbilisi.
We stopped in front of McDonald’s. Our negotiated price of $10 soon turned out to be $50. My driver was the second of many who’d try to rip me off in Georgia. But I was more prepared from my airport experience and settled on $20. Georgia was a place I would have to fight to keep my money alive.
I walked into the familiarity of smells from my childhood. I’ve never been a fan of McDonald’s but it’s always been that place in the world that at the very least has a bathroom and radioactive ice cream that tastes so good.
These were the days before online reservations and traveling with a mobile phone. I had to be creative in finding a place to sleep and McDonalds was the best thing I could come up with.
I stood in line behind young Georgians all excited about Big Macs and Mcflurries.
“Welcome to McDonald’s sir, what can I get for you?” A young man said to me with gusto.
Getting right to the point I responded, “Do you know of anywhere to stay?”
“A place to stay?” A different cashier responded.
About 8 employees huddled in on the action after hearing this odd request.
“Yes, do you know of any guesthouses around here?” I asked.
“Let me think…” the man said.
A phone call was made and about twenty minutes later a larger old lady wearing a black dress showed up.
“This is Mama Nazi,” the young man said. “You can stay with her. ”
Mama Nazi looked at me with a golden-toothed grin and motioned for me to come her way. The staff all smiled to the point of laughing out loud. They were trying their hardest to keep the laughter in.
Mama Nazi appeared harmless and she was my only option, but they knew something I didn’t. As we left the golden arches an outburst of laughter came from behind and as my new Georgian mother grabbed my hand and pulled me forward to cross the chaotic street.
To be continued…
Read part 2 here
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