Thursday, August 4, 2016

The Bus. (plus American elitism & the expat dilemma)

Living in Tbilisi has its ups and downs.
As regular readers might remember, there are many things here that frustrate me
In any second world country, there are some unique challenges, and in Tbilisi one of those challenges is the bus

Tbilisi city bus number 15 in the wintertime

My relationship with the bus has been a roller coaster of emotion...

Phase One: I feared the bus from afar. Really, who can blame me? Seeing the sweaty, miserable people packed inside ancient, exhaust-billowing, rickety yellow mobile saunas was terrifying. Their desperate faces pushed up against the glass made me vow I would never set foot inside one of those monstrosities. 

And then my options shrank...I live pretty close to a metro station, but neither place that I worked this summer is near a metro station, so while at GNTA, taking the metro to work would mean...
-5 min walk to metro
-15 min ride on metro
-change lines in a 5 min, pushy speed-walk through the station
-15 min ride on metro
-15 min walk to my office
and at the embassy...
-5 min walk to metro
-10 min on the metro
-change lines in a 5 min, pushy speed-walk through the station
-12 min ride on metro
-26 min walk along the highway to the embassy

Neither of these are ideal...particularly not at the embassy!
So, while taxis in Georgia are veryyyy cheap compared to most developed countries, on my student budget and intern salary (of exactly $0/month), they aren't practical for everyday use.

Thus, I was forced to ride the bus.
I started off optimistic...and then immediately hated it.

Relatively relaxed looking people on Tbilisi city bus number 37

Phase two: I hated the bus from the inside. This also has good reason. First, I will say that whether you can find a seat or have to stand makes a tremendous difference. 

Standing on the bus is as miserable as it looks from the outside.
  • you have to constantly engage your core in order to stay vertical
  • to hold onto a hand rail you have to snake your arm through a sweaty tangle of passengers
  • you are constantly jostled by people moving on and off the bus, or trying to swipe their transport card
  • for those with purses, the strength of the straps is tested as your bag gets caught between people and probably also hits a lot of sitting passengers in the face

Speaking of sitting passengers - you will probably get hit a lot in the face. Sitting is a bit better, but...
  • you really don't have your own space, as passengers standing in the aisles spill over into your seat with their bags, their elbows, their rotund, sweaty guts peeking out from under the hem of a grease-stained, short sleeve button up straining at the seams
  • any moment an old woman could get on, who needs a seat, so you must be always aware of the hierarchy. If you are the youngest and there are no young or middle-aged men around, you will be expected to stand up for the elderly
  • also, if someone gets on with a large bag, small child, or perhaps an unwieldy box of khachapuri, (and in rural areas - livestock), you should offer to hold the item for the standing passenger
  • if you're really unfortunate (and you probably will be), a big sweaty man will stand right next to you, and reach his arm up to the hand bar above, placing his dripping, noxious armpit in direct range of your face
  • disgusting smells are just a part of life in Tbilisi where air conditioner is rare and deodorant is apparently even rarer, and at least twice a week you will find yourself next to someone that smells so foul all the passengers get up and move...we usually try to be subtle about it, but if we fear that the stench may be contagious we will not hesitate to bolt to the other end of the bus 
Eventually, I got used to these facts of bus riding, and I began Phase Three: I appreciated the bus for what it was. The bus is relatively reliable, schedules are predictable and posted on electronic boards at most stops, and it is more efficient for my daily routes than the metro. 

While I didn't eagerly await my commutes, I stopped complaining (for the most part) and accepted my fate.

my fate


When I started working at the embassy, the first week they give all new employees courtesy shuttle service provided by motor pool. This means home pick up and drop off in a shiny SUV with red diplomatic plates - not too shabby, I've gotta admit.

After a while, though, I felt like I was barely living in Georgia anymore...
I was either at home, in an Embassy car, or at the Embassy (aka - carbon copy of the USA). The Embassy's geographic location means the only option for lunch is the cafeteria. Even going grocery shopping is barely a Georgian experience for me now since I live right next to the giant western-style super market Goodwill. Working full time at the embassy means long hours and after-work exhaustion, which discourages me from going out after work.

I realized I was in Phase Four: I missed the bus.
(missed like I was missing its presence in my life, not like the bus left without me...)

After the first week, motorpool shuttle costs $1.55/ride, which is cheaper than the 6 lari ($2.57) taxi fare, but significantly more expensive than the 50 tetri ($0.21) bus fare! Over the course of 5 weeks, I could spend:

Taxi:                       300 GEL ($128.41)
Motor Pool:            181 GEL ($77.50)
Bus:                        25 GEL   ($10.70)

I think the choice is clear. Yes, I lose some time by taking the bus, but I save sooooo much money, and I really benefit in other ways as well. 
Here is where I enter Phase Five: I appreciate my time on the bus.
much like this young bus rider appreciates his ice cream

This is a pretty big deal, since objectively taking the bus to the Embassy is really uncomfortable...
First, I walk 6-7 minutes to the bus stop. In the cool morning air before the 9 am rush hour traffic hits, this is actually pretty pleasant.
Then I ride the bus for about 35 minutes, an experience which I explained above. 
Then I run off the bus (which drops me off at 9 am...the time I am supposed to be at work), run across the crosswalk-ed street in front of the bus and try to be cool and confident and show by example that cars should stop for pedestrians at crosswalks but that rarely works and I usually almost get hit at least once...
Then I scamper another road, 4 lanes, without a zebra crossing but with a mercifully long red light.
Then I generally have to wait 2-3 minutes on the side of the highway for there to be a break in traffic that I can run across, and this is the worst part because usually lots of people honk and me and sometimes stupid men lean out and try to wink at me or blow me kisses or give me thumbs ups...
Then I cross (today I was forced to walk right through a huge black exhaust cloud so my lungs might be shriveled now...) and walk for about 3-4 mins along the side of the highway, hugging a line of awkwardly parked trucks.
and finally I reach the Embassy!

While I am at the Embassy, I am more or less in America. People give American smiles, shake hands instead of kiss, the floors are carpeted, the AC blasts (one of probably less than 50 buildings with central air in the whole city), English is spoken loudly and boldly, there is (some) ethnic diversity, there are TALL people - you get the point... 

The thing is, as much as I like America, I chose to spend the summer in Georgia for a reason.
I like Georgia too. Most of the time I like living here more than I like living in the States!
One thing I know for sure is that I don't want to be the kind of expat that my parents were in Saudi Arabia (sorry mom and dad, I know your situation and circumstances were different!). I want to speak the language (I just started taking Georgian lessons!), I want to make Georgian friends, I want to shop where locals shop, eat where locals eat, and travel how locals travel. I want to integrate, I want to belong. 

Riding the bus is a small way that I can say I'm not "above" the Georgian people, unlike the slight, and probably unintentional vibe I get from so many seasoned diplomats working at the Embassy.

I'm not too good to drink instant coffee when it's 5 time cheaper than espresso.
I'm not too good to share an apartment in Saburtalo with a Georgian instead of staying in cushy Vake Embassy housing.

and yes, I take a certain pride in this, which is maybe just as bad as the subtle American elitism that pervades the Embassy, but I guess I prefer to be the judgy know-it-all expat than the ethnocentric ex-pat who tries to force their new home into as similar a replica of their old home as they can...

That is the expat there a perfect expat? Someone who can flawless straddle two countries, effortlessly slide in and out of cultures, embrace and adapt to the new while not rejecting or forgetting the old, never complain and never boast? I doubt it.

I also appreciate my bus rides for a more personal reason - I like having 45 minutes at the start and (especially) at the end of my days to just think, gather my mental energy, or decompress.
Plus it's generally a fascinating exercise in people-watching!

Georgian morning ritual: the watching of the people

For the record, I know that my bus riding days are limited, and this knowledge probably makes Phase Five much more tenable. I would imagine after some period of time, Phase Five would end and Phase Six: get me off this freaking bus would probably take over...but for now, I am honestly enjoying my rides - strangers' sweat and pushy old ladies and treacherous road crossings and all...

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