“Just tell the driver Barnova, tretsyet-dva,” I told my friend Przemyk, a Polish journalist, over the phone. This was his first cab ride in Georgia. Fifty minutes and three phone conversations with the driver later, they arrived at the corner of Barnova and Belinski, no more than five minutes away from where he had first called.
“Twenty lari,” the taxi driver said as I handed him a five. I laughed. What soon followed was a ridiculous exchange of personal insults in Georgian, which I had learned for precisely this type of confrontation. “It’s not my fault you don’t know your city,” I concluded in Russian, throwing my wadded five in the window and instructing Przemyk to jump out.
Tbilisi is no different than many other cities around the world with cab drivers who seem to take enormous pride in not knowing the city. The more they drive around like a piglet looking for its tail, the more they can charge an unsuspecting passenger. Entire evenings can easily be devoted to swapping stories of the surreal experience of the Georgian taxi services. My latest MT piece is a kind of “how to” for the foreign visitor to Tbilisi.
MY OWN DANCE WITH AWKWARDNESS IN A CAB
Merab steered his taxi into incoming traffic to make a brazen u-turn and said the marshrutka strike, which had wreaked havoc on Tbilisi’s public transportation system for over a week, had not improved his business. “The drivers just got in their cars and became taxi drivers.” I gave him 8 lari for a 5 lari ride. He used to be my neighbor.
Merab is one of an estimated 15,000 freelance taxi drivers in Tbilisi working in an industry that remains unregulated. Anybody can put a yellow light on top of their jalopy and be a taxi driver in Georgia. They don’t need a special license or a meter. Several years ago there was talk of making meters mandatory, not for the passenger’s sake, but as a means to collect taxes. This plan, however, fell to the wayside, as the law would have had a profound effect on those thousands of families whose sole breadwinners drive taxis.
For the foreign visitor, getting in a Georgian taxi can be what Californian yoga teachers call “a dance with awkwardness.” In most cases, the tourist can expect to pay up to 3 times the local rate, or more if they happen to get Merab. While a smattering knowledge of Georgian will score you a few points, it’s no guarantee you won’t be charged the “alien tax.” Guidebooks recommend you arrange a price beforehand, which is good advice if you speak one of the local languages and know how much it typically costs to get to point B. Better advice is to ask your hotelier or waitress how much a ride to X should cost and pay the driver that amount upon delivery. He will rarely protest, especially if you add a couple extra lari to the fare. Remember, even when you’re being gypped, Georgian taxis are still cheaper than in most places.
Being overcharged isn’t the only challenge a foreign passenger should expect. If you’re able to communicate on a basic level then you’ll have to endure answering the “Where are you from / How many children you have / How much money do you make?” line of questioning. You may have to tolerate some outlandish conspiracy theories or you may even be taken for the most Georgian ride of all – sitting at the driver’s dinner table, eating roast pork and drinking his home made wine.