In 2001 the Tbilisi International Airport was little less that a glorified minibus station. Arriving passengers too impatient to wait for the indolent luggage loaders would crawl through the plastic flapped window at the conveyor and help themselves to their luggage flopped in a concrete room and crawl back out with their bags. Then we’d hustle with fixed eyes towards the narrow exit and the single antique baggage x-ray machine like trifecta horse race winners rushing to a single payout window, jostling our bags over random feet towards freedom where our friends and family anxiously waited, puffing on cigarettes, some with bottles of sparkling wine and flowers.
If we had no one waiting for us on the outside, there were always ruffled, unshaven men offering us rides in their Volgas and Ladas back to town. As annoying as privateer taxi drivers are – and you find them everywhere – there were few tourists coming to Georgia back then. A foreign visitor was less likely to be ripped off by a car jockey than become a victim of a friendly kidnapping. It was not unusual for a driver to detour to their house for just “one drink” before dropping you off at your destination. A ride back generally cost twenty lari – about eight bucks in 2001 – as I recall.
Flying in and out of the country over the years, it’s easy to forget that people used to burn holes in the temporary plastic sheet windows with their cigarettes to peep inside for their arriving loved ones. In lieu of a Duty Free there was a tiny khachapuri joint with midget stools next to the exit that sold Sarajishvili cognac; anything else in a corked bottle was fortified grape juice. Only the slovenly state of the current washrooms are reminiscent of days past, now that the ceiling leaks have been repaired.
In passing years, we have depended on a small list of reliable drivers to shuttle us to and from the airport, so when the vultures flock on us carting our luggage out the exit, we simply spit out “ara, ara, ara,” without making eye contact. Leave us alone, we don’t need you. And then the day came that we did.
For half a dozen years or so, the airport has employed a fleet of taxis who are supposed to take you to the city center for a fixed rate of 30 lari. It’s a logical step in the grand plan to turn a country (whose taxis have no meters) into the world’s newest, most exciting tourist destination. The problem is that the airport taxi drivers are not on board and no one is monitoring them. There used to be a sign indicating the fixed rate near the automatic exit door (Now that the arrival terminal is being renovated, the sign has disappeared). The drivers would bunch up in front of it to block it from customers.
When we arrived at midnight after 18 hours of travel with 50 kilos of baggage and no friendly face waiting for us, we tightened our sphincters and approached the row of rapscallions buzzing around their white cars like outhouse gnats.
“Thirty lari to Gogebashvili,” we confirmed.
“No, that’s not the center. Thirty-five,” one said.
Now we could have gone along, after all, five lari is barely a couple of bucks. But principle matters. The center of the city is not limited to the Marriott at Freedom Square. We know where we live and if they can squeeze us for a few, what will they do to strangers who don’t know better? We corrected them but they all remained firm and like a union of scallywags on strike, started waving their fingers. And then the shouting started – our shouting.
Taxi apps like Taxify are wonderful to use, but they are no solution to this problem. A friend just related how he stopped his taxi in the middle of the highway when the driver insisted the fixed rate was thirty dollars – not lari. The freelancer we ended up hiring for forty lari told us how he once picked up a guy at Freedom Square who offered him 50 Euro for a ride to the airport. When they arrived the driver informed the man that 50 was way too much. “But I paid one-hundred Euro from the airport,” the man replied, tipping the driver 5 Euro for his honesty.
We’ve heard such stories for years and yet the authorities have done nothing (They even stopped handing out free bottles of wine at passport control). Their seeming indifference to this knavish custom of ripping off the guest is rather perplexing given the amount they have invested in developing Georgia’s growing tourism sector. Back in 2004, Georgia was able to eradicate the endemic corruption of its entire patrol police in a matter of a few weeks. It is a mystery that it can’t control a small group of piratic coachmen and help make a person’s first impression of the country a positive one.