The ride to the capital of Georgia achieved heights of discomfort and terror that I never before thought possible. We did not drive so much as plummet down the curving roads, passing every car we encountered regardless of whether we could see who was coming in the opposite direction, and doing so at breakneck speed. The turns were so sharp I thought the packed van would topple over onto its side multiple times. The two-way road was really a two-lane highway. I remember looking out the front windshield and seeing a column of cars side-by-side, each on the left passing his neighbor on the right. There were no seatbelts. People in that part of the world look on them as an insult: if you wear a seatbelt, the driver thinks you don’t trust him (which made perfect sense as almost every driver I met operated his vehicle as if it were an airplane and not a car). Apparently they are also somewhat fatalistic, thinking (like King Gorboduc) that what will be, will be, and no seatbelt will save one whose fate has already been written down by god.
The driver and one passenger behind me were a pair of chainsmokers who complemented one another on this voyage in the following way: when the driver lit up, the passenger would catch a whiff of the smoke and then proceed to oblige herself; when she lit up, the driver, who had by then finished his cigarette, would smell her smoke and then cave in to his cravings only moments after having satisfied them. So the entire van chainsmoked for several hours. There were some very young children aboard who took part in this silent and involuntary collective socializing; one of them was as pale as the moon and had the huge, unearthly blue eyes of a true Georgian. Some of them are the only people I know of who actually resemble the figures we see in Byzantine mosaics. I have never seen so many beautiful people concentrated in such a small place as the old city of Tbilisi. One of them, a muscular young man who spoke good English (the Georgians find English easy since their own language is so fantastically complex), later rode the old Soviet subway with me and helped me find a hotel. Their hospitality is not just a legend and I’m sure I would have found further examples if I had stayed longer than just two days.
But the driver himself was a man whose personality was so crowded with idiosyncrasies that I think his entire psyche was ready to burst at the seams. He had a Russian, and not a Georgian, appearance; bloodshot eyes from a lifetime of smoking like a dragon, and a healthy barrel-like potbelly from drinking like a Russian; and he had the oddest way of sitting in his seat I think I have ever seen. He did not sit still. He revolved. He rotated. He swung his head in circles like a planet around a star. He bobbed back and forth like a bobble-head. And he did all of this for three hours, stopping only to let someone get on the van or to cross himself on catching sight of a Georgian cathedral perched high-up on a mountain, out of reach of all the countless marauders this country has been subjected to through its long history. I don’t know how long he has been driving for money, but I think it was a miracle that he survived even a single one of his own voyages.