The door slammed shut. With it the tin frame of the Soviet-era bus rattled into my head. Jolted awake, I rubbed the gauze of recycled air from my eyes and blinked into reality. Muffled figures, darting eyes and close-clasped bundles of this or that. No-one seemed surprised that we had stopped again.
Craning back I saw the unmistakable square bulk of our driver, slicing a tirade through the air with his cigarette. He was arguing, bartering or catching up with an old friend. Always hard to tell in Georgian, an unfathomable language uniquely suited to a temper.
I cursed and tutted uselessly. No-one cared. Clearly it was usual in Georgia for the driver to stop for a chat. Looking back again restlessly I saw him approaching the van. Or was he? I rubbed my eyes, he was still rooted to the spot. We were approaching him.
I may have squealed as it hit me. We were rolling backwards and the driver was blithely chatting away! I lunged forward, via the vicious metal roof, towards the mass of sleeping bodies. I gargled incomprehensibly – struggling to remember in which language I was meant to scream. It didn't matter, I didn't know the word for handbrake in any other language. Growling forms stuttered awake, looked at me, grunted at my flailing arms, my wild-eyed stare.
Someone finally caught my gist. A gruff, dusty boulder of a man leant lazily forward and yanked up the handbrake. The bus shuddered, swung drunkenly to the left and finally stopped. A dozen faces turned to me, as if annoyed I’d woken them for such a banal reason – happy now?
I wasn't I had a six hour journey left. I shut my eyes tighter. Only six more hours of potholes, mountain drops and hot mists of sweat. Only six hours…
The journey dragged through a catalogue of near-collisions with stubborn bulls and cliff-faces. Endless juddered halts flooded the bus with plastic bottles of bootleg wine and characters straight out of a David Lynch film. Bizarre scenarios repeated themselves as if Georgia had short-term amnesia – the vodka-toting man and his barrage of national songs, the shrivelled old hobbit wanting a photo with me, the headscarved woman selling nail-clippers or toothpicks.
I drifted in and out of restless dreams where I was swirling with the odours in a drunkard’s belly. The smells lingered in the waking hours. All around me mouths slurped down ‘cha-cha’ the national poison (something between fruit vodka and a collapsed liver).
I caught someone’s eye and desperately pretended to sleep. Too late. He poked me awake. “Hey, hey – cha-cha, Schnapps”. I waved it away. Poked again. “Hey, hey. Khincali?” I shake my head at the greasy parcels of minced meat he dangled in front of me. “Hey, hey” he pointed out the window at a railway line, a telegraph pole, a god-forsaken restaurant.
“What do you want from me?” I screamed. Smiling blankly he shrugged back. “…. Cha-cha?” I gave up, nothing made sense.
Then one man, who spoke a precious few words of English, put it all back into perspective. He caught me coughing in the smoke of the driver’s cigarette. With a kind sympathetic grin he informed me – “If driver no smoke – we die”. Thanks mate.
The singing, slurping, snoring rhythm of life on a Georgian bus was finally broken by a church on the side of the road. These guys take their religion seriously and a few lowly lives can’t get in the way of a thousand years of Christianity. The first one to notice the church started to cross himself. Within moments the movement scythed through the bus like a devout Mexican wave. For several seconds I rode along in sheer terror as the driver, eyes closed tight in piety, joined in.
The road opened onto a stretch of straight tarmacked road and with it came that sweet scent of survival. But the moment passed, the spectre of another cliffside church loomed again. I breathed in deeply and closed my eyes, my hands tracing a cross on my chest. Perhaps a sip of cha-cha would help soothe the nerves…