Those of you who know me from my former life as VP for Programs of the California State Parks Foundation may remember how much I traveled for work. A normal month would always include between 3 and 5 flights to either San Francisco, Sacramento or occasionally elsewhere – New York, Pittsburgh, and Chicago were three great places I got to travel to for conferences. And then there were the many, many long drives – to San Diego, Anza Borrego and San Clemente, probably a thousand times, to Yosemite, to Santa Barbara, and to literally hundreds of State Parks all over California, often in a rented car picked up at the airport. A few really stand out in my memory – Candlestick, where I managed a major renovation, Jack London, with its burnt-down buildings surrounded by intense greenery, an unforgettable historical reenactment at La Purísima, and Fort Ross in Sonoma, where I fired off a cannon.
It was a lot of fun, generally, and I traveled in style – if not first-class, very comfortably. I always had nice hotel rooms, nice rental cars, and so many great meals in good restaurants (ok, a few bad ones, too – but I’ve forgotten those!). I had an assistant who set up all my flights and rentals and reservations, and gave me a sheet of paper with all the needed information before I left, along with filling in my calendar as a back-up. I belonged to the special, elite clubs for parking and flying – bypassed lines, shuttles, waits, due to my insane travel schedule. I was set. I never missed a flight or a meeting, with one memorable exception where through pure habit, I went to the Burbank Airport instead of LAX.
So, those were the days. Here in Georgia, as a PCV, I did trek to various conferences and meetings, and these were facilitated by the Peace Corps with buses, hotels, etc. Sometimes very nice ones (thank you, Rixos in Borjomi). But since I finished my service, business trips have not really been part of my life. I travel all over Tbilisi for meetings, and sometimes to Gori (where I go all the time anyway), but that’s it. Until last week, when I undertook my first out-of-town business meeting. Working on an EU grant project for CENN, I traveled to Batumi for a one-day meeting with all the parties involved to do some planning. Here’s what happened.
So, that’s pretty clear, isn’t it? The first one is the return ticket, because it’s dated July 30th, right? And it says right on the face of it, Batumi to Tbilisi – not the other way around. But, gee, somehow all that escaped me. I showed up at the train station at 5:45 for a 5:55 train that had already left at 5:35, because I was looking at the wrong ticket. After sitting on the platform for just a little too long, reality started to intrude, and I went upstairs to the ticket window, where I discovered my mistake only after the laughing (and not in a very nice way) ticket agent pointed out my mistake.
I was stunned. What to do? I called my ever-patient CENN partner in Batumi and she suggested that I take the bus, which she saw on her computer left at 8 pm. OK, I’m saved. I’ve bought bus tickets for this run before, I knew how to do it, so I purchased a ticket on my phone and picked up a taxi outside the train station to go to Ortachala bus station, at the other end of town. I successfully arrived, found the office, got my ticket printed out, and was pitiful enough that the woman working there let me wait in the air-conditioned office, because it was over 100 F. outside.
The bus … filled with Russian and Ukrainian tourists, tall, slim, genuinely beautiful blond girls wearing shorts so short that they might as well be wearing their underpants, in every case with kind of squat, dark, ugly men. It’s a mystery to me. Comfortable enough, but not to sleep. Oh, no. Seats did not recline and the driver was very heavy on the brakes. We stopped in Zestaponi for bathrooms and some ice cream, and arrived in Batumi to a deserted bus station, far out of town, at 3:30 am. I called the hotel, which refused to send a taxi. Thankfully a Georgian girl had called a taxi using one of the Uber-ish applications they have here (I use Taxify, but it does not work in Batumi) and offered to share. Not sure what I would have done otherwise!
At the hotel, I was assaulted by an aggressive moth in the room, and had to waste a good 20 minutes trying to kill that sucker. Finally got to sleep around 5 am, woke up at 8 am for the meeting. OMG. I am too old for this. On a happier note, hey, the hotel had a good shower. Could have been worse.
At the meeting, which took place in an unnamed government office, we got water. Not even coffee! When I think of all those meetings with bagels and cream cheese, fresh fruit, pastries, and coffee with cream … those were the days. You could get a lot done on that fuel. Here, well, one meeting participant just didn’t show up, two more were over an hour late, no one spoke English and though I had begged and pleaded for a translator, none was provided. My stalwart CENN pal tried her best, but since she was running the meeting, there was a limit to what she could do. For me, the meeting was largely a bust, mainly because no matter how many times specific questions were asked, wildly differing answers were given – often answers that were completely unrelated to the question were offered, at length. Sigh … ok, I made up a list of questions afterwards and sent it to everyone.
Back to the train station in a taxi with a young driver who was smoking and playing Russian rock music at vehicle-shaking levels (to be fair, when I asked him to turn it down, he did – then laughed and asked if I had a headache, to which I responded, “I do now”), which was filled with more foreigners than I’ve ever seen in one place outside of a Peace Corps gathering. Batumi is a popular spot in the summer season, especially with Russians and Israelis, and there were plenty of them. The girls were once again wearing extremely short shorts, which when they curled up on their seats to sleep offered some very, um, interesting views. Seriously – girls, you shouldn’t do that. Many children running up and down the aisles screaming. Sleep was not possible. My only stroke of luck was that as the only person on my car traveling alone, I kept the seat next to me empty the whole time, which allowed for a bit of stretching out.
Arrived in Tbilisi and proceeded out to the lined-up taxis, several of whom refused to take me on a 5 or 6 gel fare for less than 10 gel. I won’t do it! It’s not that I don’t have 10 gel, but it just offends me. I finally negotiated one guy down to 8 gel and gave up – ok. I need to get home, I really do. Arrived at about 12:30 am and fell directly into bed.
The next day I slept until 11 and staggered up to make a lunch with my friend Sara and her dad, who was visiting from Indiana. We ate Korean food and a good time was had by all, but I didn’t fully recover for another few days.
So, that’s a business trip in Georgia. Buses, naked butts (and worse), no sleep, no taxis, noisy trains, unintelligible meetings, belligerent moths, uncooperative hotel clerks, and a sense that once, in a distant past, it was … different.