As curfew approaches in Tbilisi, Georgia, a traveler makes a mad dash for home to avoid severe penalties.
We were four travelers from New Zealand, Canada, the US, and Britain. I’d been in Tbilisi for about a month, the Canadian about the same, the American had just crossed the border in a van from Russia, and the Brit had been here for about a year.
It was a weekday, and the bars were allowed to be open on weekdays. And so we sat together in Vake, an affluent district of Tbilisi known as a residence of expats and well-connected business people, and drank craft beer and Georgian wine and talked.
The Canadian was working to establish a business in Georgia, taking advantage of the country’s generous tax laws for expats. Quiet and composed with short, dark hair, his manner relaxed as the evening progressed, and he told stories about strange meetups with semi-mythical expats in Russia and Bulgaria.
The Brit was furious at Amazon for unlisting several of his books and had started working as a content writer for the Canadian. He too was quiet and soft spoken, with an anxious but warm manner that made you want to encourage him to tell more stories. He knew Georgia well and had spent the previous weekend camping the mountains outside the city.
The American was full of stories from his months driving around Russia in a clapped-out van. He had long hair and a narrow face, and sat with a fidgety restlessness that contrasted with the calm of the others. His adventures in Russia had a political flavor, and he hinted, pridefully, that he had fled the country after some too-cozy encounters with dissidents.
And after months of lockdown, chatting with these travelers in a friendly bar felt almost normal. Sure, beggars would come inside the bar, approach our table, and interrupt our conversation every few minutes, but they were not persistent. Local wine flowed, and the time passed quickly.
At 8:30 PM, I realized with a shock: Curfew begins in half an hour!
After many more weeks in Georgia, the curfew hour would become a habit of mind: Something you are constantly aware of every moment you are outside of the house. But the habit had not yet sunk in. I’d allowed myself to relax and to feel normal, and I’d been caught off guard.
The advertised penalty for breaking curfew was severe, and my home was far away. I checked the taxi apps on my phone: Bolt and Yandex had no available drivers. My friends all stayed in Vake and so were just minutes from home. But I was staying in Avlabari, on the other side of the city and across the Mtkvari River. Concerned, I spoke to the bartender, whose English was good.
“Do not worry, my friend. I will call you a taxi. Where do you stay?”
An instant of worry flashed across the bartender’s face, but he quickly regained composure. He took out a flip-phone, the kind that may have been popular in the early 2000s, and made a call. He spoke in rapid Georgian, then hung up and looked at me.
“There are not many taxis. But there is one. It will come in 10 minutes.”
“That’s great, thank you!”
My friends had ordered a final round. Reassured, I joined them. 10 minutes passed, and there was no taxi. I wandered back to the bartender, who spoke without looking up:
“No, he did not come. He said maybe he can come, but maybe not.”
9 PM was approaching. There was nothing for it. I strapped the mandatory mask to my face, inserted my headphones, hit “play” on Spotify, and started to run.
The streets were densely packed with traffic. Masked pedestrians jostled on the streets, mostly as hurried as me. Horns blared and stray dogs barked. Restaurants were turning out customers, and shopkeepers were clearing their wares from the pavement.
I hurtled down a steep hill, dodging a group of drunk Russian men, maskless and smoking, almost losing my footing in one or other pothole, before slowing down as I entered Rustaveli Avenue, Tbilisi’s main boulevard, named after the country’s national poet.
There were fewer pedestrians now as 9 o’clock approached. Fashionably dressed young locals whizzed by on electric scooters. The traffic on the notoriously busy main street had started to thin. I crossed via a sinister underpass, ducked down a side street, and headed to the river.
Short of breath, I slowed to a walk, reassuring myself with that thought that once I crossed the river into quiet Avlabari, the chances of a police encounter were much thinner. The city at my back, I approached a bridge. Normally busy with traffic, now there was just a police car, parked next to the road, lights flashing. The cops inside paid me no mind as I strode by.
Technically a fugitive, I had now at least made it across the river and was on the home stretch. I turned right and headed up the steep hill towards the Trinity Church and my erstwhile home. I paused at the top to take in the ancient city below.
My home for almost two months now, Georgia’s capital was a chaos of winding streets, crumbling buildings, grand orthodox churches, smoke-belching cars, warm and friendly locals, forested hills, and ancient ruins. I gazed down at Rike Park a hundred or so meters below me. A white hot air balloon was floating high above the city, and my eyes followed it, sweeping the hills and an ancient fort lit up with orange, as cars zoomed along the highway across the river. I marveled that Russian-occupied South Ossetia was just a two-hour drive away and felt overwhelmed by the beauty and mystery and complexity of it all.
And then it was time to keep walking.
The streets of Avlabari were empty save for the odd stray dog sniffing at the overflowing rubbish bins. It was less dense and developed here, pock-marked streets sparsely lined with small shops and bakeries and the occasional petrol station. My face now damp with sweat, I allowed my mask to slip down to my chin so I could breathe more freely. I was almost home.
My apartment, one of the few buildings above two stories in the neighborhood, was finally visible. Two cats fought and howled in the large dumpster outside the car park as an old man sat on the curb, smoked, and watched me without curiosity. I input the door code and stepped inside. I had made it!
On at least two other occasions I would find myself stranded far away, unable to find a taxi, and having to jog home against the curfew. The absurdity of the experience was somewhat exciting, the ancient, twisted, crumbling streets of Tbilisi an ideal backdrop for a video-game-esque race against time.
Curfew would be pushed later and then eventually dropped during our time in the country, and I have since moved elsewhere. But even now, when I’m out and see that the time is approaching 9 PM, I still feel a surge of residual fear.