Rising early we found time to bathe in the stream. It was fast flowing and the water reached about halfway up the shin. By lying down naked you could both get clean and fully expose yourself to unsuspecting labourers simultaneously.
Most of us were still damp and partially unclothed by the time our third wave of visitors arrived (there never seems to be a good time). This time they were armed. They sent a scout ahead; a hundred year old man with rheumatic eyes, an hourglass face, cheeks meeting almost in the middle, and two substantial knives, halfway between machetes and meat cleavers, clutched one in each withered hand. Like an arthritic ninja. We doubted whether he could see very much through his drowning eyes, but the way he seemed to have sucked both of his lips into his mouth made it clear he meant business. He was the shrunken Clint Eastwood of the Turkish Hazelnut-picking world. Badass to the core, he gestured for a cigarette, which we hurriedly supplied, fingers fumbling over the packet.
He spat out a string of Turkish. A death sentence. He then rubbed his fingers together and took a coin out of his pocket. After several minutes of us watching him smoke, he walked off. We’re still not sure whether he wanted money or was trying to pay us for the cigarette. Maybe he decided we were too boring to massacre. Either way, this episode proves that smoking save lives.
With a strong sense of the absurd hanging over us, we headed towards Georgia. The two hour queue in 35C+ heat was improved by the beach adjacent. This was the first instance of us pushing the limousine to save fuel. At one point we reached a slight decline. The limousine is quite difficult to slow down once it gets going and Jack, who is at least three times the height of the car doorway, running beside the driver-side door, struggled to leap into the seat in order to brake. A lorry was close on the left, a wall of rough rock on the right, and a queue of cars in front. All four of us ran pulling with little effect to slow the limo down. With a few centimetres to spare on either side we heaved the car to a stop in contact with the vehicle in front.
It is worth mentioning how queuing works for people at the Georgian border. Whilst cars form an orderly line, people contrive to tessellate in the space delineated for queuing. This means; people shoving boxes into your ankles and rolling their suitcases ahead of you in order to make space for them to follow. This means; herds of small, spherical women bowling their way through legs like wild boar trampling through undergrowth. This means; using your child to cleave a pathway to a slightly advanced position. This means; three white men standing like trapped branches in a stream of hurried Georgians, Turkish and Azerbaijanis.
Once across the border and in the car, we attempted to follow the familiar pattern. Find a surly woman to buy a vignette (road tax) from. Find a moustachioed man to buy car insurance from. Drive across country. Repeat. We were under a degree of time pressure. For the past few days we had been doing our best to catch up with the Ice Cream Truck (Eddies’ Delicious Ice Creams) who were stranded outside of Tbilisi with a blown head gasket, in need of a tow. We knew we were a couple of days behind them.
We found no English speakers beyond the border nor any booths from which to purchase the requisite documentation. We drove around Batumi for some time before being directed to a police station. Reluctantly, we handed ourselves into the police. They in turn, in moderate bafflement, phoned a translator who directed us to a medical clinic who directed us to an insurance company who gave us a further address. We had spoken to a Rally veteran who had warned us to buy “the maximum possible tax” or else face “astronomical bribes”.
Batumi is a very odd city. As you enter it, you will see half-completed cinder-block skeletons propped up with wood standing next to rickety shop fronts. You will drive for a short while and witness a glass and steel hotel with a Ferris wheel mounted halfway up it and what you will presume is a palace, unseen at the end of an interminable, tree-lined road. The police stations are huge, flashy affairs. Often made of glass and well-tended, they unfailingly sit amidst ruined buildings for maximum contrast. The police themselves are everywhere, carrying semi-automatic guns and driving beautiful cars.
We left Batumi without tax or insurance. It didn’t seem that important. Besides, you only need insurance if the roads are dangerous, right?
A note on driving in Georgia. There are two undivided lanes, but they are treated as three. There are cars and plenty of lorries, but there are also untended herds of cows browsing along most of the roads. There are also goats. There are also chickens. Sometimes, there are cars using the hard shoulder to drive in the opposite direction to traffic. Sometimes people park up in the middle of the road. On hills. Even though there are lorries behind them. The horn is now as important as your mirrors and speaks its own stuttering language.
This all serves as an elaborate backdrop to the main feature of Georgian driving: the overtake into oncoming traffic. Step 1: tailgate the car you would like to overtake. Step 2: overtake the car, regardless of what is coming in the opposite direction. This may, for example, involve taking your people carrier, packed with all of your children and your mother and your aunt, in between two lorries going in opposite directions, simply so that you can sit behind several more lorries. Apply horn liberally throughout. Advanced tip: Should you need to move completely into the opposite lane (for example to overtake 6 or 7 cars) simply flash your high beams repeatedly and force oncoming traffic onto their hard shoulder: it is expected. The police do nothing to interfere with the process; indeed, this is how they drive too. We witnessed these lessons in action the whole way through Georgia. After a while, we all started to enjoy it.
We stopped to eat as the light started failing. Cheese pasties are apparently a big hit in Georgia. This was the first time that we were ushered into a kitchen to see food rather than being given a menu.
Not wanting to drive in the dark and resigned to leaving the Ice Cream Truck to fend for itself for another night, we set out looking for places to stay. We set a budget of 100 Gel (£35) for the night and drove towards a promising dot on our map. It was a theatrical white building set amongst dying trees and yellowed grass. There was no sign from the road and the car park was completely deserted. What looked like a rusting soviet tank lay dormant in the field that bordered one wall of the building. The ‘hotel’ had the high ceilings and the protruding porch of a Victorian villa; it was clearly once an upmarket place. We could see through the grand, ground floor window that the entire, polished bottom floor was deserted but for a man crammed into one corner with a bed and a PC. As we pulled up, we were greeted by a slight woman with dark, cropped hair. We were showed around fully-furnished, en suite rooms and were without provocation or direction offered a price of 100 Gel for two twin rooms. In the echoing corridors of the deserted hotel, we realised it was the second night in a row on which we had found ourselves on the set of a horror film.
Having only eaten a cheese pasty each all day, we fetched a watermelon from the car. It was as Dom stood, naked down to the waist, gloriously suspending the watermelon above his head, that our host walked into the bedroom through the door we had carelessly left ajar. She returned with a large platter and cutlery a few moments later with down-turned eyes and an expression that had soured from welcome to disapproval.
That evening, we made good our spare time by washing several batches of clothes, which we diligently left to dry on the balcony, and turned in for an early night.