This was not just any bus. This was a marshrutka—Russian for “routed taxi”—the mythical minivans used throughout most of the former Soviet Union that give new meaning to the concept of public transportation. Sturdy and cheap to both operate and ride, the marshrutkas are the only things strong enough to withstand the raw South Caucasian roads. In Armenia, they are the most common mode of travel both city and countrywide, and for less than $5, they got me to the capital of another country in record time.
The marshrutka, with its rattling floorboards, rusty exterior and baseball-card sized photos of Jesus and the Virgin Mary plastered to the dashboard, was filled with the wafting odor of fried meat piroshki and potato-filled buns. An evil eye pendant, used to ward off danger in this part of the world, hung from the rear view mirror and swung like a pendulum, capturing every single pothole in its stride. The windows remained closed, despite the dry summer heat. The driver continued to smoke, despite a smoking ban for marshrutka drivers. And more people continually climbed on board, despite a dangerously depleting oxygen supply.
For hours, my legs remained buried under oversized luggage. Without thinking twice, the overwhelmed mother sitting next to me plopped her crying infant onto my lap. The constant swerving by our driver combined with copious amounts of sweets proved too much for my newly adopted 2-year-old. The rest of the ride, with a stop at the border where the circulation slowly came back in my limbs, was spent helping his mother clean him, while she tossed bags of projectile vomit out the window into the picturesque Caucasian hills.
The most dangerous threat the marshrutka carried however, wasn’t vomiting children, but grandmothers, who, noticing my male travel companion, turned to sweetly ask if we were married. I quickly learned, that unless I was prepared for silent scorn, I had to fib and enthusiastically nod “yes.” In turn, they rewarded me with smiles and handfuls of exotic Russian candy.
The marshrutka had no buttons to push to get off, no chords to pull, no announcements about where we were. If you could manage, an enthusiastic “stop” from the barrels of your gut that echoed through rows of intimidating locals who carried everything from groceries to bulky furniture, did the trick. The worn-in seats jiggled back and forth, vibrating to loud nostalgic Russian pop songs as the driver negotiated the pockmarked mountainous roads. I sat on a stool in a 12-seat bus that had probably seen the fall of the USSR, with 20 other people, suffering through children with uneasy stomachs and ear-numbing music. Passengers struck up conversations that ended with invites insisting we spend the night at their house. It was terrible and wonderful at the same time, and I loved every single minute of it.