It was the early hours of the morning when the taxi driver dropped me off at the Sheraton Metechi Hotel in Tbilisi, Georgia. I had no idea what accommodation had been booked for me, only that I had received my flight details the day before my departure from Latvia. I was to get on the plane and a ‘representative’ would meet me at the airport. Everything was supposedly all paid for and taken care of.
I arrived at the airport, all hustle and bustle, people dressed in black leather jackets and dark clothing, filling the through fare with trolleys as they stopped to clap arms around family members, with exclamations of ‘aaaa bitcho’, and ‘rogor axar’, and kisses and hugs were exchanged. I eventually made my way clear to a little space, having seen no sign at all of any ‘representative’. I spent the next fifty minutes or so wandering aimlessly around the airport, and trying not to panic.
The last of my money had gone on paying for the luggage which had not been booked on my flight, and on food since there was nothing provided on the aeroplane and I had a 7 hour or more layover in Riga airport. Now, here I was, alone and penniless, with no signal on my phone that previously worked in all countries, but apparently not in Georgia, and I was started to wonder whether to go to customs and declare that they needed to send me back somewhere as the situation was starting to look rather hopeless.
Eventually I found a representative, bearing the sign with a scrawl that said ‘Jason Rice’. That was not my name, and clearly I was not a guy, but having being handed the name badge for Jason Rice, I now took on this identity and the representative whisked me off. I tried to ask about this Jason fella, worried that perhaps he would arrive, and like me find that no one was waiting for him, and that he would be stranded. But communication was difficult and my efforts were lost, as the representative took control of my luggage and guided me to the car. I was not used to people taking my luggage from me, I was an independent traveller, but he seemed adamant that I should not have to carry it after my flight. I was feeling pretty nervous at this point, more so, at the thought of getting in a car with a complete stranger, to who knew where, and not speaking any of the language. I was even more nervous as he changed the music to Barry White and started to give me sweets, tried to talk to me, and encouraged me to eat said sweets. In hindsight this was all just cultural differences, exhaustion on my part, and he was really just trying to welcome me to his country and make me feel comfortable. And I am sure that the same treatment to every new guest, probably evoked a whole range of different responses, probably influenced by whether or not the person was met at the airport immediately and whether they had something with their own name on to show that they were expected and the organisation was a bone fide one. I mean, who else would respond to an advert that said ‘come to Georgia, free return flight, and accommodation provided, plus a stipend’. Only a mug, and I was that mug, having left all behind me for adventures new.
We drove for what seemed like forever, in the dark, multi coloured fluorescent lit streets of Tbilisi. It was nothing like I had imagined, not that I really had thought too hard about what it would look like. But I had probably expected it to be more like the middle eastern countries I had previously visited, Beirut, Jordan, Dubai, with people calling to prayer, and a sense of something more exotic, and the smell of heat and spices, and mint tea. It also wasn’t like any of the Soviet countries I had ever visited before, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, Hungary, nor was it European. It just had this feel about it, as if it was alone, it was different somehow, and couldn’t be categorised or boxed. That was a first for me.
We arrived at the hotel, which was a massive shock, as I had expected to be in some rat infested, pokey little, wall carpeted, kind of a bed and breakfast. Akin to most of the places I have ended up on my travels, apart from Quito when we stayed at the Hilton, but felt it was a bit samey, and spent most of our time at this great little hotel called Cafe Cultura instead, and then went back to our Hilton Hotel to sleep. That was quite ironic, as it wasn’t everyday that you get put up in the Hilton, and here we were sneaking out to eat and relax at another hotel, which was a fraction of the price paid for the Hilton, with its doormen, chocolate’s on pillows, and high customer service. There was nothing wrong with the Hilton at all, we just loved the Cafe Cultura, so much so that we even paid to stay there, though we already had accommodation at the Hilton!! Those were the days! (http://www.cafecultura.com/html/en/home.htm)
So, there I was, at the Sheraton Metechi Hotel in Tbilisi, in shock that we had been booked into this very grand hotel, that far exceeded my expectations, and though I was nervous that it all seemed too good to be true, and they had messed up my flight booking, so I might end up with a bill for this expensive looking hotel, that I had no means of paying for, I was rather excited about the prospect and future of being in Georgia. They were clearly a serious organisation, and they obviously valued us enough to know that we needed to be rested before we were sent off into the unknown.
Good job that I didn’t read my Georgia guidebook before I arrived, as this is what is said about the 5 star Sheraton Hotel: “The city’s premiere hotel for many years, this has packed a lot of living into its short life. In 1994 it was taken over by Kalashnikov toting Mkhedrioni, supposedly there to guard the place; instead there were lurid stories of shootings in the bar and drug dealing in the corridors. The US embassy banned its officials from going there (although the EC office was there), and its general manager fled back to Austria. Famously, a sign at the door read ‘Handguns allowed, semi-automatics to be left at reception’.” The Sheraton purchased this non profit making hotel back in 1997 and now its a world class hotel and a great place to stay in Tbilisi. So I am really glad that it was chosen as our base for our one week of orientation and training.
But, you can imagine my relief, when we arrived at the hotel, and the first face I saw on entering through the revolving doors, was a BMI Pilot, all dressed up in uniform, looking very British indeed, and sat behind him were the crew, all checking out ready to fly back to the UK after a few days off. They looked impecable, and very handsome indeed! So much so, that I couldn’t help but smile a little, and I probably blushed too! Now, if things went crazy in this foreign land, I had someone to speak to in English and to explain that I had got into this car with a total stranger and that he thought I was a guy called Jason, and please could they take me with them if needs be.
The ‘representative’ took be by the arm and placed me at the front of the line, with an explanation to the reception in Georgian, and then left, wishing me all the best. He clearly needed to be somewhere and he wasn’t waiting around. I was very embarrassed at being placed at the front of a line, when it was obvious to me that these pilots and crew had far more pressing events ahead of them and had been waiting patiently to get everything organised. I apologised and they understood, as did the receptionist who indicated that I should wait my turn. Again, a very real cultural difference. Georgians don’t line up or wait in turn, they generally go to the front and it is purely down to the strength of your elbows and survival of the fittest. But it broke the ice, and in true British fashion myself and the BMI crew made small talk, and they were a very nice bunch of people indeed.
I had no more connection with BMI, until a year later, when remembering, how pleasant they were, I decided to look into their flights for our Oceans Project Georgia trip to London for many meetings with different organisations. It also happened, that my School DIrector would always fly with BMI and she sold me on them, as she was always very impressed with their standard of service, and friendliness of the staff. When I had first looked at the prices, I thought they were really expensive, but it was probably because it was a last minute flight I was looking at. But when I took all things into consideration, it actually worked out to be the most cost effective way to fly to most places from Tbilisi. I had originally thought that Pegasus were very good price wise, but I had bad experiences with them the first time I flew, and from conversations with friends, we all concurred that we had experienced the same issues. When we called them, they would hang up on us, and the prices on the website were not what we ended up paying, and our flights invariably ended up costing us twice as much, and we received little customer service. Staff were rude and clearly unhappy in their jobs, and even though they agreed with us at our issues, and they made reports to back us up, nothing ever came of it.
BMI was a dream to fly with and the price quoted was the final price. There were no hidden extras like tax, food, or baggage, and better still, the flight was direct, and you could have wine and Baileys on the journey, and the staff were always keen to help. Pegasus always involved a change in Istanbul airport, where there were no power points to plug in your laptop, no atms, and very little to do during the 6 or 7 hour layover, and to go into the city, or even out of the airport for a cigarette or to go to the ATM, you had to purchase a visa. I’ve spent far too much time at that airport and it is probably my least favourite in the world.
But there we were, myself and my Co-Director for Oceans Project on our way to London and planning everything on the way, we were very excited, but also very nervous. The journey back was a different one again, as we had achieved a great deal during the week, had firm plans and ideas, and were blown away by the experiences we had gone through in just a short time. We had been at the Royal Geographical Society, we had met so many different explorers, and we had sat next to Michael Palin, and lots of other very cool people. We had taken a session about writing for Oceans Project Georgia, and how to raise funds, and we had been able to secure two parts of the project for free, which saved us about £1000 straight away. And most importantly, I had really missed my team and the kids from project and I couldn’t wait to see them again and tell them all about the amazing week we had had.
During that flight with BMI, we got talking to the crew about the Oceans Project, and knowing that they often stay over after their flight we were keen to invite them to attend our project sessions if they were ever in town. It was the perfect end to a perfect week.