A basic luxury

The tides of fortune ebb and flow. Periods of economic prosperity are often preceded and succeeded by periods of austerity. At any given moment in time, the flow of people in and out of a country will be greater or smaller. And while Hungarians appear to be emigrating at a rapid rate, Georgians are returning home.

The Rose Revolution of 2003 and the two-term president Mikheil Saakashvili elected that year apparently put the country on the road to economic prosperity. But theirs is still a journey. The country has a ways to go before everyone gets to benefit. The signs are there, though. With little by way of natural resources like oil and gas and precious minerals, Georgia’s biggest assets are its scenic beauty, its culture, its traditions, and its people.

In Kutaisi recently, the country’s second city, I got chatting to 37-year-old Zaali. He returned to Georgia in 2015 having spent time Canada and Spain working construction. He speaks four languages and has an innate interest in people that makes him the perfect host. Less than a year ago he opened his business and set about capitalising on the growth of tourism.

Zaali owns and runs Hostel Luxe, a hostel close to the bus and train stations that has mixed dorm rooms, double rooms ensuite, family rooms, and apartments. His is one of many hostels to open in the city recently and with competition quite tough, he had to find his edge. And he did. He offers free transport to and from Kutaisi’s international airport, about 20 km outside the city.

For travellers who are used to staying in mid to high-end hotels, free transportation to and from the airport is a given. For those on expense accounts, it hardly matters. For those who are not on a budget, taxis provide a handy option. But for those who are travelling on limited funds, this is a luxury. He told me how one young woman from Ukraine danced a jig when she saw her name on his larger-than-usual placard. She was delighted with her welcome and said she felt special.

It’s been a lifetime or three since I last stayed in a hostel. If I’m travelling on my own dime, my priority is location. I don’t need anything extravagant. But I need clean. And I need free Internet. If I’m travelling to a country where the language is going to be a challenge, I try to schedule flights that get land at a reasonable hour. I avoid early mornings and late nights. I need to find my way around and do so in the light of day. If I can’t manage this, then I take a taxi.

Given all the choice there is for accommodation in Kutaisi, I chose Hostel Luxe because it offers free transport to and from the airport [the flight from Budapest lands around 5 am on a Saturday morning  and departs shortly after the following Tuesday]. With airport transfer available, there was no faffing around with changing currency or finding bus stops. And there’s something to being said for being met in person when you arrive somewhere. It all adds to the experience.

Not being the chattiest of people in the morning, I was dreading the idea of shared space. The room had a TV which I’d gladly have swapped for a desk and a table but I had to make do with working in the common area … and socialising. I met some interesting people, heard some interesting stories, and enjoyed his dad’s fabulous wine. Zaali also offers car rentals and reasonably priced guided tours. He’s thought of it all. This, he says, is his happy job.

First published in the Budapest Times 24 June 2016

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