Armenia: Latitude, 40.1811, Longitude, 44.5136
Ever since I had followed the exploits of Lando Calrissian in Star Wars I had wanted to visit Armenia. In November 2006, accompanied by Ted Akulian, we traveled across 11 time zones, to Yerevan, the capital.
As the plane descended through the darkness, I could see the runway. Lining the sides of a wide unpaved strip were ox carts and horse-drawn carriages, the frightened beasts being calmed by the drivers who held burning torches and corn stalks that illuminated the landing path for the pilot as he approached the capital. Through the din of the propellors I heard a cheer from the peasants as our DC-3 touched down.
Wait...this is not the way it happened at all. The airport was modern: control tower, radar, jet bridges, and a couple of other large jet aircraft parked at the gates in the small international airport which is served by a few long haul airlines and several regional carriers. We had arrived about a half hour late from London on BMED, a subsidiary of British Airways. It served some of the Stans, Jordan, and Nairobi and other capitals.
At passport control I was redirected to the visa desk where a distracted young agent chatted with two older officers and generated a large visa stamp for my passport upon payment of $30. If you apply beforehand over the Net, it costs $60. When I asked to photograph the official, he rushed out of the office, and posed beside me as his colleagues laughed and seemed to approve. I explained he was my 'first Armenian' contact on the trip, and he liked that.
We were met by Alfred Solomon Waldstein, a friend from my Peace Corps days n west Africa in the 1960's. We had not seen each other since a trip to British Honduras in 1971. Since then he had received a PhD in anthropology and had been working in the development industry in forty countries, and Armenia was his latest contract--working with rural community groups to plan facilities for disabled kids who are being integrated into the state educational system. A Danish NGO called Mission East was having considerable success at the policy level as well as the grass roots work where the mothers of the kids were forming groups to guide the development of these facilities.
Armenia is a country of about 3 million with millions living elsewhere. Their diaspora dates from the 1915 massacres/genocide to a huge exodus after the end of the Soviet Union and the collapse of the economy. One person told me the country had been the Silicon Valley of the USSR, but all the markets vanished during that tumultuous time in the early 90's. However, in the past few years there has been an incredible growth and investment from Armenians abroad and from remittances. It is evident in all the construction in the capital and the wealth on the streets and stores, but there are a great deal of poor people in the rural area and Yerevan too. According to the UNICEF report about 70% of the young want to emigrate, but others are returning from Moscow, Beirut, and Los Angeles. My friend Ted had grandparents who left Anatolia before 1915 and his Armenian-American parents spoke Armenian around him, but he had never visited and much of his language had faded since his youth. So it was fun to see him discover something about his roots, and everyone we met was enthusiastic to know about his ancestry. From the first customs official to the last person we saw before departing, everyone was very cordial and welcoming.
In spite of bogus account of our arrival I had no real preconceptions about the country except the food would be great and that I had a lot to learn about every aspect of history and daily life. It does seem to be the most homogeneous country in the world: one race, overwhelmingly one ethnicity and about 2% Yezidi, one language (but many speak Russian and English), and one religion. The weather was clear and mild during the day, but the capital is subject to some very hot and cold months; we just avoided them. The cost of touring was masked from us since we stayed with a friend and did not pay for busses or taxis, but some costs seemed high. A two bedroom apartment in the center of town was about $1100 a month though his one bedroom is about $550 a month, and gasoline was more than the U.S. but less than France or UK. Salaries are low, and we encountered one of two beggars each day.
Many of the stores and businesses down town seemed to target wealthy Armenians. Cell phones, clothes, liquor, furniture, and high end restaurants were interspersed with some small shops and more modest eating establishments. The supermarkets were not large and devoted a large amount of floor space to candy, liquor, and non-alcoholic drinks. What interested me was the main vegetable market housed in a warehouse with the most ornate metal entrance I have seen. Inside many of the vendors knew enough English to offer samples of dried fruits, nuts, cheese, and other goods, all carefully displayed for full effect. Women moistened lavash, the thin flatbread about the size of a towel, and others touted a beautiful array of fresh vegetables and fruits, some of which came from Iran. Since it was November the only local crop I saw was cabbage which was being transported to market any way possible.
The bread in Armenia is the work of genius. We had loaves of the best I have had anywhere: at home, France, Germany, on in my own kitchen. The prices were quite reasonable, and if I had more time I would have visited the place where the goods were baked to learn the secret of one particular kind we liked.
On the weekend a large flea market was set up along four long rows in a park, and vendors who did not get a space draped goods on their cars bordering the park. We went two days, one for a slow tour where we found men selling odds and ends of electronic components and nuts, screws, and bolts; old Soviet medals, busts of Stalin, musical instruments, books, a big selection of analog cameras, and of course pirate DVDs and CDs (just as we have in San Jose). Al was looking for some special cymbals for his son. They were made in Turkey and had been sold all over the world, not just this region. We only located some modern version with the right brand name but made in New York City. Ted was sold a nice embroidered table cloth by a woman who knew about to badger and barter, and we passed up many gorgeous rugs from the region.
The only dangerous part of the trip was crossing streets in Yerevan. the crosswalks are just targeting zones for the wild drivers who see pedestrians as annoyances, and many of the people take risks in crossing. In the middle of a four lane street there are ovals about 2 by 4 feet where you are supposed to stand as trucks and cars zoom past like bulls passing a matador. We saw no bicycles, motorcycles (though the weather was good) and nobody in a wheel chair anywhere on the streets.
Mission East was celebrating a breakthrough they had made with the ministry of education, and we had a banquet at a Georgian restaurant. Georgia is a friendly neighbor to the north which is being pressured by Russia because of its tilt toward the U.S. and western Europe. The food was very interesting and best of all was a sort of cheese pie called khachipuri, perhaps the best dish we had in our week in the country. The red wines were okay, but then I'm parochial, used to drinking the ones Ted and I make from his Amador County grapes. There was a nearby table of women who began dancing in a circle with lots of finger motions and sinuous movements, but nobody from our table joined in initially. Then I found out they were not part of our group which seemed to concentrate more on congratulatory toasts to the past, the present company, and even unborn children of the future.
On the main square is the National Gallery and museum, the telecomms building still sporting ironwork from Soviet times, and some hotels and other businesses. The gallery was almost empty; there were many more guides and docents. In fact, we three saw just one other couple during Sunday, though we did hear a school class on a floor below. There were some wonderful Soviet realist works of big healthy young people marching to the future or riding a train (perhaps to work in a collective during a summer break).
That afternoon a former landlord of Al's came for a visit. He was from Lebanon where he seemed to help run an Armenian enclave, a village that remained neutral during the long civil war, even though it was located in the Bekaa Valley. He had very interesting observations about politics in that region and a wry sense of humor. He was pessimistic about Lebanon: "It has no future. each group has only its own interests in mind,not the country's." He said the Armenian population had dropped from 500,000 when there were two million in the country to 100,000 when there are four million inhabitants. I could have listened to him all evening, but he was a busy man, but as he left he implored Al to get us laid. Where that came from I really don't know.
On Monday Al took us to Armavir a town about an hour from Yerevan. The countryside is quite stark. Huge mountains in the distance, many vineyards with small vines, replowed fields, and towns that vary in their modernity and upkeep. We passed by a huge fortress just outside of town; it was the U.S. embassy, the largest in the region. Probably a listening post for the Middle East. However, the Russians have a military base in Armenia, and during the USSR Armenians served in higher positions than, for instance, the neighboring Azeris.
In Armavir we met at a non-profit partner of Mission East, and the female staff was very cordial. A varied bunch of talented women in paid and volunteer positions, they were joined by Hermine the translator who got along very well with Al and the rest of us. In fact, it was a very congenial bunch who had done a lot of work with the women (and some men) in outlying villages where there were quite a few disabled kids. We drove to Miyasnikyan, an impoverished village where we met in an unheated library that seemed to have stopped buying books about 20 years ago. There was no staff just remnants of the past empire: a child's book in Armenian that showed Vladimir Lenin as a kindly grandfather who explained world revolution to little girls on a park bench. The NGO facilitated the discussion, with Al helping out and the parents giving feedback on the kind of furniture for the new room for the disabled children. They resisted choosing a leader of the group. "We are all equal," they insisted. Back in Armavir the staff had a wonderful buffet and discussed the day's events. We felt very welcome even if we did not speak any Armenian.
Echmiadzin is the seat of the Armenian Orthodox Church. A compound surrounded the old mother church, and we entered passing an old lady dressed in black who seemed to own the spot as a good place to beg. Inside it was not large and overwhelming. In a side annex were a few priests and colleagues including Stephen who spoke some English and showed us all the religious artifacts and relics including: the spear head that pierced Jesus' side, a thorn from his crown, parts of the true cross, silver-encased bone relics of saints and a piece of Noah's Ark! There was a pagan altar below us, but Stephen did not have authority to take us there.
On the way back we stopped at Zvartnots, an early Christian church destroyed by an earthquake. Each column had a common design in the center of which was a cross,and this same motif was used in a Soviet building downtown but the hammer and sickle took the place of the cross. An old man tried to sell us post cards and souvenirs, but he relied on the camera to capture our memories.
Later in the week I accompanied Al to another village very close to Armavir where we repeated the meeting agenda with a different group of parents. We met in a music instruction room. Musical scales dotted the walls, and outside the community center was a huge granite statute of a Soviet infantry soldier from the Great Patriotic War (WWII) scowling and carrying a sub-machine gun at port arms. At the nearby school we looked at the future facility for the disabled kids and met the principal with whom I talked in German and mentioned that my wife was also an elementary school principal. Outside her office were several dozen black and white portraits of students who had died in World War II. There were none for those who died in Afghanistan forty years later.
Al and Ted went to a modern art museum, but I preferred to stand and watch the action on the sidewalks and the wild traffic. A BMW parked in a turn lane at the main intersection, and the driver disappeared. Soon a police van blasted its way to the front of the jam, and a cop used the loudspeaker to summon the driver. After five minutes he emerged from a shop, spoke to the police and never showed any i.d. or received any citation. Instead he drove off at high speed, leaving me to believe he was well connected and the cops knew it was futile to write him a ticket. Others watched this transpire. The police did pursue a taxi that made a u-turn,and the driver spent fifteen minutes negotiating with the police at a taxi stand near the corner where I stood.
We left Yerevan (after being fingerprinted by the airline) for a flight back to London, and I think Ted might return with his sons one day. At the left is a shot of Mount Ararat in Turkey which is still unfriendly toward Armenia. I enjoyed my time and was happy to reconnect with an old friend who is still doing good work in far off places.