Monday, October 6, 2008

Return to Innocence

Yesterday, while I was talking to the Russian-Canadian guy outside the hostel, Gevorg Babayan walked up to us. Gevorg works here at the Envoy Hostel, and since I first spoke to him on the phone a week or so before I flew here, I knew that I would get along with him well. He is very sensitive and intelligent, very good at English, and just a great guy to talk to. He mentioned that he was going to be leading a Village Cultural Tour, and I asked if I could join him. He said I was welcome to.

Today we set out for the Aragats Plateau. I already knew that this was a beautiful region, because that is where the Amberd Fortress was. We stopped off at the church which had the stones in the forms of the Armenian letters, where Mesrop Mashtots is buried (I had seen this church with Sati last week).

Then we did something different. Gevorg took us to a local town called Byurakan, which so happens to be his hometown. He took us to the astronomical observatory there, the founder of which had been an astronomer of international renown. The docent of the founder's house spoke English fluently and guided us through the house and cited this scientist's many achievements in astronomy, which are now considered facts of life.

The history of Byurakan is a bit sad. During Soviet times, it was a big town, with lots of inhabitants. Both of Gevorg's parents had worked at the observatory. After the Soviet Union collapsed, funding had dried up. The place is still functioning, but it is in decline and a shadow of it's former self.

After this, Gevorg took us to his uncle's house and took us to a small separate building where his relatives were making fresh lavash bread. There was a deep oven pit called a Tonir, where the heat came from. One person kneaded the dough, and then passed to another person, who would out it in the oven, take it out, and then peel it off. Probably not as easy to do as it looks, and those pieces are super-thin!

A few minutes later, we saw that same bread at the table. All the produce without exception was home-grown. That same fresh lavash bread, Madzoon (yoghurt), honey, salads, cheese. Unbelievable. All of it tasted so fresh! And of course, apple oghee vodka (which is home-brewed by Gevorg's grandfather in their still). Our group was three Swedes, one Russian-Armenian, and myself. We sat there, taking our time. As I write this entry, it is almost 8:30 PM, and I am still full! I don't think I need any dinner tonight. The icing on the cake was berry juice from berries from their own orchard, and fresh fruits also from their own orchard. The berry juice was currant, I believe, and the berries were floating right in it.

Not only was this stuff so fresh, but none of it (particularly the fruits and fruit juice) were sour. The berry juice and the grapes had none of the sourness that you usually find.

I commented to Gevorg, as did the Swedes, that this type of produce is pretty much part of an old way of life in our respective countries that is dying. I mentioned that in the USA people pay big money for organic produce, when they can get it. Gevorg simply smiled and said "We don't use fertilizer, we don't need it! This is the only way we know!"

The Russian-Armenian congratulated me on how I handled the apple oghee. I don't know why, again moderation seems to prevail here. I just sipped a little, then they would top off and do a toast again once in a while. My stomach was pretty full, and again, these folks seem to be a model for moderation. They chided one of the Swedish ladies who did not want to refill, kidding around with her and whatnot, but clearly it was nothing vicious. Then they just topped her up, too, giving her less. It seems like it's perfectly ok to just sip a little here and there, which is what I did.

I arrived at the hostel feeling rested.


Sunday, October 5, 2008

Reflections on Armenia

Today I spent the day relaxing. I slept in, as I have done several times. I struck up a conversation with a Canadian guy who just got an apartment just around the corner, who has dual Canadian and Russian citizenship.

He is trying to start up a nightclub here and has already run into some frustrations in getting papers stamped, dealing with Armenian officials, etc. It does seem that it can be very difficult to do business here. He is of course fluent in Russian but does not speak Armenian. He claims that the same types of papers take an hour or so to do in Canadian official offices. We chatted while sitting in an outdoor cafe just off Hanrapetutyan Hraparak (Republic Square).

I have also spoken to several other people, mostly overseas Armenians, who have traveled or done business in this country. Their insights are amazing. It appears that the fact that I am an outsider has ensured that I am treated fairly well. My complaints about restaurants aside, apparently the restaurants do this to everyone, including overseas Armenians who are fluent in the language. One local Armenian told me also that this is normal, and that you just have to be careful and check your tab. It seems that this is just a normal part of life here.

Some ethnic Armenians who come from other Soviet republics have told me they try to not show their passports if they can help it, because they are afraid of being treated less well. There is also no shortage of jokes that Diaspora Armenians and local Armenians make about each other, although this in itself is the more benign side of it. Between that and the political situation, it would appear that Armenians spend a lot of time conflicting among themselves. The entire country is geographically the same size as my home state of Maryland (and Armenia has about 3 million people), and yet their society seems to be divided socially along several lines.

It appears that I have started to notice something, and it also seems that Armenians seem eager to shelter me from it. So far, they have almost only acted with great kindness and courtesy to me. I do not mean to sound in any way critical, it is just something that I have begun to observe. It seems that there are some parallels in this sense with Japanese society.

I do not believe that I will be here long enough to witness the full extent of these things.

The more I see of it, the more fascinating Armenia becomes.


Saturday, October 4, 2008

Lake Sevan

Today I saw one of the jewels of Armenia--Lake Sevan. Going again with Sati Tours, a young lady named Armineh was our guide today. We drove northeast of Yerevan, and first stopped at Tsaghadzor, which is a ski resort during the winter time. During the summer, you can take the ski lift up to just get a nice view.

I took a pass on the lift--I'm pretty acrophobic, and the view at the parking lot was pretty nice, too. After this, we moved on to Sevanavank, a monastery which overlooks Lake Sevan. It is perched high up on a cliff, and the place where we parked below looked like a piece of land that juts out right into the middle of the lake . In reality, it used to be an island, and the the lake was drained partially during Soviet times. The air and sky were very clear, and I felt at peace.

Arsineh is really a fantastic guide, and Gevorg drove us. From the very beginning, she engaged us all, quizzing us on our knowledge about Armenia, and explaining things in detail. We sat down to lunch, which was quite interesting. Aside from the usual breads and salads, we had Siga, which is a local type of fish, barbecued. It was grilled whole and very tasty.

There was some interesting music playing on the loudspeakers as we ate outside. Apparently, one song that they played, which had whiny vocals, was Rabiz music. I had already heard horror stories about this type of music. Apparently it's very depressing and sad, and judging from how it sounds, that's probably on target. Other than that, though, the music here is pretty good, and quite different from what I am used to back home. To get an idea, try .

After we made our way back, a Swedish guy named Matts, who had been on the tour with me, wanted to go to the Vernissage Market, which is a flea market. We did not buy anything except a cup of Armenian coffee from an older lady who was hawking it from a wheeled cart, complete with a gas stove!

Of course we stood out like sore thumbs, but people were generally agreeable, and one Armenian-American from Los Angeles came up and spoke with us for a bit. He seemed thrilled that we were here and interested in the country. Matts is here for work, which did not seem to surprize him or anyone. However, like many people, he was surprized that I was here for vacation, although I have no family connection to Armenia. Almost everybody I have met has seemed puzzled by this. He, like most others, have seemed delighted, though.

After this, Matts and I passed through a residential neighborhood after walking through the major Shuka (produce market) on Mashtots Ave. A whole bunch of children were playing soccer in a yard. Matts went up and joined them! He got hit in the stomach with a ball, but had a lot of fun. I just photographed it. This is the sort of thing that I did once in a while when I taught English in Japan, but I'm normally too reserved to just approach random people like that. The kids seemed thrilled, and I found it very amusing.

I am very tired now, and I think I will sleep in tomorrow. There is no shortage of things that I can accomplish Monday through Wednesday.


Friday, October 3, 2008

Esperantists in Yerevan

Today I did not do too much in terms of sightseeing. However, since I knew where and when the Esperanto Club here in Yerevan was meeting, I turned up at their regular meeting at 6:30 PM.

One young lady there spoke English brilliantly also, in addition to Esperanto. When I asked her how she had learned English, she answered me the same way some of the staff here at Envoy Hostel answered me, "I studied it on my own". Difficult to believe, judging by how well these people really do speak English.

Levon Davtian and Hrant, whom I had met the previous Saturday, were also at the meeting. Afterwards they told me that somebody else, a blind Esperantist here in Yerevan (whose name is Yerchanik), wanted to meet me. (By the way, Yerchanik is an Armenian name that means "happy person" or something like that, maybe like the name Felix. Hrant took me to pick up Yerchanik at his work--he is a professor of Armenian linguistics at a small university here in town. We also met up with another local Esperantist named Suzanna. We took a bus to the professor's apartment, and he invited me in for apricot vodka, bread, cheeze, and salami. We talked about various things, and I felt very welcome there.

In typical Armenian fashion, they were always telling me to help myself to more food. An interesting thing that I noted also: every once in a while they would top off the apricot vodka, and we would toast. I would just sip from it a little bit each time, and they would then top it off. You would enjoy yourself, but you would never go overboard this way.

We discussed matters involving Esperanto in the USA and in Armenia. They also asked me about the upcoming election in the USA, and my opinion on it. They seem to be following it with particular interest, because who becomes our next president might play a role in whether or not our Congress legally recognizes the Armenian Genocide, a measure which I personally support fully.

I have truly been meeting some interesting people in this place. Armenians are a very warm, welcoming, and intelligent people.

Hrant saw me off on a marshrutka headed back my way, at about 11 PM or so.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Geghard and Garni, and a Good Dinner, to Boot!

Today I visited Geghard and Garni, which are two very popular sights just outside of Yerevan. These are easy access and must-sees. I trusted myself again to Lusineh at Sati, and the driver was a kindly elderly gentleman named Grikor.

Geghard is a monastery, and Garni is an ancient pagan temple which has been there for a couple of thousand years. It looks very Greco-Roman. Beautiful scenery to boot. Near Geghard they still sacrifice animals, and there is a river nearby. Nature is always nice. Garni looks like a small version of the Acropolis, which makes sense because the people who built it were influenced by the Greeks.

For dinner, I went to a tourist restaurant called the "Caucasus Tavern". They have food from Armenia and Georgia both. The waiters are in traditional garb. I ordered a lamb bone soup (Georgian), and an unusual type of Armenian dolma for a main. For dessert, I had Armenian coffee (like Greek coffee), and a sort of sweet thick bread pancake, which tasted a bit like a crust from a pie, but sweeter.

Not bad at all. Finally some success in this department, huh. The waiter was a little odd, but he was honest, and when I looked puzzled, he explained everything to me on the bill, which was reasonable, and we were for once clear that service was not included. I tipped him 10%, which might be on the high end (expected in some types of restaurants but not all), but it really is not a whole lot of money in the end. He did his job pretty well and was agreeable enough. I sampled one glass of the famous Armenian fruit vodka (in Armenian they call it "oghee"), and I chose the famous Cornelian Cherry flavor. And yes, Mom, I only had one and drank it very slowly, you don't want to mess with this stuff.

It seems like you just have to know where to go. I also ran into another member of my tour group, who is an Israeli-Armenian who now lives in Istanbul and has a house in Maryland!! She was there with her kids, just as on the tour, and she gave me her card. Apparently she's a travel agent in Turkey. I think I might call her sometime...

On the way to the Caucasus Tavern, I noticed something very strange, and it gave me cause for some concern. To get to the restaurant, I followed a street which goes along the front of the Opera, as the guy in the hostel had recommended. I had to take a detour, and I got slightly misguided (as usual).

The reason? The police were out, and in larger numbers than I had seen last Friday evening. They were standing in a line to block the street I was trying to follow, and out in the street were two police cars with lights on. I detoured to the pedestrian street that leads to Republic Square. The tone was much more aggressive than last Friday. They also had lots of cops in military uniforms wearing berets, who are apparently Internal Ministry officers.

I had my camera with me, but I kept it securely in its case. They left me alone, but I detoured to get to the Caucasus Tavern-I was not going to attempt to cross that cordon. The atmosphere was tense and just a bit paranoid...

But after a satisfying dinner, I went back home, and the street near the hostel had six police cars out where the officers were talking to someone. I have no idea what was going on, but as usual I just kept out of it. Kind of bizarre, though.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Gorgeous Views, Ancient History, Exactly What I'm Here For!

Today I took another wonderful trip for the day with Sati Tours. My guide was a young lady named Lusineh, and Azat was our driver again. They took us to Aragatsotn province, part of which is a high plateau area surrounding Mt. Aragats. Mt. Aragats is now the highest mountain in all of modern Armenia. It's smaller than Ararat, but of course Ararat is now just over the border in Turkey.

We visited several churches, the first of which had a garden cut in the shape of the letters of the Armenian alphabet. Another one also had stones cut in the shape of the alphabet. The Armenians seem to be very proud of Mesrop Mashtots, the man who invented their alphabet as well as the original alphabet of neighboring Georgia.

Finally, the third part of the tour was the most dramatic. We took some long, windy roads, going through some desolate and barren landscapes--not much in the way of trees, and it's all brown. Another haunting landscape. It is very high there, higher than I am accustomed to being, although I did not have altitude sickness or anything-it was not that high. Our final stop was a monastery which was guarded by Amberd Fortress. I could see mountains, including sacred Ararat, and scenery all around us. We were high up on the Aragats Plateau.

Why would the Armenians put monasteries in such messed-up places? Simple. Lusineh told us that since Armenia is on the bridge between Europe and Asia and Middle East and all that, everybody wanted to attack it. They wanted to make it harder. Not that it helped that much. Apparently the Seljuk Turks and Mongols both did attack it in the end.

Now here's another clever ploy: when the Armenians were building these churches and monasteries, they would carve reliefs depicting religious apostles, Jesus, etc. Sometimes they would carve the facial features to resemble Mongolian or Persian faces, etc. to make them look like a person from the group that was most likely to invade them, in the hopes that they would therefore not level the place. It seems so far that the Mongols were candidates for this slightly more often, but I'm not sure.

Lunch was kebab meat with salads and French fries again. The food here is simple and nice.
These tours take us to places that serve homestyle food, more or less. No comparison to what they serve in Yerevan restaurants, although there are some notable exceptions.

For dinner I discovered a simple kebab place that is tourist- and user-friendly. Easy to choose, about $2 gets you a decent portion of kebab or shwarma (like a gyro), wrapped in lavash bread with your choice of spices. Finally, something no-nonsense!

Armenia is a remarkable place, really.


Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Hit or Miss...Why is this necessary?

Hey there everyone!

After I got home from this tour today, I went out in the rain to find some dinner. I wound up on the northern side of Yerevan (after a few wrong turns as usual), on Marshall Baghramian Street. This is where the President of Armenia has his residence, and the Parliament is close by.

I was looking for another barbecue place, because I had heard that the ones in this area were better and in a different style from the ones further down by the river, like Caesar's Palace where I had eaten.

After walking through the rain aimlessly as usual (I am almost used to this by now), I bumped into a couple of Austrians on the street. They recommended that I try this place with local specialites and beer on draft that was right around the corner. I eventually found it, right next to Marshall Baghramian metro station.

I found it, and the draft beer and soup were good. I also had some lamb barbecue. A bit tough in spots, but usually good.

I noticed that the menu said that they add a service charge on. That's fine by me.

At the end of this, the waiter was a different person. When he brought me the check, he never brought me back my change when I paid. I got the idea something was funny. When I asked for my change, he went and got it, and then made a gesture with his fingers, asking me for a tip!! I could not believe how uncouth he was! And he stood over me, watching me, as I put one hundred drams
into the thing and closed it. I knew that the service was included, but 100 drams is about $0.30 . He did not look satisfied, and I walked out in a huff. He should feel lucky that I even gave him that.

I took the metro from Marshall Baghramian to Republic Square, fuming mad. Well, it was rainy, and now it's time to go to sleep.


Now I'm Finally Seeing New Things!! (Or...Today I saw Armenia in a Nutshell)

Hey folks!

I made a point of resting more last night. It's still hard to sleep but it's getting better. Due to my constant tiredness, confusion, and disorientation, my lack of ability in the language, lack of signs, etc. I decided to take a guided tour for the day.

This tour took me to Khor Virap monastery, and the house and museum of Paruyr Sevak, the famous Armenian writer and poet. Paruyr Sevak was famous for several of his works, but died in his 40s in 1971, in a car accident, along with his wife. The museum showcases several of his works and has a mural showing him at several different stages of his life.

Khor Virap is an Armenian classic. It is in the shadow of Mt. Ararat, the mountain that all Armenians look to. Both the Sevak house and Khor Virap are in the province called Ararat, and are found in the Ararat Valley. Of course the valley itself was flat, but Khor Virap rises up and is made all of stone. Just behind it you could see Mt. Ararat (I think it is only 33 km from Khor Virap to the top of the mountain). Of course this is the mountain where Noah's Ark supposedly landed after the Deluge. It has two peaks, Masis (the largest), and Sis (the smaller one).

As we stared at Ararat, we could see a Turkish military base. Khor Virap is directly on the Turkish border, and we had to walk up a bit to see the monastery. St. Gregory the Illuminator was the Christian missionary in Armenia. The legend says that King Trdat persecuted him for this, and put him in a dungeon which is on the same site as where Khor Virap now stands. He threw him in a pit and let him sit there for 12 years, while supposedly Christian virgins fed him in secret. King Trdat went crazy (some say he turned into a whild boar). Then he converted to Christianity and made Armenia the first Christian state in the world in 301 AD. Khor Virap monastery was built on that spot, and I saw the pit where Gregory was for 12 years.

Complete with Mt. Ararat behind it, it is wonderful to visit places like this with such legends behind them. Because of this being on the border between NATO and the Soviet Union at the time, this same trip probably would not have been possible 20 years ago.

After this, we moved on to see the Noravank Monastery. This was further to the southeast in the Vayots Dzor province. Vayots Dzor means "Gorge of Woes". It certainly is a gorge and the mountains are barren and rocky. We visited Noravank, where a Canadian-Armenian in my tour group showed me how to light candles and make a prayer. You buy a candle for 60 drams and take it over to the tray which has all the other candles, taking fire from any of them. After lighting it, you stick the candle in the tray and say a prayer. You always enter and leave the church facing inwards, otherwise you are turning your back on God. Both Khor Virap and Noravank are still active monasteries and churches, so of course you may take photos, just be quiet and discreet.

The Gorge of Woes got its name because many people used to die there while traveling because it was such a rugged, remote, and dangerous area. While moving from Ararat province to Vayots Dzor, our guide Gayane showed us where the Arax river is, and beyond it, Naxchivan Province of Azerbaijan (Naxchivan used to belong to Armenia once upon a time). The Armenian borders to both Turkey and Azerbaijan are closed and we are not allowed to cross them.

It was raining a bit, but the views were still pretty good. On the way we stopped off to try some Areni, a local wine label. The pomegranate wine was especially nice and I bought a bottle.

We stopped for lunch also. It was an appealing array of Armenian salads, french fries, and kebab. Good stuff, tasty, and healthy, too. My body is finally learning to appreciate food again.

Vayots Dzor is one of the more dramatic landscapes I have seen. On the way back, Azat, our driver, put on some haunting traditional Armenian music, where you could hear drums and the duduk, a traditional Armenian instrument made from apricot wood. I watched the remote, barren landscapes change with this music in the background. Somehow it reminded me of travelling in Connemara in Ireland. Remote, barren landscapes with traditional music in the background.

Azat is a really cool guy. As for Gayane, she was a delight, too. This tour company is called Sati. They are reasonably priced, straightforward, simple, and good people who both know their stuff and are genuinely nice and friendly.

I think I'm really enjoying my trip!


Monday, September 29, 2008


Hey guys!

Last night I stayed up extremely late, and I had already felt exhausted as it is, even before I had arrived in this country. I bumbled around a lot, and I was unable to accomplish anything meaningful. Confused and disoriented, exhausted. I even tried to locate several restaurants and could not. This seems to be a perpetual problem. There are not enough street signs here, and even crossing the street is crazy because of the insane traffic here.

It's best sometimes to just call it a day. I find it extremely difficult to accomplish anything here on my own. Using a telephone here is also not straightforward. Levon had told me to get a local SIM card, so that it would be cheaper than using my American cell phone on roaming. I just haven't figured it out yet. I don't even know where to find these cards in the stores.

I still feel bloated and my stomach is upset, and I'm tired. Karine came by the hostel to check up on me, and I reassured here that I was otherwise ok. I've been burning the candle at both ends, and it's finally caught up with me.

I had dinner tonight at a restaurant called Dolmama's. It's very refined and the food delicious and presented very nicely, but I think it's overpriced. It is rare that I pay this much for dinner back home, and Armenia is usually a very inexpensive country. Restaurants here seem to be hit or miss.


Sunday, September 28, 2008

A Relaxing, Rainy, but Fun Day!

Today I was still exhausted and had a low appetite. It was raining again today, too. A great museum day, huh? So Sara (the doctor from Iran who is staying in the same place as I am) and I decided to see a couple of museums.

It seems that Sara and I have very similar interests. The National Historical Museum of Armenia and the National Gallery of Art are in the same building. We both were much more interested in history and chose to see that. It showed more artifacts from Urartu, maps and pictures depicting the old historical Armenia, which at one point in time went from Lake Van in Southeast Turkey to Lake Sevan in Northeastern Armenia (within the borders of the Armenian Republic today), to Lake Orumiyeh in Northwestern Iran. Also some carpet, textile, and traditional costume displays. Very good around. Some of the displays had English captions, others did not. Of course, you could get an English-speaking guide, like in the Matenadaran manuscripts collection, but that cost extra, more than the admission ticket itself.

After that we hit the Sergei Paradjanov Museum, which is in Paradjanov's former house, right on top of the Hrazdan River. Paradjanov was an Armenian film director, who got into trouble with the Soviet authorities. They put him in a mental hospital or something like that. His former house is now decorated with his artwork. He did some really bizarre collages, the meanings of which are very unclear. His collage depicting The Last Supper, showing Stalin and Khruschev....well, that should give you some idea. Finding this museum was a bit of a chore, because when we thought we were at the right place, the road ended and turned into a dirt track. Of course we had no idea that we could just keep going and it would be there, and as usual there were no signs.

Isn't it great that many museums in Armenia are open on Sunday? After the museums Sara and I had dinner. We decided to try traditional Armenian-style barbecue, and the street that has most of them was right near the Paradjanov Museum on Proshian Street. We had dinner at a barbecue house called "Caesar's Palace". We were taken up and outside to the terrace level, and then into a private room. We ordered some barbecue and spent several hours eating it. Our room was so far away from the main building that we had to ring a bell for the waiter to come.

The waiter was a bit odd. This seems to be typical Armenian style in restaurants. The service was good, but a bit slow. The menu is in English but most of the waiters understand English very poorly. When I asked for a coffee at the end, it said on the menu that they had something called "Eastern Coffee". I asked the waiter if this was the same as traditional Armenian coffee, which is the same as Greek or Turkish style (very strong, served in small cups, brewed in a pot with hot water and no filter). He said, "No, it's Eastern Coffee". When I received it, it sure looked and tasted like Armenian coffee as I knew it. It seems he had no idea what he was serving me or something.

Beyond that, though, it was a lovely day. I got to know Sara some, and I have to say she is one of the most sensitive, intelligent, and thoughtful people that I have met recently. We definitely will be in touch after we both go home to our respective countries.

Anyway, I gotta go now. Some of those Georgian heavy-metal players have just invited me over for a chat. See you soon!


Saturday, September 27, 2008

Moving Slowly, but Surely

I have still been making vain attempts to catch up on sleep, so it is taking me a while to see the sights of Yerevan. My Esperanto contacts in Yerevan have been delightful, helpful, and very warm and friendly.

One of these I met today for the first time. His name is Levon Davtian, and he is the president of the local Esperanto Association of Armenia. He treated me out for a kabob and a beer, where we met up with another Esperanto speaker named Hrant. We met at the Republic Square in downtown Yerevan, and we chatted and watched the afternoon go by. We spoke about various things. Then Levon asked me, "Do you want to see something?" I said, "Sure!". He took me to the Erebuni Museum.

Erebuni is the first city on the site of modern-day Yerevan. It was settled by the Urartu civilisation 2000+ years ago. There is an outside part of the museum, and also an inside part showing artifacts that they have dug up over the years. Since it was raining, we only looked at the indoor museum.

Urartu was an interesting civilisation. Apparently that is what the Babylonians called them, whereas they called themselves the "Biaini". Most people seem to believe that they are the forebears of the modern-day Armenians, although Levon told me that this is a matter of some dispute, and that they are not 100% sure.

It was a relaxing afternoon. These Armenian folks really seem to take their time. They seem to be very easygoing.

Since before I have arrived, my stomach has felt bloated, and I have not been able to sleep well. I have been out sightseeing, but I have had to take it slower than average. Overall, though, I'm having a very good time. Tonight I went out to dinner with a nice French couple named Nicholas and Chrystele, and an Iranian woman named Sara. We went to a tourist restauraunt called "Our Village", where they played traditional Armenian folk songs (which I really like), and the waiter was very helpful in helping us to make selections. All the staff were dressed in traditonal Armenian costumes, and the place was packed (we actually had to wait a while). The waiter brought us out some red wine in a ceramic jug and informed us that it was the compliments of the chef.

The food was delightful. We had some cheeze and salads as appetizers, with plenty of lavash flatbread. For the main course, I had dry lavash bread which i cracked and dropped into a bowl, which had beef, and a white stew in it. The waiter added some garlic. MMMM! It was the largest meal I had had since arrival. We did not need any dessert.


Friday, September 26, 2008

Did I mention that Armenians are super-kind people? But oh my god, look out for those Marshrutkas!!!!

Hi there to all my readers!

I just finished my second full day in Yerevan. Oh my goodness, although I did not see so many things, I learned an awful lot. It's amazing how the littlest things can make a big difference.

Today I was completely disoriented. I have hardly been sleeping, and it's starting to catch up. Also, not knowing the language, it takes me longer to accomplish anything.

Up until now, Yerevan seems to have a very European look and feel. The people are very gentle and polite, too. I should also mention that it is not as difficult to talk with them as you might think. A lot of them speak some basic English, and quite a few speak it well, or so it seems. Failing that, Russian will do in a pinch. This is particularly true with the older folks, and security guards, officials, drivers, people like that. I studied a little bit of Armenian with some CDs, and I attempt to use it. This has brought nothing but delightful reactions from people. They tell me that even with the few words and phrases that I know, that my pronunciation is very good. A couple of them even told me that I spoke with almost no accent, although to be honest they really must have been trying to be kind when they said that! In any case, in the hostel where I'm staying, English is widely used. I have also made use of the constructed language Esperanto here, with wonderful results. I'll expand on this as I go.

I got going finally around 1:30 PM today. I had spent the morning drinking coffee after breakfast, and chatting and playing backgammon with a couple of really nice people from the Republic of Georgia (yes, that place that got invaded by the Russians this August!). A whole group of them came to play at a heavy metal rock concert, and one of them is an anasthesiologist. The night before they had been making noise and drinking beer late, and they had invited me to join them. We chatted for a while. This doctor said if I wanted to visit him in Georgia, he'd be glad to show me around, and it looked like he meant it!

Anyway, as exhausted as I've been with jet lag, it's foolish to take on too much. Also, the local Esperanto club had invited me to their club meeting this evening at 6:30. I decided to do only one thing, to visit Tsitsinakaberd, the Armenian Holocaust Memorial. I needed to take a Marshrutka (mass transit minivan). Knowing this fact, I was already scared. Traffic rules are hardly obeyed here at all--when I cross the street, cars come across and cut me off all the time. There are in effect no road rules. You always have to look. Just yesterday, five marshrutkas in a row cut me off when I was trying to cross the street, and they are always packed full of people.

The people at the hostel had given me instructions about this marshrutka, and a note in Armenian to say my destination to hand to the driver. Once I found the right stop to catch the thing, I squeezed in as the door opened. This thing is a minivan with a small sign with the route number. It had room for about 5 people, and there were actually about 15 or so of us in it. There was a huge crack in the window, and a very loud engine. The driver was a middle-aged guy with a balding head and 5 o'clock shadow, who was smoking a cigarette constantly. Like many Armenians, he had dark skin and Levantine features. This guy was spooky, though. He could pass off for one of Count Dracula's assistants. He nodded as I showed him the note. Since I was near the door I shut it and he zipped off. With the lack of space, I could neither sit nor fully stand, and there was no space whatsoever. Every time he stopped, I had to get off to let someone in--that's how tight it was. And this guy did not wait around. He honked and weaved in and out of traffic. There were no seatbelts, and the engine was polluting big-time.

As we drove, I could have sworn I was sticking out like a sore thumb, and as it turned out this was true. I was the only one surprized by the chaotic state of affairs. I thought I could hear two women giggling, no doubt about me. After a fairly long drive, the driver tugged on my shirt, and pointed to where I needed to go, not that I could really see out the window. All the while I could have sworn that somebody was laughing at me. As the driver stopped, I muttered "Shnorhakalutyun Paron", which is Armenian for "Thank you sir". I looked up, and these two young ladies, still giggling, looked back at me. One of them said, in English "You're welcome. Goodbye!" The trip cost 100 drams, which is about $0.30 . Hey, at least that part they got right, and you get what you pay for.

I saw a huge structure in front of me. I asked a lady passing by if this was the Holocaust Memorial. She said yes. There was no crosswalk, and traffic was heavy. I made a desperate run for it. When I got up, there was a big building, and I walked all around it. It appeared to be under construction and closed. Laborers were working on it, and they did not seem to notice this strange tourist walking around. There were no signs, either.

Finally, one of them called out to me in Armenian. He noticed my cluelessness and offered to help. With a little Armenian and Russian, we established the problem, and he steered me the right way. He was very nice. I thanked him in Armenian, and he smiled, shook my hand, and said in English "You're welcome!". I walked around the monument. It had a view of the city and the surrounding hills. Mt. Ararat, that ancient symbol that seems to keep popping up in everything, was partly visible too, although covered by clouds. An old man came and spoke to me, pointing out some of the features of the thing, and he guided me to the underground part which had the museum. He also inquired and found that an English-speaking guide was just about to give a tour.

The memorial is made of black rock, with slabs angling diagonally towards each other in a circle, and a pointy needle-like structure on the side. Below, under this circle is the eternal flame, where people lay flowers, and the Holocaust Museum. The museum shows photos and article clips which document the Armenian Genocide by the Turks during World War I. There are also some paintings depicting the victims. This is the well-documented event that the Turkish government still continues to deny until today.

When I got out, I was not in the mood to take another marshrutka. I asked the security guart. He and some other guy who was sitting in his car there tried to call one for me, but for some reason it did not seem to be possible. A cab came along just then and dropped off some people at the museum, and he agreed to take me back into town. He dropped me off on Abovian Street, near where I was to go to the Esperanto Club meeting.

I was early for the meeting. One of the members spotted me, and invited me into the office building. They use space for some sort of International Friendship Association. We chatted over chocolates and homemade sweet wine made by one member, Araksya Elbakyan, the sister of Lidia from yesterday, who was also present. Afterwards I struck up a long conversation with Bella, another member who also spoke English fluently. We walked around Republic Square and chatted with another Armenian co-worker of hers. We chatted a lot later than I expected, and I grabbed a late dinner and came home.

On the way home I was really disoriented. An old man came up and offered to help (It must have been 11 or 11:30 at night! He addressed me in very clear English, but said that his French was better. We chatted in French, and as he led me to the door of the hostel, we talked about various themes. He apparently heads exchange programs at a local university. He is a very clever and kind elderly gentleman. We wound up talking for more time than it took to find my hostel!

As we had held the Esperanto meeting, there was some shouting audible outside. Apparently, Levon Ter-Petrosyan, the former Armenian president who had been forced to resign in 1998, has been staging demonstrations of late. In March people were shot and killed in demonstrations after he ran for President again (apparently the first time in Armenian history that this has happened), but fortunately the more recent demonstrations have been peaceful and relatively normal. That said, the police were out on the streets in larger numbers tonight, and things were mostly pretty orderly.

Early Saturday I will call another Esperanto speaker named Levon Davtian who I have not yet had a chance to meet. We'll see what the weekend brings!!


Thursday, September 25, 2008

First Two Days in Armenia-Some Surprizes Already!!

Hi there everyone!

I just wanted to briefly blog about my first two days in Armenia.

This place has already been full of surprizes for me. First of all, "Where is Armenia?" is probably your first and most pressing question. It's a former Soviet republic, sandwiched in-between the former Soviet republics of Azerbaijan and Georgia, Turkey, and Iran. They say that it's culture is a mixture of Europe and Asia, and I have already noted that this is true.

I arrived Wednesday night September 24th into Yerevan, the Armenian capital. When I arrived at Zvartnots Airport, everything was set up well and went extremely smoothly. I had already been in contact with a couple of Armenians by e-mail. I had prearranged a pickup-the youth hostel where I'm staying did it. I walked out into the Arrivals Hall, and saw a huge crowd of people. I had to look hard until I saw the sign that said "Envoy Hostel". Then, right next to that sign, somebody was holding a separate sign with my name on it. My friend here, Karine Arakelyan, had come to meet me with her niece Hasmig. They showed me around the downtown a bit after we arrived. Being that this was the first time we had met, I knew I had found an instant friend.

The Envoy Hostel is spotlessly clean, and the staff are friendly, it's centrally located, and you can come and go as you please. Karine and Hasmig showed me around the center of town a little bit. I have to say, Yerevan is quite active in late summer! People were all out on the street, eating drinking, walking, chatting. Restaurants seem to be open late. Just before flying, I had been in New York City, and people had given me weird looks, during broad daylight. Here, people go about their business and just leave you alone.

The next day, Thursday, I took it slow. I went to visit the Matenadaran, the National Archives of Armenia. I got an English-speaking guide who showed off some manuscripts, which were hundreds of years old, some more than 1000. One book, the Homilies of Mush, was taken out by two Armenian women who fled the Genocide in Turkey, and the two parts were matched together later. Some books had dyes which were made from coal, gold, and other rare materials, and took much time and labor to prepare.

That evening, I climbed the Kaskad (Cascade). This goes up a hill, there are sculptures all over, and the view of the city gets progressively better as you climb. As the sun set, and as I got higher up, I could see Mount Ararat, the symbol of the Armenian nation, which now lies just over the border in Turkey. The view was hazy, but it was visible. It was a pretty powerful view. At the very top was monument to the 50th Anniversary of Soviet Armenia.

Then I went down to the bottom again to meet Karine and her friend Lidya Elbakyan. We chatted over dinner and a beer. We went to the Aragast Jazz club, and sat outside. It was all very leisurely. Yerevan is really laid back and I like it. After showing me where to go to meet some more people the following evening, they guided me back to my door. Armenian folks really seem to be kind this way.

I think that I'm in for some interesting times here, and although Yerevan is crowded and polluted, it has its share of beautiful views and cool stuff.