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!!


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