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.