Armenia. Georgia. Azerbaijan. I’ve become used to the odd looks when I tell someone where I’m going – most people haven’t a clue where these countries are located, and to the others I might as well have said Afghanistan, as visions of men with AK-47s pop into their heads. Most people are content to lie on white beaches, sipping mai tais and occasionally taking a dip in the crystal-clear water. Not me. I want border crossings in dilapidated taxis, languages I can barely understand, gold-toothed men hawking shawarma from sidewalk eateries, and babushkas selling the mushrooms they picked at their dacha the day before.
Last year, my mom would always ask, “Why Egypt? Why Croatia? Why not Italy?” (she was finally thrilled when I announced that I would, in fact, be visiting Italy – a “normal” country). It’s not that I don’t want to visit places like Spain, Germany, or Austria, I just feel that these countries won’t be that much different ten years from now. Armenia, Georgia, and Azerbaijan, on the other hand, are at a unique period in their respective histories – 70 years of communism followed by bloody civil wars and regional conflicts, and each now pursuing varying stages of economic development. I love “Old Europe” but it can wait for a few years, as I have some other passport stamps I need to collect first.
As mentioned in previous posts, I have two friends – one from GW and the other from LSE – who currently work in Armenia. I promised them that I would visit, and started researching tickets in May. My roommate, Laura, another friend of Liz’s, decided that she, too, would like to see Armenia, and so on the evening of July 4th we found ourselves boarding a British Airways flight that would take us to London and from there, Yerevan. Ah, British Airways, how I love you! The cheery “hullo” when you step onto the plane, free alcohol, tea, Cadbury chocolates…civilization!
I’m usually incredibly lucky when it comes to domestic flights (a whole row to myself, a flight attendant who sneaks me some of the freshly-baked chocolate chip cookies from first class, and so on) but it seems that whenever I fly internationally, the forces of nature conspire against me to ensure that I have a long, uncomfortable flight over the Atlantic. This most recent flight to London was a perfect storm of misery: a screaming baby in the row ahead of me, the knee of the passenger behind me permanently ingrained in my back, and the lady next to me literally spilling over into my seat, thus occupying 15 or so percent of the tiny personal space that British Airways allotted to me.
No matter how hard I try, I can’t sleep on planes (flight insomnia…it has to be a medical condition), so I usually watch movies or listen to some music while everyone else sleeps. I was thoroughly pissed that this lady was occupying a good percentage of my seat, though, and soon after she fell asleep I turned on the bright-as-the-goddamn-sun overhead light. Her eyes immediately fluttered open, nose scrunched up, and she turned to me and sputtered, “Can you turn the light off?” I just grinned, pointed to my book and notepad, and replied, “Well, I’m reading, you see.” She spent the next few hours tossing and turning (yeah, the light really is that bright). If she wanted to sleep that badly, she could have put on her BA-issued eye mask.
We arrived at Heathrow airport around 8am, an hour later than expected. Only a year ago I was living here in London, researching my dissertation topic, looking forward to meeting my family in Dublin, fixing the porn-laden laptops of idiotic LSE students, planning a trip to Prague, and totally unaware that a few days later some idiots would blow up our beloved Underground transportation system. Damn, I miss this city.
After convincing passport control that we were only staying in the country for lunch, we hopped the Heathrow Express to Paddington and took the tube to Notting Hill Gate. We had a pot of tea and scones with jam and clotted cream at Patisserie Valerie, and then wandered down to the Hillgate pub for a morning drink. We arrived at the pub at 10:45am, only to be told that they didn’t open for another 15 minutes, so we walked around Notting Hill and arrived back at the Hillgate promptly at 11am. First customers of the day. Life goal #372 accomplished!
“A pint of Strongbow please.”
I imagined that the bartender must have thought to herself, “Oh, here come the bloody alcoholic Yank backpackers.” But oh, that Strongbow tasted so good.
We got back to Heathrow at 12:45pm for our 2:30 flight, and finally arrived in Yerevan at 12:30am, an hour behind schedule. Passport control was a typical example of Eastern European bureaucracy, with one disinterested guard for every fifty passengers, no semblance of order whatsoever, and a fair amount of pushing and shoving from hyperactive babushkas who spied their family members waving to them behind the plate glass windows beyond the control booths. We finally got out of passport control after 45 or so minutes, collected our luggage, and were met by a driver from the U.S. embassy who would take us to Liz’s apartment.
As we pulled out of the airport, one of the first questions he asked me was, “Do you like Mexican food?”
“Man, I’m from California – I love Mexican food!”
“Good, because I am taking you to Mexican restaurant ‘Cactus.’ Liz is there waiting for you.” We then proceeded to debate the finer points of Mexican cuisine. Tacos, burritos, what are the best?
Driving into Yerevan, one of the first things that struck me about the city was the complete darkness. None of the streetlights were on, and most of the apartment buildings emitted hardly any light. The darkness was occasionally interrupted by the neon glow of the casinos that dotted the road, most of them with names that were ripped-off from their big brothers in Vegas: Bellagio, Caesar’s, etc. I suppose that they are the only ones who can afford the high electricity rates in this part of the world.
We arrived at ‘Cactus’ and met up with Liz, Taline, Crystal (another LSE alum, she had flown in from San Francisco that morning), and their expat friends, who were watching one of the World Cup matches. Can I just tell you how surreal it felt to be standing there, at 2am, in a Mexican restaurant in Yerevan of all places, surrounded by friends from both GW and LSE? It was like a very, very weird dream. After finishing off someone’s Piña Colada, we headed back to Liz’s place, where I showered and finally crashed around 4am.
Next up: We visit some monasteries, our van breaks down, and we are stranded in Northern Armenia