Friday, May 31, 2002

Letter 01.: First impressions

May 31, 2002, 4: 30 a.m. Austrian Airlines has just flown over the Black Sea, and entered Anatolia over Trabizond… We fly over Erzeroum, and I wish I could see the two peaks towering over Terjan… but I’ll try to take a flight that lands in Yerevan at a more Christian hour, in daylight… Perhaps on the way back I will finally be able to take that air shot of Terjan’s peaks… Isn’t it good that Turkey has opened its airspace for flights to and from Armenia?

It is dark out, and I can see the lights of all the villages… Are these in Armenia? We land in Zvartnots airport… I remember it from a Soviet picture book, with its futuristic architecture à la CDG… It is now an old cement structure whose metal re-enforcements are showing like the bones of a cadaver being mauled by wild dogs…

Early this morning, people on the ground are extremely welcoming, and the air is still and clean, and very pleasant. I remember Kegham’s words about how beautiful Ararat is when you land at Zvartnots. I know it will sound corny, but I ask a young official on the tarmac: in which direction is Ararat, hoping that I could be the first to photograph it… She’s cute, she smiles, diaspora Armenians must have asked this question before, she points to it and says you could see it in an hour… So I hoped the line-up would be long and slow at passport control, so we could see it, photograph it… The line-up was long, but not disorganised, and officials were very kind and helpful… but the place is a dump. When I asked for the toilets, they were available before passport control, but they were decrepit, with water taps running from lack of maintenance and the walls and toilet bowl’s ceramics browned from neglect… Not a good impression…I am told Zvartnots will soon be privatised and made more presentable…

But people were friendly and helpful despite the surrounding decay…There were a few guys who came around and tried to get your luggage stubs (so they could claim to be the first to offer you a taxi ride to town.) but they weren’t at all threatening… We met a young lady from Lyon, who is coming to Yerevan for a wedding… What a great idea… You get 10 times the bang for your buck here. She got an 8 day return ticket for 455 Euros. Her sister whose MEA flight arrived 1 hour later had gotten a ticket from Paris, including a week stay in Beirut for 435 Euros…

Sheila finally gets her visa (no sweat, US$ 30_ cheaper than the $60 in Ottawa and probably with as much time to waste)… We clear passports, and our luggage is all there… How pleasant. An official comes to me and sees I am claiming them and asks for my luggage stickers. He is satisfied they are ours and offers to get us a trolley from outside… he did not ask for any money… I was so pleased I gave him 5 $… we were waved through customs, and Jason Demerjian who had come to the airport to greet us at this unchristian hour and had waived to us from the window when we arrived, was waiting for us with 2 AVC drivers outside. Several men offer to help us with our heavy luggage and do not take no for an answer, so I gave one of them 1 $… and we drove off in 2 cars… On the way out of the airport I ask the driver for Ararat. Dawn is barely allowing us to see the buildings around us, and then suddenly over a small bridge, there it was…Huge, dominating the landscape, majestic, white, with his little brother, so pointed so elegant. I ask if I can take a photo… with my new Nikon digital… I had it on movie… nothing came out… But I was happy to have seen it… little did I know that it was to be always there, most every time you turn around, from most places in Yerevan and the countryside, you can always see Ararat….

The 20 minutes ride to town is uneventful except for two stops by police to the second car… very quickly resolved… did they have banknotes in their driver’s license book?

It is light when we arrive to Yervand Kochar Street, we see the new Krikor Lousavorich cathedral, and our host, Hakob Hovannissyan is out there on the street, gesticulating to our driver so he shows him how to enter the parking lot… They all carry our luggage up a very dark flight of stairs, through a lugubre building entrance. Upstairs our hostess, Anahid, in a brightly lit and super clean apartment is waiting with a full dinner table… We meet another staff. Ann Sargsyan, and we all sit at the table, for some food, wine and Konyak… I have a sip of wine… Soon their 13-year-old daughter, also Anahid, very kindly shy emerges from her bedroom all dressed and welcomes us sooo politely, and so serviably, sooo well behaved… Is she always like that?…. She IS !!!

Jason leaves, we are given a large bedroom (by local standards, their master-bedroom) with a ¾ bed… They had emptied the cupboard, and equipped us with a radio-alarm clock… we unpack and Sheila goes to sleep.

I go for a walk downtown with the 2 Anahids… We walk through a series of parks…My first feeling is disappointment, because of the rubble from street work and renovations on the sidewalk…. But that evening we go to nicer parts of town, although the grass is not mowed in the public parks (lots of them scattered about town – hey! I thought they had cut all the trees in Yerevan when they were at war with the Azeris and the heating and electricity were cut-off… but no, there is plenty of mature trees everywhere, and birds singing… ), in the privatised areas (to outdoor restaurants and cafés) all is trimmed and proper, and the prices oh so reasonable… The “England Garden” has a pool with water fountains, and they have fresh trout on the menu. They pick-up the live fish that you choose from the pool and if you like it they weigh it for you and prepare it… you pay by the kilo…

Saturday June 1. We are up early, so we decide to go and see Ararat from the parvis of the cathedral. At 6:00 a.m. it is there HUGE, GLORIOUS…. How can it not impress you?… We ask the keeper to take our photo… he does; we look good, but can’t see Ararat in the digital Nikon screen… Is he invisible?

We have decided to go with our hosts and their underprivileged school children classes for an excursion in the Ashtarak district…. We walk to the gathering spots for the 2 medium buses waiting for us and the school children with their single parents waiting. It is neither the most organised nor the most disorganised I’ve seen, and we pack 70 people in these 2 buses and climb the hills to exit Yerevan The more you climb the Caucasus slopes, the more Ararat seems bigger… It is a glorious day, and the teachers and children sing songs that I know… Suddenly the children start singing Loorke, with the words composed by Nigoghos Tashjian, the Ottawa Bard! The song has been around the world!

Climbing these mountain roads is not easy, the road is narrow, no protection or railing from the precipices we drive along, but everyone seems to feel safe… they drive slowly and there is hardly any traffic.. We pass by the Puyrakan Astro laboratory, near Amberd. The glenns and the meadows are just like around Dunblane and Inverness… I look in vain for Uncle Ebbie’s railway line, and I can’t find any heather either!…We have to stop several times to ask for the way to our destination; we even back-track and re-backtrack, until suddenly at a curve, it appears, black in its basalt dress, the Sourp Asdvadzadzin Church, intact, built in 1253, perched on top of a hill, watching over the valley, staring at Ararat… It is a beautiful day… we feel very comfortable… and I point out to the Hovannessyans the Ouri in front of the church, it is a ‘Happy’ Willow, a true native tree of Armenia, just like the ourenis we have at the farm, and with the same amount of leaves…. Now it is time to sing and dance the Pap-ouri…

Gourken, the Church guard is happy to open the church and show us in, explaining that the black basalt quarry used to build the Church is 2 km away, and no one has figured out how the 21 ton single piece columns were rolled over the rocky hills to bring them there… The church is dark inside, but the teachers brought candles, and the children are so happy to light them and recite the Lord’s prayer. According to Gourken, the church is cool in the summer and warm in the winter, although there is no glass on the openings that let light in..

The children play in the church yard, they are well coached to keep the place clean, not to litter, not to pick the (wild) flowers… they have fun games (searching for candy in a flour pan with their muzzle)… they look funny and are jovial…. Sandwiches of paper-thin lavash bread wraps are distributed for lunch… On the way back we stop on the side of a road and let the children pick wild flowers for their mothers… soon we are back in Yerevan. One of the mothers asks me about her 9-year-old son: Char er? (was he naughty?) I had to admit I didn’t notice anyone misbehaving, in these packed buses… they were all dealt with with kindness, happiness and laughter by the teachers.

On the walk back home, we stop at AVC, they had just had a successful day of volunteers for ‘Makour Yerevan’ and were still doing work at the office… a dedicated, happy bunch.. We stop in a terrace-restaurant and have some ‘assortie’ pizza with delicious and cheap Armenian beer…. We are exhausted.