I am now back in Ottawa. It is a hot day; We have not been spared the heat wave, and I cannot help reminiscing about the coldest winter on record we spent in Armenia in 2002-2003.
In December, one of our volunteers, Narineh Azizian, a young woman with a huge and golden heart, conceived the idea that we, volunteers, would do something to cheer-up the thousands of less-fortunate children in Armenia. After a few meetings the idea took shape and we immediately started working on preparing group trips to visit orphanages in even more unfortunate cities than Yerevan.
We took "Dzemerr Babig" (Santaclaus) along, together with his beautiful helper "Dzuyn Anoush" (Snow-beauty, word-for-word translations from the Russian "Dyet Maroz" and "Snegourichka"). Being from Canada, I knew some of the risks involved in winter driving and warned our group of the dangers, we therefore made sure that we would check weather conditions before going.
That Saturday morning, we were to go to Gyumri. It had snowed on Friday, and Yerevan was covered by some 8 cms of snow, but it had subsided and the temperature was hovering close to the freezing mark. I was tempted to say: Let's not risk it, specially since the weekend before we had gone to Spitak in an old Marshutka (Minibus) and the water in their radiator had frozen and busted it. It had taken us then 5 hours to get there and 7 to return. But this time, we had splurged the extra money and hired a modern Minibus. The driver was there ready to take us. How could we let down all these children who were anxiously awaiting our arrival, all these preparations that our Gyumri volunteers had gone through, the fact that other volunteers from Spitak and Vanadzor were going to join us directly there... So we hoped "Rudolph the red-nose-reindeer" would guide us and we chanced it.
The road was snow covered but clear. Hardly any traffic. Not a good sign! I thought. But with all these enthused, beautiful young people around us how could we worry. Armen, Arina's new fiancé had joined us. He is a kick-boxing champion and instructor, fit like a tiger, so I felt re-assured. We sang, chatted and shared some of the goodies we brought along for the road.
I love the road to Gyumri, for if you sit on the left side, you can see Ararat for a good part of the journey. It normally takes less than 2 hours on this new highway by marshutka, and we were moving quite well, despite the snow-covered road. We hardly saw any other cars, and the packed snow muffled the noise of the road. It was a very serene morning. We were well dressed and warm. After we passed Talin, and started climbing the Shirak escarpment, I saw this dark dot in the snow on the road ahead of us. As we got closer, we saw that it was wobbling up and down the small bumps on the left side of the road, a wise move I thought for a cyclist. What! I thought: Do we also have crazy cyclists in Armenia, who tackle the snow-covered roads like we do in Canada? What kind of tires did they use? I was all curious and as we approached the 'crazy cyclist', the whole minibus had moved to the left-side windows to take a close look at this phenomenon. It was not till we were about 200 meters behind him that we realized that this was not a cyclist. It was a man running and pushing an automobile wheel alongside of him. There were no houses or cars in sight, and I could not remember how long ago we had passed a village on the road, nor did we know how far the next village would be. We all genuinely asked our driver to stop so we can offer the man a ride. He stopped. Armen, Taliban and I walked back to the guy to offer him help and a ride. He soon was in front of us, thick steam pouring-out of his nostrils. We noticed it was a young man in his mid-teens, but well-built. He didn't even stop to talk to us. He kept on going. He was not really dressed for the outdoors and I noticed that his gloveless hands were blue and swollen, or were his bones that thick?.. But he kept pushing that tire along. We offered to take him with us, in a warm minibus, offered him water, food, gloves... But he politely said No! and kept on running. We asked him: Aren't you cold. He said: "Votch-inch" (nothing!) shrugging his shoulders.
We were obviously intrigued by this brave and proud young man. So we cleaned the snow that had accumulated at the back of our bus then asked our driver to go slowly behind him, just in case he changed his mind. Soon enough, after a couple of turns, we saw a car stranded on the right side of the road with a wheel missing. It was covered with a bit of snow, and an older man was already outside waiting for our young cyclist with his tools in hand. I thought: What a brave and proud people. They have gone through so much hardship, this IS nothing for them!