Ara taught himself English from an old phrase book. He was 10 years old and Armenia was at war with Nagorno-Karabakh. His world was an uncertain and dangerous place and Armenia’s economy was in tatters. In 1994 there was nowhere to go and nothing to do so Ara stayed at home and learned English. Later he came by an English grammar book and continued to study. Now he is 33 years old and he still works at his English online at night. He has never had any formal tuition but he’s fluent.
Ara is a taxi driver. Yesterday I asked him to take me to Jermuk for the day. Jermuk is a spa town famous for its scenery and spring water. There was room in Ara’s 21-year-old Mercedes and so his wife and two sons came too. Jermuk is a three hour drive from Goris so Nelli and the boys slept most of the way there and back and I benefited from a guide who both knows his stuff and speaks my language.
Leaving Goris, Ara showed me the new electrical power station being built to supply power to Iran. Big news for the economy in Syunik Marz. He pointed out the remains of the Goris Airport. Flights flew from there to Yerevan in Soviet times– he remembers his father and uncle taking the trip when he was a small boy. Now there is only the road. He shows me the plastic fencing newly erected in preparation for the winter snows.”it’s always windy up here in the mountains” he says ” the snow blows off the slope and closes the road which stops all work from here to Yerevan.” This year they hope the fencing will hold back the drift and allow the road to stay open.
We drive past Sisian the next sizeable town on the road north. “Great mushrooms here” says Ara “and pure honey”. The slopes are covered in wild flowers and boxy beehives form blue and yellow encampments by the roadside. Mist shrouds the top of King Mountain, more than 3000 meters high. Behind it is the Black Lake says Ara, the coldest, clearest, cleanest water you will ever see. Further on there is Camel Mountain. In the mountains beyond it, 7000-year-old petroglyphs can be found. The mountain is accessible only in summer. Ara offers to hire a four wheel drive to take me and some other volunteers. “Most people here have never seen the rock engravings” he says. I will definitely go.
Past Sisian, the landscape becomes more bleak and windswept. There are no trees now. We drive through a small village and Ara shows me cairns of cowclap drying in the sun. “They have no wood here” says Ara “so they dry cow dung to burn”.
“Does it smell bad on the fire?” I ask. Ara shrugs. “Yes, but they are used to it. Sheep dung is better. It burns longer and hotter”. So now we know.
Along this part of the road, only cabbages and potatoes grow. We pass a couple of abandoned villages. It just got too hard to live here Ara says.
We cross into Vayots Dzor Marz. It is even more craggy here. Ara tells me there is a rare kind of mountain goat found only in this part of Armenia. It is called the Kar Ayt or Stone goat and is an endangered species. We don’t see it. Ara tells me to look out for eagles. He often sees them here, but there are no eagles today.
Ara begins to talk about a new gold mine to be opened next year in Amulsar. The Armenian-Canadian owners have a 25 year agreement to extract 200,000 ounces of gold a year from open cast mines. Ara is against the project. “They use cyanide in this kind of mining” he says ” it will ruin the air and pollute the water. It will finish the spring water industry in Jermuk. It will provide fast money for people employed there, but it will kill them slowly”. Ara said he cried when the plans for the mine were approved. He is nearly crying now.
We are now on the road to Jermuk. There are apricot trees and Ara says the area is also famous for its strawberries. We stop by the side of the road and wake the family to look at the view and eat apricots. Forget American apricots with their mouldy stones and mealy texture. Those are not apricots worthy of the name. Armenian apricots are the size of kiwi fruit, cleft like a baby’s bottom and sweet, sweet, sweet. Neither unripe or too ripe as they always are at home, here they manage to be just right. We eat about 6 each. They are heaven.
On the way into Jermuk we stop at a small apostolic church and light candles. I take pictures. “Thank you, thank you” say Ara and Nelli. Like most families they find it hard to get pictures of all of them together. Like good Armenians they do not smile as the shutter snaps.
Nelli asks me if I can drive and is excited when I say yes. She wants to learn. Ara is not enthusiastic “I am afraid for her” he says “She does not know the roads the way I do. She won’t know how to get out of the way”. A large truck heavy with Sisian stone lumbers towards us to help him make his point. He pulls into the rose hip hedge to let the truck come through “and she doesn’t know the drunks and the drug addicts” Ara continues “I can see who’s coming. I know who is on the road and I know when they are dangerous. She doesn’t know. She doesn’t know”.
I am firmly on Nelli’s side “You weren’t born knowing” I say ” and you can show her and teach her. She can learn.” When Ara drives to Yerevan and back he is on the road for at least 8 hours. If his passengers want a wait and return service his day can be much,much longer. Nelli works as a teacher and has two boys to take to piano lessons, chess club, doctors appointments and school. No wonder she wants to learn to drive.
I know that drunk driving is a big problem in Armenia, but I am surprised to hear Ara mention drugs. Thus far, I have heard very little about drug abuse here, and I haven’t seen much sign of a problem. “When you drive for a living you see all kinds of things and all kinds of people” say Ara “believe me the bad guys are right here. Part of every society”.
I ask him what drugs and speculate perhaps heroin from Iran? “Yes ” he says ” and people grow opium and cannabis here too, behind their houses. But that is not the worst. Krokodil is the worst. It is chemicsl. They make it from codeine and paintstripper and it makes them crazy. They jump out of windows. They drive like madman. It started in Russia and now it is everywhere here.” He sees how shocked I look. “I am afraid for my boys” he says “I tell them be like me don’t even smoke. But it is everywhere. I wonder about their lives when they are older. They might have to be soldiers in a war. Soldiers killed in Karabakh. There might be bad guys. All I can give them is education. Only education. Education. The most important thing”. He hits the steering wheel for emphasis as we pull into the parking lot for the cable car ride to the top of the hill behind old Jermuk.
Ashok shoots out of the car and runs towards the ticket office. David follows him at speed. These boys, 10 and 8 years old, well-loved and well looked after, are afraid of nothing. May they always be safe.