Thunder Road

I call it the Thunder Road, although there is nothing loud, scary or stormy about it, and there’s not a Hell’s Angel or Harley Davidson in sight. No sign of Bruce or his bandana either. The road from Sisian to Melik-Tangi bridge–surely one of the most beautiful in the world– runs beside the Vorotan river and to Vorotnavank monastery and Vorotnaberd fortress. Vorot, if you hadn’t guessed by now, is the Armenian word for thunder. On the day I was there, the weather was sunny and serene, and no rolling thunder–indeed no engine of any kind–was heard. That’s one of the best things about Armenia’s emptiness: you often have the road to yourself. Historic sites, though usually lacking a tea-shop, a museum shop and a toilet,  feel like yours alone. Better yet, you can clamber all over them–there are no signs, no notices and no guards.

Our first stop on the road from Sisian was at a 6th century memorial to three battling brothers who fought off the Persian army. The land around the monument  in Aghitu is dotted with khatchkars—cross stones—depicting a playful range of people, children and animals along with Christian symbols. Climb the monument to see the cross engraved on every side of the center stone, or stay on firmer ground and marvel that bits and pieces of ancient rock carving that would be behind museum glass in darkened rooms in most other parts of the world just lie around by the roadside here, like rubble.

You’ll see the river on your right, deep in the gorge, flanked by tangles of green. In the foreground at this time of year, yellowed grasses. Behind the river, blue and grey mountains stretch for miles. Round a corner and there is Vorotnavank monastery. I defy you not to gasp. The monastery is a monument to Armenian girl power. The complex was built  in AD 1000 by Queen Shahandukht and added to by her son Sevada in 1007. The monastery also served as a fortress (those pesky Persians again) and within its walls were a once shops, a seminary, workshops and housing for the poor. Today you can see a snake pit in one of the churches, the remains of a 11th century painting, and the new dome, rebuilt in 1931 after the original was destroyed by an earthquake. The ancient cemetery, surrounded by a centuries-old dry stone wall, contains two incongruously modern graves— those of a famous translator who died in 1965 and his son, a general killed in the 1994 war with Nagorno-Karabakh. At 10am on a summer Saturday morning, the place was deserted. We ate small, sweet apricots from a tree overlooking the gorge and listened to the silence.

On to Vorotnaberd, the remains of a fortress first mentioned in reports of liberation from –yes–the Persians in 450 AD. Today, just one wall of the fortress remains, strung between two giant basalt rocks, high on a steep hill 1,365 meters above sea level. You can scramble up the grassy side of the rock, but I recommend walking beside the river to the Melik Tangi bridge and admiring the fortress wall from the bottom of the towering, natural pillars. I got dizzy looking up. As a citizen of Northern Ireland, home to the Giant’s Causeway, it pains me to say this, but really the rock formations here are more impressive than those on the Antrim coast. Here, there is no heritage center, no opportunity to buy a teatowel, or earrings made from igneous rock. The guide books hardly mention the  volcanic activity, or the beauty it left behind. The bridge at the bottom of the valley was built in 1855, using two enormous natural rocks as its base. Today it is used mostly by sheep and cows, but it’s sturdy enough for cars, if there was anywhere to go.

 

Taxi Talk

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. 

Arts in Armenia: A Beginner’s Guide

Hooked on Trivia? Compulsive when it comes to crosswords? Proud of your performance at the pub quiz? Don’t risk being caught out by a question on the arts in Armenia–it could come up at any time. I am as fond of a general knowledge test as the next nerd, but I will confess that, up until very recently, my mental file on all things arty in Armenia was very slim indeed. I could still easily be stumped but, in a spirit of information-sharing, I pass on such knowledge as I now have. At the very least, it may help you set fiendishly difficult questions for your foes. Ch’argi. Ձարժե It’s nothing. Khantrem. խնդեմ You’re welcome.

Artist: Martiros Saryan  is founder of the modern school of Armenian art and a painter whose pictures of the Armenian landscape you may well have seen–not least on the dress I had specially made for my swearing in as a Peace Corps Volunteer.  My favorite thing about the 1923 painting is not the depiction of Ararat (although I DO love that mountain), but the women dancing at my hem (there is a detail below). Women and music, plus mountains were a bit of a theme for Saryan. He lived from 1880 to 1972 and was awarded the order of Lenin 3 times. If you are unable to see me and my dress, you can always visit the M. Sarian House-Museum in Yerevan where many of his paintings are displayed.

 

Fashion Designer: I love the work of Edgar Artis  who designs dresses using every day objects. Will my next special occasion dress be made from salad–or pencil sharpenings? Follow Edgar on Instagram to see all his fabulous creations.

 

saroyanLiterature: The big daddy of the Armenian writers is William Saroyan who, like those pub quiz staples Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw is famous for saying lots of wise and memorable things, many of them contradictory. If you need a quote about writing, madness or being Armenian, he is your man. He won the Pulitzer prize in 1940–his is a handy name to know if you are asked to list five such winners.  He is quoted at the end of the Armenian film “The Promise”.

“I should like to see any power of the world destroy this race, this small tribe of unimportant people, whose wars have all been fought and lost, whose structures have crumbled, literature is unread, music is unheard, and prayers are no more answered. Go ahead, destroy Armenia . See if you can do it. Send them into the desert without bread or water. Burn their homes and churches. Then see if they will not laugh, sing and pray again. For when two of them meet anywhere in the world, see if they will not create a New Armenia.”

You can check out some of his other quotes here

FullSizeRender (13)Poetry: I want to give a shout out to Goris’ local boy made good: Axsel Bakunts, a poet and short story writer born in Goris in 1899 and killed on Stalin’s orders in 1937. His crime: alienation from socialist society. As a schoolboy in Goris, Bakunts was first arrested at the age of 15, for satirising the town’s mayor. Not much of Bakunts work is published in English–or if it is, it is not available online, or here in Goris. Wondering how Bakunts’ writing compared to that of Jonathan Swift or Flann O’Brien, two great Irish satirists, I asked my Hayeren tutor, a native of Goris, if she knew what Bakunts had said that so enraged the town. “Probably no-one read it” she said “It was just talked about, and that was enough”. Interesting to discover that sort of thing happened even in an age before Twitter…

Here in Goris there is a rather lovely small museum commemorating Bakunts, in the house where he was born. In addition to displays of many artefacts, paintings of his mum, and so on, there is also a beautiful garden where would -satirists can sit and think creative thoughts.

 

Film: The Golden Apricot Film Festival takes place in Yerevan in July and so presumably my knowledge of Armenian cinema will be broadened beyond The Promise, this spring’s Hollywood take on the Armenian genocide. The film, though hamfisted and with a couple of story twists of dubious morality (tut), is worth seeing. I didn’t need a hanky though, except to stifle giggles.

Music: The Armenian duduk is to Armenian music what the uillean pipes are to Ireland and the banjo is to Bluegrass. This wind instrument made from apricot wood could be useful to know if your Jeopardy category is music for 500. A contemporary of  all the chaps above is Soghomon Soghomonian, ordained and commonly known as Komitas, (Armenian: Կոմիտաս; 26 September 1869 – 22 October 1935) an Armenian priest, musicologist, composer, arranger, singer, and choirmaster, who is considered the founder of Armenian national school of music. The wailing noise of the duduk is the soundtrack for Komitas’ tragic life. Captured and deported by the Ottoman government during the genocide, he did escape with his life, only to suffer post traumatic stress disorder. He lived the rest of his days in terrible torment, in and out of pyschiatric hospitals. You will need your hanky for this music.

Martin Mkrtchyan, a sort of cross between Tom Jones, Daniel O’Donnell and Donny Osmond, manages to be much more cheerful. Recently, Elsa and I watched a recording of a big concert he gave in Yerevan’s Republic Square at New Year. Good stuff.

Much as in Ireland where I grew up, most of the songs in this ancient country but new and vulnerable republic are nationalistic–about the beauty of the land, the value of birthright, and courage in the face of enemies. It’s like living with the Wolfe Tones. The song below was sung to me by Arsen, aged six. He pumped his fist and cocked his imaginary gun as he sang. Boys here must go to be soldiers when they graduate high school and Arsen is already ready for the fight. I hope that here, as in Ireland, they will reach a level of security and prosperity that will allow their young singers to write of something other than threat and loss and war. More Snow Patrol than Stiff Little Fingers, if you like…

There is one well-known song that has an unexpected link to Armenia–Rosemary Clooney’s Come ona My House. This, it turns out, was written by the aforementioned William Saroyan and his cousin in 1939 as they motored across America.  Once you know this, the plums, apricots and pomegranate in the lyrics make complete sense. The cousin later went on to have great success as one of Alvin and the Chipmunks. Saroyan wrote no other popular songs. Now if that isn’t the stuff of great trivia quizzes I don’t know what is. Listen to Rosemary and enjoy.

From Anne Arundel County to Armenia: Week One as a Peace Corps Volunteer.

FullSizeRender (6)I have a view of Mount Ararat from my bedroom near Artashat in Armenia. The mountain, the national icon of Armenia, is now in territory claimed by Turkey, but the people here still consider it very much their own. The peak dominates the landscape, flat land that doesn’t see much rain. Every day in Shady Side, I was awed by the beauty and size of the Bay. Now I am in a landlocked country, but fortunate to look out upon another wonder of the world: Noah’s mountain, the peak where the Ark is said to have run to ground.

I live within five miles of the Turkish border, closed because of century-old tension between Armenia, and its neighbor. All around are lookout towers, small huts on stilts from where the Armenian army can stay watchful, night and day. 1915–1918, the Turks killed as many as one and half million Armenians living on land the other side of the mountain. Not for the first time in this part of the world, borders were brutally redrawn. Every day the people in this village see the mountain they can no longer climb. It reminds them of the relatives and land they lost.

FullSizeRender (7)My village is much the same size as Shady Side and is about the same temperature at this time of year. There are a couple of small general stores, but there the similarity ends. There are no bars and restaurants. Certainly no dry cleaner or bank. The roads here are impacted dirt and there are no sidewalks. Some men work on Soviet-era cars in front of their houses. Others try to keep all-pervasive dirt off their Mercedes. As in America, people choose to spend their money in different ways. Older women sit outside in the sun, hailing everyone who goes by and taking particular interest in the sudden influx of Americans—20 of us enrolled in an intensive 10-week language program, to prepare us for two years’ service in this country the size of Maryland. Everyone knows we are here and is eager to talk. They ask questions about our families, and houses, and life in America. They marvel at American house prices. The average wage here is $300 a month. Every house keeps chickens—my host family has five—and a garden with apricot, cherry, walnut and apple trees. Sheep are never far away. Our village name translates to “Garden of Jewels” and Elsa has planted tulips outside the front door. They aren’t in bloom yet, but it won’t be long.

IMG_2657 (1)I am involved in a youth development program which the US Peace Corps has been running for the last twenty-five years at the invitation of the Armenian government. In order to prepare, I take language lessons for 4 hours every day, and then afternoon classes on the country’s economy, politics, social and cultural norms, and its development needs. Elsa packs me a lunch of red bean salad or coleslaw (cabbage is big in these parts); lavash (paper-thin bread ) rolled into a burrito and packed with egg, spinach and cheese; and a locally-grown apple the size of a grapefruit. An old plastic bottle is filled with water from the tap. No Pepsi or Coco Cola products in this house.

After class, I stop to mime a chat with Malan in the small local shop. Her shop is next to the hairdressers where I might splash out on a wash and blow out next weekend—a good way of getting to know my neighbors. I could easily do my hair at home though, where Elsa and Gevorg have a beautiful tiled bathroom with a hot, powerful shower. I have my own bedroom, much bigger than the one I left in Avalon Shores. Someone—I don’t yet have the language skills to find out who—has painted the bedroom walls in the manner of a French chateau. It might be Alla, Elsa’s daughter, who has taken cake FullSizeRender (4)decorating lessons. Now that I have seen what she can do with royal icing, I wouldn’t be surprised if she was the one who turned the first-floor bedroom into Marie Antoinette’s boudoir. It is quite the most beautiful bedroom I have ever slept in. The furniture is mid-century style, but lacquered, and the sheets are 70s retro. My house in South County is often described as eclectic, because it is furnished with a million yard-sale finds. It is pure serendipity that Peace Corps has placed me in the home of people who like color and pattern just as much as I do. I don’t suppose my luck can hold. In June, I will move on to another family, and another part of the country where it is likely that life will be much more basic. Other volunteers have told me about their “lick and promise” washes deploying a tea kettle and wet wipes, and many houses in this village still have outhouses. For now, I count myself lucky to have a washing machine and western toilet to use.

FullSizeRender (2)Elsa is in her 50s, like me. She is a great cook. I come home every night to omelette and fried potatoes, or pork and tomato stew, or maybe a delicious Armenian soup called sepass. This is made from yogurt and barley and is served with cilantro. Served hot and eaten with bread, it is the ultimate comfort food. There is always a chopped salad of an imaginative and colorful variety, a bowl of plain yogurt to use as a relish, and a platter of fresh dill, watercress, tarragon and cilantro. The children eat the herbs in handfuls. Dinner is served with homemade apricot juice and followed by coffee, strong and dark in tiny cups. Over dinner in the kitchen, the family quiz me about my day’s learning and laugh when I pull faces and try to act out incidents I don’t yet have the words to describe. The smallest grandchild, Gayane who is 3, knows the most English, for she listens to pre-school rhymes on her mother’s iphone. I don’t yet have a phone data plan and the house has no internet. The lack of digital access is the thing that that we volunteers find most difficult. Most of our group are in their 20s and have boyfriends, girlfriends, and family at home who expect to talk or message with them every day. It’s just not possible.

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After dinner, we sit in the living room and watch Indian soap operas dubbed into Armenian. At the best of times, I can be overly dramatic. It is probably dangerous that I am picking up vocabulary and accompanying hand gestures from Bollywood actors. Arsen, aged 6, watches Japanese anime, also dubbed into Armenian, a unique and ancient language dating from 450 BC. There are elections here today, Sunday (April 2) and so last night we watched a debate and town hall discussion. The political make-up of the government is not expected to change here but big constitutional change is underway—a shift of power from the role of President to the role of Prime Minister. More than that, I don’t yet know. Voting is at the local school. Later, we are going to the farmer’s market. This is an Apostolic Christian country and was the first place outside the Middle East to follow Christ’s teachings, way back in the 3rd century AD. Despite this, there are few signs of active worship in my new community. I haven’t seen a church yet—or any other house of worship. Across the country, only 3% of the population regularly attend Apostolic services.

The coffee table in the living room is always piled with chocolate, wrapped candies, pomegranate, orange slices, dried fruit and cake. Neighbors, family and friends will be in and out all evening and must be (over)fed. In Armenia, hospitality and family closeness are key: all are welcome and grown children stay close. Elsa’s daughter Alla and her husband Ararat and their children Arsen and Gayane live just a few doors away. Alla’s sister Lala and her brand- new husband Edgar live in the nearest town. Lala is working in Moscow this week, but she calls home every night. Elsa works in the house all day, and has her grandchildren after school. Gevorg, her husband, goes out to work but I have no idea what he does. I only know how to say Volunteer and Teacher and he is neither of those.

I met these people only a week ago, but it is not at all awkward to live in their home. I have watched videos of Lala’s wedding. I haven’t met her yet, but we are already friends on Facebook. (I am able to connect via my teacher’s hot spot during break at school.) Gayane and I sing “No more Monkeys…” while she jumps on the distinctly non-bouncy divan in the living room. My tablecloth with the map of America is on the table in front of the window and has a large vase of artificial roses keeping it in place. Arsen has told me about the Armenian player who is part of the Manchester United soccer team and laughed when I mixed up the word for swimming with the word for shower. He hopes to swim to America, and visit New York and Los Angeles, he says. Gervorg pretends to be a professor and bellows questions at me in louder and louder Armenian tones until I put my head in my hands and say “Che gitem. Chem haskanoom.” I don’t know. I don’t understand. There is a three-bar heater in the living room, and an overhead light. There are family photos on the credenza and a framed photo of a woman I think is Gevorg’s mother in pride of place above the flat-screen TV. Every house I have visited seems to have something similar. We volunteers have compared notes and think that photos in this style –formal, solemn and large—must be a tribute to honored, dead relatives. Elsa and Gevorg had three children. Their son, Geram, died last year. He was 26 and killed in a traffic accident in Moscow. Geyorg told me about him, showing me a snap of all three of his grown children. I looked at the photo and touched his forearm. There are no words in any language. Roads and cars and drivers here are dangerous. As in all other parts of the world, Peace Corps Volunteers are forbidden to drive. Works for me.

I have to remember to take off my shoes inside the front door and change into slippers. Notice has been taken of my lack of socks. Everyone was more comfortable today when I swapped dress pants and bare feet for a dress and panty hose. My purple dress is set off with a green, chunky necklace. Alla asks me, through pointing at her own jewelry, why I don’t wear gold: voski. After many dictionary consultations, I explained, haltingly, that it is too expensive, and I tend to lose things. The conversation turns to wedding rings. Why don’t I have one? I shrug and dip back into the dictionary. Gevorg promises to find me a good Armenian man. I feel I could do worse.

Will I enjoy two years in Armenia? It is too soon to say, but the signs are good. Ask me again in June when the irises are blooming in Shady Side, and the day lilies are about to open. Ask me when Pete is serving fresh rockfish and soft shell crabs at the Brick House. Ask me when it is my friend’s birthday and I can’t buy him a Famous Grouse or a glass of Pinot Grigio at Petie Green’s. By June though, I will have been sworn in as a fully-fledged Peace Corps volunteer (the US Ambassador may attend the ceremony, because this is the silver anniversary for Peace Corps in Armenia. This is a very big deal.) By June I will know what and where my two-year volunteer project will be. I could be working in a big town, or a tiny mountain village where it is winter for 6 months of the year, and the water and electricity supplies constantly fail. In June, here in my new home, the apricots will be ripe and it will be time to make jam. Arsen’s piano performance will have taken place at our village school, and Alla will be icing a cake for her little girl’s birthday. Ask me again then.

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