Reflecting on an amazing Armenian adventure
My column for the next few weeks will feature highlights from the trip that my wife Andrea and I just took to visit our younger son David and his wife Andrea and daughter Sofia in the former Soviet nation of Armenia. David is nearing the end of the first year of his initial 2-year assignment in the U.S. State Department’s Foreign Service, where he’s currently stationed in the U.S. Embassy in Armenia’s capital city of Yerevan. His duties as a Vice Consul include processing visas to the United States for citizens of Armenia and neighboring Iran (the U.S. does not have an embassy in Iran). This is his second time in Armenia after serving there in the Peace Corps in 2006-08, and he’s maintained a strong grasp of the difficult Armenian language while having to also learn Farsi to work with Iranian clients. He was recognized as one of this year’s 11 winners of the Matilda W. Sinclaire Language Award from the American Foreign Service Association for proficiency in learning one of the Category III or IV languages prior to assignment. Getting to come back to Armenia on his first tour of duty has been a most enriching and memorable experience, and they’ll soon be bidding for their next 2-year assignment.
We flew from Chicago’s O’Hare Airport on Qatar Airlines on a 7:00 p.m. departure to their hub city of Doha in the tiny nation of Qatar, catching our connecting flight to Yerevan and arriving there at 1:00 a.m. local time. It was essentially a full day of flying with around 16 hours of flying time along with a 4-hour layover in Doha (return trip was 17 hours in the air). The airport in Doha is a remarkable sight, a modern terminal with lavish shops and restaurants that reflect the area’s wealth. Qatar Airlines is a rapidly growing carrier with a great record of accomplishments (including 2017 Airline of the Year). The planes are spectacular, service is superb, and their list of connected cities is growing. Our only downside was intense security on the return trip through Doha, but that’s to be expected.
There’s so much to share about this country that it’s hard to know where to start. Armenia earned its independence from the former Soviet republic in 1991, and that marked an unfortunate downturn of its economy. Yerevan, a city of around 1.75 million residents, is experiencing growth and has become a hub for IT technology in the region, but the landscape still bears the scars of the divorce. Many buildings that were under construction in 1991 remain unfinished and abandoned, and there are many closed factories and businesses throughout the country. Two large distilleries in Yerevan are major employers, utilizing potatoes and wheat grown in the rural areas. Many Armenian men travel to Russia for employment, staying up to six months at a time. In fact, Russia has launched a recruiting campaign offering employable Armenian workers $4000 and a house to relocate to Russia, along with $2000 for their spouse, and the program seems to be gaining traction. The rural villages feature simple crude homes where everyone grows vegetables and fruit in their backyard along with some animals. Crop production is primarily wheat and potatoes in the hilly and incredibly rocky terrain, where cattle and sheep roam freely with no sign of fences. It was common to have to stop on occasion while cattle crossed the road at their leisure.
One of Yerevan’s noteworthy trademarks is its traffic flow, unlike anything I’ve ever experienced. I’ve driven in Chicago, St. Louis, Atlanta, and other headache towns, and they don’t begin to compare with the perpetual chaos we saw. The pace is frenzied on the multi-lane streets, where vehicles straddle the lane lines, stop unexpectedly, and take frequent advantage of the permitted U-turns on many major streets. A honk of the horn might indicate permission to merge or driver frustration with a rash decision, and you must be ready to hit the gas or brakes quickly depending on the situation. The police drive around with their flashing lights on most of the time, either hitting the siren briefly or calling out on the PA when they’re on an actual run. It’s reported that corruption is widespread in the police, with bribes in lieu of tickets being common.
What’s your brand?
A diverse mix of vehicles filled the streets with a plethora of cars, trucks, busses, and vans. Sharing the streets were Toyota, Nissan, Hyundai, KIA, Mazda, Volkswagen, Honda, Mercedes-Benz, BMW, Lexus, Volvo, Audi, Mitsubishi, Russian brand Lada (a cheap option) and the German-based Opel brand (seen here in the 1970’s and a popular taxi brand there). Many manufacturers had different models not seen in the U.S. including dressed-down versions of several luxury brands. Aside from one Ford Focus and numerous Ford Transit vans, I saw no other Fords and not a single Chevrolet, GM or Chrysler product on the roads. Even more interesting – amid a society that constantly seemed to be hauling things – was the total absence of pickup trucks. We saw lots of larger cargo trucks, dump trucks, and tractor-trailers but not one pickup of any kind. It’s apparent that Armenians are competent mechanics as most of the bigger trucks were 50 years old or older. It was common to see folks with cargo strapped to the roof of their cars, ranging from furniture and produce to power equipment and building materials. A very popular means of public transportation is the marshrutni, which is basically any form of van with the original seats stripped out and replaced by whatever form of seating allows the most passengers (benches, milk crates, etc.). They run routes throughout the country picking up passengers, with up to 15 or more people crammed in.
Bruce Johnson is the manager of the Stephenson County Farm Bureau