Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Armenia journal: December 31 - January 1

12/31. Woke up and embarked on a four-hour drive to Goris, a village in the southern part of the country. We drove through the mountains, and Mt. Ararat (the legendary landing site of Noah's Ark, which everyone around here treats with the same historical certainty and accuracy as I do the Civil War) should have been visible to the south for large portions of the trip, yet it was not due to that signature Armenian cloudiness. As we left Yerevan the city gave way to stubby fields, covered with something like permafrost, like a winter desert dusted with snow. We were driving through many many vineyards, and for one stretch there was a series of small stands covered in blue tarps where they sold the local wines in two-liter soda bottles. Momentary lust for a Coke. Ultimately the road took us high into snowy mountains, where there were no signs of life, just thick blankets of snow covering the peaks and valleys, along with some powerlines running alongside us.

Took a detour to Norovank monastery -- drove into a narrow canyon that gave way to this stone monastery built on some higher cliffs. The buildings (two small churches, some other structures) were made of the same tan rock as the cliffs themselves; rose organically upwards. One church was two stories high; the bottom story was locked off, but there were two odd, narrow stairways rising along the front, around the door, creating a triangle where the steps met 20 or 30 feet up. "Are you going to climb the step?" This had never occurred to me; Henry darted up so naturally I had to as well, brushing the sand off with my hand and edging upwards along the narrow stairway. Concerned about falling and breaking bones. At the top my hands were soaked and brown from dusting off the snow; inside was an open, empty sanctuary. Very beautiful. Made it down without incident. Norovank = new church; noro = new.

Ultimately we arrived at Goris: a town, larger than I expected, filling a narrow valley in the mountains. An odd place for a town, I thought; it seemed like the sunlight would be very limited (in fact, sun rises and sets later here). All the buildings in the city are made of the stone, and look somewhat uniform (and perhaps German-style, we heard). For once, the balance seemed to tip in favor of "European," rather than "Soviet." The city was laid out in a regular grid pattern, all the buildings were two stories and many had drain pipes sticking out into the street or path from the second story. Deep open gutters ran along the streets and shunted water off to a rushing creek a block over from the hotel. The hills surrounding the city were marked with dramatic stone pillars, jutting up from the earth like angry canine teeth.

Stayed at Hotel Goris, a regular Peace Corps haunt (I think). Great shower, very comfortable, furniture from Ikea. We had satellite tv and caught many interesting channels, including Arab Sex Club and Arab Girls TV. How the hell do you explain that?

Spaghetti bolognese for dinner. Champagne and scrabble to ring in the new year (32 points for "Zen"); asleep before midnight. To think a year ago we were in the cardiac ICU in Honolulu; this year we were tucked in a small village in Armenia. I don't dare predict where we'll be next new year's, but to be in a predictable location may be nice.

1/1. Breakfast at the hotel: rolls, apple jelly, that wretched salty cheese (Lori). Took a cab on an hour-long drive to Tatev, a monastery and village. Two felt Santas hung by the corners of the windshield in the cab; a cross and small plastic doll of a girl (Santa's granddaughter?) hung from the rearview. The driver blasted Armenian pop as we all bounced around in the back. He was not super friendly. We drove along treacherous mountain roads, snowy and icy, and I reminded myself of the driver's assumed expertise in these conditions. No seatbelts, of course; I considered how this would be a bad way to die. I thought of how runners write their phone numbers on their shoes in case something happens to them. Sometimes I would close my eyes and pretend I was a hostage.

Tatev monastery: looked like a fort. Fortified walls, rooms and nooks and crannies and passageways. Dramatic and medieval, fun like a playground to roam and explore. Walked up to the tops of the walls, looked at the amazing view of the snowy mountainsides all around us. In the sanctuary we could hear someone chanting. There was a crane by the sanctuary, but it's left over from Soviet times; many churches have cranes still attached to them, relics of a time before the works in progress ground to a halt.

We went to pick up a Volunteer to take back to Goris, for a festive dinner that night in our hotel with several volunteers. She met us as we drove to the village, picking along the road with a young local kid. We drove back to her host family's house and went inside, past stalls for cows and a horse and chickens. Inside was the mother, daughter, and grandmother (Tatik) a massive woman with a leathery, warm face and a bit of a moustache and goatee. In the room, there was an old-fashioned stove; an oblong Christmas tree (seemed like a hunk of a branch of something) with lights and tinsel; a recent TV; walls covered with traditional and musty wallpaper. There was a table covered in a New Year's feast: meats, nutes, dolma, drinks, etc. We had some cups of bitter black coffee (I downed all of it) as we communicated through smiles and the translations of the peace corps volunteer. Even the cabbie came in and enjoyed some coffee and refreshments -- I think his name was Sevan. There were all friendly and incredibly warm; it made me want to be a volunteer. As we left a chicken stormed L and me and whapped me in the leg as it fluttered past. Yes = ha, so you would see people nodding and saying very seriously, "ha, ha, ha." No = che, like the revolutionary.

Later that night a handful of other volunteers met at the hotel for dinner, board games, puzzles, and cake, courtesy of Lee. They came from the neighboring villages that speckled the mountain valleys. They chattered away and seemed to devour each other's company; it must be lonely out here. I was impressed with their language skills, although they also seemed so, so young. Fresh out of college, and living in a village an hour away from a small village four hours away from the capital of Armenia. What? I admired their courage, or bravado or whatever made them dive into such a daunting experience.

No comments: