Noah and friends
July 12, 2003 1pm
Safely arrived in Yerevan, Armenia, at the Ani Plaza Hotel. A short, 45-minute flight from Tbilisi. Weather was a bit hazy coming in so I wasnâ€™t able to see Mt. Ararat over the Turkish border, which apparently is easily visible when the weather permits. As the reputed landing point for Noahâ€™s Ark, the mountain is a big deal here. Armenians call their country Hayastan, as they believe themselves to be the direct descendents of Noahâ€™s grandson Haik. Georgians too have a different name for their country, presumably to avoid confusion with the American state of Georgia, which they must not have known about when they named their country, and which is approximately twice the size of the Republic of Georgia. Georgians live in Sakartvelo, named after another of Noahâ€™s grandsons, Karthlos. Noah was a busy guy. Letâ€™s face it, there isnâ€™t much to do when youâ€™re on an ark after a flood but make sons and grandsons. And of course shovel a whole lot of crap.
So where did the words Armenia and Georgia come from? Beats the hell out of me. I expected to find this information in my handy-dandy guidebook after reading about the native names of these countries. Instead, that information is immediately followed by the following sentence: “Protohuman remains about 1.7 million years old and human remains about 200,000 years old have been found as well as Paleolithic artifacts,” which I read to mean that the author doesnâ€™t know either.
So far, Quadrophenia is the only word I can think of that rhymes with Armenia, and even that is of course debatable (MS Word suggests quadraphonic and quadriplegia). Nothing comes to mind for Georgia. Perhaps this is part of the reason that the names were chosen, I canâ€™t say for sure.
Anyway, the Yerevan airport was an interesting arrival. Three concentric concrete circles reminiscent of the Inferno, with some Soviet-trained, thrill-a-minute Virgil as our guide into the core. I give Armenia credit for being only the second country to provide visas online (after Australia). Unfortunately thatâ€™s the only visa you get, so I have to carry around this piece of paper I printed in DC everywhere I go, which is not particularly convenient. But of course the biggest downside to this is that I get no fancy Armenian visa sticker in my passport. Thatâ€™s half the reason to travel, isnâ€™t it? I sympathize with travelers to Europe who no longer get a country-by-country stamped account of their international journey. Progress sucks.
On the way from the airport to the hotel, our Russian-speaking driver gave me a brief tour, pointing out where the US Embassy compound is being built. It seems that throughout the former Soviet Union, and probably the rest of the world as well, US embassies are switching from downtown locations (where they are engrained in the community and susceptible to attack) to outskirt compounds (where you must have 11 forms of identification, a retinal scan, a DNA sample, and the ability to recite the pledge of allegiance backwards to get in. Never mind the fact that you could probably spend your entire tour in country without actually ever seeing the country). Iâ€™m not saying I blame anyone, but I do think itâ€™s unfortunate. Yesterday we had a meeting at the US embassy in Tbilisi and it was a fine old embassy. The building has been converted from an old palace, with enormous ceilings, beautiful stairways, and vast mirrors that look like something from a fantasy novel (the Harry Potter kind, not the ones with Fabio on the cover, though they may have similar mirrors positioned differently). I wonâ€™t soon forget however the image of a palatial hall--with royal blue walls; enormous, ornate wooden window frames; an elaborately carved ceiling; and doorways tall enough to ride a horse through--divided into cubicles.
Back to Armenia. My hotel room is a very efficient use of space, with a narrow path beside the bed to a balcony overlooking gray, Soviet architecture and beautiful green hills beyond. The width of the room is just wide enough for the Kandinsky painting that hangs on it. The most curious thing Iâ€™ve found here though is an elevator button labeled “Overload” right between the alarm and the “Door Open” buttons. Iâ€™m very tempted to push this ambiguous button. I imagine that if I push it, the elevator may prove to be a Wonkavator and Iâ€™ll have the opportunity to see Yerevan from above. If anyone knows what this button means, please let me know and I wonâ€™t have to indulge my childish curiosity.
Our much anticipated two-day conference of our program country heads (about ten people: our country coordinators and assistant coordinators for Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan; my boss in DC (Tom) and the regional manager (Kelly)). Iâ€™m the deputy regional manager incidentally. Unfortunately I donâ€™t get one of those fancy stars that the deputies wear in the old movies. I also donâ€™t carry a gun.
Anyway, the conference is done and last night we had a nice farewell dinner with truckloads of food, Old Tbilisi wine, and a very loud band that played the first version of “Yesterday” Iâ€™ve ever heard that included a violin in place of the guitar. I also donâ€™t recall such a heavy bass line, but I could be wrong. It was a little bit like Dave Matthews Band meets Janeâ€™s Addiction combined with any Russian pop band of the 90s. How can you not love such a band when theyâ€™ve got both flashing colored lights and a smoke machine? The only thing possibly missing was pyrotechnics. Maybe next time.
The weather so far has been beautiful. Probably in the high 70s with relatively clear skies, excluding this morningâ€™s flight. Iâ€™m happy to say that more people than I expected speak Russian and are willing to speak it freely. Iâ€™ll still have to learn some Georgian (I made some flash cards this evening for spare time fun), but I can easily get by on Russian. At least so far and only in the capital. But nonetheless, Iâ€™ve already been introduced to some expats and Iâ€™m meeting local contacts who speak either Russian or English, so I have no doubt Iâ€™ll get integrated quickly.
Iâ€™m told Tbilisi is a great city with lots to do, and that Georgia is a haven for outdoor events. A friend gave me the contact information for a guy who runs eco-tours in the mountains here and Iâ€™ve already talked to some people tentatively about putting together some hiking trips in the Caucasus, which most people donâ€™t realize are the highest mountains of Europe. Mt. Elbrus, well over the Russian border, is the highest peak on the continent. Georgia has three peaks over 5,000 meters and many, many, many places to hike and camp. Iâ€™>m glad I decided to bring my big backpack, tent, sleeping bag, and boots, even though I paid through the nose in extra luggage fees. (AirZena, the Georgian national airline, is not partnered with United, so I had to check bags twice and pay the fees twice. Well, IREX had to pay the fees twice I guess I should say.) Additionally, Georgia has paragliding, skiing in the winter, and other activities that I couldnâ€™t quite understand in Russian but they sounded intriguing. One of them sounded like it involved shoveling, but I think that was my poor vocabulary playing tricks with me. Or perhaps someone is planning to take me on their ark.
Additionally there has been discussion of international travel over the next year. I have spoken with some folks about Iran and Syria, which would of course both be great but weâ€™ll have to see about the political climate. With no embassy in Iran, it might not be the best place to be gallivanting. I may need to limit my travel to non-Axis-of-Evil countries for the time being. In any case, it sounds like there will be plenty of outdoor activity possibilities here, so I should be able to keep busy and hopefully reasonably fit.
Okay, Iâ€™m going to head down and get some lunch. Iâ€™ve taken over a hundred photos already and will try to post a few soon, either here or on ofoto. We have a few meetings today and tomorrow but we may venture a journey to the aquapark here in Yerevan tomorrow as well as hit the art market. Iâ€™ll be here until Thursday and then itâ€™s back to Tbilisi to find an apartment and start my regular work schedule. So far itâ€™s been meetings all day and events at night. That combined with jet lag--a nine hour time difference--have meant that Iâ€™ve been unable to get a great deal of sleep. I canâ€™t believe that Ianâ€™s wedding was already a week ago, or of course that it was only a week ago. Hope allâ€™s well with everyone and that you donâ€™t accidentally hit the overload button on the elevator.