Wednesday, August 4, 2004

Yerevan Airport and City (August 2004)

The Austrian airline flight landed at the Yerevan Airport earlier than the expected time. This flight has been one of the shortest and most comfortable I have taken to arrive to Armenia. Considering that I have been in Vienna for over a week and was already adjusted to the time zone made the travel even easier. However the fact that the flight leaves Vienna at 10:00 pm and arrives to Yerevan at 4:30 am makes it impossible for anyone to arrive rested unless they do sleep on the flight, which is extremely difficult (unless of course one already had another long flight to get to Vienna and had spent almost 12 hours walking around in the city or the airport).

After disembarking we headed for the passport control area. I was very keen to see what changes, if any, the airport had gone through. Once we got closer to the escalators leading down to the passport control booths I realized that only one of the escalators was operating and it was already crowded by people too tired to walk the few steps down. I took the non-operating escalator and as I was walking down I could see that at the bottom of the operating escalator a small congestion of people was being formed. This was a problem since one of the passport control booths was immediately next to the escalator and people were queuing for the passport checks without realizing that it is somehow difficult to queue on a moving escalator and hold one’s position when the stairs are constantly moving. Luckily the airport security was able to redirect passengers to other passport control booths, averting a disaster.

The passport control was swift and we went to the luggage claim area. Having had some Armenian currency on me I had calculated how much I could have afforded for a luggage cart and for a taxi to take me to the city. In the past the porters at the airport would take away all the carts outside of the arrival area and keep only their own carts making it impossible for arriving passengers to not hire them in return of ‘just’ $5, which most travelers paid. As I arrived to the luggage belt I could see that the porters were ‘unionized’ in the sense that they were all wearing the same uniforms and had nametags. Reaching out for a cart, I was told that I should get a cart from next to the luggage belt, so I walked over to a small stand next to the belt where a cart supervisor was helping people to obtain carts. When I approached I could see that the price was AMD (Armenian Dram) 2,500 (almost $5) for a cart. I gathered this price from the printed tickets that the supervisor was holding. Without even thinking and listening (I am a Diasporan after all) I just started arguing that it was a high price to ask for a cart and left the counter thinking that tourist poaching was now organized and institutionalized.

About 5 minutes later a sign caught my eye. It had the prices of renting carts on it and to my surprise and embarrassment I realized that the price I saw (2,500 AMD) was for a cart with a porter. For anyone who wanted to take just a cart the price was only 400 AMD (not even $1). I turned over to a fellow traveler and asked her if she could get a cart for me, since I was too embarrassed to go back to face the supervisor. Standing there I started thinking to what extent my arrogance had made me not willing to listen and accept that things can actually change for the better in Armenia. As I was contemplating this, I felt that I had to make up for my act of snobbery and returned to the counter and apologized to the supervisor for not listening what he had to say. His reaction was just a nod and he returned back to the conversation with one of the porters. I wasn’t sure if my apology was even understood but at least I felt better for rectifying an arrogant act committed on my side.

Once I ‘cleared my conscience’ I started looking around the airport. Nothing much has changed. the windows which surrounded the luggage area and which were more like screens for travelers’ families and taxi drivers to use sign language to talk with the new arrivals was no longer available since it was painted over. The airport was clean as usual (courtesy to the ladies who are almost invisible and who start sweeping and cleaning not only the airport but the streets of Yerevan from the wee hours of the morning with the risk of encountering drunken men) and there were no signs of renovations at the airport. Once I got through the customs and out of the door several taxi drivers approached and as I was preparing myself to start bargaining with them about a price I was given a business card of one of the taxi services and a young man with sufficient English knowledge started talking about the taxi service that he represented. When I asked him in Armenian on the cost of getting me from the airport to city he mentioned that those taxis are metered and the cost would not exceed 3,500 AMD. The amount was amazingly cheap for a ride from the airport to the city which otherwise used to cost anywhere between 5,000 AMD (by taxi services from Yerevan) and $40 (if one takes a taxi without first agreeing on the price).

The time now was close to 5:30 am as I loaded my luggage in the trunk of a blue version of the New York Yellow cabs. The imitation was successful and save for the color difference and the fact that the driver spoke the language of the country he lived in, one could not distinguish between the New York and Yerevan cabs. The ride was uneventful and I got to the apartment around 6:30 am. It took about 20 minutes to unpack and being the restless person I am, I could not stay at home or even sleep. Instead, I decided to take a walk in the streets of Yerevan.

The sun was slowly rising and the streets were empty except for an occasional car or a passer by. I wanted to see the city before the traffic (both human and vehicle) started and to make an opinion about how much the city has changed.

One thing I remembered from my previous living experience in Yerevan is that life does not begin until 9 am and it would only take off after 10:00 am. So to hope to have an early morning coffee at a café or to conduct any business before 11:00 am would be a bit unrealistic. But since I had no plans to have coffee or to conduct any business I started strolling through the streets of central Yerevan.

It was now around 8 am and I’d been walking for about half an hour. The reason I realized it was 8 o’clock was that the huge electronic billboard at the Republic Square suddenly came to life with a jingle and started a wave of advertising. As I was looking at the billboard I was also looking around to see if there were any familiar faces and one of the things I realized was that those people who were awake and out at that time and who happened to be in the vicinity of the billboard, passed by without even looking at the huge screen. I guess every monument, - be it Lenin, the cross, or a representative of capitalism, - is bound to be just another landscape that locals would pass by after a while, without even showing the slightest interest in looking up or listening to the message that the icon was supposed to represent.

Another phenomenon I noticed was the billboards carrying posters with the various versions of the same message: ‘Towards a bright Future’. Although these posters artistically impressed me, (please mind that I am not an artist and it takes simple art to impress me) their political and social message made me realize something. If a society or a country, underdeveloped (or developing if one was an optimist or nationalist) as Armenia, places more importance on talking about a better future, one could start thinking that the present situation must be bad, since everyone’s attention is focused (or is being directed) towards the future. But as I was in a pessimistic mood and view, I chased away those ideas as nothing more than the manifestations of someone who only wants to see the worse in things.

Central Yerevan has been given a face-lift. It was amazing to what extent the city (or at least its central part) has changed. Instead of making me feel better this appearance made me feel sadder. For a while I kept thinking that whereas two years ago I was part of the change, now I have become nothing more than a passer by who sees the change but doesn’t appreciate the process through which it was achieved. At the same time I kept asking myself if the change was only superficial and if the condition of the people has really changed.

It was now 9 am and the streets were stirring. One thing I had prepared myself for was the Yerevan traffic. Towards the end of my stay in Yerevan I could see that traffic was becoming more frequent and that more cars were on the streets of Yerevan. Of course Yerevan has never been a pedestrian-friendly city. Even when the cars were less in number, crossing a street was an act of courage and the taxi or minibus drivers would make sure that pedestrians would never have a sense of security. Now, with the number of vehicles multiplied by several factors, walking in Yerevan was becoming less enjoyable. Of course the fact that the sun was now up and the temperature was gradually rising made the walking experience even less desirable.

I wanted to visit several places and see some people before returning home. I managed to see a friend of mine who had moved to Armenia 4 years ago and was in the process of setting up his own business. While greeting him, and in the subsequent conversation, I realized that I was not projecting the image of someone who was happy to meet a friend, mostly because of the fact that it was more than 30 hours since I last slept or took a nap. The increasing heat was not making it any easier and I barely made it back to home, took a shower and climbed into bed.

It was now around 2 pm and as I lay in bed I tried to recap my experience. In two year’s time Yerevan has changed in appearance. It was now more tourist friendly (except for the traffic issue) and seemed to offer more entertainment fare in the form of the street side cafés. The overall first impression should have been positive but something felt not right. Maybe I had tried to gather too much information while being too tired and that was the reason I wasn’t excited. Or maybe it was just that I needed some adjusting period. Regardless of the reason for my pessimism, the combination of the long walks I had in Yerevan, the sleeplessness and the prospect of a busy week meeting up with old friends and acquaintances had their toll and it was not after 5 minutes I was in bed that I was sound asleep.

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