Friday, February 28, 2014

A Day Outside of the Center

Our day was planned. I had work to do outside Yerevan and had many leads on new farms with new products and farmers with new ideas. We made a schedule, recruited Mona the German as the official photographer, and were ready to begin our day. GGA’s official driver called to let us know he would be 30-45 minutes late. At least he called, we thought.

On the way there, Mona realized she hadn’t had enough coffee. She stopped by the Green Bean and requested a Latte Macchiato to go and for some reason I asked her if it was just hot milk and she laughed. We arrived to our meeting point and were still far too early so we sat in the sun. Once our driver arrived, we sat in the back and he asked us if we wanted some coffee to go. When I said no, he told me I might regret it later with a mischievous smile. Mona happily said yes, and she was brought an Armenian coffee in a tradition cup and saucer through the window (drive-thru, represent!) to drink in the car. When she finished, she returned the local version of a “coffee-to-go” the same way it was given and we were officially ready to leave. I began the documentation.
The fog set in as soon as we got about 5 minutes outside of Yerevan which made for a wonderful view, albeit a little scary at times. Soon the sun broke through and we knew it would be a good day. As a result of winter, I wasn't able to head out to farms as much as I used to, and forgot how important it is to get out of the city and how much I enjoyed it. Mona is excited about anything Armenian and was even more enthusiastic than I assumed she would be.
Our driver wanted us to meet some of his relatives in the area he lived in who were farmers and who we could collaborate with. He just couldn’t remember how to find their exact street, so of course we rolled down the windows and asked some people right outside their homes what street we were on. As I hadn’t been traveling too much lately, I forgot about this common occurrence: no one knowing what the street they lived on was called. Instead, people tend to describe what the street they live on does or leads to – “this is the street that takes you to Meghri”, for example. I always found this funny, and of course it is the opposite of what Mona and I refer to as GERMAN EFFICIENCY, but there is something amazing about living somewhere where the name of your street is simply not what matters.

Somehow we found the home of his relative, an adorable nene/tatik with a punk rock hat on. She was almost stereotypically welcoming and generous, and wouldn’t talk about anything until we came inside her home and had a coffee with her.
Our shoes were ridiculously muddy as it had rained the day before and so she told us we could take them off and gave us some old fashioned papooches (slippers). Of course mine had a fantastic leopard print.
While she went off to make coffee, her neighbour came by who also had a farm in the area who we planned to meet and was a wonderful mix of hyper and “chghayn” (nervously intense). Even though what he was saying was extremely positive, the way he would say it was in such an angry ‘frowning-his-eyebrows’ kind of way, if one didn’t understand Armenian, they would have to assume he was upset about something. We appreciated this right away. He “angrily” told us that we needed to eat 5-6 chocolates a day at minimum to stay young. We happily agreed. He then warned us that we should then finish 1/2kg of chocolate in a couple of days. This was unsolicited advice we could live with.
The coffee arrived and the neighbour decided it was time to bust out the blood pressure kit and measure his. Why not? He then rewarded himself for his good numbers with coffee and chocolate. The nene/tatik followed suit and her numbers were even better, which he was simultaneously angry and happy about. We talked about what they grew and what they planned to grow and realized they had great traditional items and that they used no chemicals, which is what we are looking for. We went to look at the second field which also had animals. In the 15 second walk from the inside of the house to the outside, we took off our papooches and put on our boots. The neighbour did not like that and exaggerated the distance we walked ‘pobeeg’ (barefoot) with wild hand movements and said we would become sick right away. On the way there, the nene asked where Mona was from, and once I confirmed Germany, she looked at Mona and asked her if she had a father and a mother. Mona was tempted to say “no, I just appeared one day” but let the nene know that yes, even blonde and blue-eyed Germans had parents.

We headed out to field number two, and I was able to hang out with a newly born calf and some cutie pie pigs as they posed for the camera.

We also had visited a section where lavash was baked (traditional Armenian flat bread) in a very antique looking oven. We had discovered that as a result of the neighbour coming over to greet us, he forgot one of the breads in there and it had burnt to a crisp. Mona and I would still have totally eaten it, though.

Happy with the new contacts we made, we headed off for the last group of farmers to meet for the day. The field here was a lot larger and there was a greenhouse meant for herbs – both traditional and non-traditional, and we discussed what else they would like to plant there. A younger man came after hearing there were “tourists” in the area and just hung out, looking very pensive the entire time. Something about him (well, everything) screamed “rabiz” and I whispered to Mona that all we needed was for him to squat while he smoked his 50th cigarette. About 5 minutes later, he got into the “stansi squat” mode and lit up. Our day was complete.
While we were being shown around, I of course noticed the dogs. Dogs break my heart – both in Yerevan and out. In Yerevan they are commonly seen as vermin, and people still regularly beat or shoot street dogs in an effort to “clean the city”. More and more people seem to be warming up to dogs though, and I can say that in my third year in Armenia, I am seeing more people adopt dogs and there are great organizations dedicated to their well-being – whether they are shelters or organizations like DiNGO. In villages, dogs are more likely to be kept and cared for, but there is also dog-fighting where dogs are trained to be vicious and are made to fight each other while people watch – sometimes for entertainment, sometimes for money, sometimes both. It happens just as much--if not more, in Canada, but I guess seeing it in person is always a different experience than just reading about it. I won’t get started on the infamous pit-bull ban, I promise. These dogs were adorable – one baby white one with strangely frizzy hair and an obsession with hopping, and the older one who barked non-stop at us for at least 15 minutes. Once he calmed down, I approached him, and as is expected with neglected animals with chains far too short, all he wanted was attention and love. He grabbed on to my arms and kept them between his paws making sure I couldn’t leave (not that I wanted to of course).
The little frizzy white one comes to play
Soon after, it was time to leave. We thanked the farmers, got all the necessary contacts and left with a great feeling after a productive day. On the way back it hit me how much I missed getting out of the city centre and how important it is to keep traveling. I only realize what causes that restless/antsy feeling I often get when I am actually experiencing what it is I am missing. I could go into more detail about the land, the people, the animals, the stories, the struggles, the authenticity, the warmth, but I’ll summarize it by saying it is the fact that you can never know what to expect. Hence, the horse and hat calendar series:
On the way back we noted all the horribly misplaced and revolting “oligarch” homes shamelessly built between shacks, with gates that would make sure that no human contact could ever occur. The thoughts were interrupted by a strange interruption in our driver’s Russian CD mix, with something familiar. It was Eminem. Mona and I couldn’t help but laugh and our driver assumed we liked it and blasted it so he couldn’t hear us protesting. Leaving a village, heading back to the city with Eminem playing with our windows rolled down, somehow ended up seeming strangely appropriate.

When we were back in Yerevan, spending the entire walk home talking about the perks of leaving and the need to travel in Armenia more, and of course being a little bitter with the city itself, a well-dressed man noticed us chatting loudly and approached us. We were covered in dirt from head to toe (both soil and dog love) and he asked us about ourselves and said he loved the idea of a German and Canadian getting along in Armenia. I didn’t realize our countries were on bad terms, but we went with it. He told us he was originally from Artsakh and asked us many questions and then gave us tickets to a play and asked us to come a little early so we could chat more. He also asked repeatedly how he could be of help to us – even after I told him I have been in Armenia for over 2 years. Inevitably marriage came up and he chastised us for being older than he assumed and still not being married. He told us to “get on that” and make our parents happy. I knew that somewhere my sweet parents were nodding their impatient heads.

Just when we assumed we could get no more surprises in the city, we were pleasantly proven wrong.

*All photos taken by the wonderful and German Mona Hinrichs

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