Monday, November 8, 2010

Getting Around

I recently took a trip into Yerevan and experienced a few first in getting there and back, which reminded me that I am overdue for a discussion of transportation in Armenia.

Although it is about the size of Maryland, getting from one point to another here is likely a multi-hour trip. The roads are generally in terrible shape, there are many mountains that the roads have to go around and the vehicles themselves are mostly sub-par. There are two functional rail lines – one that runs from Yerevan to Hrazdan (near Solak where I used to live) and another that runs from Yerevan through Gyumri and Vanadzor (the country’s third largest city) and on to Georgia. There are two trains each day in each direction. The south of the country has no trains at all, nor does the portion east of Lake Sevan. The trains, however, take longer that traveling by road so most inter-city travel is done by bus, marshutni (mini-bus) or taxi.

One of the Gyumri - Yerevan Marshutnis

While I have not yet taken a bus here, you can’t live here without experiencing a marshutni ride. For inter-city rides, some leave at scheduled times and some leave whenever the vehicle is full (the Gyumri – Yerevan route is an example). Most have seats for between 12 and 20 including two seats in the front with the driver. The operators work on volume and I have never gone on one to Yerevan that was not full, but neither has there been more than the 15 that fit. For some of the shorter routes (and some long ones that aren’t as frequently traveled), as many people as can possibly fit and want to get on do so. For example, I recently went to a nearby village and when the marshutni left at its scheduled time every seat was taken and one man was standing. Subsequently, about a dozen more people got on, some carrying large bags of produce or cakes, all of who stood hunched over for the bulk of the ride since the roof is not normally very high. You often see women making room for each other by squishing together on one seat or sitting on each others’ laps. Children are sometimes handed to strangers for lap sitting. Being an American, people keep their distance from me to the extent possible and I was even asked one time to change my seat because a father didn’t want his daughter sitting next to an American man. The seats are tight even for shorter people so there are only a few that I ever sit in and standing for me is impossible (I did once for 20 minutes and it took me days to recover).

The engines in these things are not very powerful and they usually have a tough time getting up the hills, even when not crammed full. They sometimes break down en route and, if that happens, the driver calls his boss and an empty one is sent to pick up the passengers. The one time that happened to me the wait was only half an hour but I have heard of people being stranded for multiple hour or having to walk up a hill that the marshutni couldn’t manage. There are rules against passengers smoking (a great idea since many people smoke here) but that rule doesn’t apply to the driver. Reminds me of the old smoking sections on airplanes.

Taxi Stand

Instead of a marshutni, taxis are also an option. From Gyumri to Yerevan there are taxis to share which leave when four passengers get in. They cost more than the marshutni (2500 dram per passenger or about $7.50 compared to 1500 dram or about $4.50) but they take about an hour and a half instead of two. For some of the longer rides to the southern areas taxis are a more viable option since the marshutnis don’t run as regularly and the time savings are more considerable. For an inter-city trip that is within the north or within the south a taxi often makes more sense to avoid going through Yerevan, since most of the marshutnis head that way. It may cost more but may shave hours off of your trip.

Taxis inside a city are generally fixed rate (500 dram in Gyumri) and marshutnis are very cheap (100 dram in Gyumri) but they tend to be filled to bursting.

Whichever option you choose, being in a vehicle here is quite an experience. As I mentioned, the roads are generally bad, with some secondary roads unpaved and most of the primary ones full of potholes. It is not uncommon to see a cow or a dog crossing a highway and in some villages you contend with entire flocks of livestock at certain times of the day. And the rules of the road tend to be that there are none. The primary concerns seem to be (1) avoiding damage to the car (2) avoiding damage to livestock and (last) avoiding damage to people and other animals in the road. I have been in taxis that drove for miles on the wrong side of the road to avoid potholes. Drivers routinely pass on blind curves or going up hills, sometimes doing so to pass a car that is already passing another. As I related in a previous post, a taxi ride through a herd of cattle was like a live-action video game as the driver never slowed down as he dodged his way through the cows on a curvy road. In the course of one weekend, two of my fellow volunteers were in separate car accidents caused by reckless driving. At present, auto insurance is not required but it will be next year pursuant to a law passed in May of this year.

The cars vehicles themselves are an odd lot. Many of the cars on the road are Russian Ladas, although you do see a fair number of Mitsubishis, BMWs and sometimes a Jaguar. When you take a taxi, there is normally little room in the trunk since that is where the fuel tanks are (same goes for the rear of a marshutni – for buses the fuel tanks are on the roof). Most of the vehicles run on benzene and if you stop to fill up, everyone has to get out, I suppose as a safety measure in case the car blows up.

Gyumri Bus with Rooftop Fuel Tanks

As I did in New York, I tend to walk everywhere since Gyumri is not a very big city but being a pedestrian is even more of a challenge. Sidewalks (when they exist) are often in just as bad shape as the roads. The ones in better shape seemingly were installed by the owner of the building in front of which they pass and can be at varying heights from the street. Sometimes cars are parked on the sidewalk or a particularly territorial dog makes it prudent to go out of the way. As a result of these conditions, you often have to walk in the street, but the potholes and cobblestones (and gaps where cobblestones are missing) make that tricky and vehicles may still hug the curb (or what passes for a curb) as they speed past. Traffic lights (when they exist and work) are often disregarded or drivers stop at a light but execute a right turn on red even when pedestrians are crossing in observance of a cross signal. If you need to cross the street you need to remember that cars seem to have the right-of-way and proceed in fits and starts. I often have to walk part way and wait in the middle of the street for a gap in the traffic. I have seen very few disabled people in public, partly due to societal stigmas and also because it would be impossible to navigate the streets and sidewalks.

Darkness presents additional difficulties to walking since streetlights are scarce. In Gyumri, there are lights on some streets but none on others (in Solak, there were hardly any which is not surprising for a village). With the conditions of the sidewalks as they are, carrying a flashlight is usually necessary.

For my recent trip to Yerevan, I decided to take the train, which I had not done before and wanted to because I like train travel for some perverse reason. As I was going in for just a day, I took the morning one which leaves just before 8:00 AM. The train station is about a 25 minute walk from where I live and I had walked the distance several times before. What I had not counted on this time is that the sun was not yet up at 7:30 (this was just before the end of daylight savings time) and that street lights which are on at night are not on in the morning. Since it had poured rain until just before I set out (and with the sidewalks being the way they are) I walked in the street most of the way, cursing myself for not bringing a flashlight. But this ain’t New York and there is virtually no one out before light. When a car did pass I had plenty of time to get out of the way so my only risk was stepping into a hole and the worst that happened was not seeing a puddle that drenched my foot.

Gyumri - Yerevan Train

The train ride was pleasant (although 3 ½ hours instead of 2 hours by marshutni) and the train was uncrowded. It afforded great views of the countryside and more opportunity to stretch out along the way. There is also a Soviet era subway in Yerevan which is easy to navigate (it mostly consists of one line), it is efficient and dirt cheap. Although Yerevan is navigable on foot also, it is more spread out so the subway can come in handy depending on where you are headed.

Coming back that night, I took the marshutni after dark for the first time. Even though the driver couldn’t see the potholes in the dark, all was relatively fine since he probably knows by heart where they are. But when we hit a snowstorm halfway through the ride, I really had to wonder how he could navigate – with no functional defroster, lousy wipers and drivers in the opposite direction with their brights on. Considering that marshutnis generally don’t have seatbelts I was oddly calm about my prospects. It took longer than usual but we arrived safe and sound.

As are many other parts of the city, Gyumri’s main bus station is a mess. The lot is unpaved and therefore gets very muddy in wet weather. As you walk in you immediately get approached by taxi drivers trying to get you to bypass the marshutnis. It’s all a bit chaotic but it seems to work somehow. The worst is if there are more than 15 people waiting to go to Yerevan and they start climbing over each other to get a seat instead of waiting for another one.

The Gyumri Avtokayan (Bus Station)

As far as what else is new, the food adventures continue. I regret not paying more attention in language class when we learned the parts of the body or else I would have been able to avoid the cow lung the other night (“It’s meat” I was told when I hesitated). And this past weekend there was freshly killed quail which was fine (we had had that barbecued a while back) but the bowl of what I thought was chestnuts was actually birds’ hearts. Luckily, Albert had just brought out the first batch of this season’s home-made wine so that got the hearts down my throat pretty quickly. But there was also the walnut muraba (jam) that is incredibly good and is now going into my tea since we have run out of honey (this was recently written up in the New York Times here and I encourage those at home to try it).

As to the weather, Gyumri has been spared so far but there are reports of snow on the ground in various parts of the country since Halloween (the snowstorm I drove through was part of the weather system that dropped that). In Gyumri, the weather has been beautifully autumn-like for the past week and pretty warm in the afternoons.

Like many other families I am seeing here, Albert hooked up the furnace heater in the living room on November 1 (people seem to wait until then even though it was cold earlier) and I finally have a heater for my bedroom so I am coping with the cold much better now (as a matter of fact, I now have the warmest room in the house). And while the weather may be cold, the air is clear and you can get gorgeous views of Mount Aragats (the highest in Armenia) from various points around the city.

Mount Aragats

And speaking of Halloween, it is not a holiday that has historically been celebrated in Armenia although many of the volunteers have parties or events at their sites as part of cross-cultural exchange of traditions. By all accounts I heard, the kids and teenagers loved it and I have heard reports or trick-or-treaters in Yerevan so it may just be a matter of time before it catches on here. I didn’t dress up in costume but I did go to a Halloween party and saw some pretty creative costumes.

The big news is that Emma and Albert are leaving town on December 2 so I will be moving soon. While the Peace Corps requires us to live with a host family for the first four months that we are at our sites, you normally have the option of staying on if you want or if you have problems finding a place of your own. I knew when I arrived here that they would be going to Moscow to visit their sons and grandchildren and I would have to move when they go. Their departure date is right around the four-month mark anyway but I will be away at a conference then, so I will be moving on November 26. My standard of living arrangements continues to improve as the apartment I am renting has indoor plumbing, 24 hour hot water, a shower, furnace heat and a washing machine. While I am looking forward to living on my own again, I will miss the warm hospitality and the excellent meals (organ meats and hooves notwithstanding). But I will be living on another barely paved road that has no streetlights so the adventure continues.