Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Yerevan (and a couple of updates)

As I have written numerous times, Yerevan is like a separate country from the rest of Armenia. Having spent a good part of last weekend there, I had time to reflect on all of the things that make it stand apart.

As with the rest of the country, Yerevan has a complex history and it is one of the oldest continually inhabited cities in the world. While it had not been a big city, its location was seen as important by both the Persians and Russians who alternated in controlling what is now Armenia over the centuries.

At the beginning of the 20th century, Yerevan had a population of about 30,000, about the same as Gyumri. When Armenia became part of the Soviet Union in the 1920s, a plan was developed to expand it. Many historical buildings were demolished to carry out the new plan and as a result, much of the architecture has a Soviet flavor to it. But most of the buildings are made of “tufa” and the coloration can be quite interesting, glowing sometimes depending on the light.

Republic Square

Yerevan Police Building and maybe inadvertent inspiration for an Aha video

As I understand it, the Soviets wanted a major city in Armenia (“major” defined as a population above 1 million) and so infrastructure was put in place to permit that. I had heard that doing the same for some of the other cities (Gyumri and Vanadzor) was considered but they never got around to it and the earthquake and collapse of the Soviet Union put an end to the prospect of that. Currently, Yerevan has a population of about 1.3 million – more than one third of the total country.

Yerevan is the seat of the government, home to the more prestigious universities and it has the only true international airport (Gyumri’s is international but only has flights to Russia). It has a botanical garden, a zoo, a water park and - very surprising for the nation that prides itself on being the first to make Christianity the state religion - a mosque. But beyond the obvious things one would expect a capital to have, there are many other differences.

While Gyumri has several Armenian restaurants, a couple of Georgian ones and a nominally Italian one, Yerevan has Chinese, Mexican, Sushi, Italian, French, Indian and the most gourmet of all – Pizza Hut and KFC (I’m still not sure why McDonald’s doesn’t have a presence).

Life tasted great for Chris' birthday celebration

While several cities have cafés that serve as places to socialize, Yerevan also has nightlife – bars, dance clubs and strip clubs (discreetly called “Night Clubs”).

There are cafés with Wi-Fi and one that I have been to that broadcasts BBC news all day. Unlike in Gyumri, there are places that serve breakfast. One bookstore/café that is a favorite of volunteers has bacon, French toast with real syrup and bagels. Virtually all of the staff in the cafés and restaurants speak English.

Almost every village, town and city has grocery stores (“khanuts”) and Yerevan has those but it also has 24-hour supermarkets. The towns and cities have stores that sell clothing and housewares while Yerevan also has Benetton, Swarovski, Guess, Pierre Cardin, Zegna, Bally, Bang & Olufsun and many others.

Gyumri has marshutnis and buses with benzene tanks on the roof for transportation. Yerevan also has marshutnis and some of the old buses but it also has a subway and electric powered buses. And every road that I have been on there has been paved (for the most part).

While most villages, towns and cities have some sort of “culture house”, Yerevan also has theaters with live performances, an opera house and a 5-D movie theater (I haven’t a clue what the fifth dimension is – I only know the one that sang “Age of Aquarius”).

Yerevan Opera House

In the opera house there are ballets, operas, symphonic concerts and pop concerts. The main movie theater has an annual international film festival but you can also see Nicholas Cage train wrecks dubbed into Russian. I am told that they sometimes have movies in English but I haven’t been to one. I have grown content watching things on my computer.

There are wide, tree lined streets that have shops all along them.

Looks better in the summer

There are several parks, including one that arcs around half of the city center. In the main square, there are dancing fountains like the ones in Las Vegas. There is public art all over the city, including works by Botero.

The Cascade, a massive stairway that overlooks the opera house contains a contemporary art museum and, when the weather is nice, concerts and dance performances are held there.

While many places around the country have Peace Corps volunteers, Yerevan has ex-pats. Score one for the regions.

While Yerevan is not a world-class city it is still pretty nice. There are about two dozen museums, including the Matenadaran, which houses thousands of ancient manuscripts. The smallest church in Yerevan (and one of the oldest) sits right in the middle of downtown and there is a more modern cathedral as well.

National Gallery




The parks and some of the squares have nice cafés that are a great place to pass the time and do some people watching. The people come across somewhat more sophisticated, but the manner of dress that I have seen around the country seems to me a national thing and not a regional one.

At the Vernissage – a large market open every weekend – you can buy anything including Soviet propaganda posters, dental equipment, tacky souvenirs, bad art, nice art, rugs, puppies, Russian pornography, jewelry, antique cameras – you name it. There is a separate market just for art and it ranges from the kinda nice to the downright terrifying.

Like most of the country, the hotels are overpriced relative to the cost of everything else, just more so. In Gyumri, the decent hotels charge about the equivalent of $65 per night and upward for a single room. While some hotels in Yerevan have comparable rates, the Marriott has a rack rate of over $260 per night. [The hostel at which volunteers mostly stay costs the equivalent of about $14 per night.] By comparison, you can get a decent dinner including drinks for less than $20 in Yerevan and there are plenty of places to get food much cheaper. The subway costs the equivalent of 15 cents. A liter of water is less than 50 cents in most stores. Cigarettes are normally less than $1.50 per pack – and much cheaper if you don’t care what brand you get.

While the cost of many things in Yerevan is lower than in other countries, they still seem expensive when you are used to paying prices in the regions and are living on a Peace Corps allowance. A very tasty dessert or a 12 ounce bottle of beer at 1,000 dram (less than $3) compares to an Armenian “gata” pastry at 140 dram or a half liter beer at 500 dram in Gyumri.

And you can pay by credit card, unlike most of the rest of the country. As a matter of fact, it can pay a bonus – at a recent visit to a Mexican restaurant, I paid with my American Express just because I could. The server told me that paying with Amex entitled me to a free additional margarita. Sweet.

Because there are so many amenities, volunteers may be tempted to get away from their sites and spend all their free time there. We have a policy that limits the time in Yerevan to two nights per month which is enough for me. I am only two hours away and, while it is nice to take advantage of what it has to offer, each visit also reinforces how deprived Gyumri is. But while I ask myself how the country can allow such a disparity, I also have to ask myself the same about the US – the distance from Manhattan to Camden NJ is about the same in many respects.


Update 1

Right after my last post, I went to my weekly English conversation club. Given that it fell two days after International Women’s Day, we had decided to make the topic women that the club members admired and each would make a presentation to the group.

Well, as it turns out, everyone seemed to have forgotten that part of the plan. Nonetheless, the other PC volunteer (also male) and I steered the topic into the role of women in society. All of the participants except two were female, mostly university students, and the women did most of the talking. And what I heard still surprises me. Among the opinions expressed were:

  • Men are more intelligent than women. While the women in their classes study all the time and the men don’t, the men get equivalent grades and that must mean that they are smarter. No mention was made of the impact that rampant corruption in the educational system likely plays in that phenomenon, but that is a topic for a future post.
  • Men are more trustworthy than women. What started as a sub-discussion about gender-typical jobs led to a consensus that the participants would not patronize a female attorney. “Male attorneys will follow the law. Female attorneys will always look for some sneaky way to get around the law and therefore should not be trusted.” I didn’t get into my view that most attorneys in the US are sought out specifically for this reason.

For various reasons, a similar view extended to female doctors and other professions. And while this also included hairdressers (they are reputed to pull their customers hair), that is typically a woman’s job so I am not sure how one gets around that.

  • Women are frail and need protection from men. The woman expressing this opinion kept saying that “they” are frail and when we pointed out that she is one of “they” and asked if she is frail, she answered “Yes”. This came from a person pursuing a Masters degree at a business university.

As I said in previous posts, it seems inevitable to me that women will have to take a greater part in the historically male parts of society. But, in the meantime, it seems that a lot of the arguments made to keep a segment of society servile have been internalized to the extent that any such changes may come as much of a shock to the women as it will to the men.

And after saying that I had never seen a woman driver in Gyumri, I saw two this past week. And I had been paying attention before – I swear.


Update 2

After four weeks without, I finally got my new water heater and have hot water again. While it was a nuisance not having it, I had been well prepared the first six months here when I had no running water at all (with my Solak host family) or cold water only (with my Gyumri host family). Once again, everything took longer – bucket bathing, washing clothes and washing dishes required water to be heated on the stove first – but I managed fine and simply worked around it by doing each less often.

But sometimes one does really want a nice hot shower and I learned about the public baths that we have here. I am told that Gyumri has six of them and I am actually surprised that there are not more since there are quite a few people who have no running water. In my walks around the city, I often see people filling buckets from pipes outside and carrying them back to their houses, some of which are literally around the corner from me. Similarly, many people do not seem to have gas so their heating is provided from wood stoves.

At both of the bath places I visited you can rent a room for 45 minutes. One cost 500 dram (about $1.50) and the other is 800 dram (a little over $2) per person (family members often go together and one charges half price for children under 7). While this may sound cheap, I should point out that the average salary here is about $200 per month and a significant number of people are unemployed. Therefore, what I treated myself to for mental health purposes may actually be a luxury to others.

While neither could be considered a spa, I was quite happy with them and actually preferred the less expensive one. You rent a space with two rooms – one to change in and one with the actual shower. The shower heads were high enough to be above my head (a nice surprise), the water pressure was good and the temperature nice and warm. While I was waiting, I had the opportunity to observe some of the other patrons – a mother and daughter one time and a married couple the other. Despite the circumstances that lead people to need places like this, the people did not look any different from others I see around town all the time. While I do not have the comforts I am used to in the US, my set up here is still pretty nice. And it is good to sometimes see how people really live here, making you question how you define a “necessity”.