Tuesday, September 27, 2011

It’s a Question of Trust

I have often heard it stated how low the crime rate is in Armenia – it is mentioned in guide books, it was mentioned in a presentation I saw last week about tourism in Armenia, crime in the news articles I read regularly usually involves people who are somehow connected (family members, business gone bad, an ambulance that arrived too late to save a family member).  

In the time I have spent here, I have never felt unsafe.  Granted, I am a man of above-average height who is sometimes told that he scares people. Day or night, I walk everywhere around the city where I live or visit and despite limited streetlights at night, stairwells in apartment buildings that normally do not have any lighting, and being perceived as rich by much of the populace of this generally poor country because I am from the US, I never feel threatened as random armed robbery and assault are infrequent here. 

Yet there are indications everywhere that people do not feel safe.  In the three places I have lived so far, there are iron gates through which you need to enter the property.  In Solak, although I lived there for two months and was sometimes left alone with the children, I was never provided a key for the gate.  In my Gyumri host family house I had a key but after I came in for the night the gate was bolted shut. People often double lock their doors after they enter their apartments.  Outside of Yerevan, I never see cars parked on the streets at night.  

The only thing to which I can attribute this seeming contradiction is an absence of trust.  As we were told during training, this also extends to business.  I have heard that partnerships and public companies here are not common because people do not feel comfortable entrusting money to others.  

As a store customer you notice it also.  When you enter a store here, you may be required to check any bag that you are carrying and be followed around by an employee.  The bag checking is not different from many stores in New York and I first ascribed the employee attention to customer service, but I am not so sure now.  As relayed by a fellow volunteer, I heard of this discussion with an Armenian woman:

Armenians are thieves. Armenians always talk about the “good days” under the Soviets when everyone had a job, a place to live, free medical care, and a secure adequate pension. But people who worked in factories stole the products they made and then sold them on the black market. In Gyumri this was often clothing, socks, leggings, and chocolates. There was a very large black market for all these stolen goods, and as a result people did not shop at small stores. The real market was in stolen goods. There is no shame in stealing or in selling these goods even today. 

Additionally, I am told that, while many people are paid via direct deposit, they withdraw all of their money from their bank once it is available (this is likely the reason that banks pay interest on deposit accounts at rates as high as 9% - to shore up their assets).  I have heard that this is tied to how many lost their life savings when the country became independent and bank deposits were somehow wiped out, but I can’t find any source that verifies that happening. 

Given the reputation that Armenians have for being very open, generous and giving, I have yet to understand why this is.  I have experienced first-hand how people will invite you into their homes, give you the best of the food they have and sit with you for hours when they had never before laid eyes on you.  Walking along a road, I have been offered rides countless times even though I was not seeking one and in fact did not want one (compare that to the US where entire movie franchises are built around the dangers of picking up hitchhikers or letting strangers into your house).  

But maybe it is because of the place that foreigners have held in recent Armenian history.  During Soviet times, you could be turned in by your neighbors for any reason (or at least, that’s the kind of thing I learned when I was growing up).  The response to the 1988 earthquake, on the other hand, was unusual in that the Soviet Union accepted assistance from foreign sources.  Since the collapse of the Soviet Union and Armenia’s independence eliminated virtually all of Armenia’s external markets, they have come to rely on foreign aid and remittances from those living abroad.  So maybe the treatment of outsiders is a way of repaying kindnesses that they have received.  

Meanwhile, as I wrote previously, corruption is so rife in this country that it may impact how people view all of their fellow countrymen.  Which is a shame in my opinion.  

If only they could see each other the way that the rest of us see them.

I have been seeing some more of the country lately.  I had expected to do a lot more traveling around last year but things got in the way and I only visited a few places last fall.  With the Border 2 Border walk in June, I saw a fair bit of the north but I still had some catching up to do.  I am currently visiting a few fellow volunteers in the southern-most region of the country and finding it as diverse and beautiful as I had heard.

Last weekend, I crossed one item off of my to-do list by climbing Mount Aragats.  It was a beautiful clear day and good temperature for a hike, but I had not counted on how long of a day it would be.  Eight hours to the top, climbing up or over more rocks than I ever would have expected, and I made it to one of the most spectacular views I have seen here.  Five hours back down and I was in pain for several days.  

I wouldn't do it again, but I am really glad that I was encouraged not to give up.  Pictures are in the album linked at right [Other Places in Armenia Album 2].