Monday 31 August
After much consideration I have decided not to write an entry about my time in Baku. I’d rather not give the place the time of day. Perhaps if and when I come to write my memoirs, I’ll include my experiences there of money-grubbing, rude, angry, hate-filled, thieving, aggressive British ex-pats, Azeris and hookers; living in a gaudy, fake, oil-rich shit-hole charade. For now I’d much rather tell tales of hope and happiness and successful hitchhiking; with the wonderful Armenians.
Learning lessons from my Baku hitch, I start out early, concerned not about distance, but the length of time it takes. The roads into Armenia snake up into the mountains, and a relatively short 240 KM can take about 5 hours. I needn’t of bothered however, because it’s just one hitch after another, starting with a local mini bus that drops me off at Tbilisi city limits. This included a delightful conversation with a beautiful female conductor, who was very helpful indeed. High spirits, an awesome hitch spot, and still early. The day bodes well.
I don’t even have my ‘Yerevan’ sign out before someone has pulled in. He’s a crazy-loud German/Georgian guy, with a beaming smile and a voice like a fog horn. He drives as fast as he talks, and while consistently taking his eyes off the road to chat in very broken English, he tells me he’s a racing driver. He’s got to be on speed. He then keenly shows me photographs on his iPhone (again while not concentrating on actually driving), all of which display a banged-up, mangled, write-off which once appeared to be a Mitsubishi Lancer. Reassuring. At this point he’s driving on the wrong side of the road, and we narrowly avoid a head-on collision. A short time later (thankfully) he’s dropped me in a small town on the road to the border. A change of shorts maybe, but it’s still a near perfect start.
“Ahhhh India!” Exclaim curious locals as I prepare to search for a decent place for cars to pull in. They crowd around eagerly. My hitch board always draws attention, but it’s often difficult to gauge whether it’s unwanted or not. “Yerevan?!” I exclaim loudly, and jab my finger in what I hope is the right direction. Hearty nods of agreement encourage me, and thanking them, I set off on foot. It’s not yet midday.
On roads such as this, I like to walk until I get tired, in order to find a better spot to stand, and get away from local traffic, taxis, or anyone who might bother me. In doing so, I usually trail my hitch sign behind me, just in the off chance someone will give me a ride before I’ve stuck the thumb out for real. This is one such occasion, as a Mercedes slows after maybe 100 yards of marching. Two tanned and hairy men are up front, smoking heavily. It’s these rides that I’m often in two minds about.
“Yerevan?” I smile, questioningly. The driver grunts a response.
“No money, no money!” I exclaim and or ask, making the universal “I’ve got no money” sign.
“Da! Da! Niet problem, niet problem.”
Oh well. Here goes nothing. I bundle myself in, leaving a size 8 in the foot-well, door open, as I heave my packs into the boot. My worst nightmare is someone taking off with my stuff and not me. It happened to a friend in Colombia.
There’s not a word of English. This often suits me, as I’m sometimes not in the mood for small talk and idle chit-chat, but it can be a little disconcerting. Perhaps they don’t want to risk getting attached to their latest victim. It’s worse when they insist on talking to/at you in their language, even though you’ve made it perfectly clear you don’t understand a word. The ride is silent as we reach the border, cross with no problems (contrary to Azerbaijan), and begin the mountainous leg of the journey. It starts to rain.
“VIVA ARMENIA!” The driver yells, smiles and turns to me. I nearly shit myself. I nervously laugh and continue the silent status quo. I’m still not 100% comfortable, but it’s looking good. The locals at the border were very genuine, well-wishing that I had a good time in their country. The officials were not concerned I’d been in Azerbaijan, and welcomed me in regardless. Had it been the other way around, I would have had to re-think my route.
We pull in behind a freezer wagon. The two drivers disembark, and I can make out an exchange of papers, printed documents and signed notes. This is it. I’m to be removed from the car, the bolted truck doors opened to a sea of blinking faces. Another one nobody will miss. There’s a sigh of relief as we get underway and I’m still heading for Yerevan.
Staring through a rain-speckled window and from what I can see through the misty clouds, Armenia is beautiful. We switch-back through hairpins, ears popping into the mountains. Ramshackle villages shoot by, people ambling about their business. Tumbledown dwellings, scrap vehicles, crumbling infrastructure. Yet somehow it all works, and comes together to form a rustic land where time forgot. It’s charmingly rural retro.
I’m always anxious when a hitch ride stops. I’d rather just keep on keeping on to my destination. These guys are on a mission to buy fruit from every roadside seller going, bartering with villagers every few kilometres. They offer me everything. Nectarine after nectarine is passed back, and even when I refuse, they insist. A conveyor belt of fruit. An hour or so over the border, and we’ve stopped at a shack by the roadside. They beckon me to get out. This is it this time. Frog marched to a trap door, greeted by a sea of blinking faces. Another one nobody will miss. Maybe stuck up on a meat hook for good measure until ol’ Leather Face arrives.
Once again my apprehension proves unfounded, as they buy me a delicious lunch of charcoal-grilled chicken kebab and Armenian coffee, but I’m still a little on edge as the driver repeats “SCHOTLANDIA!” down the phone receiver to a disembodied voice. I’m always concerned they’re calling some trafficking gang. He passes the device to me.
A short conversation later with his perfect English speaking brother and they’ve found out where they can drop me in the capital. I do think it’s useful for me to be on my toes and not get complacent, but on occasion I feel ashamed and foolish when I don’t give people the benefit of the doubt. I’ve been edgy all the way, yet the two guys have been nothing but wonderfully hospitable. Killing me with kindness. I allow myself to relax for the remaining drive, passing the beautiful Lake Sevan, and on into the city. I arrive in record time, in daylight, and with a Friday night ahead of me. They drop me a few blocks from my hostel.
I’m still not sure where I’m meant to be, but I needn’t have worried, as no less than four locals approach and ask in perfect English if they can help. Eventually a girl emerges from a cafe and asks where I need to be. “Come with me” she says, kindly. A few blocks later and she’s walked me right to my door. I stumble in to the most comfortable digs I’ve stayed in in months. Yet for the first time ever, each bunk has a bible attached to it! Not for much longer:
Regardless I then proceed to have an absolutely blindingly debaucherous night with fellow hostel guests, American Peace Core volunteers and Yerenvantsi. There’s a drink fueled Damien Rice guitar serenade to a gorgeous German girl somewhere circa 5 am.
Armenia; I think I’m going to like it here. Although those fucking roadside nectarines have already given me the shits.