The Road to Alaverdi
Postcard from Armenia
I can’t figure out all the features of my brand new fully optioned Suzuki S X Cross. The manual that came with it is in Russian, so the clock is still 20 minutes fast. I need to burn some CDs because the radio only plays Armenian folk songs and Russian pop music. Until recently I have been getting around by taxi, old Russian Volgas that drive like tractors, or squeezing in to little boxy Ladas nicotine yellow on the ceiling vinyl. Most taxi drivers have more lucky charms bobbing about on their dashboards than a dancing witch doctor. Real rabbits feet, or bits of fury skin that I am guessing are from a Yeti, crucifixes, Turkish evil eyes hanging like grapes from key rings, little elephants with jewels on their head and pictures of saints and patriarchs, Jesus and Mary, hallelujah. And driving with them I know how they feel, you need all the road luck you can get here. So I have hung a rosary from my rear view mirror and stuck a little panel of Jesus, Mary and some orthodox patriarch on my dashboard. I trust in God but I also installed a little camera which records every journey in case a voodoo spangled vodka breathed taxi driver or rogue elephant bus driver is feeling too lucky at my expense.I am thinking Armenian people often seem to be afraid of spaces. Like you can be sitting at a table with 6 people and everyone is talking, actually it sounded like arguing but I have learned this is just the Armenian way of very engaged conversation. And I look around and everyone, I mean all six of my friends are talking at once. At first this was a mystery but then I surmised everyone was worried about leaving a space in the conversation that someone might move into, so they all moved in together. And I have also noticed this in queues at the airport, if I leave a small space in front of me then someone will see that space and think that I don’t want it and move into it. I am learning that the traffic works in a similar way. If you leave a couple of car lengths between you and the car in front, someone moves in to fill the space. The effect of this is that about every 2 kilometers there is a rear end collision. You know because the cars have to stay in place on the road until the police get there and check things out. It all seems very civilized. When someone runs into the back of someone else, the drivers get out and shake hands, then when the police arrive they all shake hands again. I don’t know what happens after that, but I suspect that sooner or later I will find out first hand.There are many positives about driving here. One incredibly civilized aspect is that traffic fines only cost between $12.50 and $25.00, a lot for locals but affordable for me. And there is a nine kilometer an hour grace on speed, so in a 50km an hour zone you can drive at 59 km per hour. And the upside of people cutting in in front of you without warning is that you are graciously allowed to do whatever you like with or without indicators and it seems perfectly natural and up to others to get out of your way. One slightly disconcerting driving trait is that most drivers seem to cut corners. So if you are on the inside lane you expect the drivers in the outer lane just to cut straight across in front of you, no fuss, no guilt, no indicators. It seems that one assumes this is expected and so to give way or beat them to the corner. When you want to make a turn into incoming traffic you just inch forward to the point that other cars can no long swerve to miss you, in fact you are now blocking their lane and then you proceed with your turn as though getting out of their way is a favor to them.And then there is the joyful use of horns. In the West a horn is often a questionable instrument. In the United States you use it in the wrong place someone in front may get out of the car in front and shoot you. In Australia they can be like some accessory that is too good to throw away but not much use. But here they are used to express the full range of driving emotions. I have noticed that if one of my friends makes a particular unexpected veer into the lane of a trailing road user, they will react with a horn of distress from behind which is quickly followed by my fiends retaliatory horn to the road in front of us. My use of horn is mainly directed towards buses the size of whales which pull out from the side of the road without any awareness of we smaller fish who just happen to be swimming past.I think the only really disconcerting aspect of driving here is that every so often one encounters an oligarch in a black, top of the range, BMW or Mercedes four wheel drive, with black tinted windows, gleaming chrome and sometimes a trailing body guard car. They are beating three lanes of bumper to bumper traffic by crossing the double lines and hurling themselves down the wrong side of the road into your path. I guess if they get stopped the fine is only $25.00 which is nothing if you have the wealth to live in something that looks like the Palace at Versailles and survive the drive. And it is the same at crossroads, it doesn’t matter about the rules of right of way, the oligarch in the black Hummer has the rule book that we all follow. I am guessing there are a lot of lucky charms on their dashboards too.