Sunday, July 27, 2008

Polar Bears in Lake Sevan

Quick "reality" check - ignore the calendar and the blog post date. It's Monday, July 14, okay? As far as you know.

Yesterday we were supposed to meet privately with the Catholicos, but the schedule didn't work out. So the tour group's itinerary got shifted around and we might do it tomorrow, on Tuesday (my last day in Armenia for now) or Thursday. But today, we're going to Lake Sevan.

Sure, I didn't get to see the prison under the chapel at Khor Virab where St. Gregory was imprisoned and tortured for 13 years. I kept walking right near, but continued to forget to visit, the St. Vartan statue. And I still got screwed at the museums (I even tried to see the art museum again after Etchmiadzin yesterady but it didn't work out). These are all reasons to go back and visit again someday.

But Lake Sevan was as close to a "must see" as time allowed - and of course the tour group was doing it on one of the 3 days I'd join them. On all the other days, they were going to places I've already been (for the most part). It's almost funny how things are working out for me.

Lake Sevan is situated higher than Denver is above sea level. The air didn't feel noticeably thinner to me, but the water is cooollld. I'm sure there's a joke about Armenian hair issues with the title of my blog post, but really I'm talking about the brave souls - myself included after much cajoling - who took a dip in Lake Sevan. It was after my first fish lunch in Armenia. I'm not a big fish guy anyway, but come on - fish in Armenia? Do they bus it in from Maine? Really this is the only place nearby where you could expect seafood. From the fresh waters of Lake Sevan.

It was good. Too many hair-thin bones, which made eating an adventure, and like most cuisine they enjoy their salt here. But it was good! And let me just make another quick aside, I'm not sure if I mentioned it already, but they don't eat rice pilaf herre. There is rarely falafel, and even less humus. Mostly only the touristy places have such things. And I never once saw rice unless it was inside dolma. Growing up as an American Armenian, these things - plus pita (Syrian) bread, of course - were staples of our cuisine and I naturally assumed this was true Armenian food. But I suppose it's a testament that Armenians didn't really grow up in Armenia - they were raised scattered elsewhere, and their cultures blended with the Middle East. So when they came to America, these food habits survived. Very interesting.

But not as interesting as this. Before I go any further, I have to give a shout-out to crazy Lindsey for taking this picture. Of course I put her up to it, but when the bus first pulled up at Sevan, after a long drive with many monasteries to visit and even some (salty) roadside corn to eat, we were greeted by a gift shop with stuffed animals.

No. Stuffed animals. The real things. Anyway, so we snapped this one. Enjoy quickly and then it's back to the Sevan story. This, of course, was all happening while Lindsey reminded me every 10 seconds that I once dated her BFF history teacher. Even the tour guide announced it on the bus to begin the morning's 2-hour drive. I feel like I'm back in high school too, but it's all in good fun. Speaking of which...

Actually now I forget what I was saying. Oh yeah. Lake Sevan was COLD. All the younger people in our group jumped in, dived in, ran in. They posed for pictures and splashed me as I whined. Finally when I realized Nick would rather drown me than let me stay dry, I took the plunge, too.

It wasn't that bad, really. Some people bottled the water and some sand as keepsakes (hopefully they didn't swig from the wrong bottle). And it just was a good thing I had this back on the bus:

After a long and wet bus ride home, and another monastery stop, we got back and changed quickly just in time to head to traditional dance troupe performance with live music and singing. The people who took a dip had the front row. Except Jirair, he was in the second row, all by himself. Funny but kind of sad. Just like the red-faced kid who did not stop staring at Lindsey as he danced. It was both creepy and funny. Felt like Italy.

The show was extraordinary. The costumes (a dozen changes) were exquisite, the music was stirring, the women were beautiful ('Zoom in on her," I heard about a million times from the guy on my right), the men were incredible athletes, and the choreography of the dancers was astounding. The stage itself was very simple, no frills at all with presentation, leaving only the talent of the performers to carry the night. If only I'd known about the dancing I'd see later... stay tuned for my next blog... what a contrast! I took more movies than pictures, so I don't have any good ones with 30 people on stage, jumping and spinning through perfect lines in front of the musicians, but did snap a quick shot of this guy, whose passion for his songs was a real highlight:

Holy Badarak, Batman!

Today is Sunday and this morning we get to do something I was pretty disappointed that originally I was going to miss. Church service at Etchmiadzin.

On the way, we visit several churches and monasteries which, due primarily to recall bias, have admittedly begun to blend. However I remember clearly their beauty and their green surroundings. Their candles and their gift shops.

The real people who came to pray.

As mentioned, I'm not the type of person who attends church every Sunday - in fact it's lately been bi-annually, you guessed it, at Christmas Eve and Easter. I think some of this had to do with all the Sunday School parents back in the day dropping us off and going to St. Dunks. You know who you are.

But it doesn't matter - I'm very spiritual - if only for the cultural impact, I have a pressing need to attend service and take communion in the Holy See. Der Arakel and Paul have arranged for us to receive communion, and again I'm hit with a wave of guilt knowing I'm freeloading - Paul insists it's ok and Der Arakel keeps reminding me I'll be paying the church back by working on the Looys as I'd promised to do... the way he says it scares me about the time commitment so now I'm adding that to my prayers. Just kidding of course - I am more than happy to help the church that has raised and supported three generations of Sarajians in America (so far) and already on Day 1 of my tour group tag-along I am already forever in their debt.

The crowd is stifling but the service itself is beautiful. Nick and I wander in and outside, posing in front of the Genocide monument, buying khatch-kar (Armenian crosses - you can tell because the sides are arched gracefully inward for a meaning I'm ashamed to have forgotten already). I'm annoyed by the kid who's literally elbowing his way through the packed house to sit in the middle of the stairs and watch the choir sing, but Nick and I are struck speechless by the pious old women at the front of the congregation, reaching with body and heart and soul to touch the Bible, to be touched by the Catholicos, to have the spirit fill them.

Religious or not, their faith alone makes you stagger.

Dervormyah, devormyah, devormyah.

The badarak is just like at St. James - familiar songs and incense smells. The duality of home is driven further still.

Unfortunately, despite Der Arakel's and Paul's best efforts to get our group in for communion, with women having to place towels over their heads as they approach the altar, the process abruptly stops as I'm told is often does because, otherwise, it could go on forever. Nevertheless, now our entire group is in the special reserved section at the base of the altar, in front of the yearning old ladies. The Catholicos touches them on the head as he passes through and they melt.

After service is concluded, a priestly friend of Der Ararkel comes to adminster private communion to our group - again I feel as though I'm standing in a ray of sunlight. Everything has broken right for me since Geghard. I don't know if it's coincidence or not. But I'll spare you the suspense - this trend continues all the way through the rest of my trip. (Sorry, McGrath!)

There was one funny episode here, as the communion slid off my tongue, to the side, and I couldn't help but laugh. The priest's face was a mixture of stern, frustrated and committed (I didn't notice "amused") as he struggled to fix it and place it properly. It all went ok in the end and I figured it was a message of some kind that I'd better fly straight from here on out. Uh, I guess. I bought a small container of incense (maybe to burn at Grandpa's grave, I don't know), a little newsletter thing, and a CD of the choir to remember this true experience of church in Armenia, at the most scared of many sacred places the country has to offer.

After service we killed another few hours as a group at Vernisage, offering advice to one another on which paintings and handicrafts to buy, and how to haggle. I work a Russian lady down from 30,000 dram to 20,000 for her oil painting of an elderly woman living in Khor Virab. She can't communicate this woman's story to me in any mutually-understood language, but the lines on the woman's face speak more than the story ever could. And because Jess loves pottery, I also bought two clay Armenian coffee cups with saucers made of clay, and from the charades ritual and a bit of background from Arsen, I take it that the symbols painted on mean something akin to Eternity. I bought a couple, one for me and one for her. I'm proud of my purchases but more of my negotiating. There was one other painting I really wanted, but just couldn't bring myself to buy... Der Arakel and Karen/Rich bought paintings from the same artist and I think to myself, maybe next time. The Russian painter and I are now friends, so she signs her work and poses for a picture with me before rolling it up.

At night we took in a nice jazz club as a big group, with some beers, some wine, and "Bavarian Meat" - basically a turnover stuffed with seasoned whatever. It was quite good. So was my first taste of real Armenian soujuk. The music was soothing and we had a great time. On the way back, I found my way into a DVD store and wanted so badly to buy that Armenian DVD of Dumb & Dumber (it was only $6), but unfortunately it was just subtitled in Armenian... the audio was still in English... and where's the "Let's get drunk and watch Dumb & Dumber in Armenian" fun in that???

Sadly, they don't carry Screamers (I was going to gift it to Arsen) and I feel sad about that. Remind me sometime to tell you about that movie, about the Harvard screening I went to with director Carla Garapedian (along with Dad, Kim and De), and about when I met Serj Tankian backstage at the Paradise. And in the meantime, GO BUY SCREAMERS.

From Etchmiadzin to another late night on the Marriott patio, with monasteries and Russian painters and Jim Carey in between, I'd say this Sunday was the most successful since the Super Bo... uh, AFC Championship Game.

Son of a BITCH!!!

Yerevan Nights

Now I am on VACATION.

Just to prove it, I join Nicky and the St. James group for dinner and dancing. As I arrive in front the Marrriot (THE place in all of Yerevan for Americans on pilgramages to sit outside until 4am talking and relaxing), the bus is idling and waiting for me.

Great first impression.

I feel guilty enough crashing not only the tour but on Nick's floor, and all I can say is thank goodness Rich is even later than I am. We head to dinner at a place similar to Parvana but a bit smaller and a little less people dancing. And the food was different - the salad and bread were similar (save for no tunir cooking lavash), but we were served a breaded chicken kiev for dinner. (Most thought it was an appetizer actually!) I had never before or since seen such cuisine in Yerevan - but then again, I pretty much stuck to lahmejun and dolma.

From our vantage point on the upper deck, Nick and I picked out the girls we would help him meet and possibly marry - too bad they were with an entire table of guys who were content to smoke cigars and converse amongst themselves as the girls danced on the patio in the middle of the lawn and in front of the kef band (playing mostly Arabic and Turkish music). Nick and I were getting to know new friends, such as Jirair, Alexa, Jen, Lindsey, Melissa, Ani and I'm sure I'm leaving people out but what the hell, this blog entry is already 10+ days late so deal with it.

(In clinical research, by the way, we have a term for this... recall bias. It's a major problem as many drugs are approved - or not approved - because people don't fill out how they are feeling on time, and then try to remember when they fill out batches of two weeks' worth of paper diaires while sitting in the parking lot before their hospital visit. It's known commonly as the Parking Lot Syndrome and explains a good deal why people are ditching paper diaries in such important research and turning instead to Cough, cough.)


I'm having nice conversations with Paul, Der Arakel, even Der Dajad was there, while Nick's ripping it up on the dance floor (oh I'll just say it... the night before, we went to an Armenian strip club, just to say we did. Two actually. The first one was hideous and we stayed for 4 minutes tops. The second one was more fun, and more than the blonde Ukranian girls, more than the free food and beers we were comped because of the friends we met there, more than the very - uh - effeminate man singing during the dances, I will always remember Nick being pulled up on stage to dance with one of them while I started a chant of U-S-A, U-S-A!!! Classy. While I'm here, I should say I genuinely detest such clubs - but come on, had to do it in Yerevan. And they are very different than back home. They really are more dance shows than anything else. It's pretty elegant. Except for Nick.)

The bottom line is, we're having fun at dinner - not sure how I got sidetracked above but this blog really is stream-of-conscience and my mind is all over the place all the time - and it finally sinks in that after my week of hard work and near total isolation and seclusion, maybe I deserve a few days of fun.

A group of us stayed up nearly until the sun joined us, sitting outside on the Marriott's patio, enjoying Yerevan Nights for all its worth.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Puppy Chow

Remember all those fruit and breads I kept getting? Well, I saved some of them, mostly the ones from Arsen's family (the apricots I bought at Sarajian market had alreayd started to turn... figures) and the bread from Garni (earlier I called it Qatar bread, but I think that's a place, so let's go with zatar bread instead). I shoved the bag inside my luggage and figured it might make for some good late-night snacking.

Halfway back to the Marriott in Republic Square, a poor tiny starving puppy races at my suitcase and, smart little guy, jumps at my luggage tag, tearing at it. I'm laughing and everyone is trying to sell junk to tourists on the sidewalk. I tell the puppy to wait a second and open up my bag, take out the bread, and toss it to him.

He sniifs eagerly, begins to nibble, and then, thinking better of it, jumps on to his back and DEMANDS that I pet his stomach, which I do. As soon as I pull my hand away, he goes for the bread and devours it mightily. I"m beaming but still I think, how cool is that? The dog's got manners. Wanted to thank me before he ate, even as hungry as he was. Back at work the following week, Barbara would tell me he was being submissive to my alpha dog (damn straight) and was afraid I'd whoop him for touching the food... but I prefer my interpretation better.

I finally leave the puppy to eat in peace and continue my walk to my next set of Armenian Adventures, which are exciting and promise to be much more interesting in a social sense with Nicky and I hitting the town, but suddenly hear a little girl screaming. I look back and the puppy is going wild running around at her feet, and the grown-ups she's with are laughing. Such a playful dog. I wonder if he's getting even more food. Smart little guy. And check out that picture!


After the museums, I decided to collect my luggage and wait for Nick to call when back from his tour - I'd join them for dinner. I was hungry, though, and the normally short walk to the Tulip from Republic Square was pretty daunting in this heat. It's dry, but still hot.

I stopped for a bite at Square One, which I'd heard good things about - especially their steak and cheese of all things. I just wanted a little appetizer, but to my dismay, the menu was entirely American food. Sure, it all sounded fried and greasy and great, but that's not why I'm here.

I'm here to booze.

I'm on vacation.

A vacation from my problems! (...Name the movie game again,)

Anyway, so I order a kilkia (yeah - the meze "big" one) and plug my laptop in as I sit outside at a small table. I write some of my blog as I waste an hour or so, enjoying the drink, the cooling weather as the sun receeds (like my hairline, sadly) and the pickled carrot slices (cool!) and salty peanuts that come with each beer. I was finishig my second when I got the call.

So I settled up and went back to the Golden Tulip to get my things, take a picture with my front desk friends, and head to Part 2 of my trip to Armenia.

(By the way, the movie reference above is from the classic, What About Bob, and the title of this post itself is a bit more obscure... it's from Square One Television - like the bar name, but much cornier... see the crap we had to watch when I was a kid? Although the Dragnet spinoff, also about math, was somewhat tolerable.)

Rolled at Museums

I'll keep this one brief - my museum experience was rather lacking. Actually it sucked.

Again with the inefficiency. I get dropped off in front of a huge statue to Mastots, the creator of the alphabet, and head into a small office to buy water. She says no - the water is inside (I already pounded a water and a juice on the way over). So I climb up all the steps in the blazing heat and go inside, only to hear someone ask, where's your ticket?


Of course they send me back to the same little store at the bottom of the stairs. This is visit #2. I go back in and can't find any water. But I do find a few people in an office, and they pour me a glass. I wanted a bottle to walk around with, but this will do for now.

So I go into the museum - I think? - and realize in this giant building, the entire museum seems to be one small room. Exhibits are laid out in a circle and apparently you can get a guide to explain what you are looking at. This is somewhat relevant as everything is in Armenian.

I ask where to find a guide, and guess where I'm going. Trip #3 outside to the small little store. This lady has looked frustrated and angry to be working since this whole affair started. So I'm not surprised when she calls upstairs and they say, at 4:15pm, no - it's too late to do an English tour. She doesn't ask, "Can you make an exception?" She says sorry and goes back to her business.

Ok, so this isn't so brief. But I'm still kinda pissed.

Having already paid for a ticket, though, I go back up and pretend to know what I'm looking at, and pretend not to notice the sign that says no pictures. After 15 minutes I want to go to the National History musuem in Republic Square instead. I ask a lady if she speaks English as I want to make sure it's still open. In the Armenian kind of way. She directs me to the corner where there are three young girls, dressed like they are in an American college, hanging out and chatting. I'm guessing one of them would have been my guide.

If only they'd known the guy they were going to guide was so hot, I bet they would have jumped at the opportunity. The cute one in the white shirt in particular. Sorry, ladies, you blew it. But thanks for the info. Supposedly it's still open.

(Jess, why do you even read these things? I only mention it because it adds character. This is the second girl who looked like ths was from America, with the clothes and the makeup and the attitude. The other was waiting to be seen at the Erebuni medical center with blond hair probably died, too much eyeshadow and a low-cut shirt, sitting next to her mother or aunt who could have been on the cover of National Geographic. Quite the contrast.)

When I get to the other museum, I face a very similar situation. Apparently it's actually split into two, and the art section (the one that wouldn't need explaining, and seemed the more interesting) is closed, well ahead of schedule. So I tour the other with a guide and see some cool things - old clothes, pottery, jewels, weapons, relics, monies, maps, even a cool re-creation of an old Armenian wagon, stuff like that. Some things randomly have English descriptions. Not everything, of course. We're in Armenia.

I don't mind that I didn't get the full museum experience. It's something to come back for. Add casinos to that list, I guess. And also the St. Vartan statue near Vernisage, which I tried to find on three separate occasions but kept getting distracted, as usual.

My dad's mom used to have this cool post card depicting Vartan's statue and it would magically change to a mountain scene (Ararat?) when you tilted it. I love that thing as a kid. And I always remember his story about defending Armenian's Christian religion against the Persians - the world's first ever defense of religious freedom. I guess I'll tell the story very quickly here. The Armenians were impossibly outnumbered, but killed three Persians for every Armenian lost. At the battle of Avarayr in 451 AD, Vartan was martyred, but still the Armenians stood against the Persians again and again over the years. They wanted Armenia to convert because, even though the country was so small comparatively, they felt it was the largest threat to their own citizens' faith in fire worship to have faithful and devoted Armenian churches encroaching on their borders.

Eventually the Persians realized that every would rather give his and her life than convert - there was a cool quote we'd later hear at a private meeting with the Catholicos, when the translator interpreted the enormous tapestry depicting Vartan's battle - and they gave up. Armenia remained Christian.

So I'll come back to see that statue, and to check out the museums in real detail. But I got rolled today. And if you don't know what it means to be rolled... even if you do... I beg you to click here.


All week I'd wanted to go to Vernisage. How could it be done with my oiriginal schedule? Now that was a moot question - I had all the time I wanted (after getting my lahemjun and Coke - actually Kilikia beer now, I'm on vacation - for about $3.50). I also remember three separate people telling me not to buy anything without the aid of a local, but I'm pretty much out of options. I know I'll be spending more than I should, but hey, the money's going to Armenia so I'm ok with that.

I grab an ice cream on the way over (I chowed a couple of Lactaid pills, don't you worry) and have no idea what I'm in for. I'd heard this place was huge. But this is ridiculous.

Picture an outdoor bazaar, or a giant yard sale maybe, that has four or five rows of stands and goes back for... how long?... I don't know, a few football fields at least. It took at least ten minutes to walk one end of the space to the other, in one single row. At the beginning is crap. Busted or refurbished vaccuum parts, porno DVDs, bits of metal tubes, etc.

Then you come to some touristy items like mini boxing gloves and t-shirts with the Armenian flag, some gorgeous wood carvings (mostly religious), shish-kebab skewers (how the hell would I pack those?), and hand-made arts. Musical instruments and tavloo sets (nardi) in the middle. A few pets in the back corner (sad). And on the left, a huge alley of truly inspiring paintings of all types. Artists' Row, or something like that, they call it.

I was taken. I was had. But again, it's ok.

I probably dropped 40,000 dram (maybe $120) on stuff I could have purchased for 30,000 - carved cross statues, a dudeg for me, a necklace for Jess, some atches (the blue eye which is said to ward off evil thoughts of others... an Arabic pagan tradition which has survived and is even seen embedded in some crosses sold outside of Etchmiadzin), a t-shirt for Aron, stuff like that. My favorite item of the day is a carved and intricately detailed picture of Mother Mary and the Baby Jesus with an open Bible with the Hye Mer in Armenian underneath. It's a solid and impressive piece that I got for 10,000 dram (down from 15k) for Mom.

Along the way I met a couple from LA (originally from Iran) and their relative who lives in Yerevan. He's looking for a job in computers so I take his number for Arsen (later he says anybody good with computers already has a job and his company is too small to offer a job... it's hard to communicate "Can you maybe help the guy out"). It's painfully hot out so I sit with them and we share a water or two, talking politics and the state of Yerevan and its construction and its government. I'm telling you, it's like a family here, and everyone is interested in talking about what's going on.

They tell me the same thing, that I absolutely have to check out the manuscript museum, but it closes at 5 (and in Armenia, that means 4), and it's already 3:30. So I finish up with Vernisage, pack all my crap into my bulging laptop bag, and hump it to a taxi to the museum. I regret not buying any paintings.