Hitchhiking in Armenia

My body was restless.  The same thing, day after day.  I’d been in Vardenis for a month straight.  It was time to scratch that itch for something new and have a bit of adventure along the way.

Saturday I took a day trip to Gavar, which is no small feat considering there is no public transport between the two cities (I learned this the hard way).  In the past I had seen a phantom Gavar marshrutka leaving Vardenis early one morning, but it never came on this cold, snowy Saturday.  Instead, I took the Yerevan marshrutka to the Gavar bridge.  The bridge isn’t quite Gavar, so that requires a quick hitch into town.

Now, PC does not condone hitchhiking.  In fact, it warns us against it.  Doing it is a violation of PC rules and could get us administratively separated.  And blogging about it, well that’s just stupid.

But honestly, I don’t really care what PC thinks at this point.  If they want to kick someone out of a program for getting around the country when there is no public transport and taxis are cost prohibitive, not to mention we can’t drive motor vehicles, well then they can kick me out.  The truth is, there is somewhat of a gentleman’s agreement between PC and the volunteers.  We know we’re not supposed to do it, and PC knows they can’t really stop us.  It’s up to us to make good decisions.  Am I going to hold PC accountable if something terrible happens while hitchhiking?  No, of course not.

After B2B, I had to walk over 1 hour up this mountain pass before getting picked up again by a utility service truck. But believe me, I'm not complaining.

Armenia happens to be a good place to hitchhike.  There is even a hitchwiki which I just found that ranks Armenia as “good.”  I and other volunteers can attest to this.  It goes along with the homogeneity, the hospitality, and the general 1950’s attitude towards safety (seatbelts are optional, cigarettes are mandatory, and letting your 5 year old walk to the store alone is no problem) that hitchhiking would be easier here than in the States.  This case is one of the few times you benefit from being an obvious outsider.  Armenians are curious.  If they have a chance to pickup an artasahmantsi (foreigner) along the rode, they will.

As I walked past the bridge, the second car I flagged down stopped for me.  Two guys in their mid 20s were in the front seats of a 90s Lada compact.  We chatted during the 5 minute ride into town.  I explained to them why I’m here, asked where they were from, and told them several times that I’m not Armenian.  Then I got out and bid farewell to these 5 minute friends.

In America I would never hitchhike.  There are too many crazy people and too much crime.  But in Armenia I feel safe doing it.  There is crime here, but a lot of it exists on a very high level of politicians, oligarchs, and their respective mafias.  The day to day life presents almost no crime.  I have ridden in over 50 cars by now and have never had a problem at all.  The closest I’ve come to trouble is riding in a car of 4 soldiers on their way to Karabakh.  The one sitting next to me was on some kind of drugs and playing with a knife.  At the end of that ride I had them convinced I was a devout Christian who was 100% behind Armenia and also hated the Turks as much as they did.  The more likely circumstance is that you will wind up with your pockets lined with candy, or with a fresh baked cookie in hand, or some tut (mulberries).

You never know what beast might stop and pick you up

There’s that saying about the rotten apple though.  No place is completely safe.  Last summer another volunteer was hitchhiking when suddenly the car turned into a field.  They made him empty his backpack.  They found his leatherman and turned the knife on him.  Then they drove into town to clear out his bank account.  While a scary situation no doubt, the volunteer had enough wits about him to shame them in Armenian, explaining that he was volunteering in their country to help their youth.  Feeling some remorse, the criminals left him with a bit of his money that they stole.  Peace Corps took advantage of this event to scare the bejesus out of the new group of volunteers to never hitchhike.  They did so quite rightly, I suppose, because it was a very serious incident.  But that one event was the single blemish on hitchhiking since I’ve been here.  I’m guessing among all volunteers over almost 2 years, there have been thousands of free rides.  So the danger rate is a fraction of a percent.  Indeed, crossing the street in Yerevan is much more dangerous than hitchhiking.

Heeding that unfortunate event, I emptied out my wallet before heading out Saturday morning.  I had enough cash to survive the day but also not enough to care if it got stolen.  Credit cards were removed too.  And honestly, if they saw my Element wallet they would probably decide that they should give me money, not steal from me.

The snow was deep as I walked out of town on the way home.  The first couple cars didn’t stop.  Then a BMW approached.  I gave it a shot, even though luxury cars seldom stop.  But to my surprise it slowed down.  The front door opened and I saw 2 young akhbers (dudes) that could have been considered shady in the proper context.  I asked if I could get in and they said of course.  The back door opened and there were 3 more of them.  So, 4 men deep in the back we rolled onwards to Martuni.  I explained my story for the xth time and then parried their questions as best I could.  At one point they suggested we go to Turkey.  When I asked why, they said to kill their enemies.  “Okay,” I said, “but I’ll just watch.”  That earned some street cred and a handshake.  Later they were trying to explain some curse words to me.  When I shot back with the one good one I know in Armenian, the car erupted in laughter.

When they turned off to a village prior to Martuni, I got out and began the search for my next ride.  Three cars later an old Soviet tanker truck barreled to a stop on the side of the road.  I climbed inside and greeted the old chap driving.  Despite the rumble of the engine, my accent, and the incredibly bouncy ride, he was quite good at understanding me.  He didn’t mess around with the details of my existence but rather began explaining his experience of the Soviet days.  “People don’t stop to help someone these days.  In the Soviet times, they would stop and pick you up and take you where you needed to go.  Now they don’t.  Or they want money.  Everyone is a taxi these days,” he complained.  We continued discussing the Soviet times until he had to turn off to deliver his gasoline.

Did I mention that hitchhiking is language practice at its finest?  You get a standard structure.  The same questions are always asked at the beginning.  You get used to all the many ways that basic questions can be asked.  I have never heard inch e ko anuna (What is your name?), as we learned in PST.  Saturday I was asked anunet imal e, the same exact phrase, but seeped in local dialect.  Thanks to hitchhiking I was able to understand it.  You are thrown in to multiple speaking situations with completely random people, different dialects, different voices, and different personalities.  After the basic questions are over it’s a game of how much can you get.  I liken it to running around trying to catch raindrops in a hat.  You’re not going to catch every drop, that’s for sure.  But the more you do it, the more drops you catch.

So, yes , I hitchhike.  I have refrained from saying that for fear of repercussion, but with that I have also passed on sharing many cool stories.  I don’t do it all the time.  In fact, last weekend was the first time since August.  But in my first year I did it quite a bit.  You have to be in the right mood for it and looking for a bit of adventure.  It puts another spin on your service.  Some of my favorite moments have been walking in the countryside all alone in between cars.  You have a moment to soak in the country and realize that you are having an experience completely your own.  It’s even more fun with another person.  You are a team and the road is your game.  With girls, it’s downright easy.  Hitchhiking has spiced up my Peace Corps experience in a really cool way.  I will never forget the cross section of interesting characters I’ve met and the sights left not unseen because of it.

A hitchhiking American who speaks your language. Now if that's not soft diplomacy I don't know what is. The next adventure is just around the bend...

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2 Responses to “Hitchhiking in Armenia”

  1. Wayne Burt Says:

    One thing you didn’t mention is the sign language of hitchhiking. You don’t stick out your thumb, but rather raise your arm in the air and move your hand as if you were saying bye bye to a baby. I hitchhiked maybe three times and the experiences the same as yours.

  2. icenugget Says:

    Good point Wayne. What it lacks in masculinity it makes up for in effectiveness. Although other methods do work, such as snapping, the good ol’ thumb, or just plain walking. Quite a few times I have just been walking along the road in the same direction as traffic and cars will stop to offer me a ride.

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