Armenia: Pomegranates, Apricots, and Danger

No harness necessary in Hayastan

After my last post which made all my family members concerned about my plans to visit Nagorno Karabakh this summer, I present you with the softer side of danger in Armenia. That is, in this ancient land that is often still sculpted and cared for in the mindset of yesteryear, there is often little thought invested towards everyday safety.

Perhaps in America we are too concerned with safety. In fact, I’m sure of it. Horror stories about the TSA’s wrongdoings, way too much regulation and legislation trying to keep us safe, and everything swabbed in Purell lends me to believe that we don’t have things exactly right either. But let’s take a look at the opposite end of the spectrum.

Just yesterday, I was watching in amazement as the construction workers across the street did roofing work. There was an old soviet crane parked on the street below with its boom fully extended. As the boom couldn’t quite reach the roof, they just placed it next to the balcony on the highest floor of the building. Workers were standing on the roof passing down old roofing materials (in this case large sheets of rusty metal) to other workers standing on the balcony. The balcony railing was removed so that they could more easily load the materials. The materials were being loaded onto a wooden pallet suspended quite precariously by a seemingly odd number of steel cables from the crane hook. The pallet was not level. The workers were really overloading the pallet with sheet after sheet of roofing. I shook my head and thought, “THAT doesn’t look good.” The thought was supposed to be smug and ominous of course. Now, many things in Armenia that don’t look good end up working somehow. It’s like this magic that is in the air that makes things work even thought they shouldn’t.

The building from my balcony. Tragically, I didn’t get one of the overloaded pallet.

But in true Armenian fashion, the magic was running a little late on Sunday. A couple moments later I heard a very loud crash. I ran to the window again to see sheet metal all over the sidewalk below and a bunch of Armenian men standing silently with their heads hung in disbelief. I could tell they were surprised it didn’t work. Thank God they did do one thing right – they roped off the sidewalk under the work area. Because of that no one was killed.

It still shocks me sometimes even after two years here. To the newcomers the lackadaisical safety standards can be especially surprising. I remember standing around one day at a training event during our PST and hearing a story from another volunteer. He asked his host family about the large tank of liquid natural gas located in the trunk of the family car. “What happens if you’re hit from behind?” he asked them. The response was “vochinch”, which can be translated as it’s no big deal, it’s nothing, don’t worry about it, etc. We both laughed at the absurdity of it.

While Armenians are pretty good drivers (although daring at times), the cars leave a lot to be desired when it comes to safety. The seatbelts rarely work or exist. Usually there are belts in the front seat but most the time they are not operational. The belts are there so that the driver and passenger can quickly swing them over a shoulder when a police car approaches. They are a way to avoid fines, not a way to be safe. Other things like airbags or other safety features can only be found in the newer cars. You’re only cool if you have bald tires. You get the idea.

Typical Armenian trunk. There’s a lot of junk in this trunk (note the gas tank).

The holes. You gotta watch out for the holes. Sometimes you are walking and there is just a pretty big hole on the street or on the sidewalk. Those will get you. Likewise, you need to keep your eyes on the ground at all times, especially when crossing through entryways and navigating stairs. There are constantly obstacles set up to trip you and stairs with the most ridiculous rise over run patterns. If you’re a bit taller you will need to divert one of your eyes from the ground to the cranial region as well. Low lying pipes, doorways, and trees are everywhere.

Let’s go back to cranes again.

The Crane of Danger

I was shocked on a completely different occasion when I heard the same rig firing up right outside my window. I looked on and saw something very interesting: a couple of squirrely boys helping what looked like their grandpa set up the crane. Things quickly escalated from interesting. Other suitable adjectives could be: alarming, amusing, dumb-founding, and unbelievable. The grandpa guy was operating the crane to pick up an old domik (shipping container turned into a building). Then he got out to issue some commands to the other guys. After that one of the kids hopped into the cabin thing and started operating the crane. And it wasn’t just, “Hey Jr, you can move the crane towards the domik but then get out so I can do the hard part!” No, it was the kid doing the delicate act of picking up a domik on a rickety 3 cable system. Other safety violations included: not roping off the sidewalk, swinging the boom through trees which touch power lines, and driving a tractor underneath the suspended domik in order to put a trailer underneath the domik.

Notice the boy. Also notice that Crane of Danger appears to be stealing my laundry.

There are numerous other examples, but I think you get the picture. Every day you can see something here that would be considered unsafe in other countries. It is funny, entertaining, and horrifying all at once. The only way to cope with it is to just accept the Armenian safety magic, which really does exist.

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