It was a late fall day- Halloween day, actually- and I was woken by my head being jolted back and forth as my taxi driver swerved into oncoming traffic to pass a slow moving car in front of us. This is a common practice on Armenian roads. My iPhone had played through my music and I had been subconsciously listening to Bon Iver’s new album in my sleep. (“22, A Million” is incredible, by the way.) My heavy eyes rose slowly to green hills and mountains releasing fog into the autumn morning. We were coming out of the pass between the dry, desert(ed) Ararat Valley and slowly winding our way into Vyots Dzor Marz. “Vayots Dzor” in Armenian, I’ve been told, directly translates into “the gorge of despair”, and, honestly, sometimes it can appear that way. But this day, of all days, it was beautiful. It was green and peaceful, and Bon Iver’s eclectic sounds of track number 6 (I don’t the names of the songs because they all are written with symbols) harmonized in an oddly transcending way. Maybe this was in part because I was sitting in the front seat on the left side of a Japanese car. It was as if I was driving (which for the sake of any Peace Corps staff reading this, I wasn’t) without a wheel. It was as if I had just come out of my sleep and was floating into a cloud of not despair…but peace.
Okay, I know this is cheesy. But, let me tell you why I must take notice of all of the memorable little moments of my trips between Yerevan and Kapan. The trip is roughly six hours long on a good day. If it is any faster, you feel like you are going to die. If it is any slower, you feel like you are going to die. So, safely, the ride should be six hours long.
I did some math. Me doing math is a stretch, but my internet was out one night and my phone wasn’t working, so I had plenty of time to turn through the pages of my memory over the past year and calculate how many times I have gone north and south between Kapan and Yerevan. I have made the six-hour, one-way trip forty times. Forty multiplied by six is 240. I have spent 240 hours of my service thus far traveling between Kapan and Yerevan! That is 10 days! That means by the end of my next year of service, I will have spent, probably, one month of my 27 months of service in a car.
It’s times like this I miss my van. Growing up- well, until I was seven- my family owned a giant, blue, Ford van. It had two reclining front seats, a bench seat in the middle, and a bench seat in the back that folded back flat and became a bed; it was perfect for our family of seven. It had the beautiful, American luxuries all families took advantage of until they were deemed unsafe and, later, illegal. It drove us back and forth to California several times, all over the state of Utah, moved us to Corpus Christi, Texas, and it was the perfect companion to our yellow motorboat. It was another home for us. Tragically, it died one day on one of our family trips to a border town in Mexico shortly after we moved to Texas in 1997. It was a sad day. Road tripping was never the same again, and the coined phrase, “at times like this I miss my van”, was often muttered when we couldn’t travel with the same spacious luxuries we had before.
I want to say that Americans have mastered the art of traveling on the road, but I don’t think I know how all Americans road trip, so I will say: The Clowards have mastered the art of traveling on the road- my parents especially. We don’t wear nice clothes- we wear sweats, we leave so early that no one has time to get ready in the morning, we only strategically stop and we stop for short amounts of time. Gas stations are used to pee quickly, and they are the only places on earth you can get your parents to buy you chips, candy, soda, and dad’s favorite: chocolate milk. My favorite trips have been taken on the road: traveling to Texas when I was five, across the south between Texas to Florida just after my oldest sister Rebecca joined the Navy, between Salt Lake and Chicago visiting Yellowstone and Mount Rushmore, my first road trip with friends driving to D.C. from Chicago, and driving down the North West Coast with Sara. I’ve seen almost the entirety of the United States just by sitting in a car. That’s a lot of land. That’s a lot of memories.
I have also seen almost the entirety of Armenia by car; however, I will never dread road tripping in the United States again. Armenian roads will leave me with a few scars- some good and some bad, nothing physical- that have made me feel that I will rejoice the next time I have to take a twenty hour road trip across six states.
Armenians always dress flawlessly, and almost effortlessly, and they are always in heels and makeup, and polished shoes- even when a taxi leaves at seven in the morning. I get in my taxis some mornings looking like…an American. I am in my sweats- as my parents taught me while road tripping. Once I was traveling with my counterpart, and she said to me, “You know, it’s from traveling with Americans that I have learned to wear comfortable shoes and pants.” (Goal number 2!) Getting gas- natural gas, by the way- takes no less than thirty minutes every time. The car stops, everyone gets out, uses the restroom, sits down, gets coffee, eats, and the men smoke half a pack of cigarettes. Everyone at these stops seems to know each other, and they use this as time to catch up on the latest M-2 gossip. This, after just wanting to get back on the road and on our way, I am proud to say, has tested my patience for the better: I have finally learned to accept the cultural differences between traveling with Armenians and Americans. Now, I am so accustomed to everything, I (knock on wood) don’t think anything else could phase me about traveling with Armenians anymore.
I dread a lot of the trips because they are long, but sometimes they surprise me and are exceptionally memorable. One trip we stopped three or four times in a mountain pass and an older man insisted we stop. “Stop here!” he yelled in Armenian, “this is the best water!” All passengers got out of the car, walked across the road to a puddle in the side of the rock, and sure enough there was a small, clean, natural spring pooling on the side of the road. It was fresh, mountain water. “Stop here!” he would yell a few miles later. “These are the best pomegranates!” He got out, disappeared into the hills, and came down from the shrubs with a handful of wild, fall-ripened pomegranates. “One minute!” and he disappeared into the woods on the other side of the street. Next thing, we see him in the trees shaking them while wild walnuts fell to the ground. We had a whole feast that day. This man knew all the right places to stop.
“Now you call me if you need anything,” one woman said to me after previously giving me her number and following me on Instagram earlier in the trip. “My sister is single and can clean your house for you really well.” She, the driver, and I all laughed. You will most likely leave every trip with a new friend and maybe the possibility of getting married.
This is Armenian road tripping.
Thanks to the forty times I have taken this trip, I know where to buy the best road wine, I know where the cleanest rest stops in Armenia are, I know where the best lavash and gata is made. I’ve almost seen it all. These are little things that make the 240 hours meaningless. They collectively make it all worth it.