Sunday, January 5, 2014

Welcome to Armenia

It’s Christmas Eve in Armenia, but I’m not really feeling the holiday spirit. For one thing, all the fanfare of New Year’s Eve (especially here where Dec. 25th is not celebrated) has died down, the alcohol’s effect has worn off, and we’re confronted with the reality of having spent half of this month’s pay cheque on holiday preparations and coming to terms with how we’re going to make the other half last for the remaining 25 days of this month. For another thing, I just read my friend Artur Papyan’s latest blog post. He paints a bleak picture of the year to come (which also reminded me of Yerevan Press Club President Boris Navasardian’s similarly depressing outlook on the state of Armenian media, censorship and a return to a disempowering Soviet past, but that’s a different story). But, Artur jan, please don’t feel bad because the good thing about reading your post was that it gave me the impetus I needed to write this blog post, which I’ve been meaning to write for the past few days.

It’s not the first time that I’ve brought my bike to Armenia, but somehow this time was much more difficult and really jolted me to the reality of interactions and negotiations in Armenia — or rather reminded me of them because, apparently, after a year’s absence, I had forgotten that the simplest transaction can be so difficult and energy draining.

First of all, my bicycle didn’t arrive with the rest of my luggage. After being told to keep waiting, even though there were only 2 other people left waiting for their luggage (and everyone had already left), I was finally advised to report my “loss” to the Lost and Found desk. More waiting in line. All in all, I spent nearly as much time at the airport (first going through customs, then waiting for the luggage, then waiting to report my missing baggage) as the duration of the flight. All this in the middle of the night and with my gf waiting for hours on the other side. You’d think airport staff would realize all this and have a heart. But no. On the contrary, they yell at you for being impatient and cranky, and you feel like you should be the one apologizing.

The good news is that I finally got my bike. The bad news is it took a lot more time and effort to get it. I was given several numbers to call (the airline), which I did the next day and the day after, but of course there was no answer. So I left messages. Monday morning, we’re awoken by the phone ringing: it’s some guy named Tigran who says my bike has arrived but I have to go to the airport myself to retrieve it: something about it being held at customs because it’s an expensive/valuable item and there’s an assumption that I may have to pay customs duties on it. I emphasize that it’s not an expensive item (in fact, I bought it used from a friend for only 45) and it’s MY bicycle; that is, it’s not brand new and it’s not a gift so I shouldn’t have to pay any duties. Regardless, my gf and I get dressed and out the door like there’s no tomorrow and hail a taxi to the airport to settle this. (All this was bad enough but the taxi driver wanted to charge us 5,000 AMD for the one-way trip! We negotiated the price down to 2,500 AMD, which is normal for a cab ride from the city center to the airport. But really, we didn’t need the extra headache.)

At the airport, I approach a man about having an item in customs for which I might have to pay duties. He says there’s no such thing. I am free to pick up my item from the special section (Tigran lied!). He directs me and my gf to a special area behind the airport, where two women behind the desk ask me for my passport (funny, no one told me I had to bring ID, but of course I brought it with me along with my plane ticket and the lost and found form I filled out). During this time, my gf and I are taking turns talking to Tigran. He has left; he is no longer at the airport. We tell him he has to come back. The airline lost my luggage and I was promised that staff would bring it to me, at my door, and here I am at the airport having to retrieve it myself. It’s the airlines’ fault and yet, I have to hire a large vehicle to bring the bike home? No way. We convince Tigran to return, but not before finding out the real reason he said we have to come to the airport: he simply didn’t have a car large enough to pick up the bike…!

My bicycle before its journey to Armenia
Back to the two ladies behind the desk. Besides the passport, it’s a good thing I had another form of ID with me, which I leave with the women in exchange for a “visitor” badge that I have to wear to enter the airport in the back. I have to go through security — it’s just like airport security everywhere. I even take off my belt and anything else I have on me that might set off the alarm as I walk through the metal detector. I go back to the same Lost and Found desk where I filed for the lost luggage. It’s the same woman and thankfully she recognizes me. But getting the bike is more difficult than it seems. She (and her male colleagues) are not comfortable having me sign out the bike — they need to give it to Tigran, who, by the way, I’m not sure works for the airport or the airline (I’m told the airline company though they keep referring to Tigran as their worker. It’s all very confusing). Finally, they call Tigran and get confirmation that he’s coming back to the airport for me and my bike and that I can sign out my bike. The box my bike is in has been opened (meanwhile, the woman at the Lost and Found desk said they can’t open the box without my presence — more lies) and huge sections of the cardboard have been torn from the side (where there were holes for handles, those holes were made much larger due either to poor handling or to intent to peek inside the box). I tell the Lost and Found employees that I bought this bike used for 45 euros, to once again confirm it’s not expensive. One employee is surprised and asks me jokingly if I can get a bike for him. Another suggests I take the bike out of the box and ride it out of the airport (ha ha). I am not appreciating any of this.

Then I ask for a cart because obviously no one is going to help me get this long (though not heavy) box out of the baggage area to the visitor waiting area in the arrivals hall where my gf is waiting (she wasn’t allowed to come with me to the back). One employee, Zhirayr, tells me the cart service is a different company (“we have nothing to do with them”) and anyway, they’re closed now… ?!?! I really have no patience. I insist. First, he tells me in case anyone asks (who’s going to ask?! There is no one in the airport at this time in the morning/early afternoon apart from airport employees), he says if anyone asks just say you’re a friend of Zhirayr’s. And then he proceeds to call someone (ostensibly someone responsible for the cart service) and says, there’s this girl, she’s a relative, she’s just taking a cart. I mean, really! Does nothing happen in this country without you having to be someone’s close friend or relative? It was truly the icing on the cake.

I get a cart, put the box on it, and with great difficulty roll it outside (but not before yet another airport staffer asks me what it is — to which I reply gruffly that it’s MY bike, and he understands well enough to leave me alone and wishes me well). The whole thing is very déjà-vu because you go out the same way as the first time, where family and friends wait impatiently to greet arriving visitors. My gf is there and at least this time she wasn’t waiting for 3 hours in the middle of the night. We wait till Tigran shows up with empty excuses and a second car that has a rack on top, to which the guy from whom the car was rented attaches the bike. And off we go: me and my gf with Tigran in his car, and the guy with my bike on top of his car following behind. We make it home safe and sound: me, my gf, and the bicycle that cost 50€ to ship but ended up causing more headaches than it was worth.

Welcome to Armenia.

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