Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Well, at least the scenery was great (or How I got lost in Armenia for a few hours)

Two weekends ago I loaded up the two kiddos and headed for some R&R in Armenia. It wasn't a well-planned trip, more of a spur-of-the-moment deal. David was in Yerevan for 2 weeks working and since the Friday was a holiday here in Georgia (i.e., no work or school) David said "Hey why don't you bring the kids to Armenia to visit me? Oh and why don't we invite the XYZ* family to come along since they have never been to Armenia?" The only problem with this scenario is that (a) I don't know how to get there and (b) I don't know how to get back.

Problem (a) was solved by sheer luck. There was an Embassy employee scheduled for a border swap on Friday. Essentially this means a Georgian driver from the American Embassy motor pool drives the person to the border with Armenia, expedites all the paperwork through customs and border patrol, drives them to the other side of the border, then an Armenian driver from the American Embassy in Armenia picks the person up and takes him or her the rest of the way into Yerevan. We tagged along behind the Georgian driver to the border, he took care of all the paperwork for us, and then we tagged along behind the Armenian driver the rest of the way. The only downside to doing this is that the Armenian driver was possibly a little old lady in disguise, because we rarely went over 40 miles per hour. In other words, a 5 hour trip took about 7.5 hours. We arrived in Yerevan happy, but car weary.

We all had a fabulous time - great dinner on Friday night, shopping and sight-seeing on Saturday, a late breakfast on Sunday, and then it was time to drive home. Now the trip home was a bit more complex because we did not have anyone to follow who actually knew the way back to the border. But my enterprising husband had mapped the route on his handheld GPS on a previous trip so he handed that over to Mr. XYZ with explicit instructions on how to operate the GPS and follow the little arrow on the screen. Should be easy, right? David rode with me to the edge of town, got us situated on the right road to the border then caught a taxi back to his hotel. We were going home a different route than what we took to get to Yerevan, supposedly we were going the "easy" way home.

Since we were in 2 cars, we had brought along a pair of 2 way radios to keep in touch with each other since our cell phones don't work in Armenia. I radioed Mr. XYZ about 15 min into the trip out of town just to check on how the GPS was functioning. Everything was a-ok. Another 15 or 20 minutes into the trip, he radios me and says "Hey - Mrs. XYZ's phone just popped up with the message "Welcome to TurkishTel!" should we be worried". Yeah. That would be a problem. We shouldn't be anywhere near Turkey. Our route was supposed to go through the center of Armenia. I asked him what the GPS showed and he said we were right on track still. So, like lambs to the slaughter, we kept going.

Another 10 or 15 minutes into the drive, I radioed him and told him I thought we should stop and check the map because I had traveled this route 2x before on trips to and from Armenia but was not seeing any familiar landmarks. We pull over in a little town and I grab the map. It shows that we are on the M1. We are supposed to be on the M6. "But...But...The GPS" I sputtered. Well, it seems that Mr. XYZ was following the wrong track on the GPS and we were now over an hour off course and had little to no idea how to get back on course without backtracking. There was a group of people in front of a little restaurant, so Mr. XYZ headed over to ask them how to get from the M1 to the M6. The only problem with this scenario is that he speaks no Russian or Armenian and the group of men spoke no English. I head over to try to help with my limited Russian. We are told that yes, we can get to the M6. We have to go through town, hit the M7, go for about 90 kilometers, then get on the M3, which will eventually turn into the M6.

Should be easy. Well, if you don't concern yourself with small things like a complete lack of any kind of road signage along the way, an inability to speak the language, dying batteries in the 2-way radios (and no replacement batteries!) and a lack of local money. Yes, I had spent all my Armenian dram and only had Georgian lari and American dollars with me.

Since there was a taxi driver at the restaurant, I asked him how much it would cost for him to take us through town from the M1 to the M7. He told me it would cost 2 American dollars. Hot damn, it's a deal. We followed him through the town, he got us headed in the right direction and gave me more instructions in Russian, of which I understood about 2/3.

We finally found the M6, the GPS picked up the track we were supposed to be on and all looked great. But (and, really, by this point you should have foreseen another "but" coming in this tale) then the batteries in the GPS died. We had replacement batteries for that but (there's that damn but again) once the batteries were replaced, we could not pick up the satellite again.

Here's where I am forever grateful for my 8 weeks of Russian language instruction. In every town and village from that point on, if I saw a person on the side of the road and I had ANY doubt that we were headed in the right direction I would stop and ask, "Gdeyh Groozia? Priama, naleva, naprava?" which translates to "Where's Georgia? Straight, left, right?" and the person would point me in the direction I needed to go.

Obviously we made it home in one piece. Exhausted, car weary once again, but home. And we saw some beautiful scenery along the way that we would have otherwise missed had we not gone off track. I would like to do that trip again and actually be able to enjoy the sights rather than thinking "The mountains here will be such a beautiful backdrop for my panic attack!"

*XYZ is, obviously, not their real family name. But in the interest of their privacy and possibly not wanting to be associated with us after dragging them through various villages in the wilds of Armenia, I will not use their real name.

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