I wonder how the last group of volunteers, the one’s that just went home, felt when they first met us last year? Did they have the same hope, the same desire to connect with different people? Did they have the same difficulty trying to hide their excitement and anxiety? If anyone from the previous group was feeling these things and exhibiting signs of bewilderment or reluctance last year I never would’ve noticed. Back then I didn’t care. Armenia was still a new experience, and after two months off daily training our first occasion to really meet these volunteers at a softball game struck me as completely unimportant. They waited there on the field, aware of the significance of this first meeting, trying, as we did this year, to find the correct way to usher us in, to make us feel comfortable with them and still fresh from the states, from training in Philadelphia and still getting to know each other we brazenly turned around and left the game to find a café to relax in.
I remember my apathy from that day, one year ago. How the softball game and the senior volunteers seemed so unimportant to me and how walking into town to have a beer instead sounded much more enjoyable. This year, after so many winter afternoons dragging along under banks of grey clouds and long spring evenings watching the sun set through my windows and all the countless hours spent alone, the new volunteers were like a miracle. Almost 50 people about to endure much of the same things we had already endured, living with the same families that we had lived with the year before: new people to discuss our experiences with, to share, to complain and to plan with.
At the same time I almost didn’t want to meet them at all. I wanted to have the opportunity to meet them on an individual basis. The groups here are no good, or at least they’re not for me. I can never seem to find anything meaningful trying to interact with over seventy people. I knew their feelings at the game would be similar to my own the year before. They would not feel much excitement about meeting us, rather they would be happy only for the opportunity to take a break from the incredibly rigorous and often monotonous training schedule. They would stay in their own group, occasionally looking over at us, possibly trying to read something of their future here in our faces. I wonder if they could see the shadows of depression, the smiles of accomplishment, the year of students, broken conversations, piles of books read. Did our faces betray us? Did we arch our eyebrows too much? Did we stand too still or pace too often? Did we look the sum of a year of alienation, triumph, uncertainty and hope?
Immediately I wanted to be loved by all those new faces. I wanted them to know me and to know them so that we could have earnest and fruitful conversations. To some degree I wanted to find a reason to stay another year in the crowd. I wanted to see a reflection of my own face a year ago and remember the deracinating passion for travel and discovery that had pulled me up from San Fran. and brought me to this country, this town and this playing field.
But at a sports game people stand on two different sides of the field, what’s more they intentionally heckle each other, they engage in what’s pretty much the exact opposite of warm, friendship building conversation. They joke, argue and insult, all in fun, all in sport, but all prohibitive to what I wanted to find out there. Of course I joined in the game, rooting for my own team, the people I’ve been here with since the June before last. I argued, I threw up my hands with relish when we scored, shook my head in disappointment when we struck out. And I felt closer to my teammates. The guys that had stayed, the 35 of us left from a group of 50. I let them know that I cared about them after all the text messages they had sent and books they had lent, these people I never thought I would be close to looked like old friends to me. They deserved my support, they deserved to kick the ball over everyone’s heads and get to third base, to run home. But so badly, under the cheers, I wanted to go over and thank the new group just for coming, for continuing the tradition of coming here and working and learning that has occasionally seemed impossible to me.
Despite what everyone said there was no early transportation to Yerevan. Of course there was a marshutka waiting there, but a parked marshutka is really just a bus shelter until all its seats have been filled, and in the morning this is usually a slow process. That particular morning was no exception. I waited, sitting patiently in the back seat, for about an hour and a half until there was no other place to squeeze anyone. I had been hoping to get to Yerevan by 11 in order to catch the marshutka to Tbilisi where I was due to meet someone the following day. If I didn’t make it I would miss a week of work at a camp in Georgia that I had been looking forward to working at since March.
Yerevan is about and hour and a half away from Yeghegnadzor. We left at about 9:15. At first I tried to read but, as with all rushed travelers, I seemed to think that there more attention I paid to the road the faster we would go, like if I looked frazzled enough and stared intensely out the window the driver would take the hint and drive even more rampantly and manically. It didn’t work,. We went the usual pace until, after about 20 minutes we came to a total stop. I groaned. The men all got out to look over the engine and see if any of them could identify would needed to be fixed to get us moving again. After about 15 minutes I noticed they were beginning to light second cigarettes and drift away from the engine, without getting back in the marshutka: a bad sign. I leaned my head against the window and let out a long weary sigh. I had left the house at 7:45 and now at 9:45 I was barely a twenty-minute walk from my front door.
After some deliberation we were routed to another marshutka that passed by, or almost all of us were, I alone was left after a great jostling effort to drag goods and children into the limited open seats of the replacement. By the time I reached the other marshutka I found myself staring into an open door of a full van, no sympathetic face to be seen. I pleaded to sit on the floor, but what is usually a valid request was denied me and the marshutka sped away, leaving me alone with a sullen driver and no foreseeable way to Yerevan. I asked him what to do, despite the fact that I already knew the answer. He shrugged and said I would wait for the next one. Of course. Of course I would.
For a while I paced back and forth, hoping that a passing car would pick me up along the side of the road, but almost every car that passed looked completely full, either with people or tomatoes, of which some cars were so full that it looked as if they had no driver, just happy piles of tomatoes piloting Ladas down the road, taking themselves to market.
Eventually my relief came, by that time I wasn’t sure it mattered, but regardless of whether or not I’d make the Yerevan-Tbilisi marshutka I was happy to be moving again instead of imagining things about tomatoes by the side of the road.
At times I thought, “maybe I’ll still make it, we’re making pretty good time, it might be possible.” I had been told that the last marshutka left either at 11am or noon. My hope was that I’d still be able to catch the noon departure, if it existed. I clenched my teeth when we stopped for one of those unpredictable smoke breaks that some drivers indulge in and that others never bother with. Luckily these are never very long and soon we were on our way again, the mood a little lightened by the cheap tobacco mirth the men had all brought back into the marshutka with them after the break. Children turned around to peek at me and out the windows from their mother’s laps, while the mothers talked quietly about food prices and the men stared stoically ahead or rested their foreheads and the back of bouncing jump seats. We were getting into the swing of the journey and this relaxed me a little. If nothing else I thought I’d go into Yerevan, beg for some sort of Tbilisi passage, find nothing and resign myself to an afternoon stroll through the capital and maybe a cup of coffee somewhere and some letter writing. The trip, I decided, wouldn’t be for nothing, regardless of what happened. Than the engine stated sputtering and we pulled over, still not even half way there.
It quickly became apparent that there was nothing that could be done, after a look at the situation no one made any movement to act, in fact I think I even saw a few looks of total resignation pass over the faces of the crowd the moment the hood was opened. Other cars that slowed to see if they could help were quickly and curtly waved away, as if they had been onlookers to something far more disturbing that a broken-down engine. Still in the marshutka, but diligently observing the scene outside, the women and I began to discuss our impending fate as the oft seen, squalid and desperate looking party along the side of a broken down vehicle. Like a scene from The Grapes of Wraith, we would bow our heads against the dust and the weight of our mental anguish while awaiting some kind of miracle, hollow-eyed and hungry.
To pass the time I went out to smoke and soon found myself trying to converse with a fellow passenger who did not seem to share my desire for conversation. After trying to figure out what was going on and when we could expect to leave (tomorrow, next week, when the first snows fell) I made the brutal mistake of lamenting my fate to the guy standing next to me.
“This is second time this thing to happen to me today!” I whined piteously.
“So what?” but the way he said it doesn’t really deserve a question mark. It wasn’t a question, it was a statement. ‘Shut up, I don’t care’ was what he was really saying.
My cultural adaptation may not be so far advanced to prevent me from saying certain stupid things, but after a year here it has reached a point where it allows me to immediately see the folly of what I’ve said before I’ve finished saying it. This was just such a case. I wanted to erase the idiocy of my feeble complaint by saying something, but nothing was going to work, apart from saying” well, enough of this bullshit” and promptly walking over and fixing the engine with a single deft blow to the hood, like the way one would imagine The Fonz would fix a car. Only by doing something so gracefully cool would I be able to salvage some kind of dignity.
I knew it was bad when the driver just started walking away. I mean everyone there had cellphones and even in remote areas, Armenia has really good reception. The guy could’ve called anyone, anywhere, instead he slowly, not at all confidently, began walking down in the road. In curious manner that suggested that any minute he might change his mind and start off on a different course, though the weeds or toward the distant mountains. I imagined if we were in Japan he’d probably be kneeling on a mat and unsheathing a sword by now, that’s how dejected he looked. I wanted to run after him and get my money back and start walking to Yerevan, rather than apparently just resigning myself to death as it seemed most of the people around me had done. I started out to catch up with him, but after a few minutes of jogging my own apathy kicked in. It was still a long way to Yerevan, but busy enough on the road where hitchhiking would be difficult. I lit another cigarette and blinked into the blinding sun.
After a while the driver turned around and started walking back. Worst of all we could see he didn’t even go anywhere, just walked down the street for a while and turned around. Our spirits sunk and some began to listlessly drag their stuff off the marshutka to hitchhike or walk. But, as if sensing the hardship and heartbreak, an empty marshutka, blasting duduk-laden festive music, suddenly pulled over and stopped. The driver pulled open the door with a big smile on his face, we smiled in response. A little bit of room is cleared and in no time at all we’re all getting in and finding our seats, laughing, and happy to be saved. Best of all, I noticed there was something novel and carefree about the marshutka, the driver didn’t seem at all serious, like he was just out for a drive and decided he wanted some company right when he saw all of us on the roadside. The music continued to play and as the people get on I hear them all laughing about something, something beyond their own thankfulness, something inside that’s actually funny.
I pulled myself into the marshutka, ‘whoa,’ I thought, ‘who peed?” “Who peed all over this thing?” Because no doubt someone had. The smell was like one of those urinals in a high school basement that the janitor has apparently decided is not worth his time.
“How good this smell is that is coming!” I found myself remarking to my happy travel companions, hoping that they will appreciate my joke. An old woman smiled at me and pointed to the back seat, “look there.”
I looked under the seat and saw my own curious expression reflected back to me through the benign and peaceful eyes of a sheep and before I could even sit down we were tearing down the road again.