Monday, June 28, 2010

Haunted by The Sound of Broken Wings, or, a Cloud, A Rose, An Extinct Volcano

I went to my neighbor's kid's baptism party last night. Here they wait a few years before baptising the kid, possibly so that the child will have some kind of memory of it, possibler as a hold over from the days when the child mortality rate was pretty high during the first few years and the ceremony, which must be somewhat costly, was held off until the child was, essentially, in the clear.
I got a ride with my neighbors around 5:30 as I was on my way up to the village where the party was to be held on foot. After all the walking I've done around here, and all the rumors that must've been passed around about me walking half-way across the country, I'm surprised to find that people are still incredulous when I tell them I'm going to walk to the next village. The eastern frame of mind is that there is nothing adventurous or ennobling in walking. It's associated with poverty; it doesn't matter if you're carrying a huge backpack obviously loaded with camping equipment and you're wearing a 300$ North Face coat.
I tried to walk back home from the baptism party as well. Tired and sweaty after dancing around for hours on end I wanted to walk back home under the full (or nearly full, I can never tell) moon and think of the score of crazy uncles I had just danced with and the kid who followed me around most of the night, copying my ridiculous dance moves and asking me questions with incredible reserve, rarely observed in little boys around here. I wanted to play some of the Tamada's speeches back in my head before going to sleep, to remember the grandmother who seemed positively overjoyed that I spoke Armenian and, shortly afterword, ecstatically, pointed me in the direction of the bathroom, as if she had just finished the most beautiful work of art and had just been standing around waiting for someone to ask her where it was. There's always a few very attractive girls at such parties too. Most of them, in all possible modestly, cling to the corners of the room and hardly seem to talk to each other, but, every so often, while up-rocking or trying to pull off some incredibly lame break dancing move, they whisper and point and sometimes they smile. Are they humoring me? Suppressing a laugh? or as one girl said to me in the foyer, do they really think I am dancing well? Then there's the young boy, trying to copy my footwork and smiling up at me when I tell him he's learned it already, one of my neighbor's children, continually trying to get me to show her how I did that thing were I spun around on the floor, so excited she's unconsciously hopping around a little, the old men outside who smoke the cheapest cigarettes, holding them up with gnarled hands and waving them around, positing another point about France or Russia or Azerbaijan; the aunts in polyester dresses, hooting and bouncing all over the dance floor, which is the entire room, pausing occasionally to bring in thirty more plates of food, stacking them on top of the previous, as yet, unfinished courses, and there's always one rotund gentleman, who is impossible to imagine outside the party atmosphere, so well does it seem to suit him, who bellows things that make everyone smile, is constantly raising a glass and dancing around in a way so ridiculous it takes a lot of the pressure off me.
            I wanted to muse over the party for a while, walking through the still night, with little traffic, no streetlights, no bars with doors open, scattering particulate music through the night; in such silence, the voices of the night almost seem to follow one home in the dark, as the sweat and cigarette smoke cling still to one's clothes, what the band played, what the uncle told me about being a bee keeper "you're a language specialist, I'm a bee specialist," the boy's giggle when I told him he had ten minutes and then would have to dance, and that I was counting, the flaring noise of those firework candles they always put on cakes here, my neighbor, who always talks kind of loud, insisting that I do not leave before the cake is cut, all before a car, unnoticed, drives up and convinces me to get in by telling me that one of the children is crying, why this concerns me I do not know, but the walk has been long enough and no one wants to turn down a crying child. I got in the car, turned around and told her not to cry, she was quiet in the dark, probably sleeping, not even dreaming of crying. The ride home was short, we talked about my bizarre penchant for walking places, which everyone in the car praised, seeming to overlook that they had just practically demanded that I get in the car a few minutes before. I told them that a few days before I had walked over to Martuni...
            The walk takes one through a valley that slowly climbs higher into the mountains that surround lake Sevan, the villages taper off and with every one passed the traffic thins out further until it get so quiet a car can be heard, rattling down through the pass, engine off and coasting, miles away.
            The sun is bright, the winds that come down from the mountain have an emolliating effect, but the dried sweat has covered me with a thin cast, like the feeling of dried glue on one's fingertips, that seems to spin the wind off me without really letting it in. After dealing with the pack the entire day it's weight seems natural, like it serves as a counter balance, making my movements even more dexterous.
            Near the top of the mountain pass is the Selim Caravansary. I notice two Persian oil trucks parked on the road just behind it, and in front of them a typical soviet truck probably bringing fruit over the pass. So many hundreds of years later and, in a way, the caravansary is still serving its purpose as a resting and meeting place for travellers from different lands. Noticing the mustaches on the guys standing in front of the stone entrance I nod and test a 'Salaam' and they respond with something that I don't understand and smile. Just behind the caravansary are two old men sitting down with some food spread out on a nearby rock, this scene I've seen so many times that I can't help but to assume these men must be Armenian, especially after I see the food, lavash, tomatoes, pepper, dried fish and white, spongy and humid cheese. I say hello to them in Armenian, but then, just to be sure, I ask them if they are Armenian, to which they respond with such gentility and assurance that there can be no doubt. I am asked over to eat with them and I and my huge backpack saunter over to lean over their meal for a while. The men beg me to take some of everything represented on the oil cloth covering the rock. I take some cucumber and bread, knowing they will not be content with my selection, that cheese, at least, will be proffered as will the bug-eyed fish staring into the sky above, glimmering with a copper sheen. We enjoy a conversation with a little mutual questioning, this being one of the marks of the progress I have made as an Armenian speaker, that I am now able to ask as many questions as I receive, perhaps it's only that now that I'm leaving I find myself more curious about what other people are doing, when before I was comfortable just telling them about myself. The arak (vodka) is offered, but it seems awful to my parched and sweaty countenance and I joke with them, telling them that after living in Armenia for two years I have had this stuff enough times already to know exactly what it's like and that for this reason there's no reason to try and force it on me, as one would do to a tourist who doesn't know the taste of fruit and solvent, introduced to the body from a plastic cup cut from a one liter bottle, slightly filmy, but sharp enough to make the eyes water, no matter how smooth it might be.
            I part with these two wonderfully common goodwill ambassadors of this country and continue up the pass to where the sun is setting, which seems odd considering that I thought the top of the pass faced east. When I crest the summit there is a cloud-blurred fire smoldering along the horizon, which for the first time all day, falls in a straight line. It feels like I have been climbing all day to see this flatness, and to seeing it as the sun's last rays glance over it brings a feeling of accomplishment and I have no problem making the decision to stop and camp up at the top of the pass for the night.
            With the sun setting and light wind drifting over the alpine grass, whispering, a feeling of somnolence steals over me and I feel a certain respect for my own position and everything involved in it. Although I had eaten nothing but peanuts and raisins all day, I have no desire for anything but water and sleep, both of which I try to satiate myself with, first gulping down most of the water left and then taking off my shoes and rolling myself up in the meager covering of the sleeping bag liner I brought with me, thinking nothing more would be necessary, as it had been so warm in my own part of the country only a day's walk away. But about an hour later it becomes clear to me while vigorously rubbing my legs and rolling myself into a little ball that I am not going to be comfortable until the sun comes up again. I lie there, in the dark, waiting for the nepenthe of sleep, the sleep of the physically exhausted, that never comes. I try lying in different positions, my hat, hood and sleeping bag liner all pulled over my head, hoping to contain what little heat my body is still generating. I consider getting up and eating something but the effort seems incredible, and as cold as I am I really have no desire to move around, and then the sniffing sound starts.
            Now, every time I have ever gone anywhere the least remote in this country, there has been a shepard nearby to tell me that the place is "lika gayl" or, literaly, "full of wolves." Since I have gone so many places and never seen a wolf (and very few snakes, which they also constantly warn against)  I have always been dismissive of such warnings, but lying in the dark, suddenly aware of how alone I was, out in a massive wind-swept field, the nearest village at least a few hours away on foot, the sounds that began to draw closer and closer to my tent began to disquiet me. It suddenly occurred to me that I wasn't even sure what to do with wolves, I know that some kinds of bears you're supposed to play dead with, others you're supposed to fight, punch on the nose; I wondered if I should attempt to punch a wolf on the nose, if, say, a blazing muzzle, serrated by an open mouthed snarl, induced by the smell of fresh blood were to punch through the thin nylon of the tent, would I even want to get near that? Would it even do any good? I tried to remind myself that wolves rarely attack people and are usually pretty timid in human presence, but, the animal outside the tent was sounding bolder all the time, not at all like a timid and retreating animal. "Sniff-sniff-snort!"--long pause, as if contemplating the smell it just identified, "sniff-sniff." the muzzle of this animal was pressing into the nylon so hard I began to wonder if the tent would hold, surely it could only take so much weight against it. In my exhausted state I could not make a definite decision to do anything. I just lie there, hoping whatever was outside would go away, I was also somewhat worried that any attempt to shoo the thing away would only confirm my presence inside the tent, that, up until then, was not absolute. That is to say, that up until that point the animal outside, thought itself just sniffing around something that perhaps a person had recently been near, but upon hearing some kind of absurd 'yah!' or some such pathetic attempt to drive the animal away, that it would become apparent that something threatening was inside and there would be no other option than to immediately dispatch this foolish person who had been left behind by the heard in the field all night. That is, I imagined my shooing noise being immediately greeted by a fierce growl, and in my last moments, while the wolf readied itself for the pounce, I would have the awful knowledge that I no one but myself to blame. Considering this, I decided on a more subtle approach, shifting around lightly a little at first, and when that proved totally ineffective (there wasn't even a pause in the sniffing) I got out a cigarette, figuring if I was going to have to deal with this I might as well do as comfortably as possible.
I never figured out what actually was outside my tent that night. I'm pretty sure it wasn't a wolf, a little later on, feeling a little braver with the passing of time, I opened the flap and tried to see whatever was out there, but, opening the flap and springing out as quickly as possible, I saw nothing, nothing anywhere in the empty, moon-bright field all around, only to get back in the tent again to hear the sniffing return a few minutes later. Curiously enough, the more I listened to it, I began to realize that it really wasn't a sniffing, but rather more of a loose shuffling, as if a large bird with a broken wing was trying to upright itself using my tent as a brace. This sound drifted around the tent's perimeter all night long and nothing I could do would permanently drive it away, batting at the tent where it seemed to be, making noises or smoking cigarettes and muttering to myself. After a while, in the most desperate hours of a long, cold and sleepless night, I was happy to hear the noise return, remarking to myself that 'ol' floppy' was back, and other such nonsense that only someone really tired with nothing to do would say to him or herself.
            Around dawn, I finally fell asleep, and woke again later to the tent filled with the heat of the mid-day sun, which I felt justified in soaking up for a while and returned to sleep, glad to have warmth back in my bones again. It took until nearly noon to fully rouse myself and upon taking down the tent and trying to breakfast in the open field before getting back to the long road, I was again greeted by the clouds of mosquitos that I had ducked into the tent the night before to avoid. I quickly ate and packed everything up, hoping to put some distance between the offending insects and myself, but after about twenty minutes on the road, it began to be obvious that my walk for the day was going to plagued with that particular whine, that becomes almost unbearable after a long amount of time, especially when one is shouldering a heavy bag that limits how easily one can swat and try to shirk off the pests. I didn't have to deal with it too long though, as it soon began to rain.
            It started as a light rain, refreshing really, as my clothes felt salty and stiff from the long walk the day before. It washed off the grime that had cow-licked my beard in all kinds of crazy swirls of barbarity and left high water marks on my forehead where my hat had settled the day before. At first the rain was something that was probably necessary before going back to the civilized world, it did the grooming that I was reluctant to undertake since I was just going to get dirty again anyway. But the rain didn't just drift over me like a light shower and then depart leaving the sun to its turn of drying, rather, it steadily increased growing at last to near deluvian proportions; the water running in streams around my feet. Around this time I also began to notice that the warmth I had saved up from the morning in the sunny tent was quickly departing and soon I would be cold again, but as I had no water proof layers to put on it seemed ridiculous to try to alter the situation with clothing, as it would only get wet and would therefore be useless that evening when, once again, I would need every article of clothing I had on hand. (I forgot to mention that the night before in an act of sleep-deprived desperation, I wrapped the two pairs of underwear I had brought around my feet hoping the extra layer would keep them a little warmer.)
            As I was in the mountains I wasn't surprised to see hail soon coming down with the rain. It hails a lot here, and up in the mountains, in the summer, it seems to be a regular thing. I only hoped that this would be the usual mercurial summer storm, blowing in quickly as it had done, pouring itself out and evaporating quickly under a reinvigorated sun. The hail, however, did not let up, nor did the rain, in  fact they mixed together to form a miserable combination of precipitation that sluiced down the back of one's neck, soaked through the socks and, at once, pelted one with marble-sized pellets, as if annoyed that there should be any obstruction in its course between the sky and the ground.
            There was nothing to do but continue to walk through the storm, now an absolute storm with thunder and lightening crashing all around me. There was no place to take shelter and in every direction all that could be seen was the grey-blue confusion of hail and rain falling fast over the flat terrain. I began to wonder if I had some kind of masochistic kind of streak going on to be doing such things, walking all day long in the summer heat, freezing and listening to odd shuffling sounds all night and waking to a breakfast of mosquitos followed by a walk though a pelting hail storm. When a car came by and motioned for me to get in I realized that I had to take the offer, or be forced to confront what must surely be a self-destructive impulse in my consciousness.
            The car was brand new, smelled and looked it and, for that reason, immediately felt uncomfortable. The first question was, of course, 'what are you doing up here?' Followed by all the usual stuff that I was not really in the mood to describe. I wondered about the difference between the two young guys that I was now riding with and the old guys the evening before near the caravansary. Why had I felt friendly toward the old guys and felt annoyed that the young man should ask me any questions at all, especially considering the fact that they had been kind enough to stop and take me out of the hail and rain. The conclusion that I came to, somewhat later, was that the old guys and I were on equal footing, we had both stopped to have a rest together going over a long road, there was a sort of equanimity in our conversation, whereas the young man, now totally turned around in his seat, seemed to be interrogating me.
            I remained cordial and answered all his questions, but after about 5 minutes asked to be let out of the car, after so long outside it just felt really uncomfortable to be sitting in the backseat of a new car. In fact I had been watching the hail outside the minute I got in waiting for it to abate a little so that I could get back on my way, which is an interesting thought, considering that, in the car, I was making much better progress in the direction that I was going than I was while walking. When I noticed that the sharp 'tik, tik, tik' sound of hail had quieted and that the rain was no longer coming down in torrents I had the driver pull over.I wished the two young guys a pleasant journey and they returned the wish. Within five minutes of walking the storm, that I had done nothing but temporarily outpace, caught up with me again and began to pelt me with hail harder than ever, as if angry that I had temporarily escape its wrath. 
            This didn't go on for too much longer. Eventually, the storm tapered off and in its wake large bulwarks of clouds surged up around the peaks of the pass, still covered with the dull crust of summer snow. The sky was leaden but had ceased to precipitate in any way. A cool wind rippled the puddles left on the road by the recent storm. I walked through the lackadaisical weather and soon began to feel despondent. the walking, which up until that point had been enjoyable, became dull. With every passing car I began to think about flagging one down; there seemed no reason to continue walking rather than to prove a point to myself, a point I had already proven the last time I had walked over this pass about 15 months before.
            Coming down into Martuni didn't help my cause. The same iron sky hung over the town that I had already been walking through for hours. And I couldn't help but to remember a friend of mine who had lived here until he had gotten sick and had to return home. I found myself wishing for good company. A place to take my bag off and talk to someone for a while. The exhilaration of the previous day had passed.
            I drifted through Martuni, talking with the inevitable group of kids that began to follow me, hanging back behind me, walking single file, like the tail of a comet, the older kids clustered around the walking bulk of myself and my backpack and the younger kids keeping a safe distance behind, looking, big-eyed, from me to their older brothers.
            It seemed to take longer than it should've to reach the town's center, when I got onto the main street the sun was just starting to come out from behind the clouds and I stopped and bought a few apricots to keep myself going a little longer. Further down the street, I stopped again by an empty shop window and wrote my name in the accumulated dust, then walked out of Martuni onto the main road leading to Sevan. Before long the sun was setting as I passed a gas station outside the village of Yeranos.
            The gas station attendants hailed me as I walked by. I attempted to wave them off and keep walking but, considering it was already getting dark and I would have to stop and camp soon anyway, I decided to stop and talk with them for a while, see if maybe they had an old blanket they could spare to keep the cold of the approaching night off. I was greeted with the usual questions and answered the men fairly passively at first, not really too interested in their conversation, but as the conversation moved out from the usual, mundane, topics I found myself discussing politics and international positions. I soon realised that one of the men, who later turned out to be the owner of the gas station, was pretty well-versed in the outside world. I enjoyed talking with him and another one of the workers was so ingratiating and friendly that I couldn't help but to gradually become more relaxed in their presence.
            We stood in the parking lot, talking while the sun went down, I told them I had to find a place to stay for the night since it was getting dark and they declared that I would stay with them at the gas station, as the whole team (something like 6 men) worked throughout the night, sleeping and getting up to provide fuel for the occasional night customer. When the sun went down we retired into a small room where I was feted with cucumber and tomato sandwiches and coffee. One worker offered to have someone bring vodka but I told him I had no taste for it, and after a long day of walking and a sleepless night, wanted nothing more than to lie down. he seemed to understand this and soon dropped the inquiries. I stayed awake for a while talking to the men about their work, sitting up on a spring mattress, smoking and feeling comfortable and drowsy. Soon after the lights went out I feel into a deep sleep.
            During the night I woke up once with the feeling that someone's large hands were probing my neck as if to strangle me. I awoke with a start and realized it was just a dream. Everyone in the room was asleep and the road outside was quiet with the absence of any traffic. It had gotten cold in the room so I went over to the heater in the corner, turned it on and warmed myself up, letting the heat soak into my sweatshirt as I was sleeping without a blanket of any kind, knowing from the previous night's experience that my sleeping bag liner was totally useless. Soon I fell asleep again and did not wake until morning, when I heard the workers rise with the day's first customer, one of them placing an old and heavy coat over me as he exited the room and saying my name endearingly as he draped it over my shoulders.
            Around ten, the worker who had been particularly nice woke me telling me someone outside would give me a ride to the next town. I hurriedly got up and packed the few loose articles that I had taken out of my pack. Still drowsy, I said goodbye to the workers, promising them should I get rich in America I would send them money, and jumped in the front seat of a waiting car.
            The ride took me into Gavar, or K'var as it's locally known, perhaps and amalgamation of the old soviet name Kamo and Gavar, the new name. Within a few minutes I was on a marshutka heading toward Yerevan. The ride took me through the better part of the region, the northern part of the road that's more attractive for bordering lake Sevan. Still somewhat drowsy, but feeling refreshed after a full night's rest, I stared off across the lake over the heads and shoulders of the other passengers in the marshutka.
            I stayed out traveling around, visiting friends and talking with the new group of volunteers for another day before returning back to Yeghegnazor for the baptism party. As the latter part of the trip was much more comfortable, there's not so much to tell about it. I ate some great meals, had some good conversations, took some shorter walks in more climate weather and met some nice people. I stopped and visited my old host family for an afternoon and sat under the walnut tree where I used to study my Armenian homework when I first came here and talked with my host family grandparents. For the first time totally able to understand my host grandfather whose speech is often difficult to understand owing to his lack of teeth. We spoke of the crops and the weather and the sheep flock that he tends. I talked with the children about how they had done in school that year and joked with the boy for not having done too well in English when he had lived with a native speaker for three months, of course, that had been two years ago, two years ago---
so many things I saw over the latter part of that trip reminded me of the time when I had first arrived, how new everything had felt, how strange the weather and the customs had seemed, how a walk to the next village felt so alienating and how I used to take my headphones out into the field in the evening, listen to them, look up at the stars and imagine what it would be like when I returned home, unable to comprehend how one day, returning to the same field would actually feel like returning home. In the same place where I used to sit and re-read letters, pouring over every word, every scrap of information from the states, every syllable from the pens of my friends and family, where I used to listen intently to the music that I had left behind, playing in the hundreds of clubs and bars that I had known from Detroit to San Francisco, where I used to look at the sky and take solace in the fact that it was the same sky that suspended itself over certain American streets and American heads, in this same place, I long for nothing more than to sit quietly and see it for what it is. I want only to keep it as a memory, because I know that unlike so many other things and places I have known, it will not change and some day I'd like to find my way back here again.

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