Monday, June 21, 2010

Thin Rain on Poppy Petals, or, There Probably Weren't Any Bullets, Anyway

At least I was able to come home and eat something warm. That's always the nicest thing to return home to after going camping, a nice warm meal, that and a comfortable place to sleep, but I leave that out because my couch isn't really that comfortable.
A one day camping trip, however, doesn't really allow for these pleasures, one hasn't been away long enough, and even after carrying a large pack for something like 10 hours all together, the feeling of personal merit isn't there. But my camping trip didn't end through my volition. When you get too close to a border between two countries that have been at war with each other, and still haven't resolved anything, in fact, talk frequently about starting the war again, you really aren't left with much choice as to whether or not you're going to continue camping. You're lucky if you don't end up in jail or with a permanent rifle but indentation on your forehead.
I woke up outside the village of Zaritap where I had camped the night before coming from Vayk on foot. I'd tell you how far that is in kilometers but they confiscated my maps. Early in the morning it was still raining. I lay back down inside my tent and listened to the light rain sound on the nylon. For a while I dozed in and out of consciousness, trying to make up for a night spent sleeping on rocks with a thin sleeping bag.
Around 8 I decided that I had not come out camping to lay in my tent all damn morning. I got up, put on my clothes, shook the rain off the cover and began taking down the tent. As it has been more than a few years since I've put up or taken down a tent I was feeling really good considering what adeptness seemed to remain for this work in my muscle memory. And after I get everything packed in my bag I was quick to get on the road and enjoy the morning that was gradually developing all around me.
The village of Zaritap was still asleep behind me when I began moving further up the mountain, towards was a profusion and dancing around with color, like those spots that you see before your eyes after rubbing them too hard. I listened to the birds singing and tried to keep my eyes on the ground in case I should cross the path of another snake like the beautiful one I had seen the evening before.
With all these sights and sounds around me I practically entered the village without realizing it. I walked through the early morning streets feeling fairly light, but not particularly talkative. Although the village was peaceful, I wanted to get the water I needed and get back to the quiet, shattered concrete of the road that led on to the last village by the border. I stopped and filled up my water bottle at a local drinking fountain and said hello to a guy who walked past. He asked if there was anywhere he could help me in the usual hospitable way that betokens the village mentality here. I told him that if he knew how to find a certain road to a certain village I would be obliged to him and within minutes I was standing in a throng of men, quarreling, jabbing fingers at my map, and occasionally gesticulating wildly toward some empty field, as if the road was somewhere underneath all the weeds that had sprung up out there.
I listened to eight people give me directions they had agreed on, the essentially informed me what I already knew; I had to go back the way I came and the other route on the map was unheard of to these men. Since the walk had been so nice the way there I didn't mind going back, but, before I reached the intersection to turn off, I found a weed-choked tractor route and decided to follow it just to see where it led.
As I walked the sun had begun to pull out from the clouds and the fields around me reverberated with various insect tones and the skittering of lizards and field mice. Going straight up hill I began to get tired and thought of things to perk me up such as places I liked to eat at in the states. Before long my mind was stuck on an endless loop of visits I had payed to an ice cream place in San Francisco. While I was thinking of a time when my friend Mikey and I had walked there from downtown on one of those beautifully indolent San Fran. Saturdays, I looked up to find myself crossing a road that looked like it had once been paved, although now it wasn't much more than a flat road strewn with rock and clods of concrete. I took this road the direction I thought I should go and continued until I felt my pack beginning to pull my shoulders apart.
After a brief rest, that was cut short by flies, literally, piling up on top of me, I continued on my way. The road continued to drag on, rolling over the sides of mountains and down into bucolic valleys where a few scattered trees could be seen along the edges of the dried river.
As I was beginning to feel tired again I told myself that I'd try to walk for another 20 minutes to make it to the two hour mark since the last time I'd stopped. I hoisted my pack up a little higher and continued to walk. I was surprised a few minutes later when a sign for a village came into view. I was curious to know which village it was, as, if I was where I thought I was, the village must surely be another hour away at least. I thought perhaps I'd taken a wrong turn somewhere, but, at the time, this didn't worry me at all. I was happy just roaming around, and with the map I had, a village would help me locate where I was anyway. When I got close enough to read the sign I found I was on the right road, and had walked much further than I had thought over the last four hours or so. In fact, if there hadn't been a village there I probably would've walked right through the boarder thinking I was still well in Armenia territory.
I was interested to talk to the people in this village and rest for a little while. The walk had been long, unbroken by any shade and as this village is right on the boarder to Nacheijevan (Azerbaijan) I wanted to hear if more Turkic words came out in these people's dialect and they any stories related to living under the shadow of a hostile country.
The first person I met in town was a grandmother heaving bricks of manure from one place to another. I stopped and said hello to her, asking if there was a store in town where I could buy some water. She told me just to stop in somebody's house and ask for their water. I asked again if there was a store where I could buy it, not wanting to just barge in on someone and ask where their faucet was. It was difficult to understand her, she had no teeth and spoke dialect very rapidly, she was also down in a ravine and I couldn't hear her very well. I decided to walk further into the village and ask someone else if I didn't just run into the store on my own. I thanked her and walked on.
Turning around a corner to one of the main mud and water thoroughfares of the village I was immediately stopped by two men, sitting on a bench with a bottle of vodka between them. I couldn't help but to notice two women in the yard behind them working in the garden, backs bent at 90 degree angles, pulling weeds, while these men, probably their husbands, sat pouring each other shots of vodka, possibly congratulating each other on finding such great, hard-working wives. When they saw me their eyes lit up at the possibility of a third party joining their afternoon debauch. To make it clear that I had other business I asked them where the store was, one of them gestured vaguely to the head of the road and again bade me sit for a minute. Reluctantly, I slipped off my bag ( I had been looking forward to buying a juice of some kind and taking a nice break alone) and joined them. It started with the usual questions, "Where are you from?" "Are you married?" "Why are you not married?" "Do you not want to get married?" "How old are you?" and finally the closing argument "You should get married, you're old." After this perfunctory, but absolutely necessary topic was out of the way they began to ask me what I was doing there, but with slightly more curiosity then people here usually ask, they seemed very interested. I told them I was just strolling around, and that after two years living in this region I wanted to see some of these little-visited villages out by the border. "yeah, but you gotta' be careful they responded, eyes rolling in their heads from caution and afternoon shots, "the Turks are right up there!" One of them got up in deadly seriousness and motioned for me to follow him as he got up and walked to the middle of the road. He  stopped there, squinted and pointed at a mountain not far off. "You see that, they're right there!" There was nobody on the mountain that I could see, but I think he was referring to their land. "Wow," was all I could think to say. They laughed a little; we sat back down on the bench and the questions returned to my disconcerting unwillingness to marry immediately.
After a few more minutes of this talk I decided I had been polite enough and told them I was going. They warned me not to go up into the mountains and a few minutes later that's what I was doing.
I hadn't planed on going up the mountains, the map made it look like the road I needed went straight out from the village, but, before I knew what was happening, I was being led between mud, chickens and running children by a somewhat surely grandmother, who kept telling me how many grandchildren she had. Since the number had been high I wasn't surprised to see her latch on to some boy running by, wheel him quickly around to face me, and declare, "this is one of my grandsons." The kid didn't seem much interested in either her affection or my weak attempts to compliment her on her brood and ran off to join a gaggle of kids crowded around a tumbledown stable wall on the other end of the street. The grandmother continued to lead me along and I continued to actually trot alongside to keep up with her, when she abruptly said, "this is one of my daughter's homes, goodbye," and darted through a gap between two lengths of fence. "Is this the way to the next village?" I called after her. She turned around and made a shooing kind of motion which I took to mean, 'yes'.
It didn't take long to get out of the village, and soon I found myself walking down a loose gravel road that seemed to lead to nowhere. There was no one around and as I walked I listened to the sound of donkeys braying all around me. I came to a little stream and dipped my hands down into it, awkwardly trying to keep my balance with my pack on and doused my hair with water. While I was cooling myself off I stopped to consider which way to go as I was at a fork of sorts. From the look of my map the next village was close by on the right, closer than the one that I wanted to go toward on the left and I decided to stop into the nearby village just to try and get the juice or water I was hoping for and take a break, since rushing grandmothers and drunken gardeners hadn't allowed me to linger on in the last village. It was here that I began to follow a road up the mountain. As I ascended I told myself that if I did not see the other village soon, after the next corner, I would turn around and take the other road, rather than risk going too close to the border, where, apparently, they shot first and asked questions later.
As I was thinking about the vodka-tinted warning I had heard, I caught site of some soldiers coming toward me. I assumed they were just regular soldiers, coming into the village from where they were doing guard duty. I friendly inquired from a distance if this was the way to the next village, just so they wouldn't worry about my intentions. At this one of the guards took his Kalashnikov off his shoulder and placed it in his hand. No response. I tried again. He cocked the weapon and brought it down, leveling it at me.
The two soldiers continued to advance, one with his gun still aimed at me, and the only thing I could hope for was that they were Armenian, and that I hadn't somehow gotten into Azerbaijan, where I would not be able to talk or explain how I had crossed a heavily guarded border with no hostile intentions. I also began to think about how it would feel to be shot.
When the soldier reached me they were laconic, they asked me a few questions, but said very little, I kept repeating my question if this was the way to the next village and received no answer; it became clear that I was to follow them and stop talking, which, upon understanding I promptly did.
Luckily, they told me they were Armenian soldiers, so, although I knew I was going to be interrogated, I didn't worry too much, after all I was innocent, I was just out hiking around. Then I remembered that, usually, people here don't hike, and have very little understanding of why anyone would want to walk around and sleep outside when cars and beds were available.
We continued up the hill until we crested at a little place that was obviously their base, or lookout point or whatever.
"The village you were going to," the soldier with the gun said to me, "this was its school." And with that cryptic remark he gestured for me to go inside.
When I walked into the little barracks I keep thinking about all these Orwellian descriptions of soundproof cells, extorted confessions and silent bullets. I began to realize that I had essentially just walked into a war zone.
Armenian and Azerbaijan went to war in 1991 and although the war officially ended in 1994 peace talks have come to a total stalemate. Armenia refuses to cede any territory that it gained in the Nagorno-Karabakh and Azerbaijan refuses to accept that what was once it's territory is going to remain in Armenian hands. Since no resolution has been reached shots are occasionally fired across the border, just a few days ago some people were killed by fire coming across the border. I have heard that although the western border with Azerbaijan (the Nachijevan enclave) has no boundaries with the war zone, that here the mistrust and disdain runs the highest, perhaps because the Azeris living in Nachijevan are now isolated from the rest of their country. Where before southern Armenia was open and heavily populated by Azeris, it is now firmly closed and all its Azeris gone. Of course the Armenians have cause to be angry in this dispute as well, the massacres in Sumgait and Baku certainly hearkened by to the other historical pogroms against the Armenian people. And, I'm sure there were more than a few people that thought to themselves "it's happening again, 1915 is happening again."
What I found in the barracks wasn't quite so disconcerting as all the things I had begun to imagine. I sat down on a bed, trying to decide if I should be light-hearted (after all, I had done nothing wrong, at least not knowingly) or if I should just keep my mouth shut until I found out what was going on.
I handed over my camera and asked if I could smoke in the room. While the soldiers went through my pictures I smoked and talked to them about what I'd been doing in Armenia for the last two years. When they asked me if I wanted coffee I realized that either some good cop/bad cop shit was about to go down or that I didn't have much cause to worry about being shot anymore.
Eventually, I ended up being driven all the way back to the main army base. When I arrived, It was obvious by everyone's demeanor that they don't get too many prisoners or suspects or whatever I was. Nearly everyone was standing around, all the privates anyway, mouths agape.
I had to talk to a few sergeants or generals or whatever, repeating my story and trying to make them understand that Americans often go wondering around with no definite destination. I tried to explain how I had gone many other, less off-limits, places in Armenia, on foot, with the same intention of seeing what was there. No matter how many times I put this response forth it was greeted with "yeah, but why did you go there?" and the whole discussion would start all over.
In many ways it was a high point of my time here for me. Since I got here I've always wanted to go over by the border and see what it looked like. Nachijevan is such an inaccessible place I always wanted to see if I could maybe get a glimpse of it from the border. It's be like living about 30 miles away from the North Korean border and not being curious if you could see what was going on next door, if you could only get close enough. I was also quite proud of my language skills that I was actually able to be interrogated in Armenian and respond and understand most of what was being said. In high stress situations usually language skills shut down and I was happy that nearly everyone kept asking me how my Armenian had gotten so good. I never realized, back in my language classes, almost two years ago, that one day I'd have to speak Armenian to the barrel of a gun. It's a point of which I think any volunteer could be proud

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