I am going to die. I am going to be killed and no one will ever know what happened to me. I’ll be lucky if he holds me for ransom. That’s it. That will be the story of Sean Chase. My gravestone will read “who wandered and was lost” as my epithet.
A single bead of sweat started down my hairy brow. There was nothing to stop it, since I’d shaved my head clean the day before the flight. It was an exciting day, I thought. I was anticipating a new adventure, but this was not quite what I imagined. The driver was a surly old man about a head smaller than me but sturdier in build. The veins popped out of his arm like lightning bolts as he gripped to turn the heavy steering wheel of the old, black S class Mercedes-Benz, a common sight in the Armenian capital of Yerevan.
Why is it so hard to simply get a taxi without having to worry about one’s life?
And here I had just gotten off an enjoyable flight too. I recalled successfully flirting my way into getting the contact info of cute Tatiana, the tourist sitting next to me as she was flying back to her native St. Petersburg (On my list now!) having flown in from California via the Russian carrier Aeroflot. At around $700 roundtrip, they offer daily flights from Los Angeles to Yerevan with a brief connection in Moscow. As I stepped out of Armenia’s Zvartnots International Airport, I had turned on Caution Mode as I normally do in such situations. Basically, whenever you are in an unfamiliar place it is wise to heighten your sense of awareness, skepticism and discreetness.
Fortunately, with my looks I could somewhat pass for an Armenian… so I pretended to be a local waiting for my ride as the other passengers from the plane got surged by the hawkers looking to score a—no doubt—overly inflated passenger fare. I approached a yellow marked cab outside the terminal and looked around for the driver. That’s when Bruno approached me.
Okay, his name wasn’t really Bruno.
But he might as well have been, given the way he looked. Thinking that he was the cab driver, I said that my destination was the Marriott near the center of Yerevan. He gave me an affirmative nod and took my bags… unexpectedly away from the yellow cab!
I followed him wondering what the hell was going on! Speaking at him proved futile as he didn’t seem to hear my English, nor did I seem to understand his Armenian. Well sh*t.
A short distance at a side parking lot near the small airport, and he loaded the bags into the unmarked black Benz. Now at that point, I have no idea what compelled me to get in… Cultural pressures perhaps, I’m still not certain. In Rome, the best advice is to do as the Romans do. Or so they keep saying.
And that, my friends, is basically how we got into my present predicament.
Now picture this. Riding down the street away from the airport in a completely unfamiliar culture smack dab in the middle of a very chaotic place on Earth in the middle of the dark night in what could have easily been a getaway car with a guy who looked like a Moroccan hitman, one might be justified enough to pee in one’s favored Levi’s jeans…
I attempted to strike up several conversations with the man and each time Bruno nodded and smiled. Confirmed, I thought. He doesn’t know a lick of English.
But you know what? Despite the circumstance I did not panic. “But Sean, HOW were you SO brave,” I hear you ask? Well, three good reasons.
One, we did not deviate from the route. I came prepared you see. I took advantage of the fact that I am good with maps and directions and memorized the way from the airport to Marriott. (God bless Google Maps.) This is something I highly recommend anyone do when going to a strange new land. Know where things are and how to get from one place to the other. Not having that knowledge puts you at a disadvantage. “Information is ammunition” I always like to say.
Two, his body language did not indicate any form of hostile or malicious intent. When you travel often, you’ll come across many a scenario where the language barrier is as thick as your stubborn little brother’s head. Fortunately, body language is somewhat universal and that is what gets me through such sticky situations. Bruno had no nervous twitches. His eyes did not dart back at me on his rear view mirror, his posture was relaxed and open with his elbow leaning out the window, his legs were apart and the feet were pointed away from each other. One of these days I’ll have to blog more about body language, but for now what that meant was that there was not some significant hidden intent that would cause him to be anxious. He’d probably been working all day up through the moment he picked me up which was around midnight.
It was bad enough that my double S.O.B. granted me only a measly 3 days time off to go to my family reunion halfway across the world, I was not about to let some potential taxi-driver-kidnaps-the-stupid-tourist-and-ransoms-his-*ss-for-a-hundred-dollars scenario ruin my d*mn vacation!
What’s the third reason?
As I sat behind him in the car assessing the situation, my mind had already run a thousand deadly simulations on how to kill him efficiently if he pulled something funny.
Anyway, as we finally pulled up to the Marriott, I breathed a sigh of relief… I’ve never killed anyone before and didn’t want to go all Jason Bourne on him.
One lesson I’d learned though, is that it is much more stress-free if you arrange to have the hotel provide you with a ride from the airport. I swear Bruno billed me three times more than what I heard him say it would cost before taking the ride. Turns out he was just a cab driver. A typical one at that. D*mn taxi drivers will always find a way to get ya, unlike in Mindanao.
After he drove off, I was left standing in the center of Yerevan. It took but a second for me to realize why I was there in the first place, for family and for adventure. I looked around to reorient myself and shake off that feeling you always get when you feel cheated. The dark, angry clouds disappeared from my mind and I stood in awe at the nighttime splendour of Republic Square.
You can feel the importance of Republic Square simply by just being there. The Marriott Hotel where I was supposed to meet my family was right across from the Government House of Armenia (Curiously, I was surprised to find out that Armenia has both a President and a Prime Minister) which was right next to one of their most popular museums, the National Gallery.
When I think back to the beauty I witnessed as I was standing there… I can pinpoint that this was the moment my preconceptions of this country and its people started to gradually dissolve.
I came to find out that not only was Yerevan one of the oldest continuously thriving cities in the world, but that it was one of the safest as well. I would soon learn that the people pride themselves in being able to walk their streets at any hour without having to worry about their well-being.
As probably one of the only Christian countries in the Middle Eastern region, the women walk openly without fear. You can see Christians and Muslims walking side by side peacefully. Not once did I see a Muslim sneer at a local or a tourist or vice versa. I remember ogling a model-like blonde walking by with her fake breasts pouring out of a tight dress. Just then, a conservatively dressed, hijab-wearing wife who was out strolling with her husband smiled at the bombshell (the more preferable kind of ‘bombshell’), who also smiled back at them. Perhaps I am just getting more cynical as I grow older, but the experience in Armenia was turning out to be a much needed breath of fresh air. I never expected the people and the country to turn out to be the way it had.
Just now, a beautiful quote came to mind which I want to share with you all:
“The use of traveling is to regulate imagination by reality, and instead of thinking how things may be, to see them as they are.” -Samuel Johnson
And so, my wall of ignorance began to break down.
And yet, there was much more to explore in this wonderful Country of Churches, Pomegranates and Brandy. Stay tuned for my next post!