Q: Have you had any negative experiences in your time in Armenia?
A: Yes, I have had many negative (and positive) experiences in Armenia. It’s life. The same would be true no matter where I was. But in Peace Corps, the highs are usually higher and the lows are lower, and the ups and downs happen much more frequently than in “normal” life.
That was my somewhat generic response to the posting on Jobstr, a website where you can ask people anything about their jobs. I’ve been answering questions about being a Peace Corps volunteer over there for about a year.
The truth, full and unvarnished, is a bit harder to write about. Today, and in the next two weeks, I’m going to tell you some stories that I never talked about in detail on my blog. These will be stories about my 3 worst experiences in Armenia. The fact that I survived them is something for which I’m very grateful. The experience of all of them was an absolute nightmare.
Worst Experience #1: The Night Our Marshutni Hit and Killed a Pedestrian
It was supposed to be a really good day. Myself and two of my Peace Corps friends were starting VACATION! It was the end of December, and we were going to Prague, Czech Republic for New Year’s. We would be flying out of Tbilisi, Georgia, just north of the Armenian border.
The first step was to get from Yerevan, the capital of Armenia, to Bagratashen, a small border town where Trent, one of our other Peace Corps friends, lived. We were going to stay there for a night, take a taxi the following night to Tbilisi, and fly out early in the morning. Prague, baby!!! We were looking forward to getting out of Armenia, experiencing a new city, and ringing in the new year.
In order to demonstrate how much I needed a break from winter in Armenia, I’m going to give you a couple excerpts from my journal, leading up to Prague:
My electricity is weak again, so I’m sitting in the dark so I can have my heater running.
HTML exam today at the college. There was less cheating, but it was still going on. I couldn’t believe it. I should have been able to, but when they’re good students, it bothers me that they still feel the need to cheat. I feel angry just thinking about it. I want to fully describe [what happened today during the exam], but I also don’t really want to remember it or relive it…. It’s just hard for me to understand or condone. Also, there are supposed to be 12 kids in the class, but only 6 came and took the exam.
I got out of bed once today before noon to use the bathroom and didn’t get up again until almost 1:30.
Definitely don’t feel like taking a shower or doing dishes. It’s too cold in those rooms.
Tomorrow to Yerevan. The next day to Bagratashen, and Sunday morning to Tbilisi and then Prague! Yay!!!! I’m excited to get out of here. I’m nervous that 1 week isn’t going to be long enough.
Clearly I needed a vacation.
I left town with high spirits.
The three of us girls convened in Yerevan at the bus station.
At the Bus Station
Getting to Bagratashen isn’t the easiest thing in the world, but it’s not all that hard. There is one public marshutni (mini-bus) every day at around 4:30.
There is also one every day to a nearby town called Noyemberyan at around 2:30. The Noyemberyan one is generally more comfortable and not as full as the Bagratashen one. Plus, it left earlier, which meant we would get to Trent’s earlier in the evening. The weather was decent and the skies were clear, but we still felt safer traveling on mountain switchbacks in the daylight; the sun went down fast in late December.
So we decided to take the marshutni to Noyemberyan.
In order to make sure we got seats on the marshutni, we arrived at the bus station before 2:00. The marshutni was in the stall, but nobody was around. After asking a couple people (in Armenian), we were told that it wasn’t going that day. Not at all. For no apparent reason.
We discussed our options.
- Take a taxi the entire way. It would be much more expensive, even with the 3 of us splitting the price. We were too late to use the shared taxi service, which would have been slightly cheaper, and we had already decided not to go that route, because of the cost. But a taxi would be more comfortable, and it would be faster.
- Wait several hours for the Bagratashen marshutni. It would bring us straight to Bagratashen. It would be really cheap (cheaper than our original choice of going to Noyemberyan and taking a taxi the remaining distance). But it would be a slow and uncomfortable ride. And there was no guarantee we would get seats. We had heard that oftentimes the driver showed up with a list of reserved seats, and we didn’t know how to get on that list.
- Stay in Yerevan for the night and go to Bagratashen the following day, via the Noyemberyan marshutni. We had the luxury of an extra day to do that, but it meant we would be traveling for many hours, have a couple hour break, and then travel for many more hours. We wanted to get one leg of our trip over with that day and relax the next day at Trent’s house. Plus, we didn’t trust that the Noyemberyan marshutni would be running the next day, even though we were told that it would be.
The longer we debated, the more sense it made to just wait for the Bagratashen marshutni. We were already at the bus station. We wouldn’t have to wait that long before it showed up and we could find out if there were seats. If there weren’t, we could fall back onto our 3rd option. And if that didn’t work, we could always take a taxi the following day.
The Bagratashen Marshutni
We waited. The marshutni was late. It showed up at 4:40. The driver got out with a list and told us all the seats were already taken. There were about 5 other people waiting with us who also weren’t on the list.
The first driver called another driver who finally drove up, and we thanked our lucky stars that there would be 2 marshutnis to Bagratashen that day. But he wouldn’t let us get on. He refused to drive unless the marshutni was full, otherwise it wouldn’t be worth the trip.
The first marshutni filled up and left.
The rest of us milled around, wondering what to do. The driver and one or two others walked around the bus station, trying to round up more people to come with us.
Finally, the driver asked if we would all be willing to pay a little extra money for the trip. We almost said no, as the amount was now approaching what the three of us would pool together to pay for a taxi. But if we didn’t agree, then nobody could go. So we reluctantly agreed, then got on and sat in the seat directly behind the driver. Kristen had a window seat, I sat next to her, and Laura sat on my right. We waited for the driver to make one or two more rounds of the station, trying to convince people that they wanted to go north, to any destination.
At this point, we had been at the bus station, waiting, for over 3 hours.
We Leave the Bus Station
People trickled onto the doomed marshutni, and soon every single seat was full, including the aisle stool seats. There were probably 20 people, including the driver.
We were smashed together. I had no leg room. We were already exhausted, before we even started. But we were finally leaving!
It was probably 5:30 p.m. at the point.
The first hour or so went by quickly. We stopped in the famed town of Aparan for a bathroom break and the opportunity to buy something from their well-known bakery. The two guys in the front seat bought fresh bread that made the entire marshutni smell wonderful. They demolished their first loaf, and put the other two on the dashboard to eat later.
Back on the road, passengers were lulled to sleep by the droan of the engine, the darkness, the long day. Kristen and I watched a movie on her small netbook, sharing a pair of headphones.
Suddenly, there was a WHUMP! and the vehicle shook. I looked up from the movie but couldn’t see any reason for the noise and the strange shock. The driver pulled to the side of the road. The male passengers got out of the marshutni to investigate. As they turned the lights on inside, I saw that the windshield on the right side was shattered, and there were shards of glass all over the bread.
Things slowly started to piece together, as we caught snatches of Armenian conversation around us. It was a person. We hit a person.
Why was there a person on the side of the road in the pitch black in the middle of nowhere?
It was probably around 7:30, not too late to be outside. We were near the town of Spitak, where there were gas stations on both sides of the road. Maybe the person was crossing the road to go to the other gas station. Or waiting for someone. Who knew? But from what I could tell, it was a complete accident. The roads weren’t slippery, the skies were clear, and the driver wasn’t impaired.
We got out and saw the front of the marshutni. It was in bad shape. The bumper was bent, and the hood was crumpled up. There were spiderwebs of glass snaking out from where the person had hit the windshield.
We could see flashlights in the road behind us, but didn’t know the status of the person. Word drifted back. It was a man. No, a woman. She wasn’t breathing. She was dead, and had probably died on impact.
Cars and taxis started pulling up, and the passengers from our marshutni got in them and drove away. Didn’t they have to wait for the police? Where were they going? How would we get to Bagratashen? What would we do? It was cold outside, and the wind was biting. Would officials come? Would we be taken care of somehow?
We called our Peace Corps safety and security officer to let him know what had happened. Police finally came and took down our information. They told the seven of us who were left to stay put; they would be back. Out of 20 people on our marshutni, there were only 7 of us left?! Everyone else got out of there as fast as they could. That should have been a sign.
With no other options, we stayed put.
We Are Taken to the Police Station
By 8:30, we were herded into another vehicle and driven in the opposite direction, to the police station. We passed the scene; the woman was a covered shape, still in the road, illuminated by car lights. I don’t remember seeing an ambulance, just a bunch of people standing off to one side.
This was a full hour after the accident.
At the police station, they said they were going to interrogate us, one by one. None of them spoke English.
As they took the first guy out of the room, the rest of us were babysat by another police officer. He ignored us all for awhile, and then started talking to us, mostly focusing on a very old woman sitting on the couch to my left. He teased her about how he was going to make her come to his house to cook and clean and prepare for the New Year celebration. She was hard of hearing, so she kept asking what the guy said. He thought it was funny. She also didn’t have a very good memory, which made the officer tease her even more. It was completely inappropriate and unprofessional.
After an unbearable two hours of waiting (what were they doing in there? The people they interrogated never came back), it came down to the three of us Americans. We asked to be interrogated together, as none of us had witnessed anything, and we would all have the same story. Plus, our Armenian was better if we could help each other out. They refused.
I went first. They asked me irrelevant details about my trip and where I was going after Bagratashen, and why I was going to Prague. They asked if I was married, and why not. They asked what I did in Vardenis, if I had brothers and sisters, what subject I taught at the college and what my profession was back in America. All of this took forever, and had nothing to do with the accident! Didn’t they have anything better to do?! Like go home and go to bed?
No, apparently it was more fun to play with the American. This sort of excitement didn’t pass through Spitak very often.
Finally they focused on why I was there. After I had told them repeatedly that I didn’t see anything and didn’t have anything to add to their report, and answered their leading questions (“Would you say the driver was in his 40’s?” “Would you say the accident happened about 2 kilometers outside of Spitak?”) then they wanted a written statement, which they would dictate.
I tried hard, but I couldn’t focus anymore. I was frustrated, tired, hungry, shaken up, scared, sad. The last thing I wanted to do was write words I’ve never heard before, using the Armenian alphabet. Even when they spelled out the words, I couldn’t tell the difference between կ and ք or any of the other similar sounds. It didn’t help that they started telling me, “Your friend Laura’s Armenian is better than yours. And she’s also faster at writing.”
It also didn’t help that at one point, the driver of our marshutni came in the room. He looked awful, and my heart ached for him. He wasn’t scheduled to drive in the first place, and then this happened.
Somehow I stumbled through one paragraph, and then one officer took over, writing a complete statement. Just when I thought it was done, he would add a few more details. His report took up four pages. At the very end, he had me write and sign a short statement in Armenian saying that I can’t write Armenian, so I gave him permission to write for me, and I agreed that everything he wrote was accurate and true. At that point I probably would have signed anything.
I was literally shaking—from shock and hunger and frustration and pent-up anger. But I was done. Finally, I was done.
Laura was finishing up in another room. But Kristen still had to go, and her Armenian was not very good at all. They tried to interrogate her anyway, but she responded in Armenian, saying, “I don’t understand,” or in English, which they didn’t understand. Finally, they called Laura and I in to help her, and we both repeated our EXACT SAME STORIES OF THE ACCIDENT.
They had us translate their questions to Kristen, which were the same leading questions they had asked us, and then translate her answers back to them.
They also asked us more inappropriate questions, laughing and joking at our expense.
It was out of control, and there was nothing we could do about it, because as we got angrier and more frustrated, they made even more fun of us. It was like being a little kid again on the playground, being bullied.
They wrote a statement for Kristen, dragging it out as long as possible. Finally, around midnight, they said we were done. We took a picture with them to commemorate the horrible experience.
After all of that, we still had to get from Spitak to Bagratashen. There were the 3 of us plus 2 others who were waiting for a ride. They got us a new driver, who brought us half an hour up the road to Vanadzor, and shoved us in a taxi for the rest of the ride. We had to pay for the taxi.
Trent was waiting up, with hot dinner and welcoming arms, when we collapsed on his front porch at 2:00 a.m.
How do you recover from something like that? What do you take away? Is it possible to learn something, or find a silver lining? Fortunately, this incident didn’t ruin the rest of the trip for us (although we continued to have problems with transportation), but it was hard to reconcile why it had happened, or take a lesson from it. I still feel weird about it. I feel horrible for the woman’s family, and for the driver. But the part that affected me the most was the terrible way we were treated at the police station afterwards.
As I was looking through my journal to write this story, I realized I never wrote anything about it. Not one word. No hint that it had happened, no mention of it whatsoever. That was my way of blocking it out. If I don’t write about it, it never happened, and I don’t have to process it.
But now that I have decided to face it, I have to wonder. Is there any good that came (or can come) out of this? I can’t find any, except that it adds to the full story of my Armenian experience (which, unfortunately, would be very boring if it was only filled with good stuff).
I want to know, has something like this ever happened to you? Were you able to find the good in it? Please share your experiences below. With your comment, you might be able to help others find meaning in their own tragedies.
Note: This is the first of a 3 part series on my 3 worst experiences in Armenia. The next two Wednesdays will cover part 2 and part 3.
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