Now that I’ve finished writing my blog series on visiting Armenia again, twenty-six years after I finished my Peace Corps service there, it’s time for my obligatory “ten things I learned” post. I like creating these posts because they make me think, and because they’re a lot of fun to write. Also, readers seem to like them, because they’re comprehensive, yet concise. Or, they are as concise as I tend to be, anyway. Brevity is not one of my strong suits.
Armenia has changed a lot since 1997. Even though I spent 27 months there, I still learned new things during our trip. So here goes with ten things I learned in Armenia!
10. Yerevan is now a city that doesn’t sleep!
When I lived in Yerevan, things didn’t necessarily stay open all night. There was an energy crisis. Even though it technically ended in 1995, not everyone had 24 hour power until about 1996. So, even though flights would leave and arrive in the wee hours of the mornings, things did close at night. Now, I notice that restaurants and bars stay open very late. You can buy a SIM card 24 hours a day. And there are always lights on at night. That wasn’t how it was when I lived there.
9. The drams have changed twice since I left!
Armenian drams were introduced in 1993, just after the fall of the Soviet Union. Since I arrived in 1995, I was used to the first version of Armenian drams. Now, the drams have changed their look and denominations twice since I left in 1997. When I left, the biggest bill was 5000 drams (about $12). Now, they go up to 100,000 drams!
8. It’s easy to find someone to drive you to Armenia’s most famous sites.
We didn’t take any of the many aspiring drivers up on their offers to take us to Armenia’s most amazing sites, but if we’d wanted to hire a driver, it would have been easy. Our hotel offered drivers for hire, and there were many of them hanging around different parts of the city. It’s no longer necessary to go to the bus station and look for a taxi, minivan, or bus to take you to Sevan or Khor Virap. Most of them have signs in English, too.
7. Speaking of English, it’s EVERYWHERE in Yerevan, now.
I saw so many signs in English. Some of them were hilariously incorrect, but just as many were hilariously witty. Obviously, there’s a movement for people to learn English, just as so many older folks had to learn Russian. I’m sure English is not required as Russian once was, but a lot of people seem to want to learn.
6. Armenia now has some really decent craft beers!
When I lived in Armenia, I used to joke about how bad the beers were from there. I had particularly salty things to say about Kotayk Beer, which when it was made in Armenia, was notoriously rough on the digestive system. Thanks to Dargett, a local craft beer company, you can find some good suds in Yerevan now. Now I wish I could get Dargett in GERMANY, a country well known for its excellent beers. That’s how good it was. You can also find real German beer in Armenia now. And not just the stuff made by InBev, which is a Belgian company that distributes a lot of mass produced beers. Naturally, if wine or fruit juice or even mineral water is your thing, you can find plenty of that, too. And wonderful brandy– the best I’ve ever had anywhere!
5. You can also get a beautiful meal in Yerevan…
When I first arrived in Armenia, there weren’t many restaurants at all. A few popped up while I was a Peace Corps Volunteer, but they tended to have plastic chairs and tables, and served pretty basic stuff. Now, you can get gourmet food in Yerevan… They have fine dining restaurants! And even if you go to a casual place, chances are good what you eat will look beautiful. That was one thing that didn’t change. There’s much more variety now, and some items are better quality, or are just plain available. In the 90s, we tended to eat what we could get, which meant whatever was in season. That no longer seems necessary.
4. Public toilets in Yerevan are now very clean and cost 100 drams to use.
I remember many times having to duck behind bushes to relieve myself, when I lived in Yerevan in the 90s. One time, when I was out with my former language teacher, we went to a porno theater so I could pee. It was actually very clean. But most public facilities in the 90s were pretty disgusting and smelled horrible. I was very pleased to find clean restrooms in most places during our recent visit. The toilet by the Opera House was sparkling clean, well stocked, and cost 100 drams (about 25 cents). Cheap!
3. Some historic places have changed forever…
I was sad to see that the historic landmark, the Pak Shuka on Mashtots Avenue, has become a regular supermarket. I would have liked to have taken Bill in there. Ditto for what used to be the GUM, a department store on Abovian Street, and the Hayastan Market (which had changed as I was leaving). But some things are better now. For instance, the eternal flame at Tsitsernakaberd now is a true eternal flame. They leave it burning all the time, instead of just on special occasions. And the door to the Blue Mosque is now very well marked, so you can’t miss it. When I lived in Yerevan, the door to the mosque was very plain, and easy to miss. Northern Avenue is a really nice street that makes it convenient to be a pedestrian, although who knows what happened to the people who lived in the houses that were destroyed so it could be built?
2. Yerevan is very safe, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t creepers there.
We ran into one of them on our wedding anniversary. He was up to no good, and not very subtle about it. However, he was acting this way in broad daylight, which was strange. I don’t know what he was up to, but I didn’t get a good feeling about it. We ended up going a different way than we planned, which worked out fine, and that was the only strange incident. It was a good reminder to always be aware and keep your wits about you. That’s good advice no matter where you go.
And finally, 1. Although Yerevan is now a lot more modern than it used to be, and more travel friendly, it’s still very exotic and will be quite interesting to most people… and if you can speak a few words of Armenian, it will open doors for you!
I was happy that some of my old, rusty language skills came back, and I was able to speak enough Armenian to be understood by a lot of the locals. Many of them were delighted when I spoke their language… and quite a few were shocked when it turned out I wasn’t Russian. I know they get more foreigners visiting now, but it’s still not a place that is super high on the tourism list for westerners. So I would absolutely encourage adventure seekers to come visit Armenia. I would especially encourage it now, because Armenians have so much to offer; they do need the tourism drams; and sadly, if a couple of neighboring countries have their way, Armenia might someday cease to exist. So please visit, if I’ve tempted you. You will be very warmly welcomed by most! And be sure to tip 10 percent!
I want to offer special thanks to Stepan, my former student and current friend. He made us feel like FAMILY… and was so kind, welcoming, and generous. Stepan, you made this trip unforgettable, and you showed us the warmth and hospitality that Armenia is known for. It was a vacation like no other, and I will always be so grateful for all you did to make it so. So շատ շնորհակալություն! I hope we can come back again… much sooner than 26 years from now!