Monday, July 21, 2008

Driving in the Caucuses

I never thought I'd find a place where cars matter more than people - but if you've ever crossed the street in Tiblisi or Yerevan, well, you'd think people are expendable and cars are not. After all, human limbs are replaceable, but front bumpers? Gotta keep those intact!

After arriving in Yerevan for my internship a few weeks ago, I noticed a lot of good socio-economic changes - more people starting their own businesses, new stores on every street corner, new high-rises going up and old buildings being renovated. Everything seems a lot more professional and systematic in Yerevan compared to 2001 when I was here last. But the driving culture still scares the shit out of me. Whether I'm riding in a cab, or trying to cross the street - there's never a time I'm more alert in my life, than when trying to avoid old speeding Russian Lada's and pricey Mercedes G-class sport utilities (although to the country's credit, you could also be hit by an increasing number of middle income cars such as Skoda Fabias or Ford Fusions).

It all started one night last week when I was coming home from the Malkhaz jazz club. Let me tell you that some of the best Jazz you'll hear in Yerevan is on Pushkin street at the Malkhaz Jazz club, or seeing Chico and Friends perform at the StopClub. But back to the driving part of things. I left the jazz club at about 1am - looked both ways before crossing the street and did my trademark light jog across about 6 lanes of traffic. By the time I had almost crossed over, this car started accelerating at me like there was no tomorrow. Before I knew it, he was within feet of hitting me. My heart was pounding but I looked away and kept going. It came down to the wire, and finally, mr. psycho swerves, goes around me and keeps driving. Without a doubt the driver was accelerating to hit me, maybe on a dare, or maybe because he was drunk or maybe because this is frigin' Armenia, but I narrowly escaped his wrath.

If I was careful before that incident, then you can imagine how careful I am now when crossing the street. Most people start crossing the street when before the crossing signal turns green - but me? Oh I wait, I wait patiently like a handicapped elderly woman transported here from another planet. Other people cross the first few lanes of traffic and then get caught in the median, and wait for cars in the opposite direction to pass and then wade out casually into traffic, their toddlers in hand, their shopping bags slung over their shoulders. Me? I watch them and pray to the traffic gods that I'm not going to witness a horrific accident that'll be aired sometime after 3am on FoxTV on "Worst Car Accidents" International Edition. Well finally, I watch an entire cluster of pedestrians make it over to the other side of the road. Now the light turns green and it's my turn.

Even with a green crossing signal in Armenia, cars that are making right and left turns can still come in your direction and they will NOT stop for you. Or rather, they'll stop for you when their bumper is a few centimeters from your kneecap. The kind of distance where your life flashes before your eyes just as you feel that homicidal tendency coming on - a desire to take the driver who's about to hit you and smash his head through his own windshield. Then, suddenly, you stop, or you let the driver pass and it's all over. You're across the street in one piece and now you don't feel like killing anyone, and no one feels like killing you. You just regroup and get ready for the next crossing.

So almost 3 weeks into my stay here, I'm just barely getting used to pedestrian/driving culture. I've almost mastered how to make it across the street and I've gotten rid of my "light jog" across lanes of traffic. Now I walk a bit more casually and dare I say, confidently across the roadways here. Well maybe the term confident is still a bit of a stretch. My pulse still jumps about 300 beats a minute as my right foot leaves the sidewalk. I start looking in every direction, sometimes even up into the sky, as if there's there's traffic up there too. I think I've refined my obstacle avoidance techniques to the point where I could probably walk into sniper fire and avoid getting hit for a few seconds. Ah. The skills you pick up in certain parts of the world. And to think I toyed with the idea of renting a car here:)


Ani said...

Heheheh - thanks for sharing Areg! Very witty and candid perspective on the present car culture in Yerevan. Enjoy your final weeks in the Hayrenik and we'll see you back home!

Ted Chan said...

Nice - love the first hand accounts of how the world is changing. I'll post a link on my blog. (

Lindsey said...

a car blog. of course! :) let me know when you're back in town before the big move!