The taxi cuts the cold night in Yerevan like a razor blade as it speeds through silent streets. The driver, Ashot, had begun criticizing the authorities while we were putting my luggage in the trunk, and stop he did not. “Welcome to Armenia! This country is run by people who couldn’t care less about the average citizen.”
He charges, “When it comes to the responsibilities of the citizen, we are in Switzerland; when it comes to duties toward them, it’s a jungle here.” A recent law making car insurance mandatory for all cars is his first example. “I have a car in my driveway that I have not driven for 20 years. It has to be insured, they say, even if I will never drive it. So far, so good. But insurance costs you a leg and an arm, and the minimum wage cannot even sustain a dog here.” He stops at a red light, turns to me, and continues, “I work day and night and can hardly support my family. We can’t afford keeping the heat on these days. We turn it on, warm the house a bit, then turn it back off.”
A dozen similarly themed stories later, we are almost at my hotel. “Enough about Armenia, though,” he mutters. “How is life in America?”
Our group heads to Geghard the following morning. In part carved out of a mountain, the 13th-century monastery has something for all the senses—and more for the spirit.
In the freezing cold, we are greeted by a few women selling bread and homemade jams. They pose behind the tables they have set up as the TV crew films them and the rest of us take pictures. Can we record an interview with you, we ask one of the women. “I’d rather not because I will only complain, and you won’t be able to resolve our problems,” she says, with a kind smile.
Inside, we are reminded of the monastery’s perfect acoustics as the Geghard Vocal Quintet performs for our group, their beautiful voices embraced by the centuries-old walls and ushered to the dome, and beyond.
In Dilijan, a beautiful summer resort some 20 kilometers north of Lake Sevan, we visit Grisha, a local woodworker. His workspace is uncluttered and cozy. Who said a carpenter’s door is always broken? On the wall behind him, he proudly points to a photo of the Christmas tree at the White House with then-president Bill Clinton and his family posing next to it. Underneath the framed picture is a letter from the White House thanking him for his beautifully carved ornaments.
Grisha tells us he learned the craft from his father, that he’s been carving for a living for 15 years now. How much time does it take you to finish something like that, we ask, pointing to the intricately carved ornament in front of him. “Depends on my mood. If I am in good spirits, 3-4 hours.” Outside, darkness has already settled on the small strip with a few stores, restaurants, and a hotel. The warm lights from the stores and houses make sure the strip’s beauty is not lost on us—even in winter. It is difficult to not be in good spirits here, I think.
My mind races back to Yerevan, where Ashot likely hasn’t had any sleep, working hard to be able to turn the heat on for a few hours a day. Then I think of the energy and dedication of the five talented performers who sang for us in the freezing cold in Geghard. These men and women, each in their own way, are paving the way for a better tomorrow, despite the cold realities.