I hate the taxis in Yerevan. Oh, all right, that’s not quite accurate. I dislike taking taxis in Yerevan, despite all the advantages they have to offer. Really, the best way to explore and get to know any city is on foot. And walking around Yerevan can really be wonderful, especially as it is indeed such a walkable city. You can easily get from Point A to Point B in your own shoes, something that is very hard to experience in, say, Los Angeles, for example. Of all the places I’ve lived and visited in the world—not that my sample is too immense, but, with modesty, I imagine it is sufficient to pass the following judgment—Yerevan’s taxis are among the most inexpensive and accessible in the world. It is difficult not to catch one, barring extreme circumstances. And almost anywhere to almost anywhere in the city center almost always costs 600 drams, what is known as the “minimal” (pronounced “mee-nee-mahl”). That’s something like one and a half American dollars. Where, I ask you, is it possible to have a personal car take you from door to door for that amount? Not in too many places in the Western world, I’d wager.
But I still dislike using taxis around here. I feel uncomfortable with the knowledge that there are a whole bunch of strangers in town who know exactly where I live. Oh, yes, it has happened that I’ve had the same driver more than once, and he has known, without my telling him, exactly where I’m headed. That’s just my paranoid self, because probably none of these “taxists,” as they are called, are planning on burglarizing the place while I’m away. And, in this city, sooner or later (let’s be honest: sooner), everyone knows where everyone else lives. That was the case long before Facebook.
The other reason I dislike taxis is that, very, very often, they try to and succeed in ripping me off. This is, again, more my own problem than anything else. I don’t look like a local, nor even an Armenian—something of a natural target on offer there. And I really hate bargaining. I often don’t have the exact change and—surprise!—neither does the taxist. I was once thrown out of a cab because I insisted the man put on the meter. I couldn’t believe how rude he was! Of course, all I did was call his company the next day and complain. I really should be more assertive. But that doesn’t give the drivers the right to rip me off. Still, the circumstances in the end are enough to discourage me from taking taxis in Yerevan.
Chatting with cabbies can be rather hit-or-miss. Mostly miss. It’s a stereotype, but I can attest to it: Each taxist has a strong opinion on politics and society in Armenia. And in order to support the veracity of their claims, each one has also simultaneously amassed impressive degrees in the past and vast fortunes to boot. The carefree, Soviet days are lamentably lost, of course. And things are naturally always perfect “drsoum” (outside), wherever that may be. I am exaggerating just a little, but there are only so many of these conversations one can take, you know?
I did on one occasion actually initiate an exchange, because the taxist that time was a woman. This is a real rarity in Armenia. I was happy and even proud of this lady, and indeed, so was she, and rightfully so. By the time I reached my destination, she was trying to set me up with her daughter. A successful marriage of tradition and innovation, I’d say, even without any real prospects of marriage for me or the daughter.
The strongest argument I have against taking taxis in Yerevan, though, is the existence and prevalence of the metro. I love the metro. I walk whenever and wherever it is possible, but, if it has to be any other way, it has to be the metro for me. I can’t really explain why. I think it is the simplicity of that means of transport in general, as I have felt strong affinity towards subways, tubes, U-bahns, and Ts in other cities as well. You know where you are, you know where the carriages are going, it’s all set up, predictable, safe, and certainly cool in terms of temperature during Yerevan’s sweltering heat, with relative warmth during the chilly winter. Oh, and they have free Wi-Fi now in the stations. With the metro, a hundred drams can take you anywhere. Well, actually, that’s not true, because Yerevan’s metro has only 10 stops or so.
The real title of “a hundred drams can take you anywhere” belongs to the ubiquitous marshrutkas of Yerevan. Ah, here is a means of transport! The name is a Russian formation from the French (la marche-route, as far as I can tell). These are numbered mini-buses with fixed routes that ply pretty much all the time. I don’t believe there is a “night bus” system in place, though. And, the buses and mini-buses don’t have a regular schedule per se. You just take them as they come along. They do, however, serve for a hundred drams and a hundred drams alone, no matter where you hop on and where you hop off. That’s what I like about them: no bargaining, no cheating. As long as I know where I am getting on and where my stop is, there’s no stopping me.
As a matter of fact, the whole system of bus stops is something of a recent change. I remember when I first moved to Yerevan more than 10 years ago, the marshrutkas served much more at the pleasure of the passenger, stopping anywhere, anytime for people embarking or alighting. This can be quite hectic in the city’s increasing traffic, not to say dangerous. So, there are proper, marked bus stops now; one of the consequences are signs in marshrutkas that read, “No stopping except for at stops” (“Kangarits dours kangar ch’pahanjel”). A legacy of the old days, however, is that one has to verbally inform the driver when one needs to get out at a coming stop, often by shouting out. Many of the bus-stops even have the numbers of the means of transport available written out on them. But not the routes marked out. You still need to know those by heart.
Or read them off the side of the bus or mini-bus. That’s my strategy. I usually don’t know which goes where exactly, so I have to wait some time before I figure it out. Of course, one can always ask the driver. I remember one time I asked a driver if his marshrutka passed by a certain landmark, and he nodded. So in I went and, after a while, a fellow passenger pointed out to me that we had already passed the place I had indicated. I got upset at the driver…and then I realized that I never revealed the fact that I did not know myself where the place was and wanted him simply to stop there. Of course, I can’t do that anymore, unless, by coincidence, there is a bus-stop there. But it will still cost only a hundred drams.
There have recently been talks about increasing the price for public transport in Yerevan. It already happened with the metro some years ago—going from 50 to 100 drams, or a 100 percent increase, which naturally caused a public outcry. I am sure this time won’t go down so well either. I also remember when the city’s “street-cars” (“trahm-vay,” “tramway”) were discontinued and their rails pulled out or asphalted over. We still have “trolley-buses” (“trah-ley-boos”), however, which use electric cables and so are nice and environmentally friendly, but are rather slow and often break down.
Another reason why I prefer the metro all the same is that marshrutkas tend to be crowded. And by “crowded,” I definitely mean “overcrowded,” to the point of dangerously filling up these mostly Russian-manufactured vans. At least many of the buses are bigger, imported from Ukraine or–the latest bunch–donations from the People’s Republic of China. One can at least stand without crouching in them. I don’t mind that too much. But I usually like to wait and, if I’m lucky, grab a seat in the front of a mini-van.
One time I saw an unusual sight: a woman sitting in the front seat of a marshrutka. Again, the patriarchal nature of society in Armenia extends beyond the rarity of the female taxist all the way to a lack of women even in front passenger seats. I took the seat next to her, by the window, and realized she was speaking familiarly with the driver. So, alas, this was not so much of a pioneer in the field of women’s seating rights, as it was the driver’s wife or sister. And then she began talking about me. She asked the driver in a low voice whether he thought I was cute. I couldn’t believe my ears! And, thankfully, I managed to get out at my stop without uttering a word of Armenian so they never found out that I could understand them. It was flattering, I suppose. I certainly got more than a hundred drams’ worth of transportation that evening.
And then the other day I took the no. 2 marshrutka up Komitas Avenue. A couple of stops later, a young lady opened the sliding doors, nearly carrying it off its rails. The driver, incensed, shouted, “Urod!” at the top of his lungs. All of us on board were taken aback. He rushed to the door and tried to slide it back into place, unleashing another “Urod!” in the process, scowling terribly. That is a mild Russian curse word, loosely translated as “monster.” As soon as he sat back down on the driver’s seat, he vented to the young lady, asking her why she was so careless in opening the door. Another passenger, a young man, gently defended her, giving suggestions on making repairs, using all sorts of Russian terms that are the vernacular of the field, explaining that the marshrutka was on an incline and that the door gave way on its own. I catch the word “inertsia” in the process. As the next stop was nearing, the driver gruffly asked, “Is anyone getting out?” Silence. An older woman then broke it: “Well, if someone were, now we’re all too scared to say so!” Even the driver smiled in the ensuing laughter.
And that’s the best part about marshrutkas. One can really gauge some cultural insights on a mini-bus that are not quite available via taxi or metro, or even on foot: Who gets up to give up his or her seat for whom, how children are treated, reactions to big bills, demanding change in the face of the mere hundred-dram payment, how people carrying big shopping bags are offered assistance to deal with their loads, how drivers juggle smoking, talking on their cellphones, and dealing with payments while driving at the same time, how the elderly manage to climb on and off… A little incident can play out in a very telling manner.
So I’d say, definitely take a marshrutka next time you’re in town. Public transport in Yerevan can provide you with a really authentic ride, with meaningful glimpses of—and glimpses through the eyes of—the public of our capital.