ARMENIAN RHAPSODY (Journey to Tbilisi)

Working in the Caucasus can be both harrowing and hilarious.

The journey to Tbilisi starts inauspiciously. I am travelling with a colleague and have arranged with the ‘plush’ Ani Plaza Hotel in Yerevan that I could pay both our bills with a mix of credit cards and cash on departure. When check-out time came suddenly there are problems. 

“We have run out of the counterfoils for Visa cards,” says the young woman allocated the task of dealing with our bill.

“Fine,” says I pocketing my business card. “I have my Access Mastercard.” 

It is accepted with just a hint of resentment, and swiped through a machine. We wait while it registers. It doesn’t.  

“I am sorry sir, we cannot accept this.”

It is now 09.00 local time, 5am in the UK. A phone call is made. I cannot believe that Access do not operate a 24 hour system but, according the front desk staff, there is no response.

I can see we are in for a long haul. I order a cab for 9.20, since there is no sign of a UNICEF vehicle and our UN flight is scheduled for 10.10. It will take 20 minutes to get to the airport.

The bill is made out in dollars. I have some dollars plus some local currency. Put together there should be enough. 

“We cannot accept dollars, sir. It has to be in local currency.”

“But the bills are made out in dollars!” I protest.

“Sorry sir, those are the rules.”

“But the banks aren’t open yet.” I protest.

“You may change it at our exchange, sir.”

It is in the corner of the lobby, and there is a queue. The exchange rate is considerably lower than the exchange kiosks in downtown Yerevan – just out of range given our time constraints.

When my turn comes I profer $1,140 to meet the $1,119.35 bill; that is 599,681.76 Armenian Dram at the current rate. 

The two cashiers check the sums and each one counts out the cash. It comes in great wadges of 5,000, 1,000 and all the smaller denomination notes including 1 Dram, plus coins. 

I insist on a receipt. One writes it out while the other checks it. By now 9.20 has come and gone, with no sign of the cab. Self-consciously I make my way across the lobby, clutching the bundles between both hands. French and American Armenians visiting the Motherland, and the sundry supernumerary staff, watch with carefully disguised amusement as another foreigner gets the treatment. 

I slap down the dosh on the counter. The exchange scam has added almost $20 to the bill.

“I am very angry about this. It is a disgrace that you cannot honour my credit cards. You bill me in dollars but don’t accept them. Now I am forced to pay extra.”

The poor young woman with whom I am having to deal is close to tears. I reach out and touch her hand.

“Don’t worry. It is not your fault. I am not blaming you, but I must protest at this ridiculous farce.”

I am surprised at my own temerity, but feel better for having raised my voice – unsure who is bullying whom. The bursar busies herself counting out the bundles which the hotel’s exchange desk has just handed to me after double-counting it. 

My colleague appears. The cab has not yet arrived but the doorman has said it will be here in two minutes. My colleague insists that the hotel call the airport to warn them we may be late. The plane, she learns, has only just taken off from Tbilisi, so it will not be on the tarmac until after 10am. 

We go outside with our assorted luggage. Tour groups are taking pictures of each other before leaving on a day trip. They watch with curiosity as the under manageress emerges to assure us a cab will come soon and we shall be at the airport by 9.45. I notice that there is cab rank just across the intersection near the hotel, and suggest that someone goes and gets one of them. But no. Despite the chaotic local driving style, the cab would have to follow a tortuous one-way system to be able to get to the hotel, I am advised. 

Suddenly everyone is signalling. A cab has arrived driven by a surly individual who acts as if he has been roused from his bed. He piles our bags into the boot. 

All at once the burly figure of Robert our UNICEF driver, is standing beside us, looking startled, his bright white 4-wheel Land Rover blocking in the battered cab.

“Mike! Didn’t you remember that I said I would take you to the airport?”

We fall into his arms. “Of course, of course, Robert. We were just worried about the time.”

“We are always on time.”he says firmly. “There is no problem. We will be on time.”

It is 9.35. The cab driver mutters to himself and begins to unload his boot. I offer him a generous bundle of Dram, but he waves it away and slumps back into his cab. 

On the journey to the airport we hasten to reassure Robert, who is crestfallen that we might have doubted his reliability. We are all laughing and the best of friends by the time we reach the VIP entrance to the extraordinary concrete spaceship that is Yerevan air terminal.

Once inside we are accosted by a pleasant woman from the UN who reminds us politely that we must pay a 10,000 Dram exit tax, and weigh our voluminous luggage.  It is way over the personal allowance of 15kg. She is ‘generous’ in her calculations, but the excess still costs us $150, rather more than our $110 tickets, so I must make another trip to the exchange desk to convert my remaining Dram to back to dollars.

She is apologetic, and we inform her of the Ani Plaza currency debacle. “It is our shame,” she mutters. “It is our shame.”

Robert is kindness itself accompanying me to the bank, forsaking part of his ‘tip’ to make up the shortfall when my calculations prove incorrect, and then piling our bags onto a trolley. Now we have time to say our goodbyes and greet the six other UN passengers, while the incomers disembark from the tiny twin-prop aircraft that has come to a halt at the end of the VIP awning. 

With all the excitement and exertion it is time for a visit to the loo – a cool and relaxing environment into which I settle with some relief. What feels like only moment later, a discreet knuckle-rap on the door and a whispered “Mike, they’re waiting for us,” disturbs my reverie.

“He is our shame,” my colleague is telling our hostess. “He is our shame.”

A porter is struggling to control our over-laden trolley under the awning, and there are yelps of concern as the propellers swing into action and the tiny door on the 10-seater plane is slammed shut. Amidst much clucking, tutting, waving and shouting, Robert runs towards the plane to secure our departure.

Luckily the engines have pumped up the pneumatic seal on the door so it will not close properly, and we scramble aboard. It takes sometime for the seal to subside once the propellers wind down, and I am are able to strap myself in before my anxious colleague has satisfied herself that the bags are all stowed safely in the tailfin.

The beefy, ginger-haired German pilot uses his brawn to force the door shut, and his co-pilot swivels round to welcome us aboard, and run through the brief niceties we all know so well – seatbelt, oxygen masks, er… that’s all folks… 

The pilot, sitting within feet of us, brusquely informs his assistant which buttons to press and which levers to throw, in what order and why. Either this is an impromptu training flight or he is pissed off because the drill had not be followed with sufficient precision on the flight in – either way it is disconcerting… 

Then we are off. 

This is the way to fly. A brief sally up the runway, a sharp turn upwards, a quick bank across the sprawling city and a levelling out which allows us to view the Genocide monument and Sports complex above the bend in the Hrazdan river and to identify the Ari Plaza one last time, before we are cruising low over the soft folds of a light green and ochre landscape pockmarked with outcrops of dark green forest and orange and white rocks. 

The spoor of some snow-footed beast colonise the foothills of the broad, rounded black slopes slashed with snow filled crevasses, and little peaks sit up like white meringues as if each seeks to assert a claim to dominate the myriad summits.

And beyond, deep green hillsides are scarred by the dark earthworks of current endeavours, while the efforts of earlier years are etched faintly into the lime green hilly pastures. And there is Lake Sevan, spreading out to the horizon like a mirage suspended in mid air, its shimmering turquoise shallows speaking of the intensity with which generations of Armenian painters have sought to capture the extraordinary hues of its earthly and aerial surroundings.

On its northern shore great fat fingers of verdant undergrowth dip into the lake, streaks of snow tucked into the knuckles. Deep green forest covers the decline into valley after valley while grass populates the south-facing counter slopes. 

We are crossing the border now into Georgia where the rolling wooded hills are scratched by tracks that hint of scant population. 

Then the terrain begins to look desert like, with occasional dense pockets of habitation punctuating the grey plains, and away to the west the parallel talons of a gigantic two-pronged reservoir stretch towards us sending out silver streaks in the sunlight which turn into the lazy unkempt meanders of the river Mtkvari.

Ugly clumps of sepulchral tower blocks signal the suburbs of Tbilisi, but there is no sign of the beautiful city we have been encouraged to expect. Perhaps I am too fascinated by the view over the pilot’s shoulder, as he steadies the tiny craft and lines it up with the runway just ahead. 

Less that 45 minutes after we set off, we set down and taxi across to the terminal building.

Once inside, dragging our overweight belongings, a uniformed security guard waves forms at us with one hand while he manoeuvres his cigarette with the other. We comply, as we must, and wait for two passport control staff to check us out and check us in. 

Then we are through to run the gauntlet of over enthusiastic cab drivers. But we are okay. A UN driver shepherds us across the car park to the inevitable white four-wheel drive. Suddenly there is confusion. This one lacks the familiar UNICEF logo. Once again our bags are unloaded and transferred to the UNICEF driver who has been waiting for us much closer to the terminal. Our bags are dragged across the tarmac yet again, and we are off through the tree-lined streets of Tbilisi – with its impressive architecture, craggy rock formations, busy streets and scary drivers – to ‘Round Square’, the home of UN House.

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