The Best Diesel in Yerevan
The catalyst for my return to Armenia, my ancestral homeland, after a 23 year absence, was to see my sister get married in Yerevan. In a manner typical of the Armenian Diaspora, which is actually larger than the population of the mother country, my sister, UK-born and New York-raised (but resident in Yerevan for the past two years) was getting married to a Lebanese-born, LA-raised Armenian fellow. The wedding was to be traditional Armenian, with all of the ancient customs that my sister had meticulously researched. The main event was to be two days after I arrived, so I left myself five days after the newlyweds disappeared off on honeymoon to explore Armenia.
The main advantage of my sister’s past two years of experience living the Hye*-life, was her vast array of local connections and friends, all of seemed only too happy to show me around. I had my heart set on visiting the monastic complexes of Sanahin and Haghpat, near neighbours in the distant and most northerly province of Lori – very close to the Georgian and Azerbaijani borders. However, given the state of the roads and the fact that the area is very mountainous, the journey normally takes a minimum of four hours each way. This was not a mission for the faint-hearted, and I was resigned to taking a guided tour - until one of her friends – a repatriated Syrian Armenian called Nicholas – happily volunteered to drive us. He worked for the American Embassy as a driver and had a robust but ageing seven-seater van at his disposal.
Given the distance, we decided on a relatively early start. Nicholas duly collected our party – myself and my parents - from our central Yerevan flat at 8am on a glorious summers morning. On the outskirts of Yerevan, before we hit the main highways, we stopped for petrol, and stepped straight into an unexpected soap opera, drama and comedy all rolled into one. We pulled up to the pump, and a grease monkey in his early twenties, unlit cigarette dangling from his lower lip, looked expectantly at Nicholas, who told him to fill it up. Thirty seconds into the fill, Nicholas let out a despairing whelp and started shouting at the attendant to stop. Seeing a large van, the fellow had automatically assumed that he should fill up with diesel. Unfortunately, the van ran on unleaded petrol.
Cue some furious gesticulating, raised voices, much wailing and gnashing of teeth. We immediately realised that our trip had hit a major snag, and possibly affected Nicholas’ livelihood as well, so I got out of the van to try and help. By this time, the little drama had drawn a crowd - in less than thirty seconds, around six or seven men had materialised from seemingly nowhere, all ready to offer advice and assistance. After much head scratching, a man identified himself as the manager and tried to assure Nicholas that his diesel was "the best in Yerevan, prime quality, no problem" and suggested he turn over the engine to make his point. I was horrified. I know, in the UK at least, that the one thing you do NOT do when you put the wrong fuel is start the engine, so I physically interjected, and in my rusty Armenian, tried to explain to the manager, by analogy, that if you put the finest salt in the world into a sweet cake, its not going to be sweet – it ruins the cake. He grudgingly accepted the point and we finally convinced him that the tank needed to be drained.
We put the van in neutral, and while my parents and I watched (I was happily snapping away with my camera, which the lads seemed to enjoy) six lads pushed the van onto a small ram situated under the front wheel, while another found a bucket and a manky looking rubber hose. Using old-fashioned sucking power, the tank was slowly siphoned dry. In the meantime, two of the younger chaps – Harout and Khatchadour – curious about where we were from, got to chatting, posed for photos, and were thrilled to learn that there was a chance their photos might go up on the internet at some point. Their five second of fame secured, they returned to the task of wheeling the van back to the pump so we could get the unleaded fuel we had stopped in for 45 minutes before. We exchanged numbers with the manager, just in case there was a problem, but in the event nothing happened, and the manager even called, thirty minutes into our journey, to ensure that everything was working fine. We were on our way, at last.
* Armenians refer to themselves as "Hye" and to their country as "Hayastan"
© Hishyeness 2010