Most expats and travelers find Armenia a beautiful mountainous country abundant in lovely wildflowers and glorious fruit during spring and summer.
However, try arriving in the middle of an arctic Armenian winter and you’ll find that this is not the best way to start a new expatriate experience, especially not when you’ve just come from a cheery tropical country. This happened to me and my man some years ago and you can read all about that in Expat Lament, one of my earlier posts. I look back at this experience with pride because we were tough! Cold, but tough, and full of good intentions too! Like, we were not going to buy a car! Really!
We’d found a house in town – that being Yerevan, the capital – and we’d decided to try to manage without a vehicle, do more walking and live an urban life style. We could use taxis when necessary and rent or borrow a car if we wanted to explore the countryside. We would be responsible global citizens and not add unnecessarily to the air pollution and the size of the hole in the ozone layer. I’m sure, dear reader, you’re impressed. Unfortunately, we were weak. And cold. Did I mention we were cold? Here’s the story:
The Glories of a Russian Car
For weeks now my mate and I have been stoically hoofing it most everywhere in Yerevan. We even do our food shopping on foot, which is a drag. Cabbages and beets are heavy. It’s frigid inside the covered, unheated produce market, and the uncleared, icy sidewalks are especially designed for slipping and falling. My hands are frozen stiff around the shopping bag handles. My nose is growing icicles. My toes are numb. Schlepping around my heavy bags, I’m feeling more and more like a mule in a down coat. This is not good for my self-esteem.
We want a car.
Our neighbor, Canadian Nancy, has a car, sort of, and we’ve ridden in it. It’s a Russian-made Lada, Niva model. It looks cheap and basic because it is cheap and basic. Standard transmission, no air-conditioning, no suspension to speak of. Only five thousand five hundred US dollars, cash, for a brand-new model. Everything on the car that counts is solid as a tank, everything else is crap. There are lots of these cars all over the place. All white.
“Buy a Niva,” Nancy counsels. “It’s got four-wheel drive, it’s high so you can drive all over these mountains with it and everybody and his dog can fix it when something breaks.”
My man is seriously interested in this Niva. He loves to roam the countryside wherever we live or travel and he’s a practical sort. He wants a car that can conquer rocky mule tracks, a car any peasant can fix. Besides, in a Niva, we’ll be invisible, and we like that. If you drive a Mercedes Benz you are not. Armenia is a country where status and image are supremely valued. So if you belong to the elite and/or have money and you want to make sure everybody knows it, you drive a Benz. When you drive a Niva, nobody will look at you because you have no class. You’re just a working stiff in a cheap car. This works for us.
We go to the Niva dealer where we find a spiffy young salesman who speaks a bit of English. He does a masterful job of selling. My mate test-drives the car while the salesman sits in the front passenger seat singing the Niva’s praises, waxing lyrical about how good it is, how strong, how wonderful this Russian car. I’m in the back seat enjoying his spiel. He has a great future ahead of him in the new capitalist Armenia because he has clearly embraced the philosophy of the consumer society. He’s going to sell this boxy little car to us if it’s the last thing he does.
Back at the dealership we crawl out and my spouse asks him to show us how to flatten the back seat so we can transport larger items if necessary. Our helpful salesman tries, but the handle is stuck and the backrest won’t budge. He tries a little harder and the handle breaks off. He looks up at us and shrugs.
“Russian car,” he says philosophically.
Not to worry. It’s easily fixed and we buy the car. We drive it for six years with only minor issues. We bounce around all over the Armenian mountains, on potholed roads, stony goat tracks and even up a couple of rocky stream beds. We sell it for a thousand dollars less than we paid for it.
It pays to have no class.
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Do you have any car stories? Or maybe your transport is a rowing boat on a jungle river, or a camel in the desert. Or maybe you have a single engine plane to get you out of the bush! Do tell!