Yes, it's that time of year again..the time when I publish this yearly dialog in lieu of a Christmas card. Go ahead and trash it if you so wish. Let me know if you don't want to receive any more of these type letters and I'll take you off the mass mailing list. If you're in that category, STOP READING NOW!
Oh, good, you're still here! Well, I'm still in Armenia. The job is dragging on longer than expected. While this does wonders for the bank account, the ego is damaged. Murphy, of Murphy's Law fame, must have been in construction and had a project similar to this one. Seems like whenever we spotted a problem and tried to do something about it, something totally unrelated would pop up and crush our plans. We had problems getting our design approved, so the materials were late in ordering. We went 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Well, Armenia's a land locked country, the nearest ports are in Turkey...no trade relations since WWI, Azerbaijan...been at war with for ten years, and Georgia. Georgia is our port of choice. Russia put a temporary ban on imported vodka and a chief source was the Ukraine. Georgia has an agreement with Russia to allow Russian authorities to come over the border without any paperwork and arrest criminals. The owners of these vodka containers are now considered bootleggers. While we're trying to bring materials in, Russia's trying to keep imported vodka out. This put major congestion on the port and tripled the unloading times. We can't get our materials out. I can cite numerous examples of this but the result is the same. We're late.
I'm slowly learning some Armenian...I can point and gesture the rest..it takes about six months before the interest kicks in to learn the local language..same thing I did in Turkey. Still, walking down the street, I feel like a mute..unable to communicate with the average Arthur..the common name here. From what I've observed, there isn't a great variety of words they can use to communicate in Armenian. One of our suppliers says it's very precise. I'd agree. I'd also say it's a very limiting language. In English, you can say no in a thousand different ways. In Armenian, the's just one word..chay. There are forty two letters in the Armenian alphabet..they look a lot like my chicken scratch otherwise known as penmanship. The Armenians know Russian and use it to supplement their language for words they can not express in their own language. Several years ago, the Armenians held a conference to add words to the language to make up for the deficiencies..result..big argument and nothing was resolved or accepted.
Armenians treat Americans like royalty. Almost every Armenian has a relative in Los Angeles..the second largest Armenian population in the world. When I tell them I'm American, they say they've heard of Los Angeles..have I ever been there..twice. The local fire department offered to forget about their big demands if I'd marry one of their secretaries..not bad on the eyes but I'm not leaving here with anything that won't fit in a suitcase..they have what they want and take it out of my check!
If you ask me how I like Armenia, I will honestly give you two answers, I love it and hate it as well. The hate part is directed at the power figures we must deal with day in and day out...elected officials, business owners.. These folks are so corrupt that you feel it oozing from their pores when you first meet them. These are the leftovers from the former Soviet Empire who have stepped on, walked over, and squashed those who dare challenge them by standing in their way. Believe me, the only difference from the pre-soviet to the post soviet government is the name of the government. The Soviets developed a system that is slow to change and the ruled class has no idea that they don't have to tolerate the crud that the ruling class dictates. Revolution is not the key, evolution is. If you oust the idiots in power, you bring in a new corrupt pig and the problem still remains. Only time will help change the memories and governments of Armenian people. Unfortunately, in business, you must deal with these type of people.
To cite an example, as part of the client's loan agreement, they must sign a contract with a cargo handling operation agreed to by the lender. The owner's people dictate whom the cargo handler may hire, what they may buy...relinquished to the role of a pure consultant. The cargo handler is running the existing cargo operation and facility and will move into the new facility upon completion. Anyway, the various factions of the owner's people are maneuvering for the day when the contract with the cargo handler is expired and their cronies can take over...here's where the big payoff begins. In earnest, the cargo handler hired the best people and purchase the best things for the job. The various factions of the owner's people had their loyal plants in position..these folks turned out to be real duds and the cargo handler sacked them. This did not a happy owner make. They asked the highest Armenian on the payroll, loyal to the cargo handlers and not to the factions, to resign...and he did under fear of implied physical danger to himself and fear that something may happen to his family. The owner shot down the purchasing recommendations to give the contracts to relatives at considerably higher prices for lesser equipment.
Believe me, they shoot dissidents here. Yerevan is the capital of Armenia. We hear a lot of news floating through the rumor mill. Take, for example, an elected official protesting the procurement of a general's Jeep Grand Cherokee using the government's general budget. Seems one of the general's staff rolled the old one. The protesting official thought it should come out of the military budget. The general pulled out a gun and shot the man in the throat right on the assembly floor. The dissident lived but is now living in exile.
I can cite example after example of this corruption. We have a seven thousand dollar a day penalty clause in our contract. We KNOW that there is no way the Armenians will pay back the loan..they can't. As a matter of policy, we can't pay off these people but know that they were expecting the big payoff. In retaliation we KNOW that they are elated at the prospect of receiving these penalty monies in an attempt to reduce the amount of the loan and have done nothing to assist us in our project..and right now, I'm in the process of proving it. The trails are real obvious.
The love part..these are the common folk. I go no further than my landlord who lives right above me. He told me that the Armenians had given up looking for jobs...there were none. Believe me when I tell you, it's not what you know, it's who you know here. My landlord is a wonderful man. He loves to throw parties. I'm amazed at how fast his wife can concoct a party..even though I just came up to take care of a small item. Coffee, well, yes..and suddenly there's a whole table full of food as if it was hidden away and suddenly restored as a surprise party. Armenians must have a reason, such as a toast, to drink. They don't drink alone. If I come up and consent to a few shots of vodka or cognac, he can drink and his eyes light up big time..HE CAN DRINK! The last party he had, he asked me to make the toast. I explained that in my culture it was acceptable to drink without a reason..just because. They liked this but were unwilling to change their custom.
According to my computer atlas, Yerevan has 1.2 million people. It's the biggest city in the world without cable TV. There are satellites everywhere.
I must admit that Armenia is vastly improved since I was here in 1994. In 1994, I could walk down the middle of the busiest streets of Yerevan with out a fear of getting hit..now I have to walk down the middle...for fear that they will hit me. For you non-internet recipients, I've enclosed a copy of a magazine article stating how insane walking and driving is here in Yerevan. For the e-mail crowd, accept my testimony, there's no respect for driver by pedestrian and vice-versa. Mainly, the biggest difference between 1994 and 1997 is they have fuel. Stores seem to pop up over night, unfortunately, a small variety / amount of products seem to be crossing the borders and the owner is forced to spread a few products over a vast empty space. Products from one store are the same as the one next door. The term store is a misnomer..more like shop. The vast majority of shops are limited to canned foods with an entire section dedicated to vodka and cognac. The butcher (lunch meats, wieners, sausages...pork products) has the market on meats. They do carry chicken and beef if you know where to shop but these foods are atypical of the Armenian diet. Pork is served to guests and is the food that reflects luxury. Street vendors take care of the produce category with lots of women that specialize in selling sunflower seeds..so common as a cheap snack food to the Armenian diet. Some stores may carry bread with their canned goods but it's often sold in it's own shop. American hair and cosmetics are sold in the more expensive shops and placed under glass..definitely big ticket items. Armenian women are definitely huge cosmetic shoppers..Claudia Schiffer and Cindy Crawford are heroes in Armenia..their faces are posted in every cosmetic store around. Armenian women could keep the American cosmetic companies in business..without any aid from the Americans.
Cigarettes, by far, outsell anything around. Asking an Armenian not to smoke is like asking them not to breath. American tobacco companies make a killing here..figuratively and financially. By far, the American tobacco companies are the most recognizable American brand name. Any cigarette product that even sounds American sells like hotcakes..even if it's not American. There's a tobacco company that advertises their products by having models travel from bar to bar to give out free cigarettes. We know some of these girls personally but they kind of distance themselves from us, emasculating those who don't smoke..like, we're lesser men for not smoking..oh, you don't smoke (i.e. that's too bad). We get that from the non-cigarette industry as well. To give you an idea on how loyal the smokers are to their cigarettes, a dollar a pack is what an American cigarette runs for in the market. For the highest wage earner, it's an hour to two hours worth of work but they won't do anything without their smokes.
Another American company that is doing well here is Coca-Cola. They just opened up a bottling plant here in Yerevan. Remember the refillable bottle...it's here. Over the summer, they made the plastic bottles welcoming Armenia to the truly disposable age. An eight ounce bottle of Coke is about thirty cents. The two choices for soft drinks are Coke and Orange Fanta..another Coke product. Pepsi hasn't tapped the market..it comes in a few times a year by truck. There are no soft drink machines..just the clear glass door machines with Coca-Cola in that familiar red and white and you can see them at just about every store in town. At every restaurant, each patron gets a bottle of Coke and Fanta served like water...just opened and left there without ordering..it's become part of the culture. There used to be a large imported Coke market until the bottling plant opened. Every soda can was imported from Turkey via Iran. It's important to note that direct trade with Turkey is illegal however trading through Iran is acceptable if it's going to line the Armenian vendors' pocket. They do get an occasional shipment of Diet Coke which we Americans snarf up upon first site. My last purchase was 18 cases which should get me through the project. I've also had twenty cases shipped in sea freight from the US...gotta have my DC.
On the other hand, Mars Candy Company seems to be going nowhere over here. The product lines of Snickers, Mars, Lion ( a Mars product), Milky Way, and Kit-Kat line the shelves of every store in town. Many stores carry the ice cream equivalent in a highly visible decorative blue freezer located at many of the stores and restaurants around town. The Armenians don't seem to be buying these products for a multitude of reasons. The one I think to be the most important...cost. The candy bar goes for fifty cents and the ice cream products go for a dollar...an hours labor for the high wage earners for an ice cream bar...more for others. Why pay the buck when a local ice cream bar goes for forty cents or less and a candy bar imported from Iran or Turkey goes for twenty cents or less? There isn't any American name recognition in the Mars product...this is important. Lastly, the Armenian sweet tooth isn't as predominant as the American. There's a large market for fresh baked desserts that look real decadent but taste far less sweet than we Americans would make them. I can't prove it but I really don't think Mars did their home work over here and is probably losing a great deal of money.
Most of the American alcohol companies are in the same boat as Mars. Miller Beer has a large presence here..priced out of the range of most local Armenians but it has tapped it's niche market without much expense. Gallo wine products from America...ten bucks a bottle vs two to three for local product which is equal or better...who are they trying to kid?
The vote is in. While many companies are patting themselves on the back for establishing foreign trade, they're probably not making much money nor will they until they do their homework. The key ingredient..reliable supply, name recognition, and decent price. You need at least the first two to even start with an overseas line. The bulk of American companies that want to do business overseas get eaten alive by freight. You can't ship things from America and expect to be competitive. They need to establish a foreign manufacturing plant. One company that would do well but isn't here...McDonald's. There's a knock off of Burger King here called Queen Burger that does real well for greasy burgers and congealed fries...and Coke straight out of the bottle. There's three pizza restaurants..none of the major chains..that do real good business...anything associated with American culture but it must be highly recognizable. Adidas and Puma have outlet stores here. While their products are pricey, they do sell because they are recognized as American. Chicago Bulls paraphernalia is wide spread...even without the familiar red, white, and black bull. Nike could blow away Adidas and Puma. Levis could make a killing. Turkey has a Levi's plant with low production costs. Jeans sell real well over here... a few ideas for those entrepreneurs.
My apartment is a pleasant four room basement unit with one bedroom, 3/4 bath, kitchen, and living room..four hundred eighty a month includes laundry and a twice weekly cleaning..pretty high in Armenia. The landlord lives above me with the same size apartment. It baffles me how he, his wife, and two young kids live in a place that size...comfortable for one..close for two..four? There's radiators everywhere..don't work. Under the old Soviet system, they had a steam plant making heat for all the homes..infrastructure went to hell and now, everybody burns wood..big haze over Yerevan in the winter..burning firewood. It's quite nice but the bath and kitchen lack a lot. I do have the 'luxury' of having water all the time. Most places have it for a couple of hours a day. The high priced apartments have water storage tank that fill when they have water. I live right behind the President's mansion so water and electricity is no problem. My shower is an in line water heater..runs water over a heating coil and right out the tank...about like getting a lukewarm shower from a squirt gun. The toilet has no water in the flat bottom..flush valve. You do your business and hold on to the valve..for perpetuity or you can fill up the bucket and use the manual flush method..much quicker. I have the routine down pat..fill up the bucket while you're doing the business. The kitchen..a sink, dorm sized refrigerator left from the old soviet days, and a gas stove..complete with tank sitting right there in the kitchen..open the valve and wait for the gas to reach the stove. Two of the four burners work. Lighting the oven is an adventure..toss in a match and get the hand out ASAP or you'll singe the hairs...no temperature controls on this baby. I brought in a micro from work and someone brought me a crock pot from the US so I do all right. I brought nothing.. utensils, spices, pots and pans..but care packages from the folks and friends have kept me from starvation. I bought pots on the local market..top dollar for the stuff that doesn't fall apart after the first use. Some of the food, I got from container shipments we made from the US. I do have a porch that looks out over the valley. Rex The Wonderhorse, the landlord's dog, often serenades me through the night. He has chickens too. Sometimes, Rex, the neighborhood dogs, and the chickens do a wonderful early morning serenade..music to my suddenly waking ears.
Now, it's time for your virtual tour...my drive to work. It's six-forty in the morning...seven days a week..and we turn over the engine in my little white chevy S-10 pickup...the only one of it's kind here..lots of folks wonder...what is it. Anyway, I live in the shadows of the American University Of Armenia...a satellite college of California University...classes taught in English...1000 dollars a semester...may as well be $100,000 because that's more than most Armenians make in a year. Back to the drive. The streets are deserted..Armenians are nocturnal people that stay up late and wake up late. I turn left of my alley and there are trolleys traveling the streets..eight cent fares The diesel and electric busses are not yet running..about a dime. I don't know if the subway goes that early in the morning..one line..eight stops...eight cents. The women are busy sweeping the streets. The dogs are busy pilfering the piles they sweep looking for food. The men are driving the trucks, shoveling the garbage into the trucks. I ignore the traffic lights..no cops to pull me over..and turn right onto barbecue street. The restaurant owners are fanning the embers of the wood grilles trying to salvage last night's flames. I love barbecued meat but it's pork...makes me real regular. Dodging the many potholes, the stiff suspension of the S-10, combined with the washboard style asphalt, it's hard to keep the truck on the road. The numerous hi-rise apartments make me think that the contractors shopped the local lumber yards for close out sales on doors and windows...they're so different from apartment to apartment in the same building..many are unfinished...left to sit until the owner gets more capital. Bypassing the street sweepers, we pass the Hotel Dvin..a reasonably priced hotel, $20 bucks a night, with lots of fountains out front..looks real good from the outside but no AC...real nasty at night..no satellite TV...local broadcasts in Russian, Armenian, or Turkish. The soccer stadium where Armenia plays world cup soccer..they suck at best..is on the right down in the valley..a huge stadium with an upper and lower deck..with a capacity I'd estimate around 60k. To my knowledge, they've never opened the upper deck. We bypass the hospitals, skip more lights, and turn right past the real estate market. These folks have lots of homes to sell..no buyers. They post the want ads on their chests and hope for buyers to come and notice them. There are lots of street vendors in case these folks get hungry..mostly fried pastries, obligatory smokes, and sunflower seeds...hey it's Sunday! We turn right over the bridge..small stream, large gorge. We turn left at the three way intersection...watch out for that idiot who ran the red...quite common here..we've passed the cognac factory, the bus depot..a number of the smaller vans..10 cent fare..and cabs are lining up waiting for the workers to do their daily commute. Most folks don't watch for traffic so be careful as you drive by the depot. It's interesting to note that the employer provides transportation for all the employees. We have several busses running four times a day..pick up and drop off the evening and morning shifts. My little S-10 blasts past the slower Russian Ladas (formerly Opels...'refined' by the Russians..like the old Chevettes without a hatch..a four door sedan) , Nivas (Russian Jeeps...looks like the old AMC Gremlin on a jeep chasis), and the Russian Jaguar..the Volga..two colors..black and off-white..four cylinders...a four door sedan in the mid-size car range..the Russian power car..the S-10 is faster than any of them. There are plenty of rich, powerful people driving BMW's and Mercedes..the true status symbol.
Watch out for the cops..the heck with them. To get a ticket in Armenia costs 20% of your gross income. Most cops don't want the hassle of doing this and would rather take the kickback of a couple of bucks. They get rather creative when they pull you over. They stand on the edge of the road, next to their beat up Hyundai with it's beacon lights flashing. If they wave their baton at you, they want you to pull over..if they blow the whistle, the fine has gone up. Play the dumb foreigner routine..the obligatory first word out of the mouth is "Hi". They won't take kickbacks from foreigners. They won't ticket them. They don't want the hassle of dealing with the paper work and don't want to be seen as the money grubbing bastards they are so they let me go. Most of the time, I just blow by them without stopping but since this a tour, I figure that you'd want the full package.
Driving in Armenia with even a hint of alcohol on the breath is a no-no. They take your license on the spot but most of the time, they just tell you to go home. One of the guys had a couple of beers at our favorite bar and headed home. Not knowing what he was doing...a newbe, he drove through a police road block but the police wouldn't let him through it. They smelled the beer and didn't accept the dumb foreigner routine. They yanked the license but he got it back the next day with a payoff of a bottle of Jim Beam to the police chief. The irony of it all is that we returned to the pub and were having beers when my associate recognized the patron in the next table..the police chief whom he gave the bottle to.
Armenian women driving cars..not really. That's mans' business according to the Armenian tradition. Women that do drive are foreigners or get the extra hassle treatment from the police.
Back to the drive..sorry about the interruption..cops are a real pain. There's lots of makeshift gas stations starting from your tanker truck filling up a five gallon can and pouring it through a funnel into your tank, shacks with a large tank using the can / funnel method to the actual gas pumps. Gas runs around $1.20 a gallon...not bad but still, it's a huge chunk of income for most Armenians. They never really started driving until the Soviets and in reality...not until 94..since I was here last. Do you remember driver's ed..the part about defensive driving..we bring it to new heights in Armenia.
On the left is Lake Yerevan..a man made lake that's dry most of the time but fills during the spring rains. There's lots of reservoirs..just no rain. We get about 14" a year. We're now up to fifty-five..over double the national speed limit of 25 mph. Every body..except the police..ignores this one..but the pullover spots are the same day in and day out so we know where they 'hide'. Hey, I know that the truck is smallish but we only have a couple of miles to go in our seven mile journey..be still. We're passing through a row of trees, past the military police...oh, that's the Armenian olympic team on the right..my joke. Some of the military school recruits do early morning 'exercises'..one person exercises and the others watch.
We pass the perpetual construction zone. It's a huge detour for a overpass. I vividly remember it being not much different now than it was in 94..they do work on it...it doesn't show. Now, we're getting near the airport and going into the big market area. This used to be where everybody bought everything...before commercialization came to Armenia. It's wall to wall shops, restaurants, and gas stations. Most of the goods are placed outside in the morning and taken back in at night. Watch out for shoppers and cross street traffic..not much concern about speeding motorist..and then, there's the herd of sheep. Yes, sheep. Farmers are nomadic here. They take their sheep through the market to the nearest grazing area..public or private..they don't care and the Armenians don't seem to mind if a farmer takes his sheep or cattle and has them graze on your land.
After the second island, we make a legal u-turn and a right and turn on to the access road to our job. We see the project in the back ground and an airplane taking off. Concrete fences surround the area..they don't know what cyclone fences are here but will learn because that's what we're putting in as fencing. We turn left crossing the abandoned railroad tracks and enter the job..end of tour.
Traveling at night brings up a new dimension in hell. For the pedestrian, there's lots of potholes in the sidewalk. For motorist and pedestrian, there aren't many street lights. There's no headlight laws and so many cars are driving with headlights that would be considered too bright and illegal in the US. Picture this, you're driving at along, blinded by the oncoming cars, in a neighborhood flooded with pedestrians, some stranded on the center line waiting to cross the street. The car behind you has those nasty bright yellow headlights as well..blaring into your mirror. Many vehicles have no headlights, no tail lights..roving death traps. This is a common, something I experience four or five times during each and every night time drive. I must confess, the secret is that pedestrians are not visible..too dark. I use the headlights of the oncoming cars. They form a perfect silhouette around the pedestrian. It's real nerve-wracking but it's the only way to maintain safety, and sanity, behind the wheel at night.
Since we brought it up, work..that dangerous four letter word. We're building an Air Cargo Terminal..a big prefabricated building that the owner and their representative think are a nuclear power plant..they act that way..hey, it's a big barn. We don't have much hope that this place will be used in it's full capacity. Besides the construction engineering role, I'm also in charge of maintaining the computers..an endless task. After I give up this traveling show and make my fortune..I hope to become an management information specialist..manages the company computers. It's one of those love hate jobs..one minute I love it, the next, I hate it. I don't have any clue on what happens after it's finished. The company hasn't said a thing to me. I'll probably be out of here around March 98. I'd like to continue with the foreign work after a vacation of a month or two..just to get to know the family again.
Computers in Armenia...I can promise you three things if you buy one here..it's components slapped together...don't work too well. It's got Microsoft's Office already installed..free..and with the territory..it's got plenty of viruses on it. Every resume has a reference to MS Excel and Word. Trouble is, they don't know how to use the complex functions..just the basics. There must be one floating copy of MS Office that everyone installs on their machines...with the same viruses. They write the viruses here..nothing better to do. I update my machines with the latest scanning and cleaning software and my machines are pretty clean. When someone brings a floppy from home, it's probably got a virus.
Armenia, was known as the brainchild of the former Soviet Union. I can agree with this up to a point. These folks get college degrees because they have nothing better to do. It's not uncommon to see an applicant with three or four degrees. It's the norm that they don't have a lick of experience..or common sense. They lived by the rules for such a long time..these rules were the cookie cutter for success..follow them and you can't be wrong..well the rules have changed..there aren't any rules for success.. and they're still clueless as to what to do. They can't make the transition from follower to leader. They never did vote to leave the Soviet Union. They couldn't reach a consensus. Ask a simple question with a yes-no answer...you get a life story. Ask them to do a project, it suddenly becomes a group project..not an individual task. My own joke...how many Armenians does it take to screw in a light bulb? None, they get into a big argument on how it's done..and nothing gets done. This may not be funny to you but it's very true..these folks are too smart for their own good. They've lived in that world of academia for so long and they can't function in the real world..clueless. They can't apply all of that accumulated knowledge. The younger people have the best chance at a free market economy because they weren't trained under the Soviet system...a blank sheet of paper.
In my business experiences, I'd rather deal with the Armenian women. In either case, you have to strip down the old way and introduce a new way. Men are a lot less receptive..and comprehensive. Women, you train them and they do what you ask. If they have questions, women stop and ask. Men, answer their own questions and keep going..even if they are wrong. Unfortunately, there aren't too many women with construction backgrounds in Armenia and the males won't take orders from women. If given the luxury of choice, I'd build this entire job with Armenian women..they'd do it quicker and smarter than the men.
One of the less poetic Americans said that these folks were born with a magnet in their ass. When ever you're not looking, that magnet kicks in and they're sitting on it. Unlike Americans they like to stretch the job out..they have nothing to go on to. They won't try to find work to fill in the idle times while they may be waiting for materials..they sit or..sleep..right there on the spot. My Armenian assistant said that under the old way, the workers pretended to work and the government pretended to pay. Now, they don't pretend to work..they've got a rich American company they can suck dry..not the case.
The weather here is fascinating. Spring seemed to be turned on with the flick of a switch..suddenly spring. Everything was green and the streets were flooded with people..outdoor cafes sprung out of nowhere. The summer brought triple digit temperatures well into the 120s. The sun seemed to burn right through the body..the hottest I've ever felt. Go into the shade, it's twenty degrees cooler. It was warm in our non-air conditioned office but not unbearable. Around three, the winds would kick in and reach a peak around five..couldn't see through the dust. Then, a brief shower would kick in and it would cool off to a bearable level. Fall is here and depending on you're tolerance to weather, it's nice or it's freezing. Like spring kicked in, that switch flicked off and it was fall. Folks quit going out and the outdoor restaurants closed. Right now, the temps get up to the mid fifties to sixty during the day and drop to around freezing at night. The Armenians and the southern living Americans dress up like Eskimos. I run around the job site in a tee shirt. I'm proud to say that I have my arctic weight coveralls with the tag still on them. I was warned that it was real cold over here..not. I did have the folks send my sleeping bag..nasty night chills and a too soft mattress made for excruciating back pains. We've had a few frosts but nothing permanent. No snow yet. Ararat, located in nearby Turkey and visible from the job site, where Noah crashed the arc, is covered in snow. Last winter, we got three snows that melted that day.
We're in the earthquake epicenter. Last spring, we felt the tremors of an earthquake that killed 600 Iranians. I thought it was a vibratory roller going by..nope, earthquake. They had a large earthquake in rural Armenia several years ago..killed thousands of people..and now, everybody that studied engineering has a degree in seismic engineering..no jobs to apply that education. In designing our building, we devoted a lot of time to seismic engineering.
Other than my vacation in July, Easter Sunday was my last day off. We went seven days a week, 24 hours a day on the Monday after Easter. Monday through Saturday, I put in a twelve hour day..Sunday, six to eight. It was real tough at first and then it really didn't matter, there isn't much to do here anyway. I brought my bike but the streets are just too packed with lots of inexperienced drivers who can't drive around other cars and pedestrians...a bicycle in the city is just plain target practice. I've taken it to the job a few times but always end up walking due to flat tires. I usually just walk to the gym (universal machines at the local hotel)..three times a week. For those really have to get out episodes, I skip out of work early and head to the Embassy for dinner and a movie. Bars and restaurants are always a possibility but we've gotten in a groove about the places we go. There's pizza, burgers, Chinese, Mexican (closed during my free time), and lots of Armenian / Russian cuisine. I'm usually too dog tired to stay up past ten.
I did make a trip to a near by man made lake called Sevan. It's in the upper elevations and takes in the runoff from the near by mountains. It's clear and green...nasty rock to walk across..and too darn cold. It must have been at least a hundred outside and fifty in the water..in the middle of August. It was too much to take and I didn't last long.
Casinos and gambling seem to have a circular relationship between the cause and cure of society's problems. You have casinos, you bring wealth into the community..you take it away as well. There are plenty of casinos in Armenia...these are by far the most luxurious of all the commercial establishments in Yerevan. Some seem to be doing well, others just seem to be dead. One thing is sure, I don't like gambling..boring..and they won't get any of my money.
Armenia's national currency is the dram. When I was here in 94, one US dollar was worth 380 drams. In 96, there wasn't much change...1 dollar = 430 drams. In just a few short months after that, the dram dropped to $1=490. Now it hovers around $1=500. Armenia, like every other third world economy, wants to get into the European Union. The government was artificially holding the dram to the low value. Pressure from the EU got the Armenians to release some of the value of the dram to its' actual value.
In 94, the largest denomination was the 1000 dram note..about $2.50 back in 94, $2 now. Now they have the 5000 dram note..ten bucks. They have coins but they're not widely circulated. Most Armenians view them as a pain..1, 3, and 5 drams with the five dram coin being worth a penny..I have a few 5 dram coins. The notes come in 10, 25, 50, 100, 200, 500, 1000, and 5000 denominations. It's illegal to price anything but in drams. Most vendors we have price their items in dollars and we convert to drams..they end up walking out with suitcases full of notes. Same goes for payroll, large envelopes full of notes go out once a month.
I get my news off the Internet...ditto for sports. I keep pretty well in touch with the headlines. The guys at work nag for a copy of the headlines and sports scores. The only place to watch football is the Embassy but they're not open on Sundays so I have to wait until the playoffs. The early game starts at nine p.m...too late for this cowboy. I live for mail / e-mail (email@example.com). Phone calls are pretty limited..a twenty-minute call tacks on thirty dollars to the credit card.
The summer vacation...Paris and London. First stop was EuroDisney for three days and two nights. I liked it so much that I bought stock in it. The images are almost insulting...the wild American west..really didn't thrill me but my only goal was to find a place that I didn't have to put a bucket by the toilet. I've been to three of the four Disney parks...only missing the one in Tokyo. I rate them in descending order..Orlando, Anaheim, and Paris. Paris is still too new to have as many features as the other parks but it was real clean and every one seemed to be enjoying themselves..the stock price was so low that I could hardly forgo the offer. Paris and London..constantly raining. I went through one umbrella and bought another..lost the second but the bulk of the rain had passed. I had enough rain in Alaska that I didn't need anymore. Disney was about the only bargain in Paris...seven bucks for a brew in Paris..I went through lots of Francs but I really didn't care, it was definitely a once in a lifetime experience. After Disney, I stopped in Paris proper. While I was at Disney, Michael Jackson was in town but I didn't know it..I do wish I could have gone...another one of those things I want to do just because...next time. I hit some of the tourist spots..the Louvre, the Eiffel Tower, a boat ride up the Seine, the science museum, a real cool geodetic theater dome. My ninth grade French helped me read but it had been so long ago that the pronunciation had gone completely to hell. I didn't care, I hit all the fast food stops...nectar if you've been without them for eight months. Frankly, there were too damn many Americans in Paris..acting American. I was warned that the Parisians were snobs but I didn't find that to be true at all. Any time I asked for help, I was never refused. Most spoke English. With my limited French, I got by. I found the French to be very private..I can accept this as I feel the same. The Americans on the other hand, were loud and complained a lot. I wouldn't blame the French to return the rudeness but they never did.
I took the train to London..the Americans obviously blended in here.. I was a lot more at home. I hit most of the tourist traps, Madame Toussard's wax museums, the zoo, Buckingham Palace for the changing of the guards, the Thames, London Bridge..not much different than a common highway bridge..just made legendary by a children's nursery rhyme..nothing special, Big Ben, St. Paul's Cathedral...just to name a few. I hit the theatrical production Damn Yankees with Jerry Lewis..truly a classic performance...must have been written with him in mind. I even hit Wimbledon for an afternoon of tennis..twelve bucks. I did a lot of walking...blisters all over the toes. I got caught up on all the movies..a goal of mine. I'd planned on hitting the Vatican but was too damn tired of traveling to go anywhere but home..back to the grind.
If you didn't know it, Armenia has been at war with Azerbaijan for the past eight or so years. The war has been confined to Azerbaijan but the draft still exists. Other than a bed to sleep in and food to eat, there is no pay in the military. My assistant, who is still in school, is legally prohibited from being drafted. Unfortunately, the military is still hounding him. They don't care about the law. They've tried to break down the door at his parents. Somehow, the military isn't too bright. They know he's in school, if they truly wanted him, they'd get him there or at work. He says nobody will tell the military where he works. Still, he's trying to pay off the military...about five grand would pay off all to get the military to forget about him..what I think they really want. I know of others who have bought their way out of the military..it's not uncommon. His only rationalization is that he can make more money by paying off the military..guess that beats bullets buzzing and ammunition exploding around you.
One of the crew recently got out of the hospital. They have the technology..just not the tools nor the medicines. I told the boss if it's my last dying breath, send me out on the next plane and don't let them touch me. I had to use my flash light just to get into the place to visit him. He was real apprehensive..he had to use a translator just to communicate to the staff. Take it from me, there's a lot that gets lost in translation. Finally, one of the translators had the common sense to call the American Embassy to get the name of a doctor that spoke English and all was well. He flew to the states for more tests but at least, he got out alive.
My holiday plans won't change much from last year...work. Last year we had a big bash at the restaurant of one of our suppliers. Armenians serve food in courses..we had two regular sized meals and then they brought out the turkey. I split before the turkey. Armenians call it Indian Chicken, not turkey..goes back to that genocide in the early 1900's..still can't get along with the neighbors.
Armenia does celebrate Christmas but a week later than we do in the US..same for New Years. My boss, Paul, and I screwed up last year. We went out on Dec 31 and hit several places..nothing doing until we hit one of our usual watering holes..we found some girls..the tobacco girls..they wanted to PARTY! We had a blast but we didn't think about the Armenian New Year..the next week. We could have had two major parties..ok, this year we know better. If any business is to be conducted, there's less than nothing being done between Armenian Christmas and New Years..everything is closed solid but the streets fill again..the city square gets packed with throngs of people..Santa.
I told the company that I don't want to go home until this thing is finished..I'll vacation in the spring. Going home only means I'll have to come back..something totally depressing. It's hard doing this job..we're late..not without blame to others but we thought we could overcome it. We just want to finish it up and get out of here.
After reading all these pages, you should know that I love to write. I've had a few suggestions that I should do it professionally. I like to write and skip the research. The above is based on observation..not hard core research. My other hobby, if you didn't already know, is computers. I took it up as a hobby..and now, it's my living. I'd hate to have to write for a living but if I could do it the way I am, it would be ok. Otherwise, it would take away the fun. I just hope that you had as much fun reading this as I had preparing it. If so, I'd consider it a bonus.