#17: A Long Weekend in Armenia
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A few weeks ago, I was invited on a junket to Armenia by a
New York carpet manufacturer of Armenian descent named James Tufenkian.
Tufenkian employs 1500 Tibetans in Nepal and a thousand Armenians in Armenia
to make carpets for him and has done so well that he has opened an upscale
boutique hotel in Yerevan, Armenia’s swinging capital, and
a large stone lodge on Lake Sevan, and is constructing another big hostelry
in a deep gorge on the road up to Georgia. He had hired a New York p.r.
firm to bring some travel writers to see the hotels and the sights of Armenia
and spread the word that the twelve-year-old, smaller-than-Belgium-sized
country is ready for tourism. Tufenkian seems to be a good
guy, who is spiritually as well as commercially oriented, one of
the successful diasporic Armenians who are helping their homeland
transcend a history marked by repeated tragedy and emerge as the Costa
Rica of Asia Minor.
The invitation was for a four-day, all-expenses-paid, whirlwind tour of
the country. Normally I do not go on junkets. The last time I went on one
was to the Galapagos, where my libido had its dernier cri and I made
a fool of myself (see Dispatch #6 : Journal of the Flamingo. A Midsummer
Night’s Sex Comedy in the Galapagos). I don’t like to travel in groups,
especially with professional travel writers, who go with the understanding
that by they will gush about the accommodations and food and the
sights, so that tourists will flock to the facilities of their host. My
concept of traveling is very different. Like the late Bruce Chatwin, whom
I knew slightly and admired greatly, I recoiled, at the height of
my career was a “literary journalist,” at being called a “travel
writer.” (Now I don’t really care; anything anyone wants to call me is
fine.) Chatwin described himself as a writer who travels. This
is how I see myself. I am a writer who takes himself to different parts
of the world, and writes about what he encounters, what happens.
I prefer to travel alone, because if you are with someone from your own
culture, you will be distracted.
When I am on the road, I travel at the level of the local people, with a minimum of baggage: a hardshell suitcase, a sidebag, my little guitar, fields guides to the local fauna, ethnological, historical, and political studies of that part of the world, a small high-quality tape recorder, a camera, and a little stack of Red Chinese notebooks (or “thought-catchers,” as I call them), and whatever clothes and medicine is needed. And of course, a lot of cultural and psychological baggage. I have written about this in a chapter of my book, The Rivers Amazon, called “Out of Time:”
“I had wanted to ‘experience the jungle’ as fully as I could, but try as I might, I could never stop the internal monologue, the broken thoughts of a thousand shapes, none of which had anything to do with where I was, that raced through my mind [as I struggled to keep up with three young Yanomamo men who were taking me at a lope through the rainforest of Roraima, near Brazil’s border with Venezuela, during the first few days of l977]… You realize how everything that streams through your head is learned from the schools you went to, the books you read, the people you associated with, and it has no bearing on any culture but your own.”
divorced from all familiar referents, culture shock sets
in for the solo traveler. You begin to “hemmorhage from loneliness,” as
Edward Hoagland wrote after a month of wandering around Sudan
on his own. Ancient, long-buried traumas resurface begin to replay
themselves uncontrollably in your mind. One of the most realistic travelogues
in this regard is Peter Matthiessen’s, The Snow Leopard, which is half
about accompanying the zoologist George Schaller on his quest for
the elusive snow leopard through remote valleys and mountain passes
in northern Nepal, and half about the internal narrative that plays in
Matthiessen’s while he is trekking behihd Schaler, about how little
he was able to give himself to his then wife twenty years earlier, whom
he had left at home, dying of cancer, while he was off slaking his wanderlust.
I have described myself at various times as a literary geographer, a cultural ecologist, a “total-immersion journalist,” a bridge, a vessel, an empty calabash, a free-floating consciousness, a generalist who blithely transgresses discipline boundaries, a participatory journalist (like the late George Plimpton, another writer I knew slightly and greatly admired, having invented my own post-gonzo, dada, participant-observor genre of journalism : investigative golf, an example of which is posted as Dispatch 12); as the last of the wandering White Russians (the émigrés from the Tsarist nobility who fled the Russian Revolution in l917. The ones who got out, including my four grandparents. A million didn’t and were killed during the revolution and its aftermath. This group by now is practically extinct, their stock having married into and been assimilated by their cultures of exile; I am at this point, at the age of fifty-seven, one of the few ostensibly full-blooded White Russians left. Exile, the loss of homeland, deracination, freed my family to explore the world, starting with my great-uncle, who collected butterflies in central Asia before the Revolution, and in his new life in the New World made the definitive collection of the rhopalocera (butterflies and moths) of Jamaica in the thirties with my then teenage father, went on to climb in the Alps and the Caucasus and the Pamirs and wrote two about them. So exploring is in my blood, as is curiosity about the natural world. My three little boys are the seventh generation of naturalists in the family.
There is another Russian term that I relate to : neudobnyi chelovek, which
means “an inconvenient person,” an outsider, a trouble-maker, someone
who asks questions about things that there is a conspiracy of silence about.
Like the character in Jules Vernes’s Around The World in 80 Days, I am
a passepartout, a skeleton key, Keats’s chameleon poet, an intermediary
or interpreter or presenter and documenter and buff or enthusiast or amateur
of the Other, “a modern fugitive,” in the tradition of Gauguin, D.H.
Lawrence, Jack Kerouac, Aldous Huxley, and Colin Turnbull, a misfit
in my own world. My last book, Legends of the American Desert has a discussion
of this personality type.
I see myself as “an ambivalent and tormented representative of the Age of Reason,” as Nicholas Rizanovsky described Tsar Alexander I, who disappeared in Siberia and became a wandering monk, or starets, named Fyodor Kuzmitch. I am a throwback to the Enlightenment, the Encyclopedists, who went out and catalogued and classified and compared and cogitated about the life forms and life ways they encountered. Enlightenment for me has always been primarily a quest for knowledge, and there is no better way to broaden your knowledge base than by traveling.
I am a “rootless cosmopolitan,” as Eddie Rosser, a Berlin-born jazz trumpeter
who became Stalins’s state musician and then fell out of favor and was
packed off to Siberia, was branded. I am Anagarika, the homeless one, Hindi
for someone who has given up the home life for the ascetic life of a mendicant.
I am outis, Nobody, one of Homer’s epithets for Odysseus; the Beatles’
Nowhere Man; in Czech nymand, someone who doesn’t exist, a loser, an outsider.
In the words of the Mekranoti, a community of Kayapo Indians in the Amazon,
I am No Ket, No Eyes, a stranger in their midst who is so out to lunch
in the rainforest that he doesn’t see what is going on; the Apache Pale
Eyes, and all the other terms for white in cultures around the world, like
the Navajo bilaga’ana, the Latin American gringo, the Swahili mzungu, the
Lingala mendele. I would like to be more like the Buryat Mongols’ Tsagan,
or White Tara, who has eyes in her feet and is alert at all times, with
every step. I am a pesquisador and an umushakashyatsi-- Portuguese
and Rwandese, respectively, for a researcher, someone who is trying to
find something out. I am a parachutista, someone who lands in places without
warning, who drops in. I am a service soul, whose primary reason for being
here seems to document and celebrate vanishing cultures, ecosystems and
species, the “infinite variety and supreme unity of life,” as Andrey Avinoff,
my great-uncle put it, and to do whatever I can to expose injustices and
advocate for the voiceless and powerless; He Who Puts Words on Paper
and They Become the Truth, as my wife’s Rwandan brother-in-law roasted
me at a recent family gathering in Montreal. I am an umushyitsi, as Rwandans
call a visitor or guest, someone who is passing through, and their children
who die young. I am a maverick drifter vagabond roué pariah dog,
“an exile from normality,” in Jan Morris’s term. In Canada, where my wife
and our three boys live and are citizens, I have no official
status or residential standing. I am just a tourist, who is not allowed
to spend more than 180 days a year in the country. In many parts of the
world, like Mexico, I am just a tourist, a turista, so tourist
is a perfectly good word for me. My Rwandese in-laws call me Sematovu,
which means He Who Has Thistles in His Pasture and has several oblique
metaphorical connotations: someone who is a newcomer and hasn’t had
time to clear the thistles in the pasture, or someone who is on the road
so much that he is neglecting the maintenance of the home front, or someone
who is a slob, who is incapable of keeping his house and all the stuff
he has collected in order.
To which the Dalai Lama gave his slow, deep, resonant laugh and asked, “What is a suitcase ? You can describe everything about that suitcase—it size, shape, what it is made of, etcetera. But there will always be something about it that you failed to describe. And furthermore, if you had been a sub-atomic particle, you would have passed right through the suitcase. Therefore, neither you nor the suitcase exist independently.”
This was undoubtedly one of the most important conversations I have had in my life (But when I saw the Dalai Lama again five years later, he had no memory of it at all).