Dispatch #17: A Long Weekend in Armenia
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       So the Suitcase was going to demean himself and take a junket?  To go to Armenia for only four days?  What can anyone possibly learn about a new place in four days? I knew from experience that the first week’s impressions are mostly worthless projections of your own culture and comparisons with other places you’d been to that you end up throwing out. You are perceiving not so much things as they are, but what they remind you of.  Only after a week do you begin to perceive the place as it is, are you “there.” In four days I would barely recover from the jet lag, then I would have to go. It would be a hallucinal and completely meaningless experience, which was what was starting to appeal to me about it. Plus the fact that Armenia is somewhere I have always wanted to get to, because I have an obscure Armenian descent on my family tree : we are descended from the Bogratid dynasty, which ruled Armenia and Georgia a thousand years ago. And I’ve always felt good about Armenians, the few I know are extremely simpatico and very smart,  a vague connection and ethnic compatibility that I wanted to explore. So maybe I should go, I thought. The opportunity to get to Armenia may not come again. 

     But there is another, more pragmatic,problem with junkets:  no self-respecting travel magazine will buy a write-up of one. There are strict rules about taking freebees. The motto of  Conde Nast Traveler (which I was one of  the founding contributing editors of, but was let go after one of my golf buddies, using my name, tried to cadge a freebee from a golf resort in San Diego County in l991, and the resort got suspicious and called the magazine), is “Truth in Travel,”  i.e. its writers swear that they have not been corrupted by taking a  freebee and that they are giving you the real lowdown. Truth in travel to the luxury resorts and destinations that the magazine is a service publication for. Not the truth about what it is like to live in these countries. I often wondered whether Harold Evans, Tina Brown’s husband, who founded the magazine,  chuckled when he came up with that one.  But British travels writer are the most jaded and shameless junket-takers, so maybe Evans was just trying to put out an honest magazine. 

           Junkets have nothing to do with real traveling, but with being a shill for the tourism industry, which brings foreign exchange to cash-strapped developing countries (although little of the cash trickles down to the people) but erode and commodify and erzatzify their cultures in the process. When I go somewhere, I try to find out what life in the country, over the luxury compound wall,  is actually like. This trip was not going to offer much chance for that, however. We would be staying in the best hotels, eating in the best restaurants, and be taken to the most beautiful sights, when the average Armenian is struggling to live on eighty dollars a month.  Some publications don’t have the money to pay their writers’ travel expenses and allow them to write up junkets, but none that I write for.   I checked with my editor at Travel & Leisure to see if they were up for a piece on Armenia, and she gave me the expected response, “Not  if it’s a junket. You know the rules. You can go, and if Armenia turns out to be interesting and some place that our readers might like to go, let’s talk when you return, and maybe we’ll send you back.”

      But maybe there was some other way to capitalize on this junket, I thought, and there was. For some time I had been thinking of trying to do a t.v. travel series called Suitcase, and this goofy “long weekend in Armenia” could be the pilot for it. Nobody reads any more, so I was thinking that if maybe someone came along and filmed me doing my thing, casing out a new place, it could  have commercial potential. At the very least, it would provide a new and valuable dimension of documentation of what happened and what I encountered. So I spoke with my Montreal friend Howard Reitman, who is in the movie business, and he was up for coming along with a camera and filming whatever happened. 
       The main premise of the Suitcase is that the most interesting things that happen to you on the road are the things you didn’t plan for, the chance encounters, the unpredictable convergences and conjunctures, coincidences and synchronicities that can sometimes change your life. A few weeks after our long weekend in Armenia,  I described the Suitcases’s modus operandi to  a woman in Munich who had written long literary travel pieces for the German Geo, when is was still publishing such things--  spending months with the Romani, or gypsies, in Ceaucescu’s Romania; in  the ex-slave communites of Mauritius; covering Lhasa during the l987 riots.  “So you are an accidental journalist,” she said. That a good term, a good description of the Suitcase. 

        My wife and I met on an Air Ethiopia Flight from Entebbe, Uganda, to Rome, on October 7, 1987. Both of us had changed our flights at the last moment, and had I not been kicked out of my seat by the Ugandan minister of Youth, Culture, and Sports (Moses Taylor, who later tried to overthrow President Yowari Museveni and is presently behind bars), and plunked myself down next to her, and had not a whole chain of other flukey circumstances  fallen into place, we would never have met. Not only were our two lives radically transformed by this apparently chance meeting, but sixteen other people’s, and three people came into this world because of it. So you have to open yourself to these things. That is, for me, the Suitcase,  the whole point, and art of traveling : going with the flow, orchestrating the unpredictable. Breaking away from the patterns of your life that you get rutted in.
 

When life gets stale
You can always hit the trail
When you’re sick of bills and dishes
And unfulfilled wishes
And life gets boring
You can always go exploring. 
 

      Travel is my lifeblood : putting myself out there and encountering new landscapes, flora and fauna, music, languages, and people gets my juices flowing again. I never feel more engaged and alive than when I am somewhere that I have never been before, trying to figure things out, noticing things and wondering what they are and what they mean and how they fit with each other and into the overall picture. My wife, who is Rwandan and is a citizen of four countries as well as a permanent resident of Mexico, loves to travel as much as I do, and she says that I am the most talented traveler she has ever known, maybe even more talented that I am a writer. In terms of the places I choose to go to and what I pick up on and get interested in, and the ease with which I move around and connect with people,  my ability to “fit in everywhere.” Which Rosette possesses even more than I. There is an expression in Rwandese, “When you are in a land where the people eat flies, you eat them raw.” Rwanda a patrilineal society, so the women know that their life is going to involve a journey, that they will have to fit in to their husband’s family and culture, if he is not Rwandan, and so they are unusually adept at adapting. 

      Rosette and I consider ourselves, as the heads of a blended Luso-Slavic-Watusi- American-Canadian family of seven, she having had four exiles by the time she was thirty, me coming from a family of émigrés and being American only because of the accident of a revolution in Russia seventy-six years ago,  to be more citizens of the world than anything. But our passports are American, and this is a problem, because currently there are 59 countries on the U.S. State Department’s travel advisory list, thanks to the illicit junta’s illicit attack on Iraq, and the ill feeling that was already widespread due to the fact that America is sucking the marrow out of the rest of the world, that anywhere from 25 to 66% of  the world’s resources are flowing to the USA to maintain the American good life. (“Hey, so we’re doing more than our bit,” was a Rolling Stone editor’s response when I ran these numbers by him some time back, and this is sadly typical of the amount of angst that Americans feel about snookering the lion’s share of the world’s resources and opportunities.)   So with the world  growing farther apart than together these days and American xenophobia and geographically challenged culturebound cluelessness more pronounced than ever, I consider travel these days to be of more than just of personal benefit, a way to expand my knowledge  (there is another Rwandese proverb that says, “the more you see, the more you understand,” and Goethe said, “you only see what you know”), but an obligation. Apparently Jay Leno got a  bunch of young Americans on his show not long ago and asked them, Who did we fight the Vietnam war against ? And they didn’t have a clue, because they didn’t  even know that Vietnam is a country. Not long ago, I was in a pizza joint halfway out on Long Island, and got talking with several of its teenage patrons. I told them I had come down from Montreal, and none of them knew where Montreal was, or that it was Canada. So there’s a problem, exemplified by our president, who had never been to London or Paris before he took office, and a few months into his administration said, “Africa is country with a lot of problems.” Americans need to be reminded that there’s a rest of the world out there, even if they aren’t ever going to get there, which I’ve always found one of the most perplexing aspects of the “melting pot.”
 
 

       So this long weekend in Armenia would be more about us junketeers than about Armenia  or the Armenians, and would be a meditation about  the act of traveling : why I do it, and how I do it, which I’ve been giving a lot of thought to lately, because this is what I’ve done with my life, and there will come a time when I won’t be able to do it anymore. How many years to I have left to do real, hard traveling? Maybe ten, fifteen if I’m lucky. 

      Of course I would take my little traveling guitar, currently a Yamaha six-string Guitalele that I picked up at Archimbault’s, Montreal great music store on St. Catherine St. I always do,   to break the ice with the locals and jam with them and learn their music and keep myself amused in transit, during the long stints of down-time, as there always are, when you are waiting to get to the next place, sitting in some airport or  train station, and nothing is happening. Maybe we should call the show the Strumming Suitcase, like the Singing Nun, I suggested to Howard as we boarded the plane to London, the first leg of our trip. The guitar can provide a sort of spontaneous running commentary on whatever we run into, and I can work on the Suitcase theme song, a swing cabaret Django Reinhart-style blues that I was working on and already have a whole cd’s worth of lyrics for. 

I’m a suitcase
Shuffling from place to place
A weary beat-up old suitcase
No name, no tags, no face
I got no destination or deadline
Just  pack my clothes and head on down the line

I’m a lost case
Going no place fast
A weary beat-up old suitcase
Running from the past
I’m still embarrassed about that trip to Paris 
It’s great to be home, but maybe I should still be in Rome
(this last couplet is from the fertile mind of my six-year-old Edgar)

Got no heart to break
Got no soul to rob
Got no money to take
Got no steady job
I’m just a suitcase
Always on the move
Here one day gone the next
Got no prepared text or pretext
Nothing left to lose, nothing to prove….

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