- Independent Journalism From Today's Armenia
 April 4, 2003 

Outside Eye: A non-Armenian's view of life in his adopted home

Every time I fly into Zvartnots Airport, I think about the first time, more than six years ago.

A beat up Tupolev with seats that bent forward, torn carpet and industrial tape in places where I'd rather not see it at 30,000 feet brought us onto a sparsely lit runway. We got off the plane into the cold outside and walked into a dank terminal that smelled of urine and decay. In fact, the door to the toilet was boarded up, so that business that should have been taken care of inside was nonetheless done against the wooden doors. The effect was what you would expect.

Down a flight of dirty stairs we were met by harsh-faced men behind wooden desks who asked us for papers, which we'd not been advised about filling in. So then they gave us a paper (like a landing card I guess) and when we brought it back, they informed us that they needed three copies, so we had to do it twice more.

I can't really remember clearly, but it is very likely that money for some unknown purpose was paid and then the gruff and smelly men slammed rubber stamps against the three copies.

Then we were met by a second set of desk men and finally a third before reaching the luggage area.

And upon reaching the luggage, we fought our way through a wall of un-identified men and their chimneys of cigarette smoke who would start grabbing luggage as if it were their own in an attempt to extort an assistance fee.

Once the luggage came, we were ordered to another set of desks, where cases were opened and anything inside was fair booty for the inspection officer. Once, I was carrying stuffed toys for some children in Gyumri and, a foot in front of my face, the inspection officer picked out the ones she liked and simply put them aside, presumably for her own children. On my first few trips, I learned to pack "customs" items - things I really didn't want to bring into the country but were attractive enough to distract officers from the actual gifts I was bringing.

On the flight in, my traveling companions and I used to bet beers to see who could come closest to guessing how long it would take us to get out of the terminal. Anyone who guessed less than an hour was considered to be either a fool or simply generous with his beer money. In those days, two hours was a safer bet.

I'm thinking about those times, standing at baggage claim just past midnight Thursday, having arrived on one of the first direct flights from London (continuing to Tashkent, whereas before the route was through Tbilisi).

I have walked off a well-equipped, comfortable and friendly-staffed carrier, through a warm jet-way into a well-lit (relatively) and urine-free terminal and down an escalator to a single kiosk where an officer stamps my passport and five minutes since leaving my seat I am standing at the baggage carousel.

There are no scruffy men around pushing their way through with carts or grabbing for luggage, which starts spitting out of the conveyor some 15 minutes after we've landed. I have arrived at 12:15 and will be in my flat by 1. I would have won beers with a bet under an hour this night. Unthinkable.

I'm thinking of drastic changes in short time and am almost nostalgic for the recent old and unsophisticated days when . . .

The first thing to appear through the narrow conveyor door, is not a case of luggage but rather a crouching Armenian man in all black, with a four-day beard and, of course, smoking a cigarette.

"Look to see if he has a Glendale address," I say to a fellow traveler.

I'm happy to see improvements in this place. But happy, too, to see that even progress hasn't yet robbed Armenia of its often unexpected and rough-edged charm.

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  Photo of the week
  Media Mass
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Media Mass

On Monday journalists met outside the National Assembly to protest a proposed new media law. Among the contentious points of the draft is a stipulation that media outlets must reveal the sources of their financing.



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