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
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
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.
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