Editor's note: Colorado-based writer Dina
Horwedel has done a lot of traveling and writing
about the places she's seen. Most recently her
impressions of Easter Island appeared in a major
US newspaper. She has traveled in Luxembourg,
France, Belgium, Mexico, Chile and (former) East
Germany. But Armenia, Dina says, is something
On an extended working visit here, Dina is learning
how to get along in a culture that is particularly
foreign to non-Armenians (she has German-Italian
ancestry). ArmeniaNow asked her to offer some
travel advice for the uninitiated.
|Don't Drink the Water, Do Drink
the Vodka: Ten survival tips for visiting Armenia
By Dina Horwedel
Honorary ArmeniaNow staff
My only previous foray into this part of the
world was during Communist times, when I visited
the former East Berlin and took a train journey
through East Germany. My impressions were of this:
the hollow sound of footsteps of KGB agents following
my every move, and ducking into a restaurant,
where, after every order I placed, I was told
"we are out of that." I asked what they
did have. "Potato soup." I took the
I was expecting Armenia to have little more to
offer than potato soup. How wrong I was!
Armenia still retains the feel of a former Soviet
country, but it is idiosyncratic. There is a bustle
and frenetic energy that I liken to a country
that wants to be known on its own terms, combined
with the laid-back atmosphere of a southern culture.
We all want a handle to grab when we travel to
a new place; a way to define, label, and categorize.
France is known for its haute couture and cuisine,
Italy for its dolce vita, Germany for its gemutlichekeit,
and Britain for its . . . well, Britishness.
Armenia? It defies explanation. So rather than
attempt to describe what you will feel and experience,
I decided to give you some concrete, nuts and
bolts advice for how to survive your trip to Armenia.
Armenia is not like an ascent to Everest, but
there are some things you should know so that
you can adequately prepare for your trip.
Survival Rule Number 1: Yerevan, Armenia's
capital, is small enough that you can see the
sights: its museums, plazas, outdoor art and craft
markets, and shopping areas, all on foot. That
being said, there are a few "rules of the
road" tourists need to know when ambling
around. Translation: for those of us used to pedestrian
crossings, timed lights, and the concept that
pedestrians have the right-of-way: There are no
rules of the road!
Traffic patterns here are haphazard at best.
Some intersections boast pedestrian lights and
traffic signals, but that doesn't mean anyone
- drivers OR pedestrians - pay any attention to
them. It's not unusual to see a "marshrutka"
(a minivan which serves as public transportation),
crammed beyond carrying capacity, with elbows
and other various body parts hanging out of the
windows, whizzing through a red light. For that
matter, it is not unusual to see any sort of vehicle
careening madly through a red light: a Mercedes
SUV, an old Russian Lada belching black smoke,
headed straight for you, while crossing on a pedestrian
green, only to honk and swerve away from you at
the last minute.
Beware the street crossing with trolley lines.
They lumber on irregular schedules, leaning drunkenly
to one side, their metal sides loosened and flapping
dangerously close, out of control, carried forward
only by sheer momentum.
I have become emboldened by the example of friends,
who tell me that you have to attempt to cross
the street or else you will never cross. But a
great degree of caution is needed, and there seems
to be strength in numbers, or at least I blithely
assume so when I wade out into the stream of traffic
next to old women clad in black. Armenians may
not give a damn if they hit a foreigner, but I
hope they will think twice about slamming broadside
into a group of grandmothers I unabashedly use
as human shields.
Rule Number Two: Don't drink the water. Everyone
I met here boasted the water is the purist in
the former Soviet Union and it is drinkable. Remembering
back to a trip to Chile and how foolish I felt
for filtering all of my water and learning the
tap water was treated and drinkable, I took their
word for it. I wasn't actually drinking the water,
just brushing my teeth in it.
Without going into the disgusting details, it
took more than a month before I was back to good
health, suffering from what I referred to as "Stalin's
Revenge." Before leaving for Armenia, my
doctor gave me a prescription for Leavaquin, an
antibiotic for such things. She told me only to
use it in case of extreme emergency, so I held
out for 10 days. Finally desperate and figuring
my antibodies needed a boost, I took the stuff.
I felt much better by day 2. But a week later,
it was back. I held out for a few days longer,
and then resorted to a week's treatment on another
You can buy bottled water of various names -
Noy being the most popular -- in most markets.
Buy it and use it.
Rule Number Three: Don't wash your best clothes
with the hotel or professional laundry unless
you want your wardrobe to shrink, turn pink or
gray. Apparently everything here is washed in
hot water, and separating whites from colors is
not a common concept.
Rule Number Four: Resist the impulse to under
pack. I know, I know, every travel book tells
you to take half as many clothes and twice as
much cash, but the problem in Armenia is they
may not have what you need, and even if they have
it, what are the odds that it will be of the same
quality, of your taste, or even in your size?
I should have known better after Chile. I am
5'8" and a healthy woman. I am not exactly
an Amazon, but what we call in my country "a
big, sturdy girl." The men and women in my
country are much taller and all-around larger
than people in Armenia. This makes buying shoes,
pants, socks, underwear, bathing suits, all much
more difficult. In addition, I am picky. I hate
synthetic fabrics, preferring cotton/Lycra blends
"engineered" for performance. You can
hardly find such things here, and what you can
find, you can expect to pay three times more for.
On the other hand, there are some surprising bargains
to be had as well. But you have to spend a lot
of time looking, unless you come equipped with
wads of cash that you can freely spend at the
Versace store for clothing in a size I have not
worn since Kindergarten.
In addition, disregard what you read on www.weather.com
The weather changes dramatically, and I followed
my instincts honed in Colorado and brought a rain
coat, a fleece jacket, hat, gloves, and a warm
sweater. Even in the summer, with varying altitudes,
wind, rainstorms, and the like, I am glad that
Rule Number Five: Forget about fitting in.
Your clothes and customs will give you away. People
will know you are a foreigner right off the bat,
but they will be friendly, courteous, and helpful
anyway. Besides, as a woman, I shudder to think
about traipsing around town in stiletto heels
on the cobblestones like the local women. They
may be slaves to fashion, but I am a slave to
comfort, and I like it that way,
Rule Number Six: Leave your dietary restrictions
at home. Low fat? HA! Vegetarian? HAHAHA! In all
seriousness, it can be done, but not without aggravation
and missing out on some of the best food Armenia
has to offer. Armenia is famous for its khoravats,
barbecue, and people here love meat. Beef stroganoff,
steaks, pork chops, you name it . . . and it is
all fresh, hormone-free, and delicious. So go
ahead! Indulge! And if your religion or political
convictions prevent you from eating meat, there
are plenty of alternatives.
Rule Number Seven: If you aren't going to
worry about what you are going to eat, then you
certainly should not worry about drinking, other
than how to pace yourself. When eating a traditional
dinner with Armenians, there is an elaborate ritual
for toasting, and it is considered at the worst
rude, at the very least, odd, if you do not raise
a glass with vodka, or Armenia's famous cognac,
to join in. Dinners last for hours, with the toastmaster
or tamada making eloquent and poetic toasts throughout.
It is considered bad luck to toast with water,
but is acceptable to raise your glass and take
a sip rather than down an entire shot. Dinners
also include Armenian wine and beer, so pace yourself
accordingly, and tell yourself you can get back
on the wagon once you return home.
Rule Number Eight: You have now entered a
zone where time does not matter. Put away your
watch and relax. People are often 20-30 minutes
late for meetings, and work hours normally begin
around 10 a.m. I once asked someone if they could
meet me at 9 a.m. and was told it was too early.
Besides, what is vacation for but to sleep in?
Rule Number Nine: Learn a bit of the local
language or at least the polite words like please,
thank you, you are welcome, hello, and how are
you. It is amazing how delighted people are when
you at least try. Armenian is spoken first, and
Russian is the lingua franca of the former Soviet
states. But many here speak English or at least
try. So go ahead - meet people halfway and try
to speak a bit to them in Armenian.
Rule Number Ten: Bring a sense of humor and
leave your expectations at home. It never fails.
Every time I travel to a new place, I have an
idealized image of what I am going to see and
do, and after the first few days of my arrival
I am a bit disappointed.
Then something clicks in, my mind shifts, and
I realize that if I am going to have any fun at
all, I am going to need to accept things on their
own terms, and this is what travel is all about.
Here I have learned to believe hotel staff when
they tell me water does not run all day long (I
could not accept this as a truth at first), or
a driver when he tells me that what looks on the
map to be a two-hour drive is actually five because
of the deteriorated road conditions, or locals
who tell me that when traveling to the countryside
I may not get a Western-style toilet or Italian
I have readjusted my expectations and appreciate
things for what they are. If you cannot do this,
you probably shouldn't be traveling anywhere in
the first place, let alone to Armenia.