It all started soon after leaving Yerevan (that’s the capital).I’d joyfully zigzagged my way up through Armenia and my latest ride in a sinister looking car - offset by a Virgin Mary swinging of the mirror - passed through a small town called SPITAK!I liked the look of the place, old fellas sat on benches, horses wandering around - that kind of thing.I told them that this would do fine, thanked them for the ride and hopped out to find some scran (northern slang for food).There wasn’t actually a great deal going on and after a natter with some girls in the supermarket, some coffee with a local and a viewing of a sheep get slaughtered in a carpark, I decided to make tracks to the next town, VANADZOR! I was walking down a windy road to the bottom of the town when I heard a car approaching from behind and at the last moment gave a pretty lazy effort of hitching my thumb up without even turning around. A blacked out 4x4 slammed on the anchors and with a big plume of dust pulled in 20metres down the road * break lights shining sinfully through the haze *THAT WAS EASY, I thought. There are several reasons why I love hitching, and that moment when somebody stops - 1. You don’t have to wait anymore.. 2. You’ve just scored a free ride..3. THE MYSTERY! ..Who it could be..and where might you end up?!I ran forward and opened the passenger door and saw Maise - an unshaven middle aged Armenian dude with a big smile and gold teeth. HELLOO!! i said. BAREV!! he replied.I chucked my bag in the back, hopped in the front and he drove. VANADZOR? I asked, pointing NE.“YEZZ”We drove on a bit and he pulled in, motioning he was gonna grab some scran. I waited for him by the car and took a couple of pics overlooking the town - a dusty, rusty, industrial landscape packed full of banged up Ladas.He came back and drove down a little alleyway which I though he was using for turning around, but he just carried on driving..I looked in the wing mirror and saw we were being followed by another car..a pimped up Lada Riva with blackedout out windows. One of those horrible moments suddenly gripped me- WAS I ABOUT TO BE SHAFTED?!Play it cool Rodney. We came to a stop in a kind of abandoned overgrown scrapyard and I saw two big guys get out of the Lada and walk towards us. I looked at Maise and tried to judge the situation and instantly reading his smile realised we were cool, phew.. My illusive ninja skills were not going to be required today.We all got out and sat down around an old rusty barrel. He whacked out a bottle of vodka, a beer, four cokes, a couple of kilos of meat and a load of Lavash - traditional Armenian bread. We proceeded to eat and got boozed up under the winter sunshine =DI expected us to head towards Vanadzor afterwards but in his broken English Maise was saying something about me smelling bad..“SMELL BAD YOU SHOWER MY HOUSE - VILLAGE!!”He started talking about an Australian hitcher JERRY he’d picked up years ago who came to stay with his family. I wasn’t sure, but..whatever - I’m here for new experiences and to meet people, right?!"OK MAISE!"Back through the town and we stopped for fuel. He didn’t even look at the petrol guy and calmly drove away without paying. Funny I thought.We went to the butchers and the meatman gave him almost everything he had. Again, we walked out without any money exchanging hands. Nice, I though. I started to wonder who this guy was. We picked up a couple of his mates and a few bottles of vodka along the way and arrived to his charming little nest in the countryside a few kilometers later. He showed me around his pad, gave me a tour of the orchard and his cellar - packed full of pickled this pickled that, jams, wine and fruit, then we started getting on it while his mate fired up the BBQ. We ate and drank all afternoon, until we couldn’t eat and drink any more, eventually dropped his mates off home and then I got taken on a tour of the village - stopping off at all the important houses. Families were called in advance and we always seemed to arrive to a table full of food and bottle of vodka waiting for us. I generally can’t drink vodka. I mean - I CAN, but shit generally starts going very wrong soon thereafter but you know - ‘When in Rome' and on this day I calculated that we’d drunk around a liter each. FOOD IS THE KEY [one month earlier I’d broken a long dry spell by sharing a bottle of vodka on an empty stomach with a Japanese backpacker in Tbilisi and spent my first hangover in a year sat in a wheelchair in the corridor of a Georgian hospital for 2 hours..NEXT TO A CORPSE - buuuuut that’s a different story].My favourite visit of the day was to his old headmaster who sat in his armchair, tweaking his fine moustache looking suspiciously like Don Corleone and asked me a lot of questions about my life. Maise continuously tweaked also my moustache to everyones glee and I began to realize that my presence in the village - a western tourist - was actually quite a big event and Maise was milking it, I was his puppy daawg!!I met his son back at the ranch who could speak pretty good English. He was a budding artist and when I complemented him on his prized piece- A naked woman in a euphoric mountainous scene complete with dragon flying through the air, he immediately took it off the wall and started removing it from the frame to roll it up and give me as a gift. I would have loved that piece actually but backpacking is a sacrificial game and I couldn’t fit even another peanut in my bag and certainly didn’t want to ruin his capo lavoro over the next 2000km of hitching i still had ahead of me so I declined his generous offer.Later that night we had dinner at his parents in another village and THE WHOLE family was invited..which generally involved me sitting with all the men and drinking more vodka while all the girls of the family looked over at us giggling. It really did resembled a family from the south of Italy, Naples? Yeh. Naples. Maise was shitfaced by this time but he drove us home anyway, with his wife grabbing the steering wheel every now and the rest of us singing from the back seats. This is probably a good time to mention that I am not afraid of death. A fortune teller told me that I'm going to live a long life- AND I BELIEVE HER.The next morning with a fuzzy head, it was time to roll. It was already clear that Maise wasn’t going anywhere near Vanadzor and never had been, nonetheless he insisted on helping me get there and sent me off with his daughter and friends who were to take me to the bus station on their way to school. We had to get a bus to the bus station which was a pretty cool ride, it felt like were in a luxurious soviet goldfish bowl, full of women. His daughter and friends made sure I got off OK and under no circumstances would let me pay for my own ticket (the bus cost about 20p, but that’s not the point). To say this family was hospitable, and pretty much everybody I met in Armenia for that matter (apart from one of Maise’s friends who stole my whistling Opinel knife around the BBQ fest) would be an understatement. For all the good the bad and the ugly of the old soviet empire - one thing is for sure, these people know how to take care of each other.
These kind of moments, when your life unexpectedly becomes intertwined with the lives of others, when an adventure is born out of nothing, is what defines being ‘on the road’ to me..and each one of these experiences is a like a building block helping me bit by bit understand LIFE. Yes. It’s everyday people who me give me faith about the future, and not only faith but excitement - about how much there is still to discover and how many friends I have out there that I haven’t even met yet - and as long as we all keep on keepin’ on - our paths will eventually cross!I’m now friends with Maise on facebook - he even follows me on Instagram. His last message to me read ‘heloo alen hau duyu du’Great guy. Great family. Great country. LONG LIVE ARMENIA - a rough jewel shining in a rustic forgotten Caucasian land!Thankyou and goodnight.Sincerely,aL//