It all started when his car shuddered to a halt at the side of the highway on the southern fringes of Yerevan. I hadn’t expected anyone to pull over here. There was nowhere to pull over. No shoulder, too dangerous. But then we were in Armenia. Hitchhiking here is incredibly easy and the driving is far from safe.
A few hours later, the kind driver, who’d picked us up from our less-than-stellar hitchhiking spot on the edge of a construction zone on Armenia’s main north-south thoroughfare would be force feeding us Russian Vodka and fierce quantities of barbecued meat; our plans to reach Tatev Monastary in the south of the country by days end completely out of the window.
Jora was an easy going fellow with a sparkle in his eye and a permanent grin on his face. I’d say he was in his mid-60s and the opportunity to pick up two foreign hitchhikers on his way home seemed too perfect an opportunity to pass up. As we drove down the highway, Armenian pop music blasting out of the open windows of his aging Vauxhall, he asked us if we’d like to join him and his wife for a snack at their home in Ararat village. After that he’d drop us back on the highway. Why not, we answered. We’d taken a few spare days to hitchhike and camp around Armenia. There was no real plan, other than to have as much fun as possible. This seemed like a good place to start.
A few minutes later we pulled into the driveway of Jora’s house, a short drive from the highway in a typically rustic Armenian village. An expansive yard, grapevines sagging under the weight of a summers growth, an old barn, and the distinct smell of my childhood – growing up in rural England so close to many farmyards.
Jora sounded the horn triumphantly. A sign that we have guests, he explained. Jora’s wife, right on cue, came out of the house to inspect the new arrivals. She smiled and welcomed us into their home – a spacious, single-story house that was home to eight, including the couples two grown sons, one of their wives, and multiple children.
After Armenian coffee and introductions, a tour of the large orchard showcased delicious peaches, plums, apples and tomatoes. A calf named Valig, who was very happy to receive some affectionate face rubs from the guests, grazed there too.
Settling down, Jora explained we’d now have a snack – and then we’d go and buy some meat, for a barbecue lunch. Vodka was also mentioned. It was then I first started to wonder if we’d be leaving this house before the following day.
Sure enough, a vodka bottle was produced shortly after. A few welcoming shots were poured. I was first privy to this tradition, which seems to be a common thread running through the former Soviet Union, back at a similarly styled country home of a university friend in Estonia back in 2007. Remembering that late summers day, sitting on a picnic table outside the house getting utterly plastered, I realised what the next few hours would hold. It would be a case of eat or be eaten (by vodka, gradually). A huge plate of Dolma appeared – ample enough to soak up the impending onslaught of alcohol.
A few minutes, endless shots, and a face stuffed with Dolma later, I fought my way through the haze of vodka to the car. Jora, that glint in his eye growing stronger by the minute, drove vaguely in the direction of the local store. More vodka, beers, meat, some herbs. We were in trouble now.
We got back to the house. Jora set about piling enough wood on the stone driveway to create a huge blaze for the barbecue. I set about drinking enough water to create the illusion that I wouldn’t be horrendously hungover the following morning.
Soon, the smell of grilled meat, eggplant and tomato filled the air. Despite his drunken state, Jora sure knew how to barbecue. “I don’t drink often”, he told us, as he necked another shot. The previous year he’d had heart surgery – showing us the impressive looking scar down his chest. But today was a special occasion – a Wednesday – so we were drinking. Meat was served, more shots were poured, beer bottles were popped open. Jora’s wife gave her husband a disapproving look. I tried to hide my vodka glass.
The night was capped off with a second drunken driving incident. Jora, fresh from devouring an entire bottle of Russia’s finest clear-liquid-that-definitely-isn’t-water, suddenly announced that we should go night swimming. Taking no for an answer was not an option. It would be a great sadness to Jora if we weren’t to join him. Reluctantly, we got back in the car and spent the next hour weaving along the potholed backroads of the local area in the pitch dark, searching for this mythical lake where we could swim. Alas, after multiple U-turns, forays down dirt roads, and the occasional drunken slur at other folks out in the countryside at night who didn’t want to join us, Jora admitted defeat. Within five minutes of arriving home, our kind host had passed out at the dinner table, vodka glass still in hand, leaving us finally free to sneak off to get some sleep.
The following morning, stomach churning with the sheer quantity of food consumption, but a surprisingly clear head, we vowed never to accept invitations of “a snack” from anyone who was that overjoyed to pick us up off the highway. At midday, twenty four hours later than planned, we were back on the highway, packed lunches courtesy of Jora’s wife loaded on top of our belongings, and an aim to finally reach Tatev that day. Who knows who’d pick us up next.