Friday, 1 April 2016

The Amazing Race 28, Episode 6

Chamonix (France) - Yerevan (Armenia) - Hatsavan (Armenia) - Garni (Armenia)

Armenia threw the teams of travellers on The Amazing Race 28 for a loop. None of the racers had been there before, and some of them seemed quite uncertain where “Armenia” is located.

Armenia is a landlocked country in the southern Caucasus bordered by Turkey, Iran, Azerbaijan, and Georgia and including part of Kurdistan as well as several more or less “autonomous” and/or contested regions. There is little foreign tourism to Russia and, except for the Baltic states which have become part of the European Union, much less to any of the other former Soviet republics such as Armenia and its neighbors. Most foreign visitors to Armenia are from elsewhere in the former USSR and/or from the Armenian diaspora. The region hasn’t gotten much good press in recent years, and many foreign tourists probably write off the entire Caucasus, rightly or wrongly and without more detailed research, as presumptively a war zone.

The Armenian language is quite different from any other language, and is written in its own unique (although generally phonetic) alphabet, with many “ligatures” (joined letters)which make it more like a running script (such as Arabic, Urdu, or Persian) in which it is harder to distinguish the individual letters than in the Latin typography with fully separated letters used in English.

How does a visitor navigate in a place like this where you can’t even recognize or sound out signs in the local language?

I was somewhat surprised by how many of the signs on streets, buildings, and businesses visible in the background in this episode of The Amazing Race were in English — and not Russian — as well as Armenian. There appeared to be at least as much signage in Yerevan in the Latin alphabet (all of it that we saw in English rather than in, say, German or French) as in Cyrillic (presumably Russian, although perhaps including some transliterated Armenian name). These are signs of the extent to which Armenians see, or at least seek, a future aligned more with Europe and less with Russia.

Until Armenia became independent in 1990-1991, the “national” language of the USSR was, of course, Russian. Many ethnic Russians and other non-Armenians lived their whole lives in Armenia without learning any Armenian. The situation was similar in most of the other Soviet republics. Today, Armenian is the sole official language of Armenia. But some of the linguistic realities can be inferred from the fact that this law on language is published on the government’s official Web site in Russian and English as well as Armenian.

As a practical matter, Armenia — like other former Soviet republics and some other countries — continues to depend on Soviet machinery for which all of the technical documentation is in Russian.

The racers had to change the oil and oil filter in Lada taxis, for example, as one of their tasks. Like Volkswagen Beetles, Ladas are often the butt of jokes and insults but were made in large numbers in multiple countries and are sturdy and user serviceable if underpowered and unstylish. Like VW Beetles, Ladas are likely to remain on the roads for years, albeit in dwindling numbers, and mechanics who service them will continue to need a reading knowledge of Russian. In the same vein, as long as Armenia and other former Soviet republics, “satellites”, and economic allies and aid recipients continue to rely on an installed base of Soviet power plants, water pumps, and other infrastructure and equipment, they will continue to need technicians and engineers who are literate in Russian, regardless of the preferences of politicians or young people who would rather learn English than Russian.

For tourists, that means that it will continue to be possible to find local speakers of Russian in countries like Armenia, and that Russian will continue to be among the most useful languages for world travel — even if there comes a time when the way to find someone who speaks Russian in a non-Russian country is to look for a maintenance engineer or repair shop. That’s not a totally novel concept: I’ve been told that my grand-father, who died in 1962 before the Catholic mass began to be said in the vernacular, was able to get around anywhere in Europe by relying, in a pinch, on being able to find a priest in any town with whom he could communicate in Latin.

Aside from navigation and communication, the most difficult task for the racers in this episode was knotting a very small section (a single row) of a hand-made rug.

Many people assume that traditional “Oriental” carpets are woven, but they aren’t. Each strand of yarn that stands up as part of the “pile” is individually tied onto the array of parallel “warp” threads. A finely-knotted carpet has more than a hundred hand-tied knots per square inch. I first saw a rug being knotted by hand at the Iranian pavilion — a vast propaganda showpiece for the Shah — at the Expo ‘67 world’s fair in Montréal. I was amazed at the slow pace of the work, even for a master craftsman.

Tourists might put less effort into haggling down the prices of hand-made carpets if they realized how many months of labor even a small “prayer rug” or similar throw rug requires. Rug-making is attractive for nomads and people who live in remote places precisely because it can be done at home or in shepherds’ camps and allows months or years of work to be converted into a compact and easily transported article of trade. Farmers choose to produce coca in the Andes, opium in the mountains of Central and Southeast Asia, and whiskey in the Appalachian hill country and the highlands and islands of Scotland for similar reasons: these crops can be processed into products that are dense, high-value, and relatively easily transported to high-paying but distant markets. Rug-making is also one of relatively few trades that can be carried out in refugee camps and crowded slums, by workers with little or no mobility or access to arable land.

Unfortunately, rug-knotting also puts a premium on manual dexterity, making it (like traditional lace-making) especially attractive to exploiters of child labor. Many of the hand-knotted carpets sold in North America and Europe today are made by enslaved children in India and Pakistan. Even if you buy a rug at what you are told is the factory where it was made, it may actually have been made elsewhere under much worse conditions. It’s easy to say, “caveat emptor”, but harder to say how any carpet buyer, anywhere in the world, can be sure who made the rug they are buying, or — as with any souvenir — how much of the retail price went to the worker(s) and how much to the trader(s). “Fair trade” and “not made by slave labor or child labor” certifications and labels for rugs exist, but they are easily faked or forged.

Link | Posted by Edward on Friday, 1 April 2016, 23:59 (11:59 PM)

Thanks for yet another insightful post about TAR, taking us beneath the surface yet again! The linguistic legacies of colonalism around the world are strange, yet fascinating, and important for travelers to know, as is the issue of child labor. Having raised this (second) issue, what are your thoughts about solving the problem?

Posted by: Ben Bangs, 12 April 2016, 07:42 ( 7:42 AM)
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