Notes From Hairenik
February 11, 2008
As I have been trying to unload my Niva for some time now but to no avail for one reason or another—probably because everyone wants a Russian car for free in this country—on Sunday morning I ventured to take it down to the automobile open market which is located in the Erebuni district of Yerevan, just a stone’s throw away from the museum and historic site, which was the center of operations for the Armenian nation about 2,000 years ago, give or take a few centuries. At the foot of it someone decided to open a weekend market for cars. Only in Armenia.

I first came to the market, otherwise known as “avtoshuga” here, in late 2004 as I was in the market for a Niva. Nevertheless I ended up buying mine from a guy at the market located in Vanadzor, as I wrote at the time. I wasn’t able to find out who actually controlled the market, I am assuming some member of parliament doing business on the side under the name of his fourth cousin or something, which is usually how things are done here. Basically you show up in the morning with your car, find a place to park it, stay for about six hours or less if you can manage to leave, and pay 500 dram on the way out, or about $1.80. If you’re lucky you’ll be able to take a deposit from someone and sell it a day or two later. There is no middleman involved, just a small fee. Not a bad concept in principle. Too bad it isn’t as easy as it would seem, seeing as you are dealing with Armenians, the most stubborn, intolerant people to do business with on the entire planet.

My best man explained to me that if I wanted a good spot to be seen in I should get there around 8:00 am. Since I have never been a fan of getting up at the crack of dawn, which is at just about 7:55 or so, I didn’t manage to drag myself out of bed until 8:15, figuring that since it was a cold Sunday morning with a dusty light snow flurry in plain sight, people would be as lazy as I was.

I arrived at around 9:00 and the place was jam packed. At the entrance as I was driving in someone asked if my Niva ran on natural gas and I told him it didn’t, with no reply from him. There was a sea of cars, about 90 percent of which must have been European, mostly German—Volkswagen, BMW, Mercedes-Benz and the like. It took me about 30 minutes to find a place to park—there was only one way to go apparently so I simply followed the lead of the guy driving in front of me. Several times the traffic came to a complete stop for one reason or another, and someone wearing a faux-leather jacket and a mouth full of gold-capped teeth approached the car, tapping on my window.

“What year is it?”

“1995.”

“So what are you saying?”

“Saying about what?”

“About the price.”

“Well, I’m asking $4500 but I’ll lower the price.”

“How much?”

“How much do you want me to lower it?” I was hoping he would say $300 or something.

“$1000.”

“I’ll sell it to you for $4000. I can’t go any lower.”

“Is there anything wrong with it?”

“Like what?”

“Hasn’t been hit or something?”

“No, it’s a clean car. Doesn’t it look clean to you?”

“Clean, huh? Alright. I’ll find you…” It should go without saying that I never saw him again.

I found a place to park with the help of one of the attendants in the rear-most area of the lot, which must have spanned perhaps five acres, maybe even more. Every inch of the place was occupied, I was lucky to find a spot. I pulled up beside a fellow Lada—a 2105 to be precise which I discovered was a 1981 model. The owner and his son who must have been 25 years old wanted $2300 for it but would go down to $2000. Anyway, I got out of the car and examined my surroundings. There were only a few Nivas in immediate sight, naturally all of them white in color. After about 15 minutes an ancient Niva, one of the first to ever roll off the assembly line apparently in 1984, pulled up behind me. The front right fender had been side-swiped and there was quite a few rust spots, but upon first glance the interior seemed to be clean. The owner and his buddy chatted with me for a minute, asking me how much I wanted. They didn’t have any idea what the market value was for Nivas, but I didn’t either.

So I stood out in the cold for a while and did some pacing. Eventually I smoked a small Dutch cigar to help pass the time constructively. Then I sat in the car a bit to warm my feet. The first half-hour dragged on, I couldn’t wait for the time to be 10:00.

After a few minutes I got out again. One bona fide dummy approached the car without saying a word, so I started to communicate to see how he would react, if at all. He must have been in his early 30s, with a slightly perplexed look on his face, as if he misplaced his shoelaces or something.

“How are you?” I asked.

“What?”

“I said, how are you?”

“I’m fine.”

“Do you have any questions?”

“No.” He lingered in suspended thought. Then asked, “You’re not from around here?”

“No,” I responded.

“Well, where are you from?”

“From America.”

“From Belgium?”

“No, from America.”

“Hmm…” He walked away. I saw him come near quite a few more times but he didn’t talk to me again, which wasn’t particularly a huge disappointment for me.

The customers were few and far between at first, only a handful it seemed. I was extremely bored and I couldn’t wait to get out of there. Eventually my neighbors started to converse with me which was rather pleasant. The owner of the Lada beside me was a typical middle-aged laid-back Armenian guy, with a bulbous nose, assorted skin fruits under his right eyelid, and wide eyebrows.

“You see that 2106 over there? He wants $3000 for it. Thing isn’t even a car, smashed up and he wants that much.”

“Yeah, it’s a surprising price.” It was certainly, I think the sign in the back window read that it was a 1988 model. It had seen better days.

“You think I’ll be able to get out of here in another couple of hours?”

“Yeah, I think you should. The cars stop driving in another half-hour, so the roadway through the lot will be open.”

That turned out to be quite wrong. Apparently sellers stop looking for a spot after a while and simply park their cars right in the middle of the roadway. No one bothers to check if the lot is full or not, the attendants just keep packing them in. There seemed to have been only one entrance. You had to get in to get out, there was no other way.

Two more customers approached, they were buddies. Then the debate started.

“Who’s car is this?”

“It’s mine,” I answered.

“What year is this car?”

“1995.”

“And how much do you want?”

“$4500 is written there,” I had a sign taped to the inside of the window.

“$4500? Wow.”

“Don’t look at the price. I’ll lower it.”

“What’s the final price?”

“Listen, if you really want the car we can talk about it.”

“I want a car. I have to get one.”

“Are you ready to buy?”

“Sure.”

“Alright. How much are you willing to give me?”

“$3000.”

“No way, I can’t go that low.”

“Yeah, you can.”

“No, really I can’t.”

He pointed to a rusty spot and looked in absolute amazement at his friend.

“What do you see there, a rust spot? For that I’ll drop the price down to $4000,” I bartered futilely.

He found some other spots on the rear hatch. I told him that all those rust spots could be taken out for less than $100, which is what I had been quoted by a guy who did the bodywork on my car when the front bumper was torn away a while back. Someone else told me the same.

“All these cars have such spots on them,” he whined to his friend.

We went back and forth on the price. I told him I would take $3500 since he seemed like a nice guy, but he insisted that his budget was $3000 and he couldn’t raise the extra cash. At one point he asked me if I was from Syria, and I told him my dad is but he moved to the States and I was born there.

“America, huh? You work here?”

“Yeah, I’ve been here for about three-and-a-half years.”

“How long have you owned this thing?”

“For three years.”

“OK, I’ll give you $3000, so why don’t you write my name and number down….”

“Fine. So what’s your name?”

“Sasoon.”

“Sasoon? What’s your number?” He told me, while his friend was inspecting my handwriting.

“What language are you writing in?” his buddy asked.

“In English. Why? If you want I can write it in Armenian,” I joked and they chuckled, surprising to me. Two guys with a sense of humor each, I thought. “So I’ll jot down that you’ll give me $3500 for it, right?”

They laughed. “$3000, I’ll give you that much.”

“I can’t take that, there’s no way.”

“Yeah, you can.” Then they wandered off.

The pacing resumed as well as the cigar smoking. I looked about and saw that there were people everywhere weaving in between cars, everyone with dissatisfied frowns. At one point I followed someone’s lead to wander behind the concrete divider wall about 30 feet away, while most of the people that had to go actually urinated directly on the wall. There were no women in sight at all, save for the occasional lady towing a small cart carrying a tiny propane tank outfitted with a burner, a common sight here in open markets. Such vendors make fresh coffee for you on-the-spot, served in demitasses or plastic cups most of the time. You probably can’t get such service anywhere else in the civilized world.

“So you’re asking $4500? That isn’t a bad price really, for this car. Because a Niva has worth, it’s always been that way,” my neighbor told me.

“Really, because I had no idea what to ask for. I just made up a price,” which is true. I guesstimated the value, judging by other prices I have seen on the Internet. I managed to find a sight called auto.am a couple of weeks ago. “I figured if I could get $4000 for it I would be pleased.”

“You should be able to get that much.”

“I was willing to take $3500 up until a few weeks ago or so. Even from that guy.”

“Don’t take anything less than $3800. It’s worth at least that much.”

His words were comforting, but there was no one biting. They were nibbling, but not taking the worm into their mouths, so I could yank the hook through their gills and force them to submit while I reeled in the line. Anyway, I was sitting in the car trying to write down some of these conversations when someone tried to open the passenger door. I obliged him.

“What’s the year?”

“1995.”

“How much do you want?”

“$4500.”

“What’s the final price?” I heard this series of questions on at least 20 occasions the entire time I have been trying to sell the Niva—about two months in earnest. Although I have given in to the fact that this is the way it’s got to be when doing business in Armenia, I am still always surprised by the question, because the potential or rather, wannabe potential customer is hardly ever interested in the car itself. This guy wanted to check under the hood, a first for the day. He did, said he’d walk around, then he would be back. Two other guys did the same thing a half hour later as I was on my way to find a taxi and get the hell out of there, but I began to get cocky with them simply to amuse myself.

“What’s the final price?” they asked. They looked harmless but they wore mean mugs, like they were out for blood.

“Listen, why are we going to talk about the price already? Do you want to buy it? Do you have the money? Can you go to the notary this week, tomorrow or the next day?” I was fed up.

“Of course we have the money. There are all these people walking around here looking for cars, you think none of them have any money?

“What do I know?” I retorted

“We work on cars, we know what we’re doing.”

“Oh, OK then. I want $4000, is that doable? When do we go to the notary, tomorrow?”

“Who’s car is this, anyway?”

“It’s mine, it’s registered under my name. All we have to do is draft a sales agreement, I give you the title, and you have five days to go and get it registered or something. That’s it,” which is true. My friend Ara was lucky enough to sell cars in Armenia before and he gave me the lowdown.

“Well, we’ll think about it.”

“Let me get your name and number. What is it?”

“Vahram.”

“And your number?”

“What do you want his number for?” his mean cohort snapped. “I wrote down you’re number, if we want we’ll call you.”

“Oh, excuuuuuse me!” I mocked, Steve Martin style but with an Armenian twist. “Good luck!”

I locked the doors, made sure the hood was secured, walked towards the entrance between about 1000 cars, hopped into a taxi and was off for home. I made myself a fabulous brunch of basterma and eggs, French bread, strained yoghurt and a glass of “multifruit” juice. Then I puttered around the house, watch the news, did some laundry and took a long nap—keeping very busy.

At around 3:40 I called a taxi and arrived at the site around 4:10. The place was deserted, save for about 15 cars in the entire lot, one of which was mine and was barely visible from the front gate. There were cellophane bags scattered everywhere along with a hundred ravens hovering above. It was fascinating, I couldn’t believe I was at the same place. Where the hell did all the cars go, I thought. There must have been thousands there, thousands! And they were all gone, in less than four hours, with only one way to get in or out. I don’t know how many people bothered to write my number down, and no one called me while I was away. Who knows, perhaps I will be surprised in another day or two with a call from the soon-to-be new owner of a 1995 VAZ 21213 “Niva,” with a rebuilt engine and new battery, in generally very good condition.

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