The mysterious Babken

In January 2005 I purchased my Niva from a guy named Merouj in Vanadzor. At the time he had the car’s registration/title (a.k.a., passport) but did not have the car registered under his name. Apparently the Niva had at least three owners in Vanadzor alone and the sales agreement paperwork was never filed. The transfer of ownership was made on a “here’s the cash, thanks for my car” basis without any hint of accountability to any governing body, namely the registry of motor vehicles. As I explained in previous posts, a flimsy piece of paper with both our names printed on it signed by a notary but without a seal, and a “passport” with someone else’s name on it, was all I had to prove that I was the owner of the car, with the power to sell it or do as I wished. The name on the passport and the original owner of the Niva was Babken T.

Merouj, angel that he is, insisted at the time that Babken was in Russia, and no one in his neighborhood knew anything about his exact whereabouts, as was confirmed by one of the Niva’s previous owners in Vanadzor, who is also Merouj’s buddy conveniently enough. I trusted the notary that I was the legal owner and nothing else could stop me in my travels throughout Armenia or across its northern border. My experience two weeks ago when I feebly attempted to cross into Georgia with Hamlet by my side dissolved that dream into oblivion. The transfer of ownership paper meant nothing without the seal, and even if it was stamped it was condemned to expire in January 2008, only six months away. Ariga consulted our lawyer and I asked friends of mine for their advice. All of them said the same thing—I had no other alternative but to find the original owner and sort the matter out as soon as possible before other headaches would start tormenting me.

The name and address of the man was plainly printed both in Armenian and Russian on the front side of passport, which is the exact size of a credit card and made of the same type of plastic material. On the back of the passport is printed the license plate number, the year, make, and model of the car, the vehicle identification number, engine size, and other related information. None of the information was worn away or illegible by any means, which led me to believe that we could perhaps find the whereabouts of this guy ourselves. I was already suspicious that we had been duped by Merouj judging from the problems I had been having of late, not to mention the worn out piston and four piston rings that came with the Niva when I bought it from him, which he kept secret.

The address read 1 Ararat Street, Shahumyan quarter. A study on an online interactive map of Yerevan revealed that the neighborhood was located in the Malatia-Sebastia (a.k.a., Bangladesh) district. Ariga called her main information source, her girlfriend from back home in Vanadzor, Sabina, who also lives in Malatia and could probably find out where exactly the address was. Sabina is a walking, true-to-life yellow pages directory. She can obtain nearly any telephone number—residential, business, or otherwise—and decipher almost any kind of bureaucratic data that circulates in this city, not to mention Vanadzor. Whenever something needs to be figured out, especially when much running around time is to be anticipated, she is the first line of offense. Within 30 minutes after the start of their investigation they found the home of Babken, who did not live at the address printed on the passport but in a building just across the way. Babken was not present, and no one was home, although the neighbor insisted that his wife rarely leaves the house throughout the day. The neighbor also declined to give Babken’s phone number to Ariga, so she gave her our home telephone number instead to pass on to Babken, should he reveal himself. We had no idea if the neighbor would even give him our number nor if he would even try to contact us. But Ariga was smart enough to explain to the neighbor that the situation had to do with a car that Babken previously owned and was now in our possession. Some grandpas sitting in the courtyard said that Babken worked in the Malatia-Sebastia Administration Building, but they didn’t know what position he held. When Ariga and Sabina asked the reception clerk there where Babken could be found, she stated that she didn’t know who he was. Then Ariga went home after calling to let me know what happened.

The next morning Babken called. Ariga passed the phone to me and I spoke very formally, explaining to him the situation. He immediately agreed that his name should be taken off the passport, as he put it, and be registered under my name. The responses he gave me were mostly grunts and moans, but we understood each other. His understood that the shoddy Niva sales deal finally came back to haunt him.

Babken purchased the Niva brand new in 1995 for $12,000. In fact, that model introduced a slightly larger, 1.7 liter four cylinder inline engine with a redesigned rear hatch door that enabled lower entry access to the storage area. The interior dashboard and switch placement was also totally redesigned. Five years later he sold it to someone from Vanazdor for only $2,000, which I did not have difficulty believing (although Ariga did). He didn’t mention why he sold it and I didn’t ask for that matter. And he didn’t seem surprised or displeased to learn that I purchased the car for an additional $900 of his supposed sale price.

The venture into the unknown but strikingly familiar bureaucratic world that we were about to enter started on Wednesday afternoon. We were to meet Babken at 2:00 pm at the registry of motor vehicles located on Raffi Street, about a mile away from the colorfully maddening Bangladesh market, which to me is the inferno. Of course there was no sign to identify the building, but we found a pedestrian who told us which one it was. On the outer wall were affixed bold, protruding white Armenian letters reading “Dove,” which I noticed as we drove by initially. We didn’t understand why and never bothered to ask since we would most likely have been met with bewilderment in kind. Unbeknownst to us, the registry takes a long lunch break—from 1:00 to 3:00 pm. We obviously had time to kill so after a call to Babken suggesting that he show up an hour later we drove to Ejmiadzin and back so we would be caught loitering (not that anyone would have cared). While we waited I half-joked that he would either show up in a used Mercedes-Benz or a relatively new Volga. He didn’t end up appearing until 3:20 pm, driving a Volga 3110 as predicted, but we weren’t sure if it was him until we bumped into each other while chatting with one another on our mobile phones.

We approached the window that is situated to the left of the building’s entrance to apply for the transfer of ownership—we presented the man with our passports and the car’s passport as well as our social security cards, which weren’t needed even though a sample was pasted on the window. There was only one thing missing—a proof of residence on my part. Babken entered a few offices to inquire further as he knew some of the employees, but it turned out that there was nothing more to be done that day. A proof of residence form was all that I needed to start the process.

So on Thursday morning I arranged an appointment with my landlord, Sergey, in front of the Center (or Kentron) Municipality Administration Building on the corner of Deryan and Sayat Nova streets. He asked me to spell out for him again what was to transpire, and when I briefed him what I needed and for what reason, he told me that we had to go to the district office, which was conveniently located in our neighborhood, on the ground floor of a seven-story building which must be an 1/8th of a mile long. Sergey is a sweet, easy going guy who only wants the best for my wife and I. He is probably charmed by the fact that I gave up life in the US to live here instead, and in these last two months he has helped tremendously with little errands and domestic things that needed repairs. The office was unidentified, and there was no way of realizing that it even existed. A simple, faded white-painted door was open, and when you looked inside there was a woman sitting at a desk in a small, sunny room decorated with a few plants. Those were the only clues to go by, but Sergey obviously knew where he was.

At first we were met with resistance, which wasn’t surprising. She insisted that I would have to be registered with the Central Police, then changed her mind and suggested that I speak to her supervisor in the next room. We asked him about the form that I needed and he negatively nodded his head, then sent us back to the clerk we had just visited. I explained to her by showing my special residency visa as well as the Niva’s passport that all I needed was a signed and sealed form proving that I was a resident guest of Sergey’s, as we agreed to put it, so that I could finalize the purchase of a car. She said about three times that such an action was illegal, explaining to Sergey each time, but I did not understand why at first until she finally said to him, “You know ordinarily that an announcement has to be printed.” He also needed to gain the approval of his neighbors supposedly and I think that of the police, plus he had to jump through some other hoops that weren’t made very clear. She drew up the form anyway of course, especially when considering that I would give her a “donation” for her painful task (the forms were in ready supply, pre-stamped, as I witnessed when she opened her drawer). I thanked Sergey again, although he was more than pleased to help. The next immediate stop was the registry of motor vehicles in Bangladesh.

Ariga and I arrived at the registry much more confident than the day before. We were a few minutes early and I was luckily able to find a spot near the entrance for a quick getaway, since within the next hour cars would be double parked throughout the small lot. We only had to wait for Babken for about five minutes as I called him before we left the house. After he arrived we approached the application window once more, handed over our passports and that of the Niva, and slipped him the proof of residence form. Babken suddenly disappeared and from the other side of the window motioned for me to go in the building and around—I left Ariga in line just in case. Another guy in the closet-like application office was there to expedite the process, which cost 1,500 dram. I called out to Ariga and she met us. Then Babken disappeared again and showed up a few minutes later with another form, on which was printed three separate fees that I needed to pay only to begin the transfer of ownership process. I had to go to the neighborhood post office, which was located on the ground floor of a high-rise apartment building about a quarter-mile away. I had to walk through a lovely courtyard filled with spring flowers and tall poplar trees, which is a kind of oasis considering the fact that most of Bangladesh is virtually a desert. There is a special office there that handles all such processing fees—why that office is not located in the registry building is a good question. I had to wait in line for 10 painless minutes, then I was off again to the registry and found Babken. Time was ticking, as we had far less than two hours before everything shut down for lunch at 1:00. We checked in at another office to have the receipt signed by an official, but I realized I had already spent nearly all the money in my pocket, amounting to about 25,000 dram. I asked Babken how much more I needed to spend, who was clueless, and someone waiting to get his signature told me about 32,000 dram, at the very least. I started to panic as we approached the man in charge of that department, Officer Mardirosyan, who would draft the sales agreement for the transfer of plates. He asked us to sit down then mumbled something to me in his alto voice. When I asked him to repeat he asked if I had an inspection sticker for 2007, then I told him I didn’t. I still had the one for 2006 since you have until August 30 to get the new one. He asked us why we were talking to him then, and sent us off to the Malatia-Sebastia Administration Building to apply for the vehicle inspection and pay the related motor vehicle taxes, as I had done twice before.

Privately I spoke to Ariga to raise 20,000 dram, and thank the Lord, Sabina was our salvation. We hopped into Babken’s car and were on our way, Ariga got out not far from the market and into a private taxi. Babken asked where she was off to and I said she had to run an errand, but would meet up with us, which she did five minutes after we arrived as he drove at a snail’s pace through a neighborhood lined with makeshift, one story brick homes—the same that you can find scattered throughout the city in hidden hamlets. He made a right turn and we were at the back entrance of the building, which was lined with full-grown trees. It’s strange incidentally how only the trees found just outside municipal government buildings and in privately maintained parks, like the one behind our home, never have their limbs cruelly severed. In any case, we entered the familiar office, and the woman working there printed a pre-paid receipt of 8,000 dram that we would have to pay at the ASHB bank branch office located in the ground floor (the most important administrative offices always seem to be found at the same place in most buildings). Ariga and I went down there and paid the fee as well as three tax payments, including the clean air tax, which will most likely be used to help some official make a cash payment towards a new Mercedes-Benz.

We went upstairs again and the clerk told me to come back to see her once the new plates were given to me and present to her a signed, sealed form proving that the transfer was made successfully in my name. Then I would be off to the Center Municipality Registry of Motor Vehicles, or so I thought.

After returning to the registry just before 12:30 we were told to go directly to the motor vehicle inspection office (a.k.a., tekh osmotr). The gentlemen there scribbled something on a square piece of paper which turned out to be the inspection sticker, then told me to go with another man to a office just across the way decorated with sour cherry trees and shrubs, which was actually a café at one time judging from the brightly colored painted wooden tables that were still there. A piece of letter-sized paper was tacked to the door which read “CO.” Ariga and I entered and he asked me to sit down. He wrote something down on a 2 x 4 inch photocopied form with some kind of table printed on one side and complicated text written in Armenian containing scientific terminology on the other, which I have yet to decipher since I can’t find the words in one of a few dictionaries. But after recognizing one of the words I realized that the hullabaloo was for an unperformed emissions check, which cost me 3000 dram.

I returned to the tekh osmotr office and the gentleman there (he was a really nice guy) asked me how we were going to do this. I told him that everything was in order, and Ariga repeated the same. Then he asked, “Well, where’s your doctor’s note?” By law every driver of a motor vehicle must present a certified letter from a qualified doctor explaining that he or she is of sound health and is capable of driving. But no one knows this law until they arrive at the tekh osmotr, and then they end up making a small donation, or paying a fine, whatever you wish to call it. Since motorists learn that you can get away with not presenting a doctor’s note, everyone continues doing the same thing year after year, and it has long ago become common practice to simply give some money in its place to whoever was collecting. I was not about to complicate my life any further, and I asked him quietly, “OK, how much?” He said 5,000 dram, and when I asked if there was a discount, he mentioned something about a war having occurred or something to that effect. Then his associate who was suddenly standing just behind me said, “Write it down as 4,000 dram.” I understood immediately that the whole business was documented, which was interesting. We made some small talk and the guy asked where I was from, then the associate immediately responded, “Massachusetts.” Ariga and I were shocked and pressed him to tell us how he knew. “He can see, he knows these things,” the gentleman exclaimed. I wonder if the associate works as a part-time seer or something. Babken suddenly appeared at the doorway and told us to hurry up, as we only had less than 10 minutes left.

Then a quick inspection of the car was made and vehicle identification number noted, while a kid came by offering to remove the license plates to make some money on the side. I regrettably handed in the plates, as the license number was prestigious with all the zeros—07UO009—but I could not keep them without paying an exuberant amount of money which Babken said was not worth it, and I agreed.

Officer Mardirosyan took our passports and drafted two copies of the agreement by hand, which both of us signed. The three of us left the office to check something—I didn’t catch what—then returned. The transfer and issuance of new license plates cost 30,000 dram, but I only had 5,000 dram left in my pocket. So I asked that I leave my Armenian special residency visa (which looks exactly like a passport) in exchange for returning in two hours with the money, which was thankfully not a problem. Babken’s work was complete and we shook hands then parted ways. He is a weird guy who surprisingly does not smoke and is very clean cut, but he was extremely patient throughout the red-taped nightmare.

I made sure the Niva doors were locked and found a Lada 2107 company taxi that happened to be parked alongside the curb anticipating suckers like me. We dropped off Ariga near the market since she had to meet Sabina to embark on another adventure. My destination was the office, where I sat for a little over an hour before leaving again.

Then I remembered that I needed to show some papers to the woman at the administration building back in Bangladesh, which I left with Ariga, but luckily I found her with Sabina roaming along Mashdots Avenue. I found another Lada 2107 taxi and was off to the registry once again. The driver wanted 1,500 dram even though the previous driver took only 1,000 for going the same distance. I was getting screwed but didn’t have time or the inclination to argue.

There was a line to enter Officer Mardirosyan's office and he had stepped out momentarily for some reason. Upon his return he immediately saw me in line and said, “Oh, you showed up, huh? Come inside.” There was an older man with crutches waiting for his plates, who wasn’t supposed to drive apparently but Officer Mardirosyan made it clear to him that he was doing him a huge favor. He and his wife left and it was my turn. He asked me what I do and I told him, then asked where I was from.

“You’re from Boston, huh? Listen, I have a relative there, Ararat Davityan, but I’m clueless as to his whereabouts. I know he died and has been buried with an identifying tombstone.” I asked for some more information, and it turns out his relative was captured by the Nazis during World War II. He somehow was released when the war ended and he was given the choice to return to the Soviet Union or go elsewhere, and he chose the latter, disappearing nearly without a trace. Word reached his family that he went to the US, but they didn’t know where, what happened to him there, and so forth, since he didn’t want to incriminate them. It turns out he had a family, but Officer Mardirosyan had no idea who his wife nor who his kids were. I told him that it would be difficult to know since there are over 1 million Armenians in the US, but his relative most likely ended up either in Boston or New York, where most Armenians settled down during that time, and that I would make some inquiries. Then we got down to business.

I gave him the 30,000 dram and he was pleased, but before I received the plates I would have to give some papers that he signed on the back of them to a woman named Asya who worked in the office across the way. He said I had five days to get to the Center Municipality Registry of Motor Vehicles and apply for the new passport (which is actually the title, I think) for the car—he said it was open on Saturday. Then I thanked him and went to the window behind which the Amazing Asya was supposedly working. After I walked the eight steps to get there I found that the window was closed, but after a five minute wait she arrived. I gave her the papers as well as my visa and she told me to come back in an hour—it was 3:30. I inquired whether I could come back the following day and she asked me how I would be able to drive without plates. She was right, naturally I had to wait. So I killed some time by buying a top-up card for my mobile phone service at a local grocery store. Then I devoured a refreshing ice cream cone followed by a half-liter bottle of ice-cold Arzni mineral water. I walked backed to my car and decided to wipe the dust from the dashboard. The kid, who was nearly as tall as me but about 14 years old, showed up a minute later and said, “You know that two of the bolts affixing the license plates have rusted and they won’t come off, right?” I didn’t believe him so I tried to get the front one off at least with the pliers I keep in the car. I tried for about 10 minutes and the nut wouldn’t budge. Then his pal came by, half his height but around the same age, with his own set of tools and went at it but couldn’t take it off. Two older gentlemen standing around waiting for something to happen came by to try as well, but nothing doing. They managed to remove the plate holder without damaging it using Armenian ingenuity and forced out the bolt from the bumper with a screwdriver. The bolt on the rear hatch door came off much easier by removing a vinyl cover that sits on the interior side, then he loosened the nut. One of the interested men in my predicament, who supposedly worked for the police, told me that since I could not affix the plate to the front bumper without properly fitting bolts, I could instead leave it on the dashboard in full view though the windshield, which was a relief. I gave the kids 500 dram between them, straightened out the bent front plate holder with my foot, and then casually approached Amazing Asya’s window to pick up my new plates at exactly 4:30. The window was closed and she was nowhere to be found.

So I waited there, resting my elbow on the sill of the picture-frame sized window. It was locked with a wood laminate hinged door so you couldn’t peek in to see what the hell was going on. Every once in a while I would knock loudly on the door to get my frustrations out. Some other poor sap came by asking where she was, and told him I had been waiting for well over an hour for my plates, After a couple of minutes passed he asked me what kind of car I had and whether I would be willing to sell it, but I told him that I was not, especially after all this trouble of registering the thing in my name. A half-hour dragged by and Amazing Asya still didn’t come back. Then I realized that around the left corner was another open window which revealed a grand office and the other side of Asya’s inaccessible window. I asked the woman where she was and she said she didn’t know, but asked politely that I stop banging on Asya’s door. I told her how long I had been waiting but she could have cared less. There were at least 10 people waiting for Asya to show up, anticipating her caboose to chug along the rear hall at the end of which she presumably disappeared. At 5:15 she showed up and I was the first one at the window again. The total wait time was 1 hour, 45 minutes. I could have watched one of a handful of Ingmar Bergman’s films during that period, putting the time to good use. As soon as she opened the door I asked, “What happened to Adanalian, of Khosroff?” She said she didn’t have anything from him, of course, then realized that my visa and paperwork were right in front of her sitting on the counter. Then Amazing Asya walked out of the office again for two minutes. It was remarkable that I kept my cool considering the madness, and the other gents around me, all middle aged, sympathized. After she showed up she presented a ledger then struggled to find an empty page on which for me to sign. I did so then she snatched it away, fetched the new license plates from a shelf across the room—which was loaded with them—and placed them on her counter. She punched a hole though the car’s passport to invalidate it, then handed it to me along with the paperwork, the plates, and my visa. And for her promptness I had to pay 1,500 dram. I asked Amazing Asya if I was done, she told me I was, and I cried Halleluiah then stormed out. I placed one of the places on the dashboard, managed to affix the other to the rear hatch door, and was off to the Malatia-Sebastia Administration Building for the second time that day.

I found the clerk in the office and asked if she could process whatever was needed. She explained that ordinarily she could have, but unfortunately the local computer network had a virus. I find it odd that, to my recollection, the administration building is the only one in which a network can be found. Everywhere I go things are done with pen and paper and ledgers. Sometimes you can find an abacus if additions are necessary for the tasks at hand. She said I could come back Saturday morning and she would be glad to take care of whatever was left to complete, which I am ecstatic about doing.

So far I have spent the following monies in dram for transferring the ownership of the Niva to me:

In other words, I have spent close to $200 for this aggravation based on the current dollar-to-dram exchange rate of 345 dram. The total would have been around $150 in 2005 based on the 445 dram exchange rate had I straightened this situation out then, and about $169 based on the 400 dram rate around this time last year. That’s a considerable price increase in only two years. I still have to pay the required fees and donations for facilitating the issuance of the new passport, and I cannot begin to guess how much those will cost.


Anonymous said…
WOW. That sounds like a massive run around. It sems like selling a car is a pain in the neck as well. yikes
Ankakh_Hayastan said…
What a nightmare. The beaurocratic systems in underdeveloped countries are designed to maximize the need for bribery. Combine it with nepotism and you have a kind of a welfare system for a certain segment of the society.
Anonymous said…
Hi! What a stressful situation for you although you have learned one thing as well...never purchase an automabile without a seal! Thanks for sharing and and keep it coming. Have a nice day! :)

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