“I feel like I’m part of the clown car act at a circus; You know, the one where 20 clowns come out of a small VW bug?” My husband does not have an adventurous bone in his body, making me wonder whether I should have dragged him along for a ride to Republic Square on a hot summer day in Mashrutgi #54 in Yerevan.
Mashrutgi is derived from the Latin words masala which means hold on tight and rutegnee which means guaranteed to soil your pants. Of course, there is a very profound debate among few scholars in the linguistics community who claim that the origin of the word is not Latin, but indeed Slavic. They assert the word is derived from the words mashli which means God or the creator of life and rutjana which roughly translates to: Oh please, oh please let me not die!
Despite the huge debate, mashrutgis have been in existence in Armenia for a very long time. Having grown up in Armenia, I had become accustomed to using this very popular and relatively inexpensive form of transportation. And when my husband and I visited Armenia last summer, my American grown husband was unsure as to why it was so popular but was quick to point out his opinions as to why it may be inexpensive.
Mashrutgi’s are very old versions of our modern day mini-vans. They come in a unique variety of colors, bran’s, numbers and effervescent odors. Surprisingly, no two mashrutgis look the same and no two mashrutgis share a similar number which makes organized mass transit for visitors to Armenia a virtual nightmare. Being that Armenia is a very progressive country, there are no laws that mandate the use of seatbelts; mostly because there are no seatbelts in these vehicles. Furthermore, even though these one-terrain vehicles come with 8 passengers seats, there are no limits to the number of passengers that can be made to fit in the limited confines of the mashrutgi. Fortunately, there are a number of nonfunctioning windows that can theoretically be used to bring in some vital air to the many trapped under the weight of a number of other hovering passengers.
The mashrutgi drivers are almost as diverse as the vehicles they drive. Generally middle aged men, their limited patience are balanced by their overwhelming, unbridled agitation and anger. It is an unwritten contract between the driver and the passenger which clearly states that you no longer have any rights when you enter the mashrutgi and are now rightfully entitled to verbal abuse by the driver until you reach your destination. You might have to prepare yourself for the emotional roller coaster should you accidentally overestimate your strength and bang the door shut;or underestimate the headroom by sitting on someone’s lap thereby obstructing the driver’s view;or breathe too deeply thus depleting the overall oxygen content in the packed cabin.
Despite the years of psychiatric therapy that you may very well need from developing post traumatic stress disorder from your daily mashrutgi commute, there are a number of benefits of riding on these curious looking vehicles. Putting price aside, driving in a mashrutgi gives you the opportunity to connect with the citizens of Yerevan and to get to know the intimate details of their life;and also of their struggles. It is amazing that once in a while, when I am stuck in the parking lot that we call the Los Angeles freeway system on my way to work, I think back fondly and wish we had some overly crowded mashrutgis running around to save us from our mass transit woes;stuffy, smelly, uncomfortable and all.