“Where are you staying in Armenia?” the border guard asked as we drove up to the station service window.
I handed over our passports and blanked for a second.
Perhaps it was indicative of my fatigue, having just navigated the crazy traffic of Tbilisi and the loose driving regulations of the Georgian countryside. Perhaps it was due to our recent flurry of border hopping, staying for only a night or two in each country and trying out the essential phrases in a new language before moving on to the next bustling city.
Or, perhaps it was facilitated by the running joke Angela and I shared about comparing the country of Georgia to the U.S. state of the same name.
But, in times of stress, or when I’ve simply let my guard down, or when I talk with my brother on the phone, I slip back into my Tennessee drawl. So I responded to the border guard, and the words came out as “Seven” in my full-on southern twang.
Seeing our U.S. passports, he laughed in a friendly sort of way. And, with an impressive command of the English language and at least a passing grasp of its dialects, he corrected me.
“Seven is a number,” he said. “Sev-ahn is heaven on earth.”
But sometimes the road to heaven is arduous, unmarked, and filled with potholes. Literally.
We crossed the border from Georgia to Armenia at the Bagratashen Customs Point, and the relatively smooth, paved highways of Georgia immediately gave way to nearly 20 kilometers of pockmarked, mostly gravel, Armenian roads that snaked along the border, following the banks of the Debed River. Having rented a Kia Picanto to best accommodate the narrow streets and minuscule parking spaces in Tbilisi, we now found ourselves navigating massive pitfalls, heaps of broken asphalt, and the occasional passing industrial vehicle in little more than a go-kart.
We pulled over into the muddy grass, allowing a convoy of dump trucks to rumble past. Through the swirling dust and diesel exhaust, we saw the drivers gape at us in turn. They couldn’t believe we were attempting this road in that car. In the eyes of the last driver, I like to think that I also saw a hint of admiration.
But it could have just been sympathy.
The sun was already setting in the deep valleys of the Lesser Caucasus Mountains as we finally put all four tires on solid pavement. And we were still nearly three hours away from our hotel room on Lake Sevan and some much-needed rest.
Armenia is one of the few countries on this trip around the world where our Skyroam wireless hotspot doesn’t work. So Angela relied on preloaded Google maps for navigation while I was busy trying to keep us between the precipitous ditches, dodging goats and absent patches of pavement in the gathering gloom. We were figuratively and literally driving blind.
And, although it was harrowing, it was also a beautiful journey, with the horizon glowing a golden red behind bald mountains that held on to the failing light like a halo.
Miraculously, we only made one wrong turn, but found our bearings again when we saw the ink-black water of Lake Sevan in the distance, reflecting a string of streetlights winding along the shore. We pulled into the Lavash Hotel just as the on-site restaurant was shutting down for the evening. Thankfully, they welcomed us with local wine and some much-needed comfort food. Roasted chicken and potatoes with homemade bread.
Although it was only mid-September, the weather in Armenia had already turned cold. Tired, full, and pleasantly buzzed from the strong wine, we crawled under the artisan quilts and afghans and slept.
Fortunately, there isn’t much to do in Sevan except drink wine and watch the light play across the water and along the dry ridges ringing the lake. So we relaxed, for what felt like the first time in months.
And that was enough. No soaring cathedrals to visit. No fancy restaurants. No theme parks or botanic gardens. Simple days spent in solemn reflection and quiet conversation with locals, the history of the Armenian people writ in their laugh lines and measured by the callouses on their hands.
We left Lake Sevan feeling rejuvenated, remarking to each other just how right the border guard had been. We had, indeed, found a little piece of heaven on earth.
Sometimes, in order to arrive at the perfect place, you must first close your eyes and drive blind.