The recovery of Thom-Jan

Safely in Spitak I sat on the outside wall of the YMCA tired and unable to summon the will to enter. Within minutes a friendly greeting came to find me as Haykuhi and Alva ushered me inside and showed me to my room.

Both the welcome and the room couldn't have been further from my Vanadzor experience.

I was utterly certain that a day or two in these comfortable surroundings and I would be back on my way. Access to a clean en-suite, a warm room, power sockets, internet and even food - I was sure to mend in no time.

Seven long days later and my bowls remained irresolute. Each day friendly faces would come and knock on my door, ask after my health, and see if I wanted to join them for lunch or dinner or just some coffee.
[Here it was that the name Thom-Jan came about; Jan meaning friend.]
Each day I would respond with "oh yes I'm fine" before trotting (bah-dum-dum) down to pick unhungrily at the grand spread provided, before excusing myself as soon as possible to dash back to the safety of the toilet.

It couldn't go on forever and my protestations of good health began to be met with greater skepticism while my unwillingness to discuss this somewhat embarrassing condition abated as I got to know my new companions better and became increasingly desperate.

A few more days of bargaining; "Ok I'll go and see the doctor tomorrow if it hasn't improved", lying; "yes I think I'm feeling better" and seeing quantitative proof of my deterioration; weighing myself in at 12 stone three pounds, I reached a nadir which saw me visit the toilet no less than 43 times in one day.

I acquiesced and my new friend Grisha drove me and acted as translator while the friendly doctor chattered away in Armenian proscribing all sorts of medication, that I go on a drip, and head immediately to the hospital.

Illness brought with it a certain degree of intransigence on my part and I point blank refused to go to the hospital, poo-poohed the drip and generally acted like a bit of a git. Back at the Y I continued my ungratefulness in the face of good advice from all and sundry.

Eventually I realised that it wasn't inconceivable that my irritability might signal a less than rational response. Grisha revealed himself to be a qualified nurse and volunteered to do the drip and injections at the Y and so I apologised and we set off on a whistle stop tour of every pharmacy in Spitak to pick up the seemingly never ending list of  medicines.

Armenian doctors writing does not differ meaningfully in its neatness from British ones

Back at the YMCA Grisha cleverly contrived a hat stand based drip.

And gave me the first of my two-a-day arse injections.

I had a plethroa of pills to pop and an exciting new dietary regime.


Whether it was E-coli, Salmonella, Cryptosporidiosis or some other bacterial buggery I'm unsure and the cause is equally mysterious. I'd venture a guess at untreated water from one of the roadside fountains I had used but all I can say with any certainty is that Armenian cuisine is definitely off the hook as I was camp cooking every night and hadn't bought anything in the country when I fell ill.

My new regimen soon had me on the mend, if much slower than I would have liked, and I spent many a long day looking wistfully out the window (between bathroom breaks) at day after day of glorious sunshine.

Much to my surprise the cold snap I had cycled through had been most unseasonable and late September/October is in fact a time of beautiful golden sunshine through-out Armenia and especially in the Lori region around Spitak.

The late season warmth was passing me by and I felt more and more like Bart in the episode of the Simpsons where he breaks his legs and goes all rear window watching the summer passing him by.

Winter was on it's way and I was dawdling. But the YMCA had some surprises to keep me entertained.

I found myself invited to a party.

Where I made lots of new friends and so from that day on I would try to make sure that I was in the canteen when the kids came in from playgroup for their lunch.

I was a seemingly inexhaustible source of hilarity and would usually find myself quickly surrounded and or used as a climbing frame.

Later I would discover that the kids had decided I was some sort of hobo Santa which explains their fascination for my beard evidenced in the pictures they never failed to delight in taking on my phone.

So I whiled away my time teaching the boys how to hadouken like Ryu from Street fighter and helping the YMCA staff put up tents on the front lawn.

I also finally met a friendly dog less interested at chasing me on my bike than in playing whenever I emerged for a ciggarette who proved an excellent and loyal companion.

When not playing with kids and puppys I would while away my time listening to In Our Time on the radio 4 podcast learning about Custer (Got the then lowest ever score at West Point) Zenobia (Descendant of Cleopatra The Ptomlies, The Selucids, Dido and Hannibal's father King Juba of Mauritania) not to mention the difference between the Taping and Boxer revolts, the Dreyfus Affair, The Abbassids, The Peterloo Massascre, The Mughal Empire, The Carolingian Renaisance, The Peasants Revolt, The Sassanids, Rudolph II's court, The pros and cons of the Enclosure Act, The crucial role of the Clapham sect in the abolition of slavery, The Diet of Worms, why the Roman's felt the need to salt Carthage and much more besides thanks to Melvyn Bragg and Co.

Grisha even lent me his laptop allowing me to re-watch Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip and play Crusader Kings II and EU IV.

The later of which was met with bemusement and a gentle suggestions that I stop immediately and play instead.

In short I couldn't have wished for a better place to convalesce and, despite a few false starts and it generally taking an infuriatingly long time, recovering I was.

Soon I was able to sit around a table comfortably and chat with Grisha, Hayk and Vince (a very nice visiting YMCA bigwig from California) over dinner about the history of the YMCA.

I was already sold on the excellent work it was doing there in Spitak where I marveled at the incongruous Swiss engineered quality of the buildings architecture and the busy role it played in the local community with a constant stream of people of all ages coming to drop off kids, play football, table tennis, take leadership courses or just seemingly to have a natter. They even had a Puppet room complete with theatre and home made figures!

But it was great to learn about an organisation which I only new from camp songs and hostels and surprised to find it so secular and non-evangelical.

Indeed I was surprised to find YMCA Spitak entirely devoid of religious practices. This was after all Armenia, oldest Christian country in the world where Churches litter the countryside the same way pubs do in Britain, surely here if anywhere a YMCA might at least have grace before meals? Grisha explained to me that Armenians are immensely proud of their church, it plays a vital role in the national identity surrounded as they are by countries of other faiths and having been ruled by many of them, but nonetheless they don't take religion seriously.

After a while I was able to start venturing from the facilities and exploring Spitak.

Which includes the oddly eerie soviet almost road bridge shown above.

For those of the generation before me wondering why you have heard of the name Spitak it is probably because of the 1988 earthquake which devastated the town and led to the first call by the Soviet Union to the west for humanitarian aid. The city was moved when rebuilt and now has a curious character displaying architectural styles from many of the countries who contributed to the rebuilding efforts. This includes a metal church built by the Americans to provide a place of worship which could be erected rapidly but which didn't prove popular as it was hot in summer and cold in winter and generally not the most pleasant place to be.

The rather nicer church now in central Spitak and the rather fine central plaza

Some of the memorials to those who died in the earthquake

Certainly there were worse places I could find myself trapped but despite a couple of efforts to depart I found myself rather weaker than I expected and had to return tail between my legs. The bills were adding up and I had a deadline by which I had to reach Iran before my visa window expired. So while I build up my strength a touch further I decided to take a bus trip to the capital Yerevan.


  1. Hobo Santa - love it! - any chance he'll make it to Sydney for Christmas??? And Charlie is very impressed by the kid's Lightning McQueen birthday cake with rockets for candles. Thoroughly enjoyed reading about your recovery! - the post about the sickness was too awful to contemplate (not the writing, the experience, obviously). Lots of love from the Huggos xxxx