Armenian Staycation

With only a few weeks left as a volunteer, it’s time to wrap up any unfinished business. For me that meant going around to a few places in Armenia. Places where I had either barely scratched the surface or never before ventured. It’s an opportunity to see some friends for one last time and to even make some new ones.

One week ago we all headed in to Yerevan to say goodbye. A group of the A-18s left on July 3rd. This get together was the last time we would all be together. We went to a couple bars and tried to say goodbyes. There was an awkward gathering in the Peace Corps conference room where we got one more dose of “thanks for your service” from various staff members and then had some little delicious cakes. If anything the whole goodbye was kind of strange. Sometimes I said goodbye to someone and then saw them 10 minutes later. Or some people I didn’t even get to say a proper goodbye to. I guess that’s the way it goes. I’d be interested to know how many of these people I’ll see again in my life. The percentage is probably pretty low.

From Yerevan we made the trek down south into Syunik Marz. If you remember, I made a trip there last summer. That was my only other foray into the south. This time the goal was to spend some time in my friend Joel’s village and go to Tatev monastery. Both goals were accomplished in addition to spending more time in Sisian and Goris, two cool cities in the south. Joel’s village was set in a beautiful valley. Getting a taste of his village life was something else. He is 100% integrated into his community. Everyone on the street greets him by name. He is as part of the village as anyone else there. While part of me wishes I could experience a bit of that, I also saw what little amenities he has had to live with for 2 years. I know the lack of privacy and the isolation would be tough. But his experience was arguably more “Peace Corps” than my own. That is, in the traditional sense in which people think of the Peace Corps.

Hangin’ in Getatagh

After a rumbling yellow soviet bus ride down the terrible mountain road back to Sisian, we hitchhiked to the cable car that goes to Tatev monastery. Being afraid of heights, I wasn’t so sure about this trip. However, I knew it was worth it to see Armenia’s most famous monastery and to ride the world’s longest cable car. It actually wasn’t that scary (aside from a few wild dips as the car transfers over a tower). The monastery was cool, but once you’ve seen one you’ve seen them all. Really the setting was what made it great. You could hear the rush of water from far below, cutting ever deeper into the ancient gorges that surrounded the monastery. From every corner you could see distant green hills and little villages speckling the hillsides. I think the monks knew that if they planned a life of solitude, the least they could do was do it in an interesting setting.

It was a bit cramped with diasporans

The views are stunning

The views from Tatev were also incredible

My Armenian pose while wearing a “Worship Carrots” t-shirt is a stark contrast with the ancient monastery

From there we went to Goris and spent some time with a couple other volunteers, one who was visiting and another who lives in a nearby village. Goris is often hailed as Armenia’s most beautiful city. I’m not sure about the quality of the streets and sidewalks, but it does have a different feel than most of the cities here. And the mountain backdrop doesn’t hurt either. There wasn’t a lot to do in Goris other than walk around and check out the center. Unfortunately there were several volunteers there who just left. If they were there I’m sure they could have shown us some more interesting things.

Goris

On the way back up to Yerevan we got our marshrutka driver to stop for wine in Areni. Areni is Armenia’s famous wine growing region and also the name of a special breed of grape. I bought a 6 liter jug of homemade for 5,500 dram, or about $13. The wine is sweet (all Armenian wine seems to be) but not too sweet. Or I’ve just gotten accustomed to it over the 2 years here.

The next stop was Dilijan. I asked to stay with a couple of volunteers who I didn’t really know that well. It turned out to be a great choice. They are fantastic people and had a very cool apartment. They were PCVs in Niger in 2011 but were evacuated when terrorists killed French NGO workers just down the street from the Peace Corps office there. They asked to be reassigned and were sent to Armenia. Hearing their stories of Africa put everything into perspective. I couldn’t believe some of what I heard. Stories of only eating rice (the whole time), villagers buying shots of coke or cold water in plastic baggies, and 150% of volunteers getting GI diseases made me more thankful than ever that I have the cushy PC Armenia life. I’m not sure if I could make it in a country like Niger. But it was interesting to hear them compare the satisfaction of doing simple yet important work there and then trying to do work in Armenia but finding corruption, indifference, and a society built on looking at the past standing in the way of their progress. For sure Armenia holds its own challenges, even if they are not physical in nature.

Walking around Dilijan revealed a gem of a city that is only tarnished by the weirdness of post-soviet living. You can walk down the street and see something beautiful and something hideous all at once. The nature does its best to correct what the Armenians have done wrong in this intriguing city, but the overall impression was a little underwhelming. If I was on a real vacation I would probably be disappointed here. You hear such great things about it. It is a great place, don’t get me wrong. But there is still a lot wrong with the city from the small amount that I saw. One interesting note is that the National Bank will be moved to Dilijan in order to spread some of the wealth outside Yerevan. An interesting idea – but then I saw a new building under construction and the sign designated it as “Republic of Armenia National Bank Rental Apartments.” The workers from Yerevan will be living in their own little community instead of living by the side of the local residents. I was disappointed by that for some reason.

Dilijan is nice, but…

Post-soviet decay, mismatched architecture, and other oddities can ruin it

The trip was a good one. At a week in length, it was long enough but I was definitely ready to come back home too. I was able to scratch some stuff off the list and say my goodbyes. I also managed to lose my camera along the way. I wasn’t quite sure where I lost it but I thought it was in my friend’s apartment in Sisian. After having them scour the place with no luck, I decided to go for the Hail Mary and ask the marshrutka drivers if they had heard anything. They called the driver of my marshrutka. He said that a couple people behind me found it and took it with them. They live in Joel’s village and planned to give it to Joel – villagers who probably don’t have a camera themselves. A couple days later Joel had the camera. If you’ve been reading all along I don’t think you needed to hear that story to know that there is something pure about Armenia. And as is often said, those who have the least often give the most. So not only did I get a lot of cool new memories from this trip, but I got one more great story to illustrate the Armenian spirit.

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3 Responses to “Armenian Staycation”

  1. Wayne Burt Says:

    What is it with us and cameras. I had a similar experience when I visited Sissian. A ‘shruka driver returned it to me a few days later.

  2. icenugget Says:

    I thought of your story when I lost mine. I remembered that you lost yours in Sisian/Goris and got it back via the mysterious public transport system. Unbelievable!

  3. Peter Says:

    I lose cameras and wallets and phones but usually because I’m drunk. That’s the American spirit.

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