The road to Artsakh

Breakfast views of Ararat… it’s there, I promise. You just have to look closely.

I’m exhausted. The weekend was a whirlwind, and I spent most of it wanting to take a nap. Each day was so ambitiously scheduled that it was literally impossible to get enough sleep, but I survived it and didn’t even get sick! That’s pretty good. I do want to go to sleep ASAP tonight though, and I know I’m going to spend the rest of the week trying to catch up on the hours I should have gotten over the weekend.

Views from the drive

The sleep deprivation started on Friday morning when we had to meet at 5:30AM to go to Yerevan. I somehow managed to drag myself out of bed on time and scored a prime seat in the taxi (we had one packed van and one taxi) where I logged another hour of semi-restful sleep.

In Yerevan, we joined up with the other volunteers who are living in Yerevan and Vanadzor. Again, I lucked out with the seating and got a spot in one of the two vans rather than in the big bus with most of the volunteers. Perks of the van: no microphone for people to yell into, functional air conditioning, (slightly) less vomit-inducing movements, faster, and fewer people. It was basically paradise.

I love driving through the mountains because of the great views. I hate driving through the mountains because mountain roads are always windy and always make everyone want to throw up.

In Halidzor before getting on the cable car to Tatev

After multiple snack/bathroom stops and about four more hours of driving, we made it to Tatev Monastery. Well, to be accurate, we made it to the town of Halidzor where the end of the cableway that takes you to Tatev is located. The big claim to fame of the cableway is that it’s the longest non-stop double track aerial tramway in the world. It’s 3.5 miles (5.7 km) long, and the ride takes about 10 minutes. It’s in the mountains, so the views along the way to the monastery are incredible. It’s probably the most expensive thing to do in Armenia, with round trip tickets costing 5000 dram for tourists (about USD$11).

Me + mountains

Ruth, Talene, and me

PUSH! I thought these signs were hilarious… they’re on the doors into the bathrooms to tell you to push vs. pull, but they’re very exaggerated examples of what that looks like.

PULL!

Cable car cables

The cableway would have been awesome even if it didn’t lead anywhere, but it’s even better because it gets you to the town of Tatev and the monastery. The complex is pretty extensive. There are multiple churches, residential areas, a library, a dining hall, school buildings, an olive mill, and more. The olive mill is from the Middle Ages, and we visited that first. I can’t tell you any real information about it because I zoned out when the guide was talking. Then, instead of getting facts, I asked people to tell me made up explanations about what the different things there were used for. I definitely had more fun on my made-up tour, but I also definitely left with zero accurate information.

I was too busy crawling around in random holes in the olive mill to pay attention

Probably some sort of olive press, but I’ll forever know it as the world’s first liposuction machine because the Armenians invented everything, didn’t you know?

The monastery was built originally in the 9th century on the former site of a pagan temple. There was also an important university there in the 14th and 15th centuries that was a leading cultural and scientific center and trained teachers who then taught across Armenia. After that, the complex was attacked, damaged, and looted multiple times throughout history by different groups as they invaded Armenia. In 1931, there was an earthquake that damaged it even more, and there’s still restoration work going on now.

The main church in the monastery

One of the other rooms around the monastery complex

Tatev!

 

On the road to Artsakh… “Free Artsakh Welcomes You”

After leaving Tatev and taking another scenic ride through the mountains, we continued our trek to Artsakh. We had a few more hours of driving, and by the time we got to Shushi, the city where we were staying, I was ready to pass out. We were in homestays, and the process of getting everyone where they needed to go was just as much of a mess as you would expect. I fell asleep in the van as we were driving around and then completely ate it on my way out because I was still 95% asleep and my leg collapsed instead of holding me up when I stepped down. Oops. I was fine and too tired to even be embarrassed about it. I think the total drive time for the day was something like 10 hours, though I didn’t keep track so who knows. Whether that’s right or not, it wasn’t a short amount of time. I don’t blame my leg for collapsing because that’s really what my entire body wanted to do!

 

View of the mountains from the Artsakh sign. If you like mountains, Artsakh might be the place for you!

Waiting at the border for the bus to catch up. Check out the tiny church at the bottom of the picture!

Second week struggles

This week has been… chaotic maybe? Today I was a little overwhelmed, and I’m starting to get the feeling that time is moving too quickly. It’s like there’s no time in my schedule for even taking a breath, and I need to take a step back to try to calm myself down.

Current state. While I was laying like this, one of the other volunteers helpfully stacked some rocks on my hands. Accurate.

I think the main thing that’s making me freak out is the class I’m teaching at GTC. It starts next week, and I don’t feel prepared at all. I was trying to convince myself that it will be fine, but I made the mistake of using the “probably not many people will sign up anyway” approach. That fell apart when I found out yesterday that 14 people have already signed up, and we haven’t reached the deadline yet.

This is the first class that I’m teaching where people are coming because they think that I’m going to have something interesting to say. Everywhere else, I had a captive audience, so it was less pressure. Now, not only are people choosing to be there, but I’m literally just making this class up as I go along.

Perashki! This is the same thing we made along with the ponchiks last week. This has potato and some herbs inside, and it cost me 80 dram which is about 17 cents US. Not bad for a whole lunch! (though if my host mom didn’t feed me so much in the morning, I would probably need two of these at lunchtime.. so that’s a whole 34 cents)

The class doesn’t start until Thursday, but I don’t have any more work hours to prepare. I literally had three days because we were forced to miss work today to go to community service at the school, and we’re travelling on Monday. I tried to get out of community service because I seriously felt like I needed to work, but my request was denied. That was a little annoying. So besides already being stressed because of the number of people in the class and the class in general, I lost an entire 6 hours of prep time. I definitely could have made good use of those hours.

I don’t want to keep complaining, but I promised I’d be honest about how I’m feeling. So here you go: today I’m feeling like I’m on the verge of a head explosion. I’ll be fine though. As soon as I make it through the first class, I’ll feel a million times better. On a positive note, I got connected with my translator for the class, and she seems really cool and determined to do a good job. That makes me feel slightly less anxious about the translation situation. Like I said though, I just need to survive class #1 and then it’ll be smooth(er) sailing!

On the home front, my host mom and I have been communicating slightly better. She still laughs at me on a regular basis and sometimes throws up her arms in exasperation when I can’t decode what she’s saying. I thought we were doing okay until today when I said that I liked dinner, and she thought I said that I am beautiful (see-room vs. see-roon). That didn’t get sorted out until she summoned her granddaughter who speaks some English.

Otherwise, I’ve been learning slowly… both the language and the ways of the world here. Just an FYI if you ever come here and are eating hot dogs, they’re always (as far as I now know) wrapped in a thin plastic skin. It’s not like at home where you’re supposed to eat the skin. Here, it’s plastic. I don’t know what kind of idiot would accidentally eat the plastic, but that’s just a random fun fact for you.

Dolma! They can be stuffed with different things, but these had ground beef, rice, onions I think, and some herbs. Then they’re wrapped in grape leaves and boiled. I thought I would be weirded out by the leaves, but I just reminded myself that eating spinach is eating leaves too.

Also, I’m making great strides in the whole “picky eater” thing. It’s mostly just because even if I ask my host mom what something is, I still don’t know after hearing the answer. I’ve been drinking mystery juice daily (it’s good, but I have no clue what’s in it), I had dolma for the first time yesterday (yes, I know it’s disgraceful that I’ve lived 26 years as an Armenian and haven’t eaten dolma before), and I’ve said yes to trying at least a tiny bit of everything I’ve been offered so far. That’s big for me. I can’t say that I’ve added too many new foods to my list of things I’ll keep eating when I leave Armenia, but at least I’m trying (dolma though… that stuff is good).

We leave tomorrow to go to Artsakh/Nagorno-Karabakh for the weekend. That’s the territory I talked about that’s technically (according to the international community) part of Azerbaijan still, is independent according to Artsakh/Nagorno-Karabakh, and is part of Armenia according to any Armenian you talk to here. Also, everyone has a different name for it. It’s enough to make your head hurt. So yeah, I don’t know what the internet situation will be there, but I’m going to guess that I’ll be off the grid. Brace yourself for some retroactive posting early next week.

Weekend adventures

The excursion for the weekend was to Garni Temple and Geghard Monastery, and I decided not to go because Sarah and I were JUST there. That left me with the challenge of deciding what to do instead, and after a whole long deliberation process, I opted to stay in Gyumri for the weekend. Everyone else was either in Yerevan for the weekend or going on the excursion, so that meant I had a day all to myself. That might sound horrible to some people, but the more I thought about it, the more excited I got! I hadn’t gotten a chance to really explore Gyumri, and I don’t want to leave at the end of August after living here for two whole months and not even feel like I saw any of the city. The solo part was great too because I got to pick and choose exactly what I wanted to do and then went at my own speed.

View of the square where the Birthright office is. How have I never noticed how cool the buildings around the square are??

I made a map of Gyumri with a bunch of tourist destinations on it, and I just hit up as many as I could stand. I started with a bus ride to the same stop where I get off to get to the Birthright office, but this time I was seeing it with different eyes. Isn’t it interesting how that can completely change your perspective? In daily life, how often do you look around to see what cool things surround you? I know that I have a habit of putting on my blinders and rushing through my day. I need to start making a conscious effort to stop doing that.

Random findings in the park in the circle…

Anyway, I took some time to appreciate the architecture of the square before making my way to my next destinations. I walked around a park in the middle of a traffic circle that I walk past regularly without a second thought and was amazed by how much they packed in there. See what happens when you open your eyes? Also, I know I’ve said this before, but I’m going to say it again. I have never seen a city with so many parks. Everywhere you turn, there’s another place for people to spend time outside, and it makes city life so much better! There are ALWAYS kids playing in them too.

It’s like the wilderness in the middle of the city.

My first go-inside destination was Surp Nishan Church. I was pleasantly surprised by how pretty it was, and the door was open, so I went in for a bit and sat. There was no one else there for most of the time that I was there, so it was perfectly distraction free and a good place to do some thinking. There’s something about a church that helps the thoughts and prayers flow too. I really enjoyed it. It’s much better than just going into a church for a second and then leaving. Why not use it?

The outside of Surp Nishan

Inside Surp Nishan!

From there, I headed to the main square where the City Hall building is and sat for a couple of hours sketching one of the churches there, Holy Saviour’s Church. The church was mostly destroyed in the earthquake, and they’ve been rebuilding it (rather slowly, I think). The outside looks like it’s mostly restored, but you still can’t go inside. I sat on a bench and made friends with some random men who spoke basically no English.

If only the tower crane wasn’t there…

My sketch attempt and also a failed picture where I tried to focus my phone on the sketch and take the picture with one hand while the other held my sketchbook. If that makes any sense…

City Hall!

The outside of the Cathedral of the Holy Martyrs. Looks like every other Armenian church, right?

After I finished, I looped around the square, stopping in another church, Yot Verk (there was a wedding going on!), and walking past City Hall to one of the market streets. I bought what I think is shampoo, conditioner, and body wash, but I guess I won’t really know until I try them out. I feel confident though because “shampoo” is basically the same in Armenian, and the thing that I think is conditioner is the same as the shampoo bottle except upside down. I then put on a fabulous charades performance to convey “shower gel”, and I think the shopkeeper and I were on the same page at the end.

I also went to another store and spent a solid 15 minutes trying to identify lotion. Everything was written in Russian, so I was that goober in the toiletries aisle using my phone to take google translate pictures of the labels. A woman came over to help me, and after I told her that I don’t speak Armenian, she just nodded knowingly, gave me a pitying look, and left me to my struggles. I bought something that is hopefully lotion.

I made one last church stop in the Cathedral of the Holy Martyrs after that. It’s a little Catholic church that was completed in 2015, and the ceiling was architecturally awesome. I love how they made it fit in with the traditional style of Armenian churches, but the inside is modern at the same time.

The museum of architecture and urban life

Gyumri views

There’s a random bridge with the names/logos of a bunch of bands painted on it. Random…

Our quest was for these mountains.

Sunday was unexpectedly awesome! I didn’t have any plans for the day until another volunteer, Lexi, texted me at around 10 and asked if I wanted to go for a walk. I figured why not? So we met at 11 and walked towards the mountains. That’s vague, I know, but she said that she wanted to get a good view of the mountains, and I had been thinking that same thing recently. We wandered through fields in search of a good view and eventually spotted a church in the distance that we decided was going to be our destination. The walk was way more of a trek than I was expecting, so I was also hoping that there would be water but didn’t want to get my hopes up.

Our first glimpse of the church that wasn’t from a mile away.

Luckily, we made it and there was water! And a cherry tree. I wasn’t a huge fan of them, but Lexi ate a bunch and then grabbed a handful for the road. From there, it was an easy walk back to Gyumri. We definitely took the long way there haha.

We made it!!

Note the water fountain in the front. I almost cried happy tears when I saw it.

We wandered around town for a couple more hours, just talking and doing a little shopping. It was nice having some time to hang out with her one-on-one because so much that we do here is in a group. That can get overwhelming, and I really enjoy getting to spend time with individuals or small groups. Much better for building good friendships! I know that if I’m going to be here for 4 months like I’m planning, I’m going to need some solid friends so that I don’t lose my mind.

Sarnaghpyur and ponchiks

Each week, there are other activities planned besides just going to work and language class. They’re supposed to expose us to different things and teach us about Armenian culture, history, etc. We had a couple of extra activities last week, and they were both awesome.

Inside some really old church. I obviously forget how old, but it’s somewhere in the single-digit centuries. No, the metal roofing is not original.

One day, we took a trip to the village where one of the Gyumri Birthright coordinators, Karen (pronounced KAH-ren, or Garen in Western Armenian), grew up, Sarnaghpyur. He took us to check out an NGO that he started and manages there, and it’s actually a really interesting idea.

The basic concept is that whatever kids are interested show up, and they teach each other different skills. The organization renovated three rooms in an abandoned building, and kids can go there whenever they want to meet. It’s the summer now, so there were about 16 kids. During the school year, they said they can get up to like 70 kids.

There’s a kid who’s good at painting, and he teaches a class on painting. Some of the girls teach English, dance, and singing. There are other kids who teach sports or chess. One girl went to a piano school outside of the village, and when she came back, she taught the other kids some of what she learned. It seems like such a “duh” kind of concept. Why shouldn’t the kids share their skills? It makes sense, but I don’t think I ever would have thought of it. All the organization has to do is provide a space to meet and the resources the kids need for their different classes. Karen’s also trying to get a grant to organize some leadership training with the kids. The whole thing is kind of awesome.

The famous spring.

He said that the idea started with a group of his friends when he was in high school. When it got to the point where it needed to become an official thing or else be left to die out, the NGO was started and he secured funding to renovate the building so that they could have their own space. Before that, the group was meeting in one of the community buildings, and they didn’t have as much flexibility because they could only access the space at certain times.

After that, we went around and saw some of the sights in the village. Of course, we had a few churches to visit, and there’s also a “cold spring” (that’s what the name of the village means) that supposedly has some special powers. I don’t know about that, but it was definitely cold! On top of the cave with the spring, you can get an awesome view over the village. We stayed there for a bit and then went to the “forest” (aka maybe like 25 trees) to eat snacks and hang out. I somehow got wrapped up in making flower crowns for a couple of the guys (no, I had never made a flower crown before, but I figured it couldn’t be that hard) and then we had the weirdest photo shoot. It’s good that there are some people here that are just as weird as I am, and I’ve already managed to find them. What a relief!

The cave in all of its cluttered, eclectic glory.

The overlook

Have I mentioned how much I love wildflowers?

The lake

I made the flower crowns of the two guys. This is just one in a series of odd fruit pictures.

Some monastery we visited on the way back from town. It looks like literally every other monastery.

Kneading the dough.

A couple of nights later, we had a baking night at one of the host houses and made ponchiks (I’m sure that is the wrong way to pluralize that word, but we’re going to go with it) and peroshki. They. Were. So. Good. Omg. There are no words to fully convey how incredible they were. They both use the same dough, and ponchiks are fried and filled with either like a condensed milk filling or a whipped cream-ish filling. Peroshki (peroshkis?) have mashed potatoes mixed with some herbs inside and are also fried. And delicious. And both of those names are definitely Russian, in case you were thinking that they don’t sound very Armenian.

I ate WAY more than I should have and felt a little bit like I was going to throw up, but my brain was still telling me that I should eat another one. And another one. And another one. I do have SOME self-control, luckily, because while my brain was saying yes, my stomach was screaming, “NO!!!!”

I wouldn’t exactly say that I learned how to make them, but honestly, that’s probably for the best. I’m not trying to gain 600 pounds. Only 300. Kidding.

Peroshki in progress.

Peroshki!

PONCHIKS! The cream ones are on the left and the other ones are on the right.

First work week!

Are you “not a morning person”? If you answered yes, then Armenia might be JUST the country for you! Guess what time I have to show up to work in the morning? 10AM. Guess what time everyone usually actually shows up to work in the morning? Maybe 10:15. Or maybe a little later. If I get there at 10AM, I’m one of the first ones. I’ve never had more productive mornings because there is SO MUCH TIME before work.

My daily commute. How many people do you think can fit in a marshrutka? There are usually 14ish seats, but that doesn’t mean anything. We had probably 7 people “standing” (aka awkwardly not quite standing because the ceiling isn’t high enough unless you’re a child) on this ride, and that’s not even maxed out.

I guess it’s time I told you what I’m doing here. Last week was my first work week, and it was exhausting (mostly emotionally) as I attempted to figure everything out at once. The way Birthright does volunteer placements is kind of cool. They try to organize at least your first placement before you arrive, and after that, what you do is very much dependent on you.

We have to work 30 hours a week. That was presented at orientation as an, “I KNOW that 30 hours might seem like a lot, but that’s what you agreed to when you joined the program.” My eyes practically bugged completely out of my head. 30 hour weeks? Hahahahahahahahaha. That’s a vacation. The weeks still end up being very busy though because besides work, we have 2-hour language class twice a week and different forums/cultural activities to attend. It’s nice though because then there’s some time to study on your own, explore the city, and maintain some sanity.

Like I was saying, 30 hours a week. Most people have more than one job to make sure that they can reach their 30 hours, plus we have 6 hours of community service each week fixing up a school in a nearby town. My main placement is at the Gyumri Technology Center. It’s a technological center that’s geared towards making Gyumri the IT hub in Armenia. There are a few different things going on there. There are a bunch of different tech companies in the building, plus the center itself puts on trainings and workshops to build technology, engineering, business, etc skills. They have a bunch of different software and equipment resources, and it’s a cool idea for building up Gyumri. With good companies and opportunities here, skilled people will have some motivation to stay here and improve the local economy rather than having to move to Yerevan to find solid careers.

Since I don’t have any pictures of work, here are some pictures of flowers instead.

Starting in a week, I’ll be teaching an intro class on architecture/AutoCAD/laser cutting. They wanted me to include that last part, but I literally have no idea how to use a laser cutter. Fun, right? Just add it to the long list of things I’ve had to learn how to do this year! Oh, and this is going to be the first time I’m teaching a class with a translator, so that should be interesting… I’m turning into an expert curriculum builder, though. Do you know how hard it is to create a class from literally nothing?? No textbook, no guidelines, no precedent. It’s not easy. Thank goodness the internet exists because at least I can find tips for different parts of the curriculum, but then I still have to mold them into something that fits my purposes. Anyway, I’m sure it’ll be fine. At this point though, I’m still in the “what the heck did I get myself into????” phase.

There are some of the coolest wildflowers here!

I spend two days a week at GTC prepping and soon teaching my class, and my other two days are at one of the tech startups in the GTC building. I’m working for Renderforest (www.renderforest.com) which is a company that 1. makes custom animated videos for clients and 2. makes video templates so that people can make high-quality videos without having any skills in or knowledge of video editing. I said initially that I only wanted to work at non-profits, but this is a cool opportunity to experience Armenian startup life and see the GTC mission come to life. Three people started it in Gyumri two years ago, and now it’s grown to 30 employees. They’ve had multiple buyout offers, but they want to keep the company in Armenia.

Doesn’t this just make you happy?

I’m working for them as a tester/content writer, so I spend my days writing descriptions for templates and graphics and testing different video templates to make sure they’re all working correctly. I don’t think that they knew what they were getting themselves into when they gave me that job, but they’ll find out soon enough. I am super detail oriented, so the summary I sent them of the bugs I found in the first template I tested was overwhelmingly thorough. My supervisor’s eyes literally got wide when I sent her the list I made. Hehe.

This is my life for at least the month of July, and maybe next month I’ll switch up my Renderforest job for something else. I have my eyes set on an archaeology job, so we’ll see if that comes through. I’m kind of loving having the freedom to try so many different things!

A whole lot of ruins

It looks pretty good from this side, right? Don’t let yourself be deceived.

Armenia has a lot of churches. When I say “a lot”, I mean like a waaay lot. You know how people say that Rome has a lot of churches? Basically, it’s like the entire country is Rome. Every village, every hill, every spring, every mountain, every location with a nice view… they all have churches. It’s like our Armenian ancestors wanted to guarantee that no matter where you are in the country, if the mood strikes and you need a place to pray, there’s a church within 100 steps. Okay, that’s a bit of an exaggeration, but just trust me. There are churches everywhere.

So much natural light in this church! hehehe

Check out how tight those joint are!

There are excursions planned each weekend to different parts of the country, and the destinations for my first weekend were Talin, Dashtadem, and Aruch. None of the places we visited are really on the tourist circuit, so it was a cool chance to get off the beaten path.

Our first stop was the Cathedral of Talin (pronounced tah-LEEN), or at least what used to be the Cathedral of Talin. It was built in the 7th century which probably sounds old, but that’s like a teenager compared to a lot of the other churches here. I’m already becoming immune to these numbers, and when I take a second to think twice about it, it makes me laugh a bit.

Guide: This church was built in the 15th century.

Me: It’s new??! Wait so why are we even here? I’m not impressed anymore.

Guide: This church was built in the 7th century.

Me: If they just built it, why is it already in ruins?

Guide: This church was built in the 4th century.

Me: I bet you think that’s old, right? But did you know that they found the world’s oldest leather shoe in Armenia and it’s from around 3,500 BC? Now THAT is old.

That big hole at the top is where a person can climb in, and you can sort of see hand/footholds leading up to it. It still doesn’t seem very easy.

There were earthquakes, one in the mid-1800s and one in the early 1900s, that destroyed the church. It has been partially reconstructed, but that work was never completed. It’s interesting because you can tell how big a city used to be by looking at the size of the church there. This church was HUGE, and that is enough to know that the city of Talin used to be much larger than it is now.

One cool thing that we saw there is little hideouts for the priests/monks. There are two prayer rooms on the sides of the altar, and inside, there are sneaky hand and footholds that lead to a hole in the ceiling where someone could climb up to hide or escape if the church was being attacked. They could cover the entrance hole with a rock, or else they could defend themselves fairly easily from that position. There are also places to hide books, basically holes in the walls that you can cover with a rock.

From there, we went to Dashtadem where there’s a not-that-old fortress that was used from the 10th-19th centuries. Now it’s in ruins, and until recently, there were families living there and taking rocks from the keep to use in their houses. There have been renovations and excavations going on… I’m not sure that anything is happening there now, but within the last 10 years work was going on. You can go on top of the keep, and the views from there are really nice. There are also a TON of birds nesting in the ruins, so there’s a 90% chance that you’ll get pooped on if you go. Apparently that’s a new problem.

The fortress!

Check out that view

Pretty ruins, huh?

Bird poop covered wall

Here’s the wall I climbed down. Not from the top! But you see where the rough stones end on the left side, that’s where I came out, right where there’s the gap. I wish a person was in there for scale, but even when I was hanging straight armed from the wall, I still didn’t feel like I was close enough to the ground to just let myself fall

Someone convinced me to take the “secret exit” out of the keep, aka a not very big tunnel through the wall, and failed to mention that once you make it through the tunnel, you need to find your way down from the top of a probably 10-12 foot high wall. Luckily there were a few other people there who had just made it down, so I had some spotters looking out for me.

For lunch, we went to the house of some guy who one of the Birthright directors met one time when they visited the fortress. He agreed to host the future groups for lunch and music and dancing, so that’s how we ended up with 70 people in some random guy’s house, eating enough food for 150. At the end of the meal, he and his son and another guy who was probably related played some Armenian music for us, and after a few songs, we headed outside to dance! It was fun, and I also realized that while my Armenian language skills aren’t the best, I can hold my own on the dance floor (or dance field). Thank goodness for hantes (Armenian dance recitals back in grade school) and Armenian weddings!

The dance group that led us

By the last stop, I think everyone was ready to collapse. We went to one more church, Aruchavank, which was built sometime in the 7th century. It was also damaged during earthquakes, but the structure has been completely restored with the exception of the dome. It is also huge, though the cathedral in Talin was bigger. You can see the remnants of some frescoes above the altar, and I love closing my eyes and trying to imagine what it was like back in its glory days. Anyway, that’s all. Here are some pictures, if you can even stand to look at more pictures of churches.

Aruchvank. Doesn’t it kind of just look like a big house without the dome?

It’s kind of funny that the only thing missing is the dome…

There are crosses carved EVERYWHERE

Gyumri

I’m going to be living in Gyumri, the second biggest city in Armenia, for the next two months. Gyumri was one of the cities hit hardest by the 1988 earthquake, and it still hasn’t completely recovered. Also, fun fact, I felt an earthquake today! I was alone in a room and thought that I was losing my mind, but it went on long enough that I knew it HAD to be an actual earthquake. Apparently tremors are not uncommon here. Eek.

Anyway, like I was saying, Gyumri still hasn’t recovered from the 1988 earthquake. There are buildings around the city that are completely collapsed, and it doesn’t look like anyone has even thought about trying to clear the rubble. Of course, though, a ton has been done to clean things up and rebuild. It’s just crazy to me how a couple minutes can ruin centuries of work and lead to decades of recovery.

I think I’m going to like it here though. Yerevan is awesome, but it’s basically like being in a city in Europe. There, signs are written in Armenian and English. Here, signs are written in Armenian and Russian. There is a Russian military base here with about 3,000 soldiers. I don’t know a lot about military bases, but to me, that seems pretty big. So as you might imagine, there are a decent number of Russian people here, plus all of the older Armenians speak Russian.

Sorry, got sidetracked again. Like I was saying, being here is going to be a challenge, and I’m determined to feel like I belong here. That means step 1 – learn Armenian. Step 2 – make local friends. Step 3 – force local friends to hang out with me.

On the topic of learning Armenian… I’m living with a woman, Anjela, who is really nice, but she doesn’t speak any English (yes, she does speak Russian), and I don’t speak any Armenian. It’s been interesting so far. Luckily, she’s very patient and has had volunteers stay with her before, so she’s used to having to use hand motions more than most people. I think that she probably hasn’t had many people who are basically mute like I am, but we’re figuring it out. I usually try to speak and then within 1 second realize that literally zero words are coming into my head (or if there are words, they’re all in Spanish), so I just stand there with my mouth open.

The biggest struggle is when it comes to food. When I got here, they asked if I have any dietary restrictions. Well… that’s a complicated question. The answer is that there’s pretty much nothing I CAN’T eat, but there are plenty of things that I WON’T eat. It’s impossible to give a list because it’s so long, so I usually just say that I don’t eat fish and that’s it. It probably seems like it doesn’t make sense to say that I’ll eat anything when I basically eat nothing, but what other option do I have? Then, when something comes up that I really will absolutely not eat, I can say, “I don’t like ___.” The problem with that? I don’t know how to say that in Armenian. So instead, there’s just a lot of me saying no and shaking my head and her giving food to me anyway. I know it seems like this is a problem easily solved. I could just look up how to say, “I don’t like”. The bigger issue is getting myself to the point where I don’t completely panic and forget everything I’ve ever known when it’s time for me to say something. We’ll work on that.

Next step is remembering how to say, “I’m full,” because the stereotypes are true. If you don’t refuse forcefully, you will be fed until you explode.