Aleppo-NGO

Here are some random pictures from my time in Yerevan so far. This is the Cathedral of St. Gregory the Illuminator. The sky behind it is to the east, but it always gets some awesome reflected light from the sunset!

Along with my move to Yerevan came a new job! I got an email about a month before moving that asked what kind of job I wanted to do. I had no idea. I hate that question because it’s like, “Name the job that you would ideally like to have, but we’re not going to give you any ideas about what options are available.” Okayyy… Instead of giving a direct answer, I sent back a list of a couple thoughts. I said that I like doing anything creative or active, I wanted to work for a non-profit (because if they’re making money, they should be paying someone rather than benefitting from my free labor), I didn’t want to teach, and I didn’t want to work with kids (I’ve had enough of that for now).

We went to the Armenia vs. Denmark World Cup qualifying game. This is a nice, blurry picture of me and my friends in front of the stadium. Gagik, Talene, me, and Carineh.

After a couple of options got sent my way, I agreed to work for Aleppo-NGO (you can check out their website HERE). It’s a non-profit that works with Syrian refugees in Armenia. When I was trying to decide if I wanted to work for them and was browsing their website, I was amazed by how much they have going on. I kind of wondered if it was all for real, and the answer is yes. They organize something like eleven different programs and work with 1,800 families. Like what. It seemed to me that they could probably use some help, so I said, “okay!” and that was that.

I just think this is funny. We were shopping for cleaning supplies and came across refrigerator and microwave cleaner. Because you definitely can’t use the same thing to clean both, AND they’re different prices.

My first day in Yerevan, I went with another girl, Rachel, for what was effectively an interview. She is a fine artist, and they matched her with Aleppo-NGO to run art classes. My job description is “content writer”, but I told them that I’ll do whatever they need. I had a really good feeling after that first meeting. We met with a man and a woman, Sarkis and Hayasa, and they actually seemed like they cared that we were going to work with them! I know that sounds stupid, but sometimes volunteers don’t feel like they’re being useful. I didn’t get the feeling that I was going to have that problem. Sarkis even had our resumes printed out and asked us questions about them! Talk about prepared! Maybe that all sounds basic, but it’s not something I’ve come to expect here.

I’ve been there for a couple of weeks now, and I love it. I get to do all things that I think are super fun! My first week was spent going through their press releases from the last few months and editing them for grammar/making them sound like normal English. Those are all written in Armenian and then translated, so sometimes things come out weird on the other end. Also, fun fact: Armenians love to use adjectives, so instead of just saying “the youth went on a walk through the city on Sunday”, it’s more like “the excited youth went on a relaxing and informative walk through the beautiful city last Sunday, a serene and perfectly pleasant and wonderful day”. I feel like I’m an adjective hater because I take probably 90% of them out, but I’m all about using them if it makes sense and doesn’t just add unnecessary fluff.

I laughed at this too… They were using pulleys to move this railing up a building. There were two guys in charge of the lifting and one guy holding a rope to make sure it didn’t bash into the building. It all looked very safe.

I also have gotten to do some writing! I wrote an article (that’s still in progress, but it’ll hopefully be finished soon). It’s nothing too exciting, just writing up an interview that they did, but I had fun doing it anyway.

The most unexpected task has been some architecture-related work. Yup, that’s right! Lark-itect is back in action! They have a funding proposal going out for a project, and they asked if I could make some graphics for the report! I’m working on putting together a potential floor plan for the space they’re renovating for the project, plus I started a 3D model on Friday. I’m using a computer program for the 3D model that I haven’t used in probably 6 years (Google Sketch-up), so that’s been interesting. It’s good practice!

Anyway, I’ll write more about what they do in another post. They have so many projects going on that I could easily write a book about them. For now though, I’ll just say that I am super happy to be there, and I feel like I’m doing something worthwhile. It’s nice to feel that way.

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Armenian Independence Day

Happy Armenian Independence Day!! Okay, so I’m a couple days late, but it’s close enough. Armenian Independence Day is celebrated on September 21st each year. In 1991, that’s the day when Armenia held a vote on a referendum to declare independence from the Soviet Union. The decision was an overwhelming yes, with about 95% of eligible voters participating in the vote and 99% voting yes.

 

Me and Talene

This vote didn’t actually change anything. It just meant that Armenia was going to start going through the not-so-defined process of petitioning the Soviet Union for independence… so basically the same as Independence Day in the USA. It’s just the day when the people decided they were free.

 

Luckily for Armenia, they didn’t have to fight a war to achieve independence. The Soviet Union collapsed just a few months later, and on December 26, 1991, the second Republic of Armenia became a reality.

“The second republic?” you ask? Yes, the first Republic of Armenia existed for a solid three years, from 1918 until 1921 when it became part of the Soviet Union. “Republic Day” aka the first Armenian Independence Day is celebrated on May 28th each year.

You might be wondering how people celebrate. Like at home, Independence Day is celebrated with a lot of flag apparel, parades, barbecues, and fireworks. Here… well, I lived through it, and I still couldn’t tell you exactly. It seems to me like something different happens every year. Last year was the 25th anniversary, so that was probably a bigger deal than this year.

Swan Lake with various vendors surrounding it and some sculptures in the middle that we’re not really sure when they appeared

We did at least get off from work, but beyond that, I’m not completely sure. I assume that maybe there was information somewhere on the internet but that I couldn’t find it because it was in Armenian? I don’t know. We wandered around a bit trying to see if anything was happening, and besides some vendors set up around Swan Lake and random hordes of teenagers wandering the streets and painting Armenian flags on people’s faces, there wasn’t much.

Another new addition at Swan Lake… random carpet mosaic because why not?

There were rumors floating around that some march or something was going to start from Republic Square at 7PM, so we went, and all we saw were like 30 people on mildly decorated bicycles who rode out of the square at 7. We thought that maybe they were the beginning of the parade or whatever it was, but it would appear that they were it. Hm. A little later, there were some fireworks for maybe 5 minutes that I think were set off from Republic Square (but maybe not) and then, of course, every Aram-shmaram (that’s my Armenian version of Joe-shmo) has some fireworks of his own, so those were randomly going off throughout the night.

In conclusion, who knows what happened, but I came out of it with a day off of work, a tri-color headband, and a sugar high from too much ice cream. Success.

Smbataberd

My first weekend in Yerevan, I decided to go on the Birthright excursion because the description said hiking, and the location seemed too far out of the way for us to easily get there on our own. The trip was to Smbataberd, a fortress in the Vayots Dzor Province. That’s south of Yerevan by a couple of hours and is right at the beginning of the skinny tail of Armenia.

The view on the way up. Pretty, right?

Here’s your history lesson of the day: The first mention of the fortress came in the 5th century when it was used in the Vardanak War. They think (“they” being whatever people study and come up with these things) that it was built up much more in the 9th and 10th centuries when it was used by the Syunik princes. Unlike a lot of the fortresses we’ve visited here, this one actually saw a lot of action throughout history. They think that it was involved in some attacks again during the 11th century, built up even more and attacked again in the 13th century, and finally was abandoned in the 17th. Who knows how much of that is accurate, but it’s probably safe to conclude that it’s old and has had its ups and downs through the years.

Mountains are the best.

There’s one story floating around about how it was ultimately defeated. The water to the fortress used to come from a nearby monastery, Tsakhats Kar, through an underground clay pipe. The attackers did the classic “thirsty horse sniffs out water pipeline” trick to cut off the water to the fortress and eventually capture it.

IT’S SO COOL!

I had no idea what to expect and was pleasantly surprised. I had never heard of this fortress before, and after being there, I would say that it’s waaay underrated. To start, it was much bigger than I expected. The walls enclose an area of about 65,000 square meters and are around 2-3 meters thick and 10 meters high. There are a bunch of round guard towers along the walls, and everything on the exterior is in decently good shape, especially considering the age of the ruins. They’ve done some preservation work, pouring concrete on the tops of the walls to keep them from crumbling further and making it possible to walk on them. I thought the whole thing was super cool.

It kind of reminded me of the Great Wall of China. Except smaller. And completely different.

Most of the interior buildings are much worse off. You can still make out their ruins though, and the keep is kind of intact. Even without the fortress being awesome, the views of the surrounding mountains and valleys are worth the trip. I seriously don’t know why more people don’t go there.

There was a horse water trough on the way down the mountain that was filled with algae! It was super cool and looked like green clouds floating in the water, so obviously I wanted to touch it. So obviously I did. It was just as soft as it looked.

Okay maybe it was a little steep at times…

At the top!!

How. Cool. Are. These. Walls.

Talene and me on the walls.

We walked up and it took a couple of hours, but I think it would have gone pretty quickly with a smaller group. Also, there are tire tracks that lead all the way to the top, so with the right car (or with a normal car and an Armenian driving it), you could easily drive there. It gets a strong recommendation from me! You would definitely need a private car to take you there because it’s not super close to any public transit routes (at least not that I could find… which means nothing because Armenia public transit and the internet have a complicated relationship), but like I said, I thought it was great. Honestly, it’s probably one of my favorite places I’ve visited so far in Armenia.

Can you find me in this picture? I’m in a tiny hole in the wall at the bottom of this picture.

Super cool lighting

Goodbye, Gyumri. Hello, Yerevan.

At the end of August, my time in Gyumri wrapped up for good, and I got ready to move to Yerevan. Lucky for me, a bunch of my friends were moving at the same time, but it was still kind of a bittersweet feeling.

The sunset one day on my way home from work.

Back when I got my location assignment pre-Armenia and found out that I was going to be outside of Yerevan for two months, I was a little disappointed. I hadn’t heard much about the other cities in Armenia, but I knew that compared to Yerevan, they were very small. I had no idea what to expect, but whatever expectations I did have were far exceeded by what I found in Gyumri. The people were nice. The city was definitely big enough to be called a city, but it was small enough for me to quickly feel comfortable there. The marshrutkas would stop anywhere to pick you up and anywhere to drop you off (apparently you actually need to go to a bus stop in Yerevan… what’s up with that??). It felt like a city you could really live in. Sometimes, Yerevan feels too busy and too big and too chaotic. Gyumri feels like home.

One thing that Gyumri (and, to be fair, much of Armenia) could use some help with is their lighting design. This is City Hall at night, and every time I see it, I cringe. Why are they using orange lights? Why are half of them out? Why are some of the lights white? Why is it like Halloween threw up on the building? What is going on?

At the same time though, being in Gyumri for an extended period of time could start to feel a little claustrophobic. I was excited to move to Yerevan to experience something new, but I was sad to leave behind all of the things that had become familiar. I knew my way around. I saw familiar faces along my normal route. I knew what to expect from people.

My first couple of days in Yerevan were overwhelming. I felt like small town girl in the big city. It was like the classic “country girl moves to New York and her head almost explodes because it’s so different from what she knew back at home in Nowheresville” movie storyline. Yeah, that one. Meanwhile though, the country girl was ME, despite the fact that I’ve lived in a city that’s bigger than Yerevan.

Here’s my other least favorite lighting design. On the bright side, this one is hidden by a lot of trees so it’s harder to see. On the dark side (I wish there was more of a dark side… like dark ALL sides), this one is so much worse. Why is some of the light blue? Why is the rest of the light orange? What the heck were they trying to highlight on the building? WHAT IS HAPPENING?

For at least a week, anytime someone asked me how I was liking Yerevan, my first response was always, “there are just so many people! And so many cars!” And picture me saying that with disgust in my voice.

I’ve also found that I’ll go to the ends of the earth to defend Gyumri. People who aren’t from Armenia but think they know lots of things about the country love to say ridiculous things about what they think Gyumri is like. (Maybe people from Armenia do this too, but I wouldn’t know because I haven’t heard it.) Here are some examples:

Person who has probably never left Yerevan (usually another volunteer or other foreigner): Isn’t Gyumri just like one street?

Me: Umm… no. It’s like an actual city. With multiple streets. And something like 120,000 people.

Person: There’s like nothing to do in Gyumri, right?

Me: What are you talking about? You’ll probably have trouble if you’re trying to hit the clubs at 4AM, but people live there, so there are things to do.

Person: Wait, there’s a ________ in GYUMRI? (Fill in the blank with anything that people wouldn’t expect to see in a five-person village because apparently that’s what people think is happening in Gyumri. This question is almost always asked about something so basic that you want to smack yourself in the face.)

Me: Yes… it IS a city, after all.

 

Gyumri flowers

Person: Everyone just moves to Yerevan because there aren’t any good jobs in Gyumri.

 

Me (first let me just say… this one really annoys me because yes, a lot of people move to Yerevan because there are more opportunities, but there are also a lot of talented and capable people in Gyumri who are working hard to build up Armenia and Gyumri): Actually, did you know that there’s a technology center in Gyumri where a bunch of different technology startups have offices? (<– this is a thing that no one ever knows)

Just to make things clear, I lived in an apartment that had walls and a roof and running water and everything. And electricity! And internet! And furniture! We didn’t all live in straw huts along a dirt road. The roads are paved (sometimes poorly, but hey, gotta start somewhere). I’m not going to say that Gyumri is perfect or even close, but it has plenty of good mixed in with the bad.

Anyway, now I’m in Yerevan for the rest of my time here. I’m sure I’ll adjust to the icky big-city air and the tons of people everywhere and the higher prices and the cars driving like they’re trying to kill you as you cross the street. It’ll be great.

Archaeology Wrap-up

The end of my time in Gyumri also brought with it the end of my archaeology job.  It was kind of nice because the digs only took place during the month of August, so I didn’t have to feel like I was missing out on anything by moving to Yerevan at the end of the month.

The only bummer was that we didn’t have to do any digging during the last week, and I missed the week before last because of my food poisoning. I didn’t get to spend as many days as I had hoped out working with everyone, but I’m still just happy I got to join them at all!

This was generally the process of digging… the guy in red dug first, then people sifted through the dirt and pulled out anything interesting, and finally, the leftover dirt was shoveled out of the hole to be carried away.

One of the other volunteers, Haig, joined me at the digs during the third week. He can speak Armenian, and that seriously changed everything. There were so many things that I didn’t completely understand and that no one could communicate to me because of the language barrier, and finally, they were all explained.

Views from the site!

In the list of fun things I learned is this: We wore gloves while we worked, and apparently it wasn’t just to protect our hands from getting blisters and covered in dirt. I don’t know how true this is, but they said that some of the people whose skeletons we were digging up may have died from something like tuberculosis, and it’s possible to contract the disease from handling contaminated bones, even thousands of years later. EEK! I mean, that sounds kind of crazy to me, but true or maybe not, I definitely wouldn’t risk it.

Oh yeah… remember how before I said that we were just digging up animal bones? NOT TRUE. We found some almost full human skeletons! On one of the days that I wasn’t there, they found some graves that had skeletons plus all of the stuff they bury them with to take to the afterlife. There were pots that were almost completely intact, and in the past they’ve found things like little glass vessels to hold perfume in graves as well.

I think this is the only picture I have to prove that I was ever on the site haha.

Soaking the ceramic pieces in some sort of acid to clean them

During the last week of the month, we got to see them washing and cataloging the different bones and ceramic pieces that we found. There was one woman who had the job of measuring and sketching every single piece. Geez. Trust me when I say that that’s an incredibly tedious job, and there were A LOT of pieces to go through.

Pot reconstruction

Laying out to dry

Imagine having to draw all of these…

Inside one of the storage rooms

We also got a mini tour of the storage rooms at the institute. There are rooms and rooms of shelves and boxes and cabinets that are completely filled with different things that they’ve dug up over the years. It’s kind of amazing! They said that they think this area was frequently under attack because they’ve found a bunch of weapons. Partly they think that there was at least one big battle (keep in mind that this is like 6th century BC that they’re guessing about) because of the locations and quantities of some of the weapons they’ve found, and partly they think there were just frequent little attacks because even the common people were equipped with weapons. It’s super interesting to hear about how they piece everything together and make guesses about what was happening based on what they find and where.

Tusk!

Guess what was the coolest thing they had (in my opinion)… a mammoth tusk! Yeah, I’m being completely serious. The woman, Larissa, who was showing us around was just pulling these things out like they were no big deal. It was kind of awesome to be able to see everything up close when I could easily imagine them being in a museum behind a thick sheet of glass.

A helmet!

Arrowheads in front, glass perfume bottles in the back

The van that we took out to the site

Getting the meat off of the cow head… eek!

On our last day of work, there was a party. Here, that always means khorovadz (barbecue) and a LOT of shots. This was an extra special party because they got a cow head (in addition to enough chicken to feed three villages). That meant there were also the special delicacies of cow tongue, brain, and face meat (that’s the technical term, obviously). The highlight of the day was watching a couple of the old guys taking swings at the cow skull with a hatchet and trying to break out the cow brain.

The food was great (I passed on the brain and tongue… I’m sure they were nice too), but the atmosphere and the group were what made the whole thing so much fun. Everyone was joking around and laughing, and I felt like I was part of a big family. They kept talking about how the work isn’t what’s important. It’s all about the friendships we make and the fun we have. Some comments to the effect of “friends who physically labor together, stay together” were made, and I’d say that in general, I agree. At the very least, doing that kind of work together brings about a different kind of bond. Even before I could really communicate with everyone, I felt comfortable with and welcomed by them.

Brain extraction

The khorovadz scene

In typical Armenian fashion, everyone made at least one toast during the course of the meal, and everyone always had a full shot glass. You know how there’s always that one guy at the party who is making sure that no one’s cup is empty? Well, he was at this party for sure. They were drinking some super strong, clear liquor that smelled like gasoline, followed by cheap vodka when that ran out. Lucky for me, water can look a lot like both of those, so I kept my own glass filled to the brim. No one even noticed that I was pouring into my cup from the water pitcher, and I got plenty of impressed looks each time I took a whole “shot” without looking like it even fazed me.

When it was time to leave, I had one of those sad/happy feelings. Sad because it was ending, but happy because I got to spend the time that I did with them. Now I can say that I’ve worked on an archaeology dig and touched 2500-year-old human bones, and how cool is that??! Talk about unexpected experiences.

AutoCAD and Laser Cutting

You might be wondering how my Architecture, AutoCAD, and Laser Cutter class ended up going. It wrapped up about a week ago, and things didn’t quite go according to plan. I’m sure you’re shocked. I’m also going to maintain the claim that none of it was my fault, but I guess you can decide that for yourself.

Last time I talked about this class, I’m pretty sure I was recounting the saga of getting AutoCAD installed on the computers. Like I said, the program finally got installed, and I had my first software teaching experience. That all went well, at least in my opinion. I spent about 4 classes teaching different commands in the program.

Basically, I made a list of all of the things that I thought they should know how to do, and then I tried to put them into an order that made sense. I consulted some online AutoCAD tutorials, but there was a lot that I just made up on my own. Before each class, I would go into the lab and draw up practice exercises for each of the different commands. I tried to make things that would challenge the students who were catching on quickly but still be doable for the students who were a bit slower. That’s hard though! It never got easier, but there wasn’t much I could do about it. I refused to move on unless everyone understood what was happening because I’ve been on the other end of this. There’s nothing worse than getting lost on something and then never being able to catch up because the teacher just keeps going.

After my four classes of instruction, I gave them a mini-project to design a house. I said that it needed to have 2 bedrooms, a living room, a kitchen, and a bathroom, but everything else was up to them. I really just wanted everyone to practice drawing, use the different commands I taught them, and be a little creative. Some of the students came up with some amazing designs. Some of the students came up with less amazing ones, but I know that they tried hard on the assignment. It was a very good way to see what level everyone was on. I also made them give little presentations about their houses. That was a mess and a half because no one wanted to present, but I forced them all to get up and say something about their houses anyway. Presentations are a part of life, and if you don’t practice giving them, you’re never going to be comfortable in front of a group!

One of the house designs. He said that he needed a lot of rooms because he has a lot of friends who are going to come and visit him.

The last week of the class was supposed to be laser cutting. I was going to have each of them design the exterior of a little house, use the laser cutter to cut out the pieces, and glue them together into a model. We got all the way to the week before the laser cutting portion of the class, and I still didn’t know how to use the laser cutter. I mean, I had an idea. I read the manual, did some googling, and asked Debbie (my architect friend from Peru) for some tips.

With no time left to space, Carineh (my friend who also worked at GTC and speaks Armenian) and I made plans with the guy at GTC who knows how to use the laser cutter to come in on the Friday before my last Monday class so that he could teach us. We asked the day before if he was free to meet sometime before noon, and he said that we could just call him when we were ready and he’d be there in 30 minutes. Okay, great… until we called at 10 and he was asleep, 11 and he said he was “waiting for something”, and 1 and he said that the workshop coordinator was supposed to talk to us. Huh?

I checked my email, and about 5 seconds earlier, I had gotten an email from her saying that we couldn’t use the laser cutter because we didn’t have approval to use it until October… which makes no sense because my class ended in August. We went to talk to her, and she said that we needed approval from the director,  she was on vacation, and we wouldn’t be able to get an answer until the end of the day. That wasn’t going to work. Even if we did get approval, when was I going to learn how to use it? Carineh asked why they hadn’t requested approval two months ago when they decided that I should use the laser cutter in my class, and her question was met with a blank stare. Wonderful.

This is one of the activities I drew up for the students to do during the final class.

Here’s the most ridiculous thing about the whole laser cutter story… I was literally sent to Gyumri because of the laser cutter. Originally, I was supposed to be placed in the technology center in Vanadzor, the third biggest city in Armenia (which means not very big). I talked to a woman who works for the organization that is responsible for the technology centers, and after we discussed some ideas for my class, she decided that I should use the laser cutter (even though I told her I had no clue how to use it), and that meant I had to be in Gyumri. She talked to Birthright, and my location was switched. Literally because of the laser cutter.

I decided to cancel that portion of the class because it just didn’t make sense to try to do it, and I didn’t need to be stressing myself out unnecessarily about another thing. Instead, we spent the last week doing more AutoCAD practice. I found some exercises online and also drew some things myself when there was nothing that I liked.

It actually went much better than I thought it would, and it was good because the students who were super fast workers actually had to spend the entire class working in order to finish the assignment. Perfect!

A mash up of the GTC staff and volunteers.

I can’t say that I was upset at all when the last class ended. This thing has been such a mess since the very beginning, and it took so much time outside of work to get all of my prep work finished. It was definitely a good experience to have. I hope that I never have to teach through a translator again (especially not while teaching computer software!), but I feel like now that I’ve taught it in that context, it could be fun to teach it in a normal class if the opportunity ever arises.

When I was talking to the jobsite coordinators for Yerevan about what job I wanted to have after moving to Yerevan, my only requirements were that I wanted to work for an NGO, I didn’t want to teach, and I didn’t want to deal with children. I need a break after this whole ordeal.

Lastiver and Marmashen

In general, my friends and I aren’t very big on going to the planned Birthright excursions. They happen every weekend, but since I’ve been here, I’ve only been on two… make that three with the one I’m going to talk about now. In general, the excursions never run on schedule, there are too many people, and we usually want to do something more adventurous than whatever they have planned. We made an exception this weekend because the excursion description mentioned hiking and because we had heard that the destination, Lastiver, was super cool.

Views from the drive to Lastiver. My face was glued to the window in the car. I think everyone else was sleeping.

Lastiver part of a wildlife preserve, Ijevan State Reserve, in the north-ish eastern part of the country. There’s a river with a bunch of little waterfalls, caves, and best of all, trees. We have gone on so many hikes since I’ve been here, and every time, it’s like we’re wandering through the desert. Zero trees, zero shade, zero shelter from the meltingly hot sun. I’m a forest kind of person… forests and mountains, and even better, forested mountains.

Carineh, Karen, me, Shant

Well, I was in luck with this hike. Almost the entire thing was through the trees and nice and shady. It felt a little bit like I was back at home which was comforting because sometimes it’s just nice to see something familiar. The end point was a campground by the river, and by “campground” I mean that they have these little cabins that you can stay in overnight and it’s really not very rustic at all.

When we got there, the announcement was made that we had an hour to swim or hang out until lunch was ready. I, of course, wanted to spend my time exploring. The water was FRIGID which means I wasn’t too interested in swimming, so I started walking upstream. Clearly, my friends and I are all on the same page because Shant and Carineh were right there with me, doing the same thing even though we hadn’t talked about it. We got a little farther upstream and found some of our other friends, Karen, Gagik, and his cousin, Anjela. I thought it was pretty funny how all of my favorite people ended up in the same place without any plans. I guess that’s how you know that you have things in common!

The path

Hi, valley!

Rock hopping route

The upstream “hike” we ended up doing is probably one of my favorite things I’ve done so far in Armenia. It was another one of those fun, brain challenge hikes because there was a river and a bunch of rocks, and I wasn’t interested in getting wet. That meant that we had to be creative and do a lot of jumping from rock to rock. Our group got split up as Karen, Carineh, Gagik, and Anjela gave up on staying dry and started wading through the river, and Shant and I kept hopping from place to place. Ahh it was so fun.

I love rivers

One of my favorite feelings is when I’ve been consistently exercising and I feel like I have good control of my body, like balance and coordination-wise, and I get to do something that puts those to the test. This experience was definitely a balance and coordination challenge, but I felt like I was in control and could trust my legs to do what they were supposed to do. I was jumping from rock to rock without getting tired or worrying for a second that I was misjudging the distances or that I wasn’t capable of making it. I don’t know how else to describe that feeling besides just saying that it’s awesome, and you feel like your body is doing what it was made to do.

A bunch of the Gyumri crew

As you can see, Shant and I are trying not to get wet, and everyone else doesn’t care. The result? The worlds most awkward group photo. From left to right there’s Karen, Carineh, Anjela, Gagik, Shant, and me

Gagik won the caption contest with this picture. “When you discover new land and the locals are friendly.” I’m still laughing.

Anyway, by the time we decided to turn around and go back, lunch was long over. We made it back to the group, and I felt like we were castaways making it back to civilization. Who knows what everyone else spent their day doing, but I’m convinced that ours was the best.

Church views

The next day, Shant and I decided to make the trek out to see the Marmashen, a group of churches about 10 kilometers from where we live in Gyumri. There were originally five churches, only three are still standing, and they haven’t even found the foundations of the last one. I successfully called a taxi to take us there, and we spent some time wandering around, checking out the sights, and eating snacks (obviously, because we never go anywhere without snacks). It seemed like a cool place for locals because there was a picnic area, and people were going hard with their barbecue. After we were finished wandering, Shant really wanted to walk back to Gyumri, so off we went.

I think that the lettering on these churches is amazing. Can you imagine if your job was to write all of this?

I know, I know this all sounds ridiculous. I’m convinced that we’re (“we” being my friend group here) literally incapable as a group of doing anything in a normal way. At Lastiver, literally no one else from the Birthright group walked so far upstream. All of us were just naturally drawn to it. Here, who in their right mind decides to walk 10 km home when you could just call a taxi? I guess that means we aren’t quite in our right minds.

Remains of one of the chapels

To make things more ridiculous, we decided to ignore all of the roads. Instead, we took random paths through the fields that looked like they were leading in the right direction. I wish I had some sort of fitness tracker or something because I promise you that we walked FAR more than 10 kilometers while trying to take “the most direct route”. Ha.

The river and its cool cliffs

Our wanderings took us through some cow pastures and old ruins that looked like one of our archaeology sites, over a river, into the village of Marmashen (where people looked at us like we were actual space aliens), and out into some fields. There, we were summoned by a random farmer named Hamlet. He spoke no English, of course, and so we entered into the usual conversation of hand motions and sporadic Armenian words. He wanted us to come back to his house to eat dinner and spend the night. When we told him that we were walking to Gyumri and had come from Marmashen the church (it’s not that close to the town), he looked at us like we were literally insane and offered to call his friend who has a car to take us home. People usually don’t understand walking somewhere just for the sake of walking. We finally managed to pull ourselves away, and off we went, back into the fields.

Random green oasis area on our epic voyage home

Random cemetery that we encountered along the road to Marmashen… and when I say road, I mean cow path

The happening village of Marmashen

Rubble, rubble everywhere

The rest of the walk was interesting. There are a bunch of abandoned, half-collapsed buildings outside of Gyumri. I thought that they were from the earthquake, but apparently maybe they’re from after? I don’t know, either way, they’re super eerie. Then, there are buildings that seem like they should be abandoned, but upon closer inspection, there are people living in them. We walked briskly by those. Then, there are the massive craters in the ground where there used to be a building and now there’s just a foundation. I don’t know what everything out there is from, but it was certainly an interesting walk.

More of the “road home” landscape

This building was pretty eerie. This is one that Shant said was built after the earthquake, but who knows?

Random foundation

Sunset!

The most defined path we took all day.

We made it back to our neighborhood just as it was getting too dark to see anything. Thank goodness because I was starting to panic a little bit. Since we didn’t follow any roads, if it got dark before we made it home, we would have taken forever. We got ice cream to celebrate our survival, and ice cream fixes all problems, so now I have nothing but happy memories of the day. No, but actually, it was really fun, and I think that I can safely say that no one has EVER had a Marmashen experience like ours (because seriously… who walks??).